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

10 thoughts on “Anatomy of a thunderstorm

  1. Than you for re-posting this beautiful post! You write so well – and then there’s the music of course, and the photos, and the garden…and I bet there’s more we don’t know about. So thank you for all of it.

  2. Your ability to inhabit the space of this thunderstorm so fully, both sensually and meditatively, is amazing. This is a very moving post. The sound clip transports me, but no more than does your gorgeous narrative.

    • Elizabeth, thank you for your wonderful comments! I have been living in “thunder world” for the past week as I finish up “Playing with Thunder” – it is an interesting place to visit 🙂 I have SO enjoyed your recent posts – what a gift for words you have, my friend.

  3. Lynn: Loved this piece. In addition to your talents as a musician, I am appreciating your amazing poetic talents as well. As prose poetry, this is wonderful :

    “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. ….”

    Thanks for sharing and continue to do so!

    gene m

  4. Love this, the gestalt of sound, as you say… layers of sound rising and falling underneath the drama of a weather event. Reminds me of what Gordon Hempton, the acoustic ecologist and sound recordist, says about listening to nature: “You’re simply going to listen to the place. Not to the birds, not to the insects, not to the wind through the trees. Listen to the place. Take it all in.” Thanks for sharing the “whole” thunderstorm!

  5. Pingback: Playing With Thunder | composerinthegarden

  6. Neat..sharpens one’s ear to listen.

    You should be in our area…when we get serious summer hailstorms…that dent cars. There was a major one this summer. It’s a clatter and rush in the air!

    • While I wouldn’t want to subject my car to it, I would love to record that sound! We get occasional hailstorms here but nothing like that. In the past few years, we have gotten quite a few thunder snow storms, which sound much different, muffled by the snow. Think I’ll try to capture one this winter 🙂

  7. Pingback: The Grand Pause and Reprise | composerinthegarden

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