Anatomy of a thunderstorm

I hear the thunder, long rumbles moving through the hills but no rain – perfect for recording. I dash inside to grab my Zoom recorder, ask my husband to turn down the guitar parts he is practicing in the basement, and put the dog in her “safe” space in the house.

For the first few minutes, I record the thunder – deep booms rather than sharp cracks – but the echoes roll on and on. It is quickly approaching, each boom louder than the last and I’m getting a great signal on the recorder. Suddenly I realize that sound in nature is complex with nothing isolated; although my goal is to record some great thunder sounds without the added sound of rain, I cannot capture it as I had planned – a murmur of cicadas fills the aural space, punctuated by bird song and a hum of distant traffic. I’ve been in the recording studio too long, where every instrument and sound source is isolated and remixed, each thread separated and reassembled. This is a different space altogether, with layers of sound rising and falling underneath the drama of a weather event, a gestalt of sound.

It’s not long before the rain comes – I grab the Zoom and head for the protection of the covered deck but decide to leave the record button on and capture the entire event. At first, the rain is a gentle swishing curtain of sound but it soon builds to a pounding roar slicing through the trees, hammering the roof. A hummingbird still trying to feed gives up and flits into the woods for cover. There is a complex rhythm to it all, an aural story of sounds intertwined in a bigger than life tableau. I wonder how long it has been since I’ve sat outside and really listened to an entire thunderstorm from beginning to end, resisting the urge to refill my coffee cup or check my e-mail. Years, probably. Yet, because I wanted to capture the entire event, I relax and listen and surrender to the moment. I become aware of the progression of the storm as if I were in a concert hall, the quiet passages, the crescendos, the bold dramatic punctuations, and the unexpected layers of birds and insects that remained a part of the aural tapestry.

Finally the rain trickles to a few drops, the cicada buzz rises to the fore again, a car passes by splashing through the puddles, and a crow caws in the distance. Cardinals and woodpeckers chime in and the hummingbird reappears. Water quietly drips from the trees, the woods around me take on a golden glow as the clouds drift away. A soft murmur of thunder leaves a trail of sound in the distance.

Here is an abbreviated version of the thunderstorm that I recorded (reduced from 20 minutes to less than 2 – kudos to Bill Purse, audio editor.)


To see what others are doing with environmental sound as art, visit Ear to the Earth.

All text, photos, and audio ©2011 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved

The Sound of the August Garden

It is early evening, and there is just enough light to see as I meander through the garden, a last visit before dark.  Angel Eyes and I wander about, pausing to listen to the insect orchestra from various vantage points. A steady two note drone provides the underlying ostinato, while pointillistic voices of cicadas and crickets spring from every direction in polite succession.  It may be too cool this evening for the tree frog chorus – on a warm night, they are the antiphonal brass and rat-a-tat percussion of this natural orchestra, but tonight it seems to be strings and woodwinds.

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I love living surrounded by trees – my attempts to compose surround sound pieces seem feeble when compared to the robust chorus of our woodlands in August.  I really should be in my studio tonight, working on the fourth movement of a large work called “The Four Elements” – fire, or perhaps Lux Aeterna.  But it is difficult to tear myself away from the amazing concert in the garden.  So . . .  I pour myself a modest glass of wine and surrender to nature’s concert once again – Angel and I go out onto the deck for a final listening session.

The late August garden is a tall and blowsy affair.  The plants that survived July’s burning sun and dry soil have caught their second wind and are encouraged into fresh growth by the cooler nights and the rainy remnants of the hurricane season.  Hummingbirds and butterflies flock to their favorite flowers, building up energy for their imminent migrations.  Everything is tall – the shrubs have grown extra arms that reach everywhere, the grasses have sprouted tall wands that catch the wind, and everything seems to flow and spill and tumble in a rush to be seen and tasted before summer ends.

Now it is almost dark – the brash golds and burgundies of Rudbeckia and Zinnia are now only rendered as silhouettes in the fading light.  It is chilly enough to want a sweater and a cup of tea – but it is hard to go inside when the fading light still reveals layer upon layer of texture, shape, movement . . . it is difficult to leave, to walk away from the enchantment of Mother Earth’s humble orchestra.  Tonight, the windows will remain open to the sound of the August garden.

Listen to the sounds of the cicadas and tree frogs.


Text and audio of “The Sound of the August Garden” ©2011 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved