On the Beat: Summer earcation

In his 1992 book A Sound Education, Canadian composer and theorist Murray Schafer made this observation about contemporary life and listening: “As people have moved to cities over the past century they have developed a preference for close-up sounds, as is evident in the recording and broadcasting industries. One might almost say we have lost the ability to hear at a distance.”

Summer, though, presents the opportunity for musical sounds to be heard from much greater distances than at any other point in the year: Car and apartment windows are open, backyards and barbecues are in full-swing and summer concerts reshape the downtown Iowa City soundscape on Friday and Saturday nights. Schafer, who literally coined the word “soundscape,” was well aware of the distance that amplified sounds could travel. In A Sound Education, which is a series of 100 listening exercises, this entry comes in at #26: “How many sounds can you list that come from a greater distance than the objects producing them can be seen? Examples: wolves howling…outdoor rock concert.”


Schafer called these exercises “ear cleaning,” and thanks to them, as well as his work as an anti-noise pollution pioneer in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he’s somewhat of a cult hero among a particular subset of nerds who call themselves acoustic ecologists. For the last two years, said nerds have celebrated Schafer’s birthday (July 18) with an event called World Listening Day.

At its core WLD simply encourages people to get out in the world, whether urban or rural, and listen to sounds. The more involved can host an event of some kind, or do some field recordings (best done with giant nerd headphones pressing against your nerd glasses). If that seems like the kind of thing you’re into, drop me a line and let’s see if we can do a cool event. Last year, I just went and recorded some kids at the fountain in the Ped Mall and the sounds of College Green Park (yes, with headphones and glasses). Both recordings came out pretty nice.

All that being said, acoustic ecology isn’t for everyone. I’m not even entirely sure it’s for me. Many of the overall ideas about acoustic ecology and “ear cleaning” I find somewhat unsettling. For starters, they imply that we’re all inherently dirty, that somewhere a purer, more true way of listening exists if only we have the audacity to find it, mostly by sticking microphones up in other people’s business. That just doesn’t seem right to me. And while I’m really overgeneralizing here, instead of “ear cleaning,” I’d like to suggest that, this summer, everyone take themselves on a little “earcation.” Rather than scrubbing your ears up and making them presentable, or taking them on workout laps of thinking really hard about sound, let them wander around a little bit, try new things and experience the incredible soundscape of Iowa City outside of the club music scene. As radio genius Ken Nordine would say, “Stare with your ears.” And when you get around to doing that, here are some things I would suggest.

First, attend an outdoor concert with a group of friends with the express purpose of not really listening to the music. In most contexts, I find this act disgusting, but that’s what summer concerts are for: listening to each other as much as listening to the artists. If you’ve ever been to Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, you know what I mean. I don’t even think I could tell you who played when I went there, but I sure as hell remember the great picnic I had.

Second, open a beer, sit on your porch and listen to recorded animal sounds. If you have a record player, head down to the main library and check the card catalogue for Sounds and Ultra-Sounds of the Bottle-Nosed Dolphin (for real). Or, if you are rocking a CD player only, try out Sounds of North American Frogs. These are seriously, legitimately fantastic albums. Two of my all-time faves, no joke.

Third, if that sounds dumb, then really delve into a new genre. Two years ago I forced myself to try opera and, it turns out, I love it. Not every day, not even every week, but when I need an earcation, opera is my new go-to.

Fourth, if you want some straight-up acoustic ecology, I think Hickory Hill park immediately after a good rain sounds amazing. The birds will sing, the creek will rush, your feet will make that funny sound in the mud.

Lastly, if music you must, try to seek out unamplified musical sounds. They are so rare I think many of us find them almost disarming, but they’ve been known to happen at small places around town: house shows, Public Space ONE, the Intimate at the Englert Series (disclosure: this series is co-sponsored by Little Village). I hope that, and all of the live music in town, keeps you busy until August.

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV »