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.

Mark Thomson
Bruce Odland
Mark Thomson
Sound dial – Bruce Odland created an 'acoustic art' installation – 'Harmony in the Age of Noise' – that allows visitors to hear specific sounds.

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.

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

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

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.

• • •

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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