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Local musician creates audio time capsule of Cape Cod

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  August 1, 2011 10:36 AM

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Steve Wilkes.jpg

(Virginia Fordham/Courtesy Berklee College of Music)

Berklee College of Music Professor Steve Wilkes collects sound in the field.

On June 18, Hyde Park residents Steve Wilkes and Virginia Fordham were in line at Provincetown’s Whaler’s Wharf Cinema, awaiting a latte and oatmeal raisin cookie, when they heard bagpipes.

Fordham turned to her husband. “I think that’s a wedding,” she said. “You’d better run outside.”

“And I literally ran outside,” Wilkes, 55, recalled in a recent interview, “and for the next minute and half, the most unbelievable sonic sequence just kind of unfolded.”

A lot of Wilkes’ life is like that lately, as he works with the help of his wife and a few assistants on a recording project and website he calls Hear Cape Cod, an audio time capsule of the Cape in 2011.

This longtime Berklee College of Music professor and professional drummer has loved the sounds of the Cape for many years, but only recently set about making a project he can share with the world. Fordham, a singer, grew up spending the school year in Readville and her summers in the family cottage on Monomoscoy Island, and the couple has been vacationing on the Cape since before they were married.

Since about 2001, they have been recording natural sounds on the Cape during their vacations, and with each year, they have pursued their recordings more seriously. Wilkes began to consider making something permanent and public around 2009, when a series of nor’easters caused massive erosion and images appeared in the news media of homes beginning to fall into the ocean.

That made Wilkes begin to consider how differently the Cape may look and sound in the future, a consideration that grew as he learned more about the planned Cape Wind project that will install wind turbines on Nantucket Sound. Wilkes said he’s personally neutral about the controversial project, but it seems clear that it will have an environmental impact on the Cape.

Realizing the potential for massive change in the years to come, Wilkes said to himself, “Now’s a good time to do this. Now’s a good time to capture the Cape being the Cape, because we don’t know what it’s going to be like or sound like 50 years from now.”

Using a four-channel Edirol R-4 field recorder, Wilkes set out to make recordings of both natural and human-made sounds all over the Cape, capturing as much as he can of this world as it exists in 2011 and sharing it on his website, http://hearcapecod.org.

Wilkes wants to capture the unique nature of Cape Cod in audio the way Edward Hopper once captured it in paint.

“I think you could say Hopper went there for the light; I’m going there for the echoes,” said Wilkes, whose vacation home in Truro is near the home where Hopper spent summers. “And I kind of mean that in a very strict sense. The outer Cape echoes and reverberates in a way I’ve never heard. Thunderstorms there are some of the most miraculous sonic events you could ever be blessed to hear. It’s a totally different thing from a thunderstorm here in the city.”

Wilkes can’t fully explain the science behind it, but he knows that there is something about sound on the Cape that makes it unlike any other place he’s been.

“Literally, It’s part of the sonic space,” he said. “It’s the way molecules move through air down there, and just like with the light, a lot of it has to do with the fact that on the outer Cape ... you have water on three sides. It’s such a thin strip of land from Wellfleet out to Provincetown, and I think that has a lot to do it.”

Wilkes is proceeding with the project with support from Berklee and funding from a Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowship. At first, he expected the recordings to be of interest mainly to other musicians and people interested in field recordings, but after the website went up and began attracting visitors, he learned that there was considerable interest among locals and visitors.

“I get emails every day from Cape residents and vacationers on the Cape who have these kinds of secret spots that they love,” he said. “And they’re saying, ‘Please, if you guys could make it there and record this, I would love it.’ We’re trying to honor that whenever we can.”

That has helped the project and Wilkes’ view of it to evolve, he said, and brought in the voices of people who aren’t musicians and may have given little thought to field recordings previously. He’s glad to have the feedback and the chance to exchange ideas.

“From the very beginning we knew we didn’t want this project to be in a vacuum,” he said. “Musicians get into this process of spending months making a CD, making an album, and when you do it, it’s a bunker mentality, you’re alone in a recording studio. And then when it’s finished, finally other people get to hear it. We did not want that to happen with this project.”

When the year ends and the time capsule is complete, Wilkes hopes to make his recordings downloadable to the public as MP3s and to put together a CD that would include longer versions of the best recordings — most recordings on the site are limited to 60 seconds to save server space. He also plans a CD of remixes and reinterpretations of the recordings by well-known electronic music artists and members of the Berklee community.

As field recording projects like his become more widespread, Wilkes hopes to someday be able to walk into a music store and see a section for field recordings just as there are sections for pop music, jazz, and so on.

As the project has developed, Wilkes has had to accept that it will never be comprehensive — he just can’t be everywhere. He’s still coming to terms with the knowledge that when 2011 draws to a close, so too does the project.

“I sure don’t want it to end,” he said. “I’m having way too much fun doing this.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

Steve Wilkes 2.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Steve Wilkes edits sound for upload to his website using simple equipment: his field recorder and laptop.

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