Juan Pablo Culasso.
“When you focus the microphone perfectly, it’s like the bird is singing on your shoulder.“
In 2014, Juan Pablo Culasso appeared on the Latin-American gameshow ‘SuperCerebros’ (Super Brains) in front of a TV audience of millions. The Uruguayan, blind since birth, competed for the life-changing prize of $45,000. Juan can identify more than 1200 birds by ear. With every bird averaging 3 different melodies each, that’s over 3600 individual birdsongs. This extraordinary knowledge of birds is the result of Juan following his passion. A professional field recordist, he’s at his most content when capturing sounds of nature:
“The gift of nature is that I never know. It’s an uncontrolled situation. It’s amazing because you never know what’s happening next. Nature is like a blank page every day. You can listen to a soprano from the USA and a soprano from Italy, and maybe the change isn’t too much. But in nature, in the same place in two different mornings, they can be totally different.“
Juan’s childhood was relatively normal. His parents didn’t shy away from letting him ride bikes or horses. It wasn’t until shortly after Juan started learning piano aged 6, that he came to realise he had ‘perfect pitch’ – the ability to identify any musical note in isolation. Juan was fishing with his family when he began dropping small rocks into the water. He started naming the notes that the rocks made when they splashed, much to the bemusement of his father.
Juan’s piano teacher confirmed that he had an ability shared by just 1 in 10,000 people. For Juan’s father, this was just the beginning. Why stop at musical notes? He began testing his son’s ability to identify birdsong too.
“We had a big, beautiful garden. He explained the birds, their colour, shape and their sounds. And then at home, we had an encyclopaedia called Microsoft Encarta which had maybe 140 bird sounds. It became a game: “Juan Pablo what is this sound?” And I got everything right with no mistakes. It took a lot of practice, motivation and support.“
As Juan grew his knowledge of birdsongs, it wasn’t until he was 16 that he realised he could forge a career capturing them. He was on an expedition searching for seedeaters, birds which reside in the grasslands of South America. The leader of the field trip encouraged Juan to make some recordings. It was at this point that he decided he no longer wanted to study law at university.
“When I pressed the record button and listened to the first bird sound through the headphones… Wow! That changed the way of my life. When you focus the sound that you want to capture it’s so amazing. A bird that is 20 meters away from you, when you focus the parabolic microphone perfectly, it’s like the bird is singing on your shoulder.“
It’s not just a matter of simply standing there and pressing record, though:
“It’s hard to record because the trees are very tall, and the birds aren’t arriving clearly into your ears, so then you need to find another spot to try and focus. Then you need a lot of study to know what’s singing around you.“
Juan’s keen ear for birdsong certainly gives him the advantage when recording in the dense forests of South America. He’s just finished recording in the Atlantic Forest, AKA ‘cloud forest’ – a place where birds are mostly heard and not seen. Jungles like this force everyone to rely on their hearing over their sight. Juan’s awareness of his surroundings, his training and his patience, recently resulted in a bucket-list recording (also known as a ‘lifer’).
“A lifer is like when you hear or see a new bird for your life list. And today I had the possibility to listen a really rare thrush. This species is found extremely deep into the forest. But today it was static on a branch, in the edge of the forest. I recorded a beautiful three minutes of this bird singing, almost non-stop.“
Juan can identify more than 1200 birds by ear. With every bird averaging 3 different melodies each, that’s over 3600 individual birdsongs. When you’re familiar with so many, it might be hard to pick a favourite, but two families from South America stand out.
“One is the thrushes, and the other is the wrens. They are the most iconic for me because they can sing differently. They don’t have the same song every day or every time. If you travel to another region there is high pitch, low pitch, faster, slower. Every individual can sing in a different way.“
Juan enjoys the sounds of European birdsong too, citing Europe and Australia as future places he’d love to visit and record.
“I have some CDs from the UK and I know the sounds of the cuckoo, the capercaillie, the chiffchaff and the blackcap. I really love your European birds because a lot of the melodic ones, they have really beautiful songs.“
Juan correctly identified all 15 birdsongs on National Geographic’s ‘Super Brains’. He went on to win the public vote by a landslide. The prize money meant he was finally able to upgrade his equipment. His microphones and recorders will last for the next 20 years, but the hardware and software required in post-production, specifically customised for blind people, are unfortunately expensive to maintain.
“This is my second passion. My first passion is nature sounds but my second passion is assistive technology because this kind of technology allows us to have the tools to work side-by-side with sighted people. You can work like a professional. There’s all this software and hardware that blind people use to edit sounds and it’s really expensive, but sadly it’s the way that we have to do our job.“
He currently owns an electronic braille keyboard worth around $4,000 USD, which can translate any text into a real-time braille display.
“I work with a beautiful company in Brazil where we try every day to provide this technology because believe me, these kinds of braille displays will change your life. Imagine for blind people, and now imagine for a deaf and blind people, how this braille display really gives these people access to the world.“
Thankfully, this equipment is starting to become more affordable. This braille device would have cost twice as much ten years ago. Juan remains hopeful that one day this technology will be the standard, rather than a privilege.
Juan’s currently working on an exciting project in KM 18 near Cali, Colombia which aims to build the first bird-watching areas for blind people in Latin America. Juan successfully applied for a grant which enabled him to catalogue all bird sounds in the region, something which has never been done before.
“We want to teach the guides and the local people how to really enjoy the birds without sight. We’re also creating workshops for people in the region to teach about accessibility, inclusion and how to identify birds using your ears as well as techniques to use in the field. I’m really happy to do this and show that blind people can really enjoy nature.“
Many of Juan’s recordings are used for research purposes. After fires tore through the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil recently, what was once a thriving soundscape, ended up sounding like ‘a desert’, according to Juan. He doesn’t shy away from the stark realities that these recordings uncover.
“A nice soundscape is when you can listen to rare things happening. But the spectrogram of the sound was empty. The only birds after a fire like that are the common ones.“
The more soundscapes Juan captures, the more information can be provided to organisations to help threatened ecosystems. These recordings can determine which species are under threat and which areas need protecting. It wasn’t until after Juan produced his first CD that he noticed another side to the nature sounds that he captured. His recordings would play in hotel spas for relaxation purposes. These sounds were starting to be enjoyed, rather than be analysed as data.
“I like to listen to these nature sounds to try to relax. For me, the forest is like a meditation. In the past I helped people with some mental disabilities, I gave them a CD that I recorded in Rio De Janeiro some years ago and they really improved their sleeping time.“
After winning ‘Super Brains’, Juan decided he now had the equipment and the clout to do what few others had managed: Record in Antarctica. Inspired by reading ‘Captain Scott’s Diary’, he applied to the Uruguayan Antarctic Institute for permission to carry out the excursion. Tourists aren’t allowed in these parts, but thankfully, Juan’s project was approved. In early 2015 he arrived on King George Island to be greeted by 24-hour daylight.
“The only thing that I can see are lights. So I never imagined how amazing a 24 hour day with daylight could be. At midnight, you can see the sun, it’s amazing. The thing that I tried to do in Antarctica is show that this is more than a white continent, because most people say: “It’s only ice, snow and penguins, right?” There is more than that! I recorded a beautiful CD that really paints a portrait of Antarctica. It was a beautiful adventure.“
Juan was able to capture ocean waves, seals, whales, gulls, albatrosses and even an iceberg melting.
“I was in a boat, and it was totally silent. I dropped a hydrophone into the water, and recorded an iceberg melting below the surface. It was the most beautiful recording that I did there.“
Recording in Antarctica required custom microphones with heaters installed into them so that they wouldn’t freeze. Wind attenuation accessories ensured that recordings of the wind were clear, but not ruined by the sensitivity of the microphone. Juan recalls that being based near a research station, meant trying to avoid anthropophony (sounds made by humans) more often than he expected.
“I travelled maybe 6,000 kilometres from my country to Antarctica, and I expected a place more silent than I found.“
Juan often walked for hours a day in snow above his knees, looking for remote spots to record, away from the sounds of boats or helicopters. He spent two months in Antarctica in total, and remains thankful for every moment he was able to capture:
“Antarctica is music. The ice speaks, the sea speaks, the snow speaks, it is only knowing how to listen.“
However, Juan is most at home when recording in the jungle. He considers these rainforests far safer than parts of Antarctica, where he lived in constant fear of falling through the ice. The jaguars of South America might look terrifying, but they largely keep themselves to themselves – Juan has never felt in danger at any point during his jungle recordings (despite often recorded alone and at night!).
Pay close attention to part of one of Juan’s recordings from the Atlantic Forest, and you’ll hear the sound of a chainsaw in the distance. The nature of the job involves avoiding man-made sounds wherever possible, but Juan continued to record as he wants to draw attention to the deforestation of The Atlantic Forest.
“The Atlantic Forest is the most threatened ecosystem in South America. It is extremely fragmented and in the next 20 or 30 years will sadly almost disappear.“
Thankfully the local work being done by Juan and organisations like Iracambi are helping to reverse the damage that’s already been done. So where next? Juan’s dream is to visit Papua New Guinea to record the Birds of Paradise. But until then, his project at KM 18 will be keeping him busy.
The Sound Reserve are proud to partner with Juan and want to help bring his incredible recordings to as many ears as possible.
“I was so happy when I heard about the purpose of The Sound Reserve. I’m glad I can help the company and help other people understand that you can enjoy your life through nature. Nature for me, is always a gift.“