A sound artist hears symphonies in ambient noise
Bruce Odland finds meaning in life's aural flotsam and jetsam – and it's too valuable to tune out completely with iPod or radio or daydream.
Bruce Odland is an artist whose medium is sound. Amid a culture dominated by the eyes, he's pleading with us to open our ears.Skip to next paragraph
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He's not a musician in the traditional sense, though his tousled hair and dramatic gestures suggest a certain stage presence. He's a master of the sea of natural and man-made sound – the aural flotsam and jetsam that most of us scarcely pay attention to. The roar of jets, the screech of brakes, the whoosh of wind between two buildings: We may block them out with iPods or the radio or our daydreams, background noises heard yet not registered, and we might even consider this ignorance to be bliss.
But that kind of bliss has a price, suggests Mr. Odland, whose otherworldly sensibility builds mental constructs out of every sound.
"What would it be like if we paid attention to the sounds that we make as a culture?" he muses. "We spend all our time shutting it out because, frankly, our soundscape is a total accident – it's very harsh and very unfriendly to humans."
The longtime composer and "sonic thinker" wants people to question their audible world – and perhaps even enjoy some of those accidental sounds transformed into a type of music.
The unintentional noises – the motors, ventilators, disc drives – have meaning, he says. But to absorb that meaning, we have to learn again to listen.
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The first step: Close your eyes.
That's what Odland has people do in "ear yoga" workshops – exercises to help "shake off the tension of everyday hyperaccelerated consumer life." He wants them to get in touch with their inner hunter-gatherers – to replace the modern survival skill of blocking noise with a reawakened sensitivity to sound.
He has people make an identifying sound – a chirp or a chuckle, for instance – and then form a circle in the room, using only their ears. They are amazed at how precisely they can do this without bumping into each other, he says.
Over the course of a few months, nearly 100 college students, professors, and local children turned on their ears in such workshops as they prepared to collaborate with him on "Harmony in the Age of Noise" – a sound-art installation at Tufts University coordinated by anthropology professor David Guss.
Odland gave participants digital recorders and asked them to follow their ears; to fan out across campus or in their neighborhoods to create "sound maps" wherever they were most intrigued.
The captured acoustics were to become Odland's palette for creating the Tufts installation.
Sarah Moshontz de la Rocha, the student blogger for the project (http://age-of-noise.net), decided to make "spiritual sound maps." She recorded at a Krishna temple and a healing drum circle in Boston. "It's really incredible the way [Odland] sort of opens you up to a soundscape," she says.
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On the pristine Tufts campus, Tisch Library is built into a hill, so you can walk right onto its roof and see the Boston skyline in the distance. Campus tours end here. And for the next three months, visitors will have a chance to take a very different kind of tour – by listening.
A bright blue acoustic dome, supported by wooden parabolic arches, shelters an interactive sound dial. To Odland, the horizontal dial resting on a hip-high pole looks like the steering wheel for a spaceship. The unique computer interface, which he designed with Tufts engineering students, has no buttons or markings on its smooth surface. Turning it triggers each sound-map recording for however long the dial is held in a given position.
On the sound sculpture's opening day in April, the first bemused "drivers" huddled around the dial and gently placed their palms on it. They heard the rumble of a subway car fill the dome and felt the structure's wooden floor vibrate in response. They turned the dial and suddenly the drip-drip of a sink took over. Then singing. A squawking bird. Voices. All of them local sounds.