By Patrick Roberts
John Buehler is telling jokes that only a recording engineer could love. “What’s the difference between a violin and viola?” he asks. I have no idea. “A viola burns longer.”
He laughs and I smile, but when he tells me, “The definition of an optimist is a trombone player with a pager,” I can only ask him to explain. “Oh, like someone’s going to hire a trombone player these days? Not going to happen,” he says. “As a working session player, no.” He continues, “The thing is, we’re all trombone players. We’re all irrelevant as instruments. Now, we’ve all been replaced.”
Buehler would know. For more than twenty years he worked as a recording studio engineer, and he has seen first-hand how technology has revolutionized studio recording. State-of-the-art synthesizers, samplers and computer programs like Logic and Pro Tools have made virtual recording engineers and musicians out of anyone who can afford the gear. Buehler himself hangs on these days as a freelance composer and sound designer. If you had an occasion to view the Adler Planetarium’s 2005 star show “Race to the Edge of the Universe” or 2006’s “Egyptian Nights: Secrets of the Sky Gods,” then you have heard his music. You might not have paid it much attention, focused as you were on those twinkly little lights the Adler’s Zeiss star projector throws up on its dome. But expertly folded into your virtual experience of the night sky was the musical score that carried you along through the cosmos, shaping your emotional response to what really are just twinkly little lights on the ceiling.
The Adler’s new video show “IBEX-Search for the Edge of the Solar System,” which opened last week, is Buehler’s latest planetarium gig. “IBEX” stands for Interstellar Boundary Explorer, a probe NASA launched in October of last year that will map the dynamic interactions that take place between our solar system’s outer edge and interstellar space. Like his previous efforts, Buehler’s score for IBEX attempts to spin the heavens in a new direction. It is a complex, multi-layered, sometimes lyric, often pulsating fusion of sound with vibes ranging from Tangerine Dream to Metallica to the Vienna Symphony. Passionate about his sonic art and the natural world that inspires it, Buehler possesses an infectious curiosity for the elegant facts of the physical world. “People are oblivious to this shit,” he marvels, “shit” meaning anything related to astronomy, psycho-acoustics and the sounds of natural spaces. “It’s crazy.”
Buehler’s career track in sound began during the heady days of synth-pop, the early 1980s, when he blew his eighth-grade graduation money on his first synthesizer. Inspired by Tangerine Dream and Yaz’s “Upstairs at Eric’s” (he sings me a few bars of “Don’t Go”), he fed his growing interest in electronic music at Evanston Township High School. While only a sophomore he began engineering in a basement studio, and he quickly gained recording experience, if not a sense of professionalism. He spent a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before dropping out and going to work at Studiomedia Recording in Evanston. “I had to unlearn a lot of stuff behaviorally,” he says of his time there. “Like knowing how not to tell a person they sound like Jimi Hendrix when that’s the last thing they wanted to hear in a session.”
As a fulltime freelancer since 2003, Buehler works mostly in the wood-paneled front room of his Skokie basement with little more than a computer and synthesizer. A signed print of Jon Lomberg’s impressive painting “Portrait of the Milky Way” hangs on his wall, as does a print of Salvador Dali’s “Ecumenical Council.” There also hangs a black-and-white poster of a woman whose look and pose remind me of a silent movie actress.
“Who is that,” I ask. “Mary Pickford?”
“Kate Bush,” Buehler answers patiently. “She’s my mom, basically. She is everything I ever hope to achieve with sonic art. I’ll forever be chasing her. ”
Like many creative people, he tilts toward the obsessive. “I’ve been through a number of intense hobbies,” he tells me. “Short-wave radio, submarine beacons, weather facts coming off the GOES-8 satellite, and everything in between.” Many of these passions fed his first forays into sonic art. His band Witchcraft issued two CDs of electronic music, “As I Hide” (1996) and “Scattered Areas of Invisibility” (2000), which has an eighteen-minute track driven entirely by short-wave radio broadcasts of the atomic clock.
Buehler’s bread and butter is documentary-film scoring. His biggest client is a large non-profit organization that produces videos showcasing its childhood-vaccination work in developing countries. He shows me a brief clip of one, really just a still photograph of a poor woman in a poor country holding a small child I can only hope is sleeping, and he explains to me his approach to scoring such a scene. It usually begins by laying down a basic chordal structure, then composing and mixing in additional layers in order to fit or shape the mood. By way of example, he mentions adding an oboe.
