One for the Birds

One for the Birds

When a recorder of birdsongs meets an artist who 'sees' sound, they make a musical language of their own.

Geoff Keller — known as the premier recording artist of birdsongs in North America — often prowls the wilds of Brown County, Indiana, toting a parabolic sound dish that he compares to the lens of a camera. Keller has been collecting bird sounds for 30 years, and has had over 3,000 melodies cataloged by Cornell University. A collaboration with local artist Elaine Oehmich, who visualizes audio and paints replicas of what she sees, opened up a whole new avenue of sound appreciation for Keller. A challenge for the producers of this WTHR-TV video was to illustrate this confluence of sight and hearing.

Oehmich’s visual perceptions are known as synesthesia, a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense. When Oehmich hears sounds, she also sees them. The clarity of Keller’s recordings — which are cleverly sampled and identified throughout the piece — inspired the artist to paint shorthand representations of bird songs that she can read like sheet music.

Oehmich demonstrates her method in the studio, illustrating specific bird sounds with bold brushstrokes, and, to her obvious delight, Keller proves that he can correctly identify birdcalls just by looking at her vibrant paintings. Back in the forest, the ribbons and squiggles of color are artfully used as overlays on video of Keller stalking those sounds, giving the viewer a window into their world.

This video was awarded second place in the 2010 National Press Photographers Association’s Best of TV Photojournalism contest, Editing: Editors Effects category.

Length: 3:51

By Steve Rhodes


2010 NPPA awards for Steve Rhodes: