Berklee professor makes audio map of  the White Mountains

  • Steve Wilkes records the forest on the first day of his artist's residency in the White Mountain National Forest Arts Alliance of Northern NH—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 8/10/2017 2:50:03 PM

Steve Wilkes has been trudging through the White Mountains with unusual hiking gear – a shotgun microphone, cable, and a field recorder.

For three weeks, the Berklee College of Music professor will traverse the national forest, ferreting out the best sounds with which to illustrate the nearly 1,200-square-mile wooded, mountainous terrain that extends from eastern New Hampshire to western Maine.

This year’s White Mountain National Forest Artist in Residence, Wilkes is creating “sound snapshots” of the landscape. His field recordings, some originally as long as 45 minutes, will be whittled down to 30 to 90 seconds, and uploaded to an online map of the forest that the public can access and listen to anytime. (The residency is a joint collaboration between the national forest service and the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire.)

Wilkes will tape the trilling of birds and the pounding of waterfalls. He’ll also record the sounds made when humans come into contact with the forest – of hikers chatting, or the roar of cars passing through the Albany Covered Bridge.

“In addition to the sounds of nature… I want to honor the fact that this is the people’s forest,” he said.

Early in his three-week residency, Wilkes had already hit Beede Falls in Sandwich, hiked to the top of Mt. Israel, taken a gondola ride at Loon Mountain, and recorded at Greeley Ponds and Sabbaday Falls off the Kancamagus Highway.

“Good lord is this national forest vast,” Wilkes said. “I wake up every morning already feeling like I’m two weeks behind.”

Wilkes is hoping to create between 50 and 60 recordings during his residency, which ends Saturday. But with so much ground to cover, Wilkes also wants to also recruit and train others to eventually populate the map themselves.

During his travels, Wilkes took suggestions for places to visit from people submitting comments under the “We Hear You” tab on the project’s website,

He has done a similar project before. From 2010 to 2013, he recorded snippets from Cape Cod to capture “aural snapshots” of the peninsula, uploading the recordings to an online map for public listening. 

The idea came to him for the project in 2009, when, while vacationing on Cape Cod, he witnessed a storm that knocked beachside cottages from their foundations in Chatham. It suddenly sunk in: climate change and development would fundamentally change this place.

“I started waking up to how the Cape could become more and more different in half a century,” he said. Wilkes decided to preserve the Cape in the best way he knew how – through sound, by creating a sort of “audio-time capsule.” (The results of that project can be listened to a

For Wilkes, the Hear Cape Cod project has fundamentally changed the way he sees making music. Before, he called himself a musician by way of more reductive terms – he was a drummer, others were cellists, trombonists, or composers. Now, he takes a more expansive view.

“It’s changed my definition of a musician. My definition of a musician now is anyone who has learned to listen to the world around them in a musical way,” he said.

To listen, go to

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or

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