“Why an oboe?” I ask.
“It’s subjective. You can alter the perception of a statement by playing major or minor chords underneath it. Tension and release. Major is happy, minor is sad.”
“As Nigel says in ‘Spinal Tap,'” I point out.
“Exactly! ‘Trilogy in D minor,’ ‘Lick My Love Pump.'”
I still want to know why an oboe.
“If it’s an oboe, it’s autumn.”
“Oboe equals autumn? Why?”
“Peter and the Wolf? I have no idea. It’s incredibly autumnal to me. I think if you said that in a group of musicians you’d get a lot of them nodding their head, but then you’d get the guy in the back saying, ‘I think Klezmer!'”
Given his work for the Adler, it comes as no surprise that astronomy is one of Buehler’s greatest passions. The appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1996 and a pair of relatively cheap binoculars sparked his interest. “I had no idea things like this could occur up in the sky. It was jaw dropping.” He taught himself astronomical basics by pouring over Sky and Telescope magazine, and he passed on a copy of his CD to a producer from Adler. He scored his first two Adler shows completely to the star projector. This required him to mix with a compass so that the score tracked with the sky. It presented a challenge, but his knowledge of basic astronomical principles like ascension, declination and the ecliptic proved handy.
Passion for his work becomes evident when the subject of Ra, the Egyptian sun god, pops up in our conversation about the score to “Egyptian Nights.” “I really freaked out on the whole idea of God being The Sun,” he says excitedly, “and there it is and we are worshipping it and you can feel him heating you. ‘Yes, Sun! God, God!’ you know, and all that power! ‘You can’t look at it! Not allowed to look at it!’ Just crazy, and I’d never thought of that.”
Buehler shares with me a few of the sequences from the IBEX show. Keeping in mind that the video we see is projected on a dome at the planetarium, we watch on his monitor the sequence in which IBEX is launched from the belly of an airplane in flight. The scene presented a unique creative challenge. He explains, “I was really having this problem of being able to hear these engines when we are in an atmosphereless environment. I know that people break that in terms of ‘Star Trek.’ But when it comes to accurate portrayal of the universe, this is a planetarium show, not ‘Aliens.’ So I feel you need to address that for people who know there’s no atmosphere.” He solved the problem by morphing the diagetic sounds of the rocket engines (what we would actually hear were we in the scene) into the non-diagetic sounds of music (which of course we would not hear in the actual scene) as the rocket passes from Earth’s atmosphere into space. It works.
“You’ve got a really heavy bottom on it,” I comment when the sequence ends.
“Yeah,” he nods, “Big subs.” He goes on with a laugh, “You know, bass is fun. I’m trying to make a point that it should be rocking. It’s a launch. How is it not rocking?”
Another sequence he plays for me is a stunning ride through the Milky Way along the path taken by our solar system. It’s a journey of some 100,000 years condensed into about a minute. The score is braced with a strong percussive groove upon which ride velvety, undulating orchestral strings. “Each one of those is a sun,” Buehler says as we watch the stars fly by us. “That’s just unbelievable to me.” It took him ten days to craft the score for this sequence.
If scoring documentaries and planetarium star shows provides Buehler current livelihood, his ambitions lie in what he calls “holographic audio.” To say that holographic audio is true, spatially accurate 3-D sound doesn’t quite do it justice. It builds on and extends binaural (“having two ears”) recording techniques that use a specialized microphone to capture sound exactly as two ears separated by a human head would. Binaural microphones mimic human sonic, spatial depth perception. Listening to a binaural recording, therefore, requires headphones so that only the acoustic dynamics of the space where the recording took place are heard and not those of the secondary space of playback (the space where your speakers happen to be).
Encouraged by the present-day ubiquity of headphones, Buehler is pioneering the adaptation of binaural recording techniques to natural environments-nature spaces-and a whole range of nature-based auditory events. And what he has so far accomplished seems to blow away those meditative, New Age, “relaxing sounds of nature” CDs one finds on earth-toned kiosks in Wal-Mart and Best Buy. It’s a travesty, he believes, to record nature using conventional approaches because nature happens all around us-above, below, behind, underneath-in a natural 3-D sound field.
“Have you ever heard or seen an ocean, inside?” he asks me.
“Well when you take the sound of the ocean conventionally recorded outside and you play it on speakers that are indoors, it’s an indoor ocean. The sound is bouncing off the walls. We hear the walls. We know we’re inside. And there is absolutely no chance of getting you to feel like you’re at the ocean. You’re listening to an analogy of the ocean, but it is not recreating the spatial accuracy. There’s nothing accurate about it.” Not quite through expressing his disgust, he goes on to say dismissively, “They’re the equivalent of a box fan, in terms of the actual sound that they’re making out of your piece-of-shit speaker. That’s nature sound?”
Buehler’s point is significant. He claims that if the auditory information your brain is being fed is spatially accurate, and your brain is relieved of the burden of seeing, the psychic impact can be deeply profound. “It’s more like drugs than anything,” he says. “It will completely get you into a different state of mind, and you can’t help it. Your mind cannot be stopped in terms of visualizing what you hear.” He goes on to say, “The impact it has on your state of being is completely unbelievable.”
It’s a provocative point too. Imagine a soldier in Iraq undergoing a holographic “psycho-acoustic relaxation therapy session” that essentially tells her brain she is somewhere else, say a Midwestern thunderstorm. Spatially accurate holographic audio could potentially provide anyone confined to an interior space-prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, schools-the therapeutic, psychic benefits of aurally experiencing nature spaces. And unlike music, nature is unencumbered with style. “It’s not like, ‘No man, I hate country music,'” Buehler laughs. “I don’t have that problem with an ocean. The hip-hop guy is just as inclined to dig my relaxing ocean as the classical guy. Style is not a problem with nature.”
After spending thousands of hours recording in the field in hard-to-reach locations across the country (and typically a sonically interesting space is not a visually interesting place), Buehler has created a catalogue of spatially accurate holographic nature sounds now available on his Web site, naturespace.com. The Web site provides detailed explanations of holographic audio and its psycho-acoustic benefits, and it offers three types of listening experiences for download. “Journeys” are multi-track recordings that move through a constructed scene and are built around a narrative. “Natural Spaces” maintain a fixed perspective and are layered with the ambient sound of a natural environment, although the timelines are condensed. “Collections” offers collections of five preselected tracks organized around a theme. Two-minute loops will also be available as an iPhone app.
When it comes time for Buehler to give me a demonstration, he hands me a pair of headphones and tells me to sit in a recliner. I close my eyes and relax. In a moment I hear rain falling all around me. It definitely feels like I am in a rainstorm and not just listening to one. Initially, the effect is disorienting. I fully expect to feel raindrops falling on my head. Thunder rumbles in the billowing distance. I hear an insect buzzing in front of my face, and because I have a perception of its spatial relation to me, I instinctively want to reach out and swat it away. A crow caws above me, a duck quacks behind. The sounds certainly don’t seem to be in my head, as they are when I listen to music on my iPod. With my eyes closed, I might just as well be somewhere other than Buehler’s basement. Wherever I am, it’s most definitely outside. It is rather crazy.
Later in the afternoon, Buehler sets up a telescope in his backyard. He fits a solar filter over the primary mirror and thoughtfully reminds me never to look at the sun through a telescope without just such a filter. After locating the sun through the telescope’s finder, he expresses some disappointment that there are no sun spots. For an amateur like me, however, viewing a spherical mass of nuclear fusion through a telescope (solar filter firmly attached) is an impressive sight, with or without spots. “The simplicity of astronomy continually knocks me out,” Buehler reflects, “and to understand our night sky and recognize that as my home just as I recognize my kitchen. My awareness of my existence is my existence.”
After we’ve looked at the sun awhile, we sit outside on the cold patio furniture. Buehler mentions Salvador Dali’s surrealist technique of “paranoiac-critical method” as a way to explain what he is trying to accomplish with holographic audio. In essence, Buehler hopes to offer listeners a framed, auditory canvass through which the brain, freed of its over-reliance on sight, can be primordially stimulated to allow for the regenerative free-play of subjective associations, memory and imagination. And if you think an old Air Supply song written in A-minor would just as easily do the trick, you haven’t been listening. While film scoring and grooving outer space may have their kicks, sounding out the inner spaces of the mind is Buehler’s true calling.
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