This article about the sound recordist John Hutchinson was sent to me from
USA by John Wall.
An Australian devoted his life to recording the sounds of
In one of the world's last, great frontiers, an Australian bushman
is racing against time and the encroachment of people to preserve the
natural music of the outback.
John Hutchinson has earned an international reputation for his
recordings of rare Australian birds. He estimates he has spent half
his life camping solo in the state of Western Australia's rugged
wilderness to record birds, frogs, and the music of Aborigines. ``I
love being in the bush,'' he says from his rustic home and recording
studio in Dunsborough, a pretty coastal town in the state's south. ``I
make a life for myself in the bush and the campfire is my home.''
In 1959, when the rest of the Western world was swinging to Elvis
Presley and Chuck Berry, Mr. Hutchinson took a new-fangled tape
recorder to Western Australia's far north, and began his lifework.
Encompassing an area about one-sixth the size of the continental
US, this desert land lacked electricity, decent roads, many fresh
fruits and vegetables, and outside telephone lines. Aborigines
outnumbered whites by 200 to 1 in some places. ``I was young when I
first went up there and the young often do get lonely,'' Hutchinson
says. ``But I just had to be on my own [to record birds] and I just
had to overcome loneliness.''
He began by recording Aboriginal dances and relaying recorded
messages between tribes who camped on the ranches of white landowners.
``You would hear the Aboriginal music wafting through from the
homestead in the distance,'' Hutchinson recalls. ``You could listen
and watch them if they invited you.''
He later turned his attention to bird calls. But he laments that
many of his early recordings are ``songs of the past.'' Growing white
settlements, forest burnings, and mining and agricultural developments
have reduced bird habitats and populations, he says.
Western Australia's northern regions have changed dramatically
since the 1950s, becoming a haven for New Age hippies, country
yuppies, mining millionaires, and big-spending tourists. When
Hutchinson began camping in the region, it was customary for two lone
travellers who crossed paths to stop and ``boil the billy'' [kettle].
But ``you would soon run out of tea bags'' if the custom was followed
today, he says.
Already, some 100 bird species have disappeared around the world
because of over-hunting and environmental destruction. Australia has
34 endangered bird species. (The US and Canada have 15.) But at least
Australia still has some of the large songbirds that have disappeared
in other parts of the world, Hutchinson says.
His recording method is a laborious process that has resulted in
six compact discs of bird calls and one of frog calls. Each recording
took between two and 10 years to produce because of the difficulty in
recording complete calls without the sounds of passing traffic and
other human-made noises.
Sometimes camping continuously for six months, he scoffs at
colleagues who are provided with cars and travelling allowances from
their institutions and ``stop at motels and hotels as much as they
The arduous work has its rewards. The BBC introduces Hutchinson as
Australia's most prominent bird recordist when playing his works, and
his recordings can be found in some of the world's most prestigious
Hutchinson is packing up to ``go bush'' again. He has new-found
optimism in society's efforts to preserve wildlife.
When he started out in the state's north, ``there were only a few
of us interested in preservation and we weren't listened to very
much,'' he says. But ``people are becoming more and more aware ...
that the bush is being destroyed and they realise how valuable it
Trevor & Annie Quested
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