“Sound gives us the city in matter and memory,” writes Fran Tonkiss in her essay “Aural Postcards: Sound Memory and the City.” Later she suggests that “not listening in the city makes spaces smaller, tamer, more predictable.” As a phonographer—someone who makes field recordings—Jed Speare insisted on listening to the city, finding music in the matter and memory of urban spaces—from cable car barns to sewage treatment plants and everywhere in between.
Long before field recordings were easy—I can record eight hours of 48kHz / 24 bit sound on my Sony M10, which is about the size of a smartphone—Jed lugged an immense amount of recording equipment to make one of the landmark albums of phonography, Cable Car Soundscapes (Folkways, 1983). He documented the distinct bell ringing and the viewpoints of the conductors (“You could almost get a degree in psychology doing this job,” avers one) as well as an everyday journey aboard a cable car.
Speare fused ethnographic investigation with composition; interviews are edited with phrases carefully sequenced not only for “the story” but for the mood, humor, and the irony inherent in the then-imminent phasing out of San Francisco’s once iconic cable cars. We hear one recessed voice sell something while others cackle as the car rattles on the tracks and the bell rings. This is composing by framing, by the carefully chosen and executed edit.
Beyond such composerly choices lurks the immense technical knowledge required of anyone who makes high-fidelity field recordings—from setting (or, gasp, riding) the level, pointing (and dexterously swiveling when needed) the microphone, to choosing the microphone in the first place and sensing how much longer you can go before batteries die or the reel of tape runs out.
“They’re going to take all the history out of it,” laments Andy, a 15-year-old cable car groupie, one of the many remarkable voices on Cable Car Soundscapes. But Jed got there just in time to create a compelling sonic memorial to a bygone soundscape and forgotten profession.
A Composer’s Mettle
Mettle of Metal is the final track of Cable Car Soundscapes. Although composed in 1982, this piece is in mono yet remains vivid nonetheless. In one way it’s an homage to another work devoted to the rails, Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemins de fer, and stands with other rail classics such as Ellen Band‘s Railroad Gamelan, Train de nuit (Noord 3-683) by Lionel Marchetti, and Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North.
Mettle begins in medias res. The soundscape of the city never stops, we only stop listening. Wheels roll, surging and pumping: the rhythms enunciated as glistening abrasions of wheel against track. There’s a bold cut at 50″ and soon an undertow of rumbles garlanded with melodic squeaks and creaks take over.
Who might be brave enough to write a history of composers who compose with field recordings? The lineage ostensibly starts with Pierre Schaeffer, though Respighi has a place, or at least an asterisk. The final panel of the 1924 symphonic triptych Pines of Rome requires a recording of a nightingale issued by the Concert Record Gramophone Company, catalogue number R6105.
Jed Speare is a crucial link in the chain of phonographers from Tony Schwartz who recorded on the streets on New York in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s to the World Soundscape Project of the 1970s and on to phonographers like me who started making urban field recordings in 1990s with the advent of the MiniDisc.
Interviewed by Boston.com in 2011, Jed echoed the questing cry of composers since Busoni (if not earlier), stating that “the next great collection of sounds could come from the river behind your house or even your cellphone.” You are probably a phonographer: Field recordings today, mostly made with smartphones, have seeped onto YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, and other social media.
I will always remember Jed’s notion of listening to learn the story of a space. In an email to me he wrote:
[T]he practice of alluding to or evoking a site through composition with the twelve chromatic tones is not very satisfactory, after what is available to us in recording different sounds and sound environments that are (closer to) the thing itself as music material. Creating a new music from a phonographic basis seems to confound the musical and environmental in a compelling way.
Jed will be remembered for much more than Cable Car Soundscapes. His compelling anthology on Family Vineyard, Sound Works 1982-1987, documents a formidable composer. I had to buy another copy after it was deemed “too good to be returned” by the person who borrowed my first copy! Fortunately there are several forthcoming releases of his more recent work.
I only met Jed once, when Jed, Ernst Karel, and I were preparing for a performance of the New England Phonographers Union in January of last year. As a veteran music journalist, I’m seldom intimidated by the famous, however I imagined the conversation going like this:
Me: “Um, hi there… (speaking really fast) YourSeminalAlbumForeshadowedJustAboutEveryAspectOfMyWorkInAbrilliantAndAtTimesWhimsicalWay. And I’m sorry to say seminal, it’s a stupid adjective. People who say seminal are time-travellers from 1981 or plain stupid.”
Jed: “Who are you?”
Instead, Jed was a nice guy and happy to meet someone who admired his work from so long ago. Later that night, I did work up the nerve to ask him about the fate of the source and master tapes of Cable Car Soundscapes. “Those were gone a long time ago.” He shrugged and added, “It was another life.”
I believe Jed’s music will have another life as well, far into the future for anyone who loves listening.
Obituary for Jed Speare in The Wire
Christopher DeLaurenti seeks out unusual confluences of sound, silence, music, and speech, including political protests, tunnels, digital audio forensics, and orchestra intermissions. He makes installations, compositions, and sound work including Fit The Description (Ferguson, 9-13 August 2014); N30: Live at the WTO Protest November 30, 1999; and the albums Favorite Intermissions: Music Before and Between Beethoven-Holst-Stravinsky (GD Stereo, 2007); of silences intemporally sung (reductive, 2012); Phonopolis (Masters Chemical Society, 2013), No Sound Is Stolen (Alterity 101, 2014), and To the Cooling Tower, Satsop (GD Stereo, 2015). Chris teaches at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. Much of his work is available free online.