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Feature article from the September 2010 AIRblast

Sounds Elemental:  Earth

A Reporter Enters the Sound Bubble and Returns Again

By Alicia Zuckerman

"Stop. Listen. What do you hear? The whir of an air conditioner? The ticking of a wall clock? A car horn, an airplane, an ice cream truck? Maybe you hear the buzz of the refrigerator or fluorescent lighting. Your heartbeat."

Alicia Zuckerman was one of nine producers who attended AIR's Sounds Elemental intensive at Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center in New York this June. This was the fifth generation of producers who, over the last four years of these unique weeklong sessions, subverted their natural orientation to the world around them to allow sound to be their dominant sensibility.

Alicia's regular gig is at WLRN in Miami, where she devotes her attention to narrative as the co-creator, co-host, and co-senior producer on Under the Sun. As the week devoted to sounds and earth progressed, so too did Alicia's ears experience a curious expansion, immersed as they were, in a world according to sound.

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Years ago I did a story for Studio 360 about a visual artist named Steve Miller who got a lot of his source material, including handwritten computer code and images of the wires that power a supercollider, from the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. I thought it must have been hard for an artist to convince a government science lab to let him poke around and take up the time of its scientists. But John Marburger — the lab's director, who soon after served as Science Advisor to the president during the Bush administration — told me: "I think having the artist there may restore a sense of wonder and make it clear that we're doing something that's multidimensional. You'd like scientists to be a little loose, a little bit ready for something new, or to be a little playful. Otherwise, if you're too uptight about finding that cure for cancer, you might miss the cure for Parkinson's disease."

As audio producers and journalists, we're not curing disease, but after spending a week with sound artists Brenda Hutchinson, Hans Tammen, and Michael Schumacher, I'm convinced that there's a lesson in Marburger's words for us too. I think it's a really good thing for us to be able to think the way artists do, particularly when it comes to using sound in our stories.

I became a journalist because of sound. My work in radio and as a New York magazine music and dance writer allowed me to meld my journalistic endeavors with my interest in contemporary composition, in a fairly traditional format — features stories and interviews mostly. Now I wanted to move toward combining those interests in less conventional ways. I took this workshop because I felt like my own use of sound is not always as expansive as I'd like it to be. I wanted creative uses of sound to occur to me more automatically. I think programs like RadioLab, for example, have gone a long way toward expanding the definition of "public radio format," and as the field of radio morphs into multimedia, this is a good time to push the format forward.

The Sounds Elemental workshop was geared toward opening our ears. For 40-plus hours, everything revolved around sound — listening to it, manipulating it, talking about it. For a week, we just kind of existed in this sound bubble. The whole thing had a fantasy world quality.

Most of the workshop took place in a fairly drab room on the sixth floor of an old loft building in Soho. The constant whir of a fan from an adjacent building and the frequent high-pitched tone from the air conditioner (a wall unit) provided ambient sound that was a little annoying at first because it seemed to interfere with the listening exercises, but then it became part of the overall tapestry, a constant that embedded all the other sounds.

During the first listening exercise, we talked about hearing the sounds of concrete objects. Later we were asked to try again, and this time the answers became words that described the sounds: whoosh, click, creak, snap.

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"It's gonna rain!" — from Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain, 1969

I was in college studying classical music alongside electronic music, when I heard Steve Reich's, "It's Gonna Rain," made from a looped recording of a San Francisco street preacher. It changed the way I thought about music and about sound. The fact that all of that came from one real moment in time — a moment that most people probably walked past without really taking it in — stuck me as such a brilliant use of documentary sound. I started to see how ordinary sounds could be transformed into music via electronic manipulation, but also how sound in and of itself could be perceived as music. The phrase "It's gonna rain!" is music even before the electronic transformation.

A while ago, while visiting my in-laws, I realized that when the doors close on the Long Island Railroad, it sounds like the "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's Magic Flute. So now every time I ride the train, I get that thing stuck in my head for hours.

"I love sounds just as they are. … Sounds don't have to mean anything to give me pleasure." —John Cage

Whoa! How are you going to tell a bunch of journalists that sounds don't have to mean anything? Of course sounds have to mean something. That's the point!

Just a couple of hours into the first day of the workshop, our expectations of what sound should convey were being stripped away. Part of the beauty of that week in the sound bubble is that we were training our brains to think differently about sound, to hear it on its own terms and for now, not to worry about meaning. Cage talked about finding the sound of traffic more interesting than Beethoven and Mozart. Beethoven and Mozart are always the same, he said. Traffic is always different. There's plenty to take issue with in those statements, but whether you agree with them or not, thinking about traffic that way is at the very least a practice in starting to listen differently.

Next we heard a piece called Far West News by Luc Ferrari. In it, field recordings of a cash register, an idling truck motor, snippets of conversation, even the question "Are you recording?" become part of the piece. It has an audio postcard quality, except it's driven more by sound than any linear narrative.

At the end of that day, we tried the listening exercise again and started thinking not just in terms of the description of the sounds themselves, but also about things like duration, distance, and rhythm. The fan was rhythmic. The click of a pen and the elevator bell were random.

When we left the loft, we all thought the city sounded different. Sounds interacted with each other in ways I hadn't always noticed. Car horns, ambulances, and jackhammers became punctuations in the sonic complexity of New York, instead of irritations to shut out.

As the week went on, we delved into the science of sound, some of which, I'll admit, went over my head and made me wish I could spend a year or two studying sound engineering. But some of it sank in — like how adding reverb conveys a sense of distance and movement, and how when you boost EQ (equalization) to bring out the high frequencies, you can make a voice feel more present.

