This is Martyn Stewart’s Listening Planet project, a trust and a foundation. It’s the sound of our world – and it’s the sound of us.
Since 1975, Stewart has travelled the world, microphone and recorder in hand (and insect repellent nearby). It’s a solitary, driven passion that he dates to childhood “fascination” with the fauna and flora around him in the suburban Midlands.
“It would be something of an understatement if I were to say that things weren’t easy growing up. Creature comforts were scarce, money was exceptionally tight and a feeling of being hungry was generally the rule rather than the exception. Add to this the sibling rivalry that frequently took place between six children living under the same roof, coupled with parents who were always at odds with one another, and you can perhaps understand why escaping into the countryside was my Balm of Gilead. While I didn’t venture too far away from home during the very early years of my life, the distance certainly grew exponentially as I got older.”
Listen to Martyn explain further…
Martyn’s early forays became his life’s work, a mission to amplify the voice of what he calls “little critters” of every shape, size and stripe. From the age of 19, he began collecting all the species he could find in the British countryside, the birds, amphibians, mammals and insects. Stewart began building a database that still, now, 55 years on, he’s always adding to. As he puts it: “Some people think I’m crazy, going out for six hours to get 20 seconds of sound. But to me, that’s like winning life’s lottery.”
It was, he says, about capturing for posterity the sound of nature – and, eventually, memorialising it. But he admits that initially the end of nature was far from his mind.
“But as I travelled, I began to understand how critical habitat was disappearing.”
And, so, Martyn Stewart has been on a mission: to record the sounds of our planet. The dawn chorus, the dusk symphony, the rush of the tides, the whispers in the grass – the chirps, cheeps, buzzes, songs, calls, clicks that make up nature’s glorious cacophony.
And the end-purpose of that mission: to save the world. No more, no less. As the Birmingham-born, Florida-based naturalist points out, since he began his epic, repeat circumnavigations of the globe, 75 per cent of the landscapes and soundscapes that he’s recorded have vanished, been silenced or suffered significant degradation.
“Twenty-five years ago it would take three or four hours of recording to capture one pristine hour,” says Stewart. “Now it would be more like 2000 hours. In the US you’ve got 25,000 planes in the sky at any one time, so they’re always breaking the natural sound. I recorded a Rock Dove in the Puget Sound and it took me two weeks to get 20 seconds of sound – I was competing with planes, ATVs, leaf-blowers, motorbikes, buses, cars.”
It’s a big ask, a big task, but if anyone can help us get there, it’s this intrepid, indefatigable, one-man field explorer. In a half-century career, he’s visited over 55 countries, recorded 97,000 sounds (including over 3500 species of birds) in a matchless audio library that runs to over 30,000 hours – an unparalleled archive, recorded on his trusty Sound Devices 722 recorder and Sennheiser MK8 Series microphone, that is now being made available to everyone on a series of groundbreaking album releases. an emblematic signifier of the despoiling of nature. Which is what makes the Listening Planet albums Stewart is releasing with Patreon all the more vital.
Listen to Martyn’s first recording, aged 11 – a black bird singing…