It's dinner time, and Douglas Quin's one-bedroom Rockville apartment is filled with the sounds of 17 hungry lions slurping and chomping their way through a bloody buffalo carcass. They are unstoppable eaters, pausing only to growl or belch appreciation. The feast is punctuated by the sharp crack of breaking bone and the frenzied tearing of tendons, which a visitor finds highly unnerving, even though the lions are not live, but recorded on digital audio tape.
Not too many people have heard such sounds and lived to tell the tale. Quin survived because he happened to have been sitting inside a car parked a few yards from the big cats, with his window rolled down just enough to jab a microphone into the Serengeti air. A couple of curious lions did come over to gnaw on his bumpers, but soon returned to the diminishing main course.
Quin's rather exotic avocation is known as wildlife sound recording, but he is really a sort of new age hunter. His only weapon is a parabolic microphone, and the trophy he seeks is preserved digitally on tape. Conditions must be just right, so sometimes it takes longer to track and record an animal than it would to kill it. "I followed one group of elephants for three days to get 30 seconds of sound," he says proudly.
Quin, 38, has pursued animal sounds in some of the remotest locations on the planet, from the Brazilian rain forest to Madagascar. The best snippets are stored on his Macintosh computer hard drive, in files with titles like "screech owl," "lemurs" and several different "screams." A minute of sound takes up 10 megabytes of memory. Using the signal processing equipment stacked up beside his Mac, Quin has transmuted some of the more interesting sounds into subtle, weird electronic music. His CD, titled "Oropendola: Music by and From Birds," was recently released by a Dutch label, Apollo Records. (Quin will read and play excerpts at an album release party tomorrow at Washington Project for the Arts.)
The tracks on "Oropendola" range from raw nature sounds -- dawn choruses of frogs and birds -- to more traditional sorts of compositions, featuring clarinet or flute backed by birds and insects. The green oropendola itself is an unassuming bird, resembling an earth-toned crow, but it is endowed with a stunning call, which sounds like someone drumming on a row of glass bottles inside an empty cathedral. Quin happened upon a group of oropendola quite by chance, one August evening by a road in Amazonas.
"Walking back along a muddy track to Camp Km 41," he writes in the album's liner notes, "in the gathering humidity and calm before an approaching thunderstorm, I am suddenly struck by one of the most remarkable sounds that I have ever heard -- the call of the Green Oropendola."
"For the most part," he continues, "my experience of rainforest fauna has been a fleeting glimpse of a shadow, or a silhouette against a sea of green. This day is different. Through the slightly open tracery of the nests, I can discern the olive green and yellow feathers of several Green Oropendola birds." He simply pointed his parabolic mike at the canopy, and bagged the quarry.
Back home, the sound was transferred onto the computer. Mapped in three dimensions on the small screen, the oropendola's call resembles a range of undersea volcanoes. With a few clicks of the mouse, Quin can isolate a milliseconds-long slice of the call, speed up or reverse it, or boost certain frequencies while damping others.
"I can mess with it," he explains. "It's a process of turning sound inside out so you can see what it is." The natural sound becomes a point of departure for a longer piece, or "ambiance," as he calls it. In one, the oropendola is mixed with a Kenyan girls' chorus; in another, the bird is allowed to solo. "I'm going to have to pay rights to this bird, eventually," he says with a slightly nervous laugh.
Not that Quin is the only human ever to infringe upon animals' copyrights. One could argue that such instruments as the flute resulted from attempts to mimic birds. More recently, reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry has been known to mix mooing cows into his dub tracks. The Nature Co. this year released a disc of Christmas standards performed with sampled animal noises, such as the bleats of sheep and the hoots of whales, by the legendary wildlife recordist Bernie Krause. Animal recording has come a long way, clearly, from those old plastic records of whale calls that used to come in National Geographic.
Quin got his start recording "back-yard stuff" and residents of the National Zoo, but soon tired of such mundane fare. Even in popular music he prefers the exotic to the familiar, particularly the Algerian nightclub music known as rai. In summers off from his job teaching art at Georgetown Preparatory School, he has traveled to Brazil and East Africa on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in search of ever stranger sounds. "Sure, you can just crank out electronic music in the studio," he says, "but this is stuff that I never would imagine in my wildest dreams."
That meant spending months sleeping at research stations and wandering into the jungle at night. "Never run through grass" is his advice for avoiding snakebites. He's recorded a lot of things that go Greeeawkk! in the night, but many of the sounds he hasn't quite figured out how to use. The hurruping of wildebeests, for instance, sounds like a conversation down at the VFW bar. The scream of the hyrax sounds about the way one would imagine something called a hyrax would scream. "The hyrax, just by strange Linnaean taxonomy, is related to the elephant, simply because its feet are similar," says Quin, who prides himself on his biological literacy. "But in fact it's this big" -- he holds his hands a foot apart -- "and it lives in trees."
Also in Quin's musical menagerie is the sound of a bird flying directly overhead; the high-resolution tape captures the sizzle of tropical air through its feathers. A lonely-sounding "Aaaannhh?" is a hyena looking for its mate. Laughing hyenas make a chorus of hysterical, high-pitched giggling, probably because they are about to delve into a fresh wildebeest carcass. "You'll hear a snap as the leg gives way," Quin notes over the smacking and chewing. His favorite is a duet of yodeling lion cubs: "They're fighting over a gazelle leg."
Next summer Quin will take his microphones to yet another unexplored acoustic frontier: the Arctic. Backed by another NEA grant, he plans to use old anti-submarine technology "to develop sonic portraits of inlets and bays throughout the South Shetland Islands and along the migrating pack-ice of the Arctic."
"The spatial and acoustic characteristics of polar biomes," he writes in the project description, "are poorly understood."