We looked at sound design in films: Jean Luc Goddard's Breathless and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. This gets back into the meaning of sound. In both these films, ambient sound sets a scene, and the sounds that emerge from that bed of ambiance, sometimes barely perceptibly, are clues to the story. (Obviously sound effects factor in heavily in film. In Raging Bull, the squashing of melons and tomatoes was used for the sound of punches.) For more about sound design in movies and connections to radio work, take a look at this article written for Transom by the iconic film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who's responsible for The Conversation.

Through the computer program SPEAR we saw how a single sound, like a note played on a cello, is actually made up of several sounds. That's what partials are.

We heard Alvin Lucier's "I am Sitting in a Room," in which he recorded himself speaking a phrase that begins with that sentence. Then he played the recording back into the room and recorded it as it played in the room. Then he took the newer recording and played that back into the room and recorded that, and so on, so that by the end of the about 45 minutes, all you hear are the resonances of the room. The words and their meaning are long gone.

One evening we went to Diapason, Michael Schumacher's sound gallery in Brooklyn, ate Mexican food, and lay on the floor in the dark, listening to "Unintending," his computer-generated piece for 23 discrete channels. The sounds came at us from all over, so depending on where in the room we were, the piece sounded different. Michael told us about another one of his installations, "5 Pieces", a series of works meant to be set up on multichannel speaker systems at home, and how it drove him a little crazy that people were just listening in plain old stereo on their laptops.

We'd been asked to show up in New York with some sound, and I'd gathered field recordings from a couple of parks in Miami Beach, where I live: a bicycle bell, a skateboard, a mother calling her kid, the squeak of a swing, little kids reading the rules of the beach, the Atlantic ocean, and a typical rainy season downpour. We worked on our pieces throughout the week, and at first, I was headed towards a pretty straightforward audio postcard. I was focusing on narrative, with the sounds retaining their concrete meanings.

But as Brenda, Hans, and Michael talked to us about the possibilities in sound, I realized the extent to which I had been underutilizing Pro Tools. There were entire menus I'd never seen, dials I'd been too scared to turn, plug-ins I'd never bothered to try. I stopped worrying about whether the words would be audible and if the rain was recognizable as rain. I started playing. I layered voices, stacking them five tracks high (slightly staggered, otherwise all it does, I learned, is increase volume), reversed phrases (so much fun!) and layered some of those on top of each other too. I took the "ch" from the word "beach," looped it, and created a rhythmic pattern, and made a little rhythm section from the bike bell, the swing squeak, and some rattling chains. I added reverb, played with pitch and speed, and the final piece, which I called "Parks & Recreation," was definitely not an audio postcard. It was, I guess, my first attempt at sound art.

Other producers made pieces using a grandfather's poem, excerpts from a fantastical novel, a favorite Agent Cooper line from Twin Peaks, and a homebuilder talking about a counterintuitive water shortage Florida. Most of the pieces didn't end up sounding much like the original source material.


VISIT A MONTAGE OF SOUNDS AND SIGHTS FROM  “SOUNDS ELEMENTAL:  EARTH” PRODUCERS HERE.


I can't claim an overnight transformation. There's a ton I still don't know, but as one of the other producers in the workshop said, at least now I know what I don't know and how to try to figure it out. The opportunities for using sound creatively are more obvious in features and documentary, but they exist in day-to-day work too. Recently, I did a story about a fairly complicated immigration status. At the end of an interview with an applicant, I realized all I had to set a scene were words. So I asked what he was planning to do when I left. He said he had to hose down his driveway, and as I was recording the sound of the hose, he told me he does this everyday because his wife's car leaks oil, and they can't afford to fix it. I ended up opening the story with that hose. Say you're covering a city council meeting — you can weave your narration in and out of the sound, bringing it up at relevant moments, then keeping it low as a sound bed. When the meeting is functioning as a sound bed, the words are irrelevant. It's the sound of the room that becomes important. Sound can be used to convey distance, abstract concepts, or mood (in the way music does in movies and some radio features).

I once heard Ira Glass say that when he was working at All Things Considered, he made sure to put one thing in each of his reports that was just for him — maybe a turn of phrase or a way of describing something he found amusing. Why not apply that way of thinking to using sound?

By the end of the workshop, the listening exercises stopped yielding words altogether and started yielding scribbled images depicting where sounds were in relation to us and to each other, whether they were continuous or sudden, loudness over time and how they stopped and started (the "envelope").

As Brenda Hutchinson pointed out, understanding and thinking creatively about sound as a matter of course, requires practice. But practicing is easy and free. Just listen — to the highs, the lows, the various frequencies, the resonances of different rooms, the traffic. Keep your radar up for unexpected sounds. My shower drain makes the craziest, most violent sucking noise when the water drains. It could be a monster in horror movie or a sci-fi TV show. Just keep listening.


AIR's next Sounds Elemental convenes November 15–19, focusing on "sky." Applications are being accepted through September 30. To find out more, or to apply for one of 10 slots, go here.

Alicia Zuckerman is the co-creator, co-producer, and co-host of Under the Sun, an award-winning radio series about life in South Florida, on WLRN in Miami. She is the senior producer of the Florida Roundup, a weekly news roundtable, and Jazz Roots on WLRN, an interview series. She's also a producer on the WLRN arts desk. Before coming to WLRN, she covered the arts for WNYC in New York and was a contributing writer at New York magazine. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism and sings alto with the Master Chorale of South Florida.

AIR welcomes inquiries about republishing this feature article in its entirety or in part. Please contact us at airblast@airmedia.org.