PORTLAND, Maine — Sound recording artist Dianne Ballon remembers the exact moment she heard the magic come together, right in front of her ears.

Bobbing on a boat deck, in the middle of Casco Bay last summer, with her headphones on and microphone pointed out to sea, the vessel swung around.

And there it was.

Two separate channel buoys were sounding together. One rang a gong. The other blew a wind-driven whistle. Both rode the tide atop the churning sea.

“It made me cry with joy,” Ballon said. 

That’s how it is with sounds, for her. They’re art as well as emotionally moving experiences.

Visual artists work with colors and canvas, pen and paper, or cameras and pixels. But Ballon uses a microphone and aural moments when constructing her pictures. 

“You could say I paint with sound,” she said. 

The channel buoy duet is just one of many expressive moments Ballon captured close to her Portland home last summer. Normally, she often records in far-flung locations like the Arctic but this year, thanks to the travel-restricting pandemic, and a Maine Arts Commission grant, she spent the whole summer recording on Maine’s coast. 

This month, Ballon will begin sharing her newest Maine-based sound art via presentations at the Maine Historical Society in Portland and the Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. Both events will be available online.

Ballon has enjoyed a long career in sound recording, both at home, as well as in Iceland, the Arctic and the southern Appalachian Mountains. Ten of her sound works have aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program. Currently, she teaches audio production through Maine College of Art.

Ballon was awarded a Maine Arts Commission $5,000 individual fellowship grant in 2021. 

Last week, Ballon sat down with us to talk about her art process and sound, itself.

Q: When making your art, what kinds of sounds are you looking for?

A: I think, in general, people don’t hear sound, even though we are bombarded with it every day. Because, in a wonderful way, our brains can filter out sounds — so, if we’re on a busy street, talking with someone, we can focus on listening to the person. What I do is work with that background sound, or field sound.

Q: But instead of busy street sounds, you’re more interested in the natural world even further in the sound background, right?

A: Yes, and it’s very difficult to go out and record the sound that I am after — to have that sound be isolated and not have other sounds interfere with it. Cars and trucks are not preferable. When I do get the sound I want, I stay for a long time and record more than I may need. 

Q: It reminds me of how I take pictures as a photographer. There’s a whole wide world out there but I’m trying to narrow it down to just what I want to frame in my viewfinder. Only you’re “looking” with your ears, rather than your eyes?

A: Yes. It’s exactly that. 

Q: With this Maine Arts Commission grant you stayed in Maine this summer while doing your work.

A: Yes. I often go to the Arctic — and the monetary fellowship would have been a nice chunk of a plane trip — but I focussed on the sounds at home instead. The pandemic really allowed me to have that beautiful focus. I think I ended up driving more than 600 miles, just in Maine.

Q: Besides the Casco Bay buoys, what and where else did you record on the coast this summer?

A: I did a four-day trip to South Bristol and the Christmas Cove area. I also explored Schoodic Point, Prospect Harbor and Birch Harbor. I always go to harbors for the creaking boats. I recorded at a lobster coop in Corea, as well. I happened to arrive when the lobstermen were unloading their catch — with the spontaneous talking, back and forth — and the lobster boats pulling up and pulling away.

Q: When I listen to your sounds, especially with headphones on, I immediately get pictures in my mind.

A: With something like video, the picture is predetermined and the sound becomes just the background. But what’s wonderful about that picture in your own mind is that you are creating it, yourself.

Dianne Ballon will present her work online at the Maine Historical Society from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13, and at Thomas Memorial Library from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.