Tag Archives: sound-centrism

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A Lifetime of Listening


When it comes to the life of the ear, we all have our stories.

Because life tends to send us in circles rather than straight lines, we can sometimes catch glimpses of our earlier selves many years later.  Look hard enough, and we see at least some recognizable landmarks that we revisited more often than we might think. It is those kinds of moments that can make it seem like a subject picks its author.

In my case, a pattern emerges early and turns into a persistent interest, a magnetic north, always in sight. A lifelong passion for sound began as one of many adolescent boys in the 1950s who built crystal sets and tried to get a scouting patches for knowing how to send and receive Morse code. It was clear even then that radio rivaled food and water as one of the essentials for sustenance. That first “cat’s whisker” receiver was one of many breadcrumbs dropped over the years, creating a meandering trail that rarely strayed from the peculiar geography of the auditory world. When I did wander off the path–as with a hand-me-down movie projector that rewarded my tinkering with frequent electrocutions–the message to stick to the machinery of sound was clearly received.

Words and music that found their way to the ear always held me in their grip, like the weekend nights spent listening to KOA radio’s live bands from Denver’s old Elitch Gardens. It had to be KOA, the 50,000-watt giant with a tower and building that stood majestic and completely alone out on the flat prairie. At night and under a cloudless sky, it was an Art Deco apparition of glowing amber windows next to its broadcast tower. Lore has it that the fountain in front was also cooling water that circulated through the bowels of the building to keep the huge transmitters from overheating. Fact was then stranger than fiction to know that the high voltage equipment inside came into its own at dusk, sending its clear-channel electrons deep into six other states.

If it wasn’t radio as a subject, it was a one-tube electronics kit purposefully miswired to become a nuisance transmitter sending the sound of 45s as well as a generous dose of interference to the rest the neighborhood.  Then there were  also a series of shortwave sets attached to a hundred feet of naked copper wire surreptitiously attached to a nearby utility pole. Hearing the BBC from London was one of the rewards.

This was the 1950s. New long-playing records joined the singles on a two-tone portable Symphonic phonograph. Ravel’s tonal fireworks and the Eastman School’s Frederick Fennell were favorites purloined from a modest household collection. A family friend and Fennell’s Mercury recording of Leroy Anderson’s music-Volume 2 combined to rouse an interest in the acoustic mayhem that was possible with drumming. Lessons and an assortment of school and private bands followed, producing a musician good enough to play in a statewide concert band, but one who also made more of a splash falling off a stage mid-performance than with mastery of the forty rudiments.

If I was just an ok percussionist, I was still swept along with the post-war generation that was completely captivated by the many riches of audio recording. Record browsing at Tower Records or Sam Goody was a Friday reward for surviving the week. Bargain label reissues of classical and jazz albums began to accumulate, as did recordings of European organs that puzzled college friends looking through my stash of vinyl for the latest from The Doors. Bach and Buxtehude learned to hang out on the shelf with Basie and Brubeck. It was all stuff that had to be heard, even if the playback equipment was a sorry collection from Radio Shack’s sale table.

I’ve written before about the “sound-centric” person.  The label fits, and represents more Americans than we might think.  Especially in these times, our easy access to recorded music is such a gift.


The Sound-Centric Individual

           Source: Wikipedia.org

I mean something altogether basic and elemental: the pleasure some receive from the raptures of music or the sounds of the human voice.

One way to grasp the increased importance of auditory content in the lives of Americans is to appreciate the huge numbers who could be fairly called sound centric. This inexact but suggestive characterization represents a mixture of individuals on life different paths who are consistently driven to find fulfillment in the creation or consumption of auditory media: mostly music, but not exclusively so. With podcasts and portable music so ubiquitous, there is some truth to Amazon’s marketing slogan for its audiobook division:“Listening Is The New Reading.”

We could generate some faux psychological metrics to try to explain this tendency. But there are some advantages in not placing so valuable a human asset in the hands of clinicians and the inevitable reductive theories of neurology. I mean something altogether more basic and elemental: the pleasure a person receives from the raptures of music or the sounds of the human voice. If you find yourself usually waking up in the morning with an “ear worm” of a song heard the previous day, you may share this trait.

These individuals are spread across the population.  In the past, sound archivists like Tony Schwartz, reveled in the recorded voices of his family and the myriad noises of the city. The portable tape recorder was Schwartz’ talisman. What he was able to capture gave significance to everything he encountered. When it first came into exist, he notes, tape-recorded “sound made me feel much closer when I heard it than a black and white still photo [of my family] did.”  His 30,000 recordings of moments from everyday life are now housed in the Library of Congress. He was not unlike folklorists Chris Strachwitz, Allen Lomax and Moses Asch. All used their resources to record indigenous folk and roots music mostly beyond the interest of bigger record labels. Asch’s Folkways Records became its own Smithsonian library.

In 2017 Americans in the aggregate listened to music over 32 hours a week.

Their affinities for recorded sound were not so different from the DJ and writer Jonathan Schwartz, who remembers his earlier years assessing every moment through music, including future partners. He played his records and they listened. “I was wooing, working, waiting. I was presenting myself in the music. That is who I am. I am those songs, those string quartets, I am Nelson Riddle’s muted trumpet.” Nor was Schwartz much different than the music obsessives represented by the erstwhile record store employees in Nick Hornby’s popular novel, High Fidelity.  They were only slightly less exotic versions of the opera-lover in Fitzcarraldo (1982), Werner Herzog’s epic film documents the story of a plantation owner intent on building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle, dragging a steamship over a mountain as part of the plan. Actor Klaus Kinski’s co-star is a Victrola scratching its way through a stack of Caruso recordings: a case of common sense overtaken by inexorable passion.

According to the market-analysis firm Nielsen, in 2017 Americans in the aggregate listened to just music over 32 hours a week, with more each year curating their own playlists of favorites. The trade publication Billboard estimates that 125 million are paying for at least one music streaming service that can be customized to a person’s preferences. To be sure, not everyone represented in these large numbers is sound-centric. But the enthusiasm represented by the term is one that many Americans can recognize in themselves or others.