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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.

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"It's built for hand-ear coordination," Odland says.

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But he did make concessions to the visual appetite: Like a mood ring, the dial takes on a red glow when touched. In the center of the dial, a small lens reveals videos corresponding to the sounds. "In our culture, seeing is believing," he says begrudgingly.

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The "hey wait a minute moment" that steered Odland toward the significance of the culture's unintentional sounds came when he was a young composer living in Colorado in 1976.

A state senator there had commissioned a composition from him, and as they talked in the senator's home, classical music played in the background. Through the window, they watched workers in the distance creating an open-pit coal mine.

"[The mine] would totally ruin his land, and Beethoven was the soundtrack," Odland exclaims, his indignation still strong. Suddenly the music of Europe was inextricably linked with "the devastation of our environment in the Western hemisphere.... I thought to myself, maybe we're on the wrong track here ... this huge acceleration of using more power than we have.... Where is the counterpoint to that headlong rush?"

That question led him to recordings in nature. Then he turned to the study of cities.

When you close your eyes and open your ears in a city or even a small town, "you're listening to the culture's use of fossil fuels," he says – and a wasteful use at that.

But since he finds fossil-fueled noises so disturbing (on his website he uses phrases like "mind-deranging" and "howl of cultural pain,") why does he want people to listen more?

"I see this as a way to get information that we're missing," he says. "We shut it out, we put in our iPod [earphones] ... we roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning. Each one of these moves separates us from our environment and from the results of our own actions."

Odland's work fits into "a whole movement of acoustic ecology, to make people more aware of sound and not just have sound become buzzers and cellphone rings and backing-up trucks," says fellow sound-artist Liz Phillips, who teaches about interactive media at the State University of New York at Purchase.

• • •

To counterbalance the harsh urban sounds that inevitably became part of the Tufts sound sculpture, Odland also incorporated a tube that draws in noise from a busy intersection on the edge of campus and harmonizes it in the key of E. The resulting "music" is what plays through the dome's speakers by default when no-one is touching the dial.

Odland compares the tube to the didgeridoo – a drone pipe of Australian aborigines – "except for instead of being played by a human," he explains, "it's being played by Boston Avenue."

He's channeled sound this way before, in some of the world's noisiest cities.

Odland and longtime creative partner Sam Auinger "harmonically retuned" part of New York's World Financial Center Plaza in 2004. (They call themselves sonic alchemists.) Passers-by could sit on cube-shaped speakers that brought together the transformed sounds of ferryboats, jets, birds, and waves.

"People just gathered around that and relaxed," Odland says.

"The whole idea is to hear the city as a symphony and restore some balance in your senses."

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