Shenandoah National Park's Sound Artist

Aug 19, 2016

When most of us think of an artist in residence, we think of painters, potters, or maybe even poets. But what about an artist whose medium is sound? Well, that perked the ears of WMRA’s Jordy Yager, who has this report.

Sound of birds

On a recent Wednesday, the sun had barely risen and parking lots along the winding Skyline Drive were still empty. Except, for one car. Outside it, a woman from Portland, Maine gently made her way down one of the most popular trails in Shenandoah National Park. She was the first one out that day, and she was on a mission.

Sound of Ballon hiking and sounds of Dark Hollow Falls

DIANNE BALLON: My name is Dianne Ballon, I am a sound artist and I am the artist in residence at Shenandoah National Park. We’ve come down to Dark Hollow Falls to record some of the falls and this is actually my first recording at the park.  

Chances are, you’ve heard Ballon’s work. She’s been making radio since back in the 1980’s, when cassette recorders were cutting edge. But her pieces aren’t your standard who, what, where, why reports — like this one. Rather, they’re works of art. Like poetic sound.

LISA WILKOLAK: When I saw Dianne’s application, it was for a sound installation, I was immediately intrigued.

Lisa Wilkolak is an administrative assistant for Natural and Cultural Resources at Shenandoah National Park

WILKOLAK: Then I went online and listened to all of her recordings that she has available, and just thought it was such a unique and different way to look at a place that people often assume is just a physical beauty and people don’t necessarily pay attention to the sounds that they hear, so I was interested in hearing what she heard when she visited us.

Sounds of waterfall

Back in Dark Hollow Falls, Ballon puts down her giant microphone, takes off her large headphones, and stops her recorder.

BALLON: What I love about sound is that we create the visuals, the sound creates the visual. With video or film, which is also a beautiful art, the visual is created for you. I really love the challenge of creating visual with sound, and how personal that is to the person who’s listening as well as the producer.

Sound of man yelling as he dunks himself under a waterfall

Birds, waterfalls, streams, scurrying squirrels. Sure. But there’s another key sound in these woods.

BALLON: Can I talk to you?

DENNIS MATTHEWSON: Sure. Hey, we’re at Dark Hollow Falls at about 9am, I just jumped in the swimming hole at the bottom of the falls and stood underneath the falls. It’s quite refreshing, better than a cup of coffee.

Dennis Mathewson is a physical therapist from Amherst, Massachusetts. He and his family are vacationing in the park like dozens of others Ballon talks with over the course of the morning: an IT manager and a middle school teacher from Chicago, a pair of best friends from Indiana and New York, a family from London, another from Austria. All have come to experience the wild of the park. 

TOM KNUTH: I love it, nothing like nature. I mean, this is where we belong. If you sit there in the quiet, the quiet is almost like a physical presence, and you just sit there and you feel part of it.

Tom Knuth has come all the way from Wisconsin.

KNUTH: When I’m alone in the woods — yeah, it’s like, it does, it becomes a physical presence, I can almost feel the silence, I want to reach out and grab it. I get emotional about it, it’s really quite cool though.

Knuth’s not alone in getting choked up. Almost everyone we meet has a visceral reaction to being in the park. And Ballon is there to capture it. Wilkolak says that in just the one week that she’s spent with Ballon, it’s changed how she sees – or rather, hears -- the park.

WILKOLAK: My favorite part is that she gets so excited about sounds and everything she hears, she’s thinking about the possibility of using it, or how it applies to something. She looks at the world in a different way. She looks at the world through sound. And it’s made me spend time listening and seeing the world through sound rather than sight or smell.

Ballon’s pieces aren’t gratuitous. She doesn’t use sound just to fill space. Whether the focus is on dogs and their owners or birdwatchers or boats creaking on docks in Iceland, Ballon creates audio journeys, where every sound is a guidepost, a subtle move and transition within the piece, delicately shaping and charting a broader story.

Here at the Park, she’s not exactly sure what form the eventual piece will take quite yet, but she guesses it’ll be about 10 minutes long. It’ll live at the visitor center near Big Meadows for people from all over the world to come experience. For now, she’s happy just basking in the sounds.

BALLON: I don’t worry about how it’s going to work, I just am there at the moment.  I think this, to me this is the best part of recording because you’re not sitting at the bench saying there’s that sound in the background I don’t want. It’s like discovery, and you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. And it’s always a beautiful surprise.