Valuing Acoustic Space
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting because what the environmental movement talks about—preserving the landscape, preserving our natural resources—it’s all really done with a visual vocabulary. It’s not done with a sonic vocabulary. And yes, this is a spectacular place that we’re in because of the green on the ground, and the tress, and the color of the leaves that are turning on this cold autumn day, but just as much because of the sound of that water. That splashing that completely distracts me right now. All I want to do is hear that sound and watch it and see how it’s able to make that sound.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Well, listen to it. Yeah, give yourself time.
FRANK J. OTERI: For me, someone who grew up in the middle of New York City where every sound was pretty much humanly manufactured, this is unusual. Yet we’re only an hour away by train. How do we preserve the sonic environments that are pristine and are in danger? This is hardly a pristine environment. There are human structures surrounding us and trains going by, but you know, what are places where sounds are naturally occurring that shouldn’t be interfered with?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: There are very few left. There are actually a lot of people concerned with the protection of sonic space, of acoustic space. There is a museum in Oakland which is focused entirely on that. Hildegard Westerkamp, a wonderful electroacoustic and environmental composer based in Vancouver, her work is constantly nudging us about sound pollution and sound in its pristine environments, and so on. Those are just two of very many examples of people who are perturbed, who are disturbed, and who are working on this. Let me go back, I just wanted to return to something that we were following a little earlier. There is this curious paradox between how a lot of people seem to need to have a constant flow of music going through their bodies—wearing earphones, carrying Walkmans around, and so on, all over the place. This has been going on for a long time—simultaneously a very clear need and habituation, and seemingly a real diminution of perception of that sound stream that’s going in. Perhaps the music is going into the body and soothing and aligning various processes in the body more than it is stimulating the conceptual mind, or bypassing it.
FRANK J. OTERI: What’s so strange about the Walkman phenomenon is here you have people who on the one hand are spending more time listening, and they’re spending less time listening because they are not at all aware of the sounds that are around them. They’re creating their own environment. It’s essentially like walking around with a blindfold that might have your favorite painting on it, if you could somehow illuminate it, and you see that instead of the world that is around you. Maybe you get to know that painting very well, but you’re zoned out to what is really going on.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: And this has been going on for a long time. Ruth Anderson, another composer, and myself started teaching a course at Hunter College years ago called Experience of Music. Rather than teaching standard repertoire, we decided to focus on people’s environment and also focus on the music in their familial backgrounds, which were of all sorts of different ethnicities. When we started working with them on the environment, we got them to keep listening journals. There were people who have been walking around their neighborhoods in Brooklyn with Walkmans on for a long time who took their Walkmans off and suddenly started noting that they could hear birds in their neighborhood. They hadn’t been aware that there were any birds in their neighborhood, for example [laughs]. It was a revelation, a wonderful revelation. People were hearing all sorts of things with the greatest attention and sensitivity. It was lovely. The world came back. The sound world came back to them. And then there was one extraordinary entry from a woman who had been, like everybody else, shutting out subway noise, and had had sort of seeped into her other experiences of sound. As you say, she was shutting down her ears progressively more and more. She trained herself to stop the subway vibration at her elbows so it didn’t even reach her ears. She swore that she could stop the sound at her elbows. So it no longer bothered her hearing system, at least not as far as her brain was processing sound. She liberated herself from the subway and started opening her ears up again and started listening to all sorts of other things. That was extraordinary, so then the whole class tried to train itself to eliminate subway sounds and cut it off at the elbow.
FRANK J. OTERI: And this is a music appreciation class?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Yeah, we had great fun doing it.
FRANK J. OTERI: How did the administration of the school respond to a class like that?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: We taught it for several years. I think they were intrigued. It was an alternative way of tackling the whole topic, of course, and students liked it. It was fine. We had a lot of fun.