Issue 291,  published February 2, 2021

Time to leave the capsule: three inside looks at audio art

At one point, The World According to Sound was a podcast. A 90-second, narration-less podcast, but a podcast.

It captured sound, not stories, like the slurp of a mudpot. Born from Sam Harnett and Chris Hoff’s frustration with the conventions of narrative audio, it eschewed information transmission for pure sensory experience. And when the pair created longer segments and turned the show into an in-person event in 2017, people routinely filled the room.

With no news and no numbers to remember, it’s easy to get lost in the piece. You’re more likely to acknowledge the pace; to acknowledge the discomfort of hearing the sound of a particular ringtone, perhaps because it reminds you of an ex; to acknowledge the person sitting next to you, how differently they could be interpreting the piece, how their presence makes you bashful. The sounds themselves may be strong and provocative on their own, but they wouldn’t be the same in solitude, whether of place or thought. In any case, they were never intended to be heard that way.

Flexibility of consumption has continued to be the central appeal of podcasts. They are whatever you want, whenever you want. Harnett and Hoff’s project was defined by the opposite: curated without your input, to be simultaneously enjoyed. Not one to omit his forebears, Harnett acknowledges the obvious similarities of terrestrial radio; current options, however, exist largely at two poles — 24 hours of impersonal music options or a few windows of nationally syndicated news. Beyond when you’re listening to locally produced programming, it’s hard to acknowledge your fellow listeners, let alone appreciate the experience you’re sharing (especially if you’re also trying to track the NASDAQ).

Harnett and Hoff felt that modern audio — however defined — lacked a genuine collective sense and a space for aesthetics on their own. In that spirit, after COVID-19 halted their in-person events, they decided to revive The World According To Sound virtually, in a throwback to the times they’d been able to broadcast their 90-second segments on air, though with more emphasis than ever on the fact that, if you were tuning in, somebody else was, too.

And so, every week since December 3, Harnett and Hoff have streamed a curated series of sounds, titled Outside In, via YouTube Live. The contents of one installment, “Bodies,” ranged from recitations of vowel sounds to recordings of an autopsy. At times, the two say they’ve included identifiably pre-COVID content, such as recordings of a restaurant, to both employ the sentimentality they evoke and, in a way, offer a version of listeners’ experiences back to them; and even if it wasn’t your experience, it was somebody else’s.

Inherent in the effect of this work is its emphasis on shared sentiment, which can usurp shared location. But, hey, if shared location is possible, too, why not take it?

In Boston, Massachusetts, a more place-based experiment is underway. In celebration of a local anniversary, artists Maria Finkelmeier and Pamela Hersch were recruited to create a multisensory digital show to project onto the Hatch Memorial Shell, a riverside performance venue that had been vacated for months. During the 15-minute-long Hatched: Breaking through the Silence, viewers are taken through an emotionally wrenching instrumental story that’s representative of the pain and tumult of the past year, says Finkelmeier, half of which attendees watch and the other half they hear, individually streaming it on their phones.

The rationale for making it an in-your-ears experience was mostly pragmatic: It would hopefully keep people (six feet) away from one another, and it spared nearby residents the spillover sound. But the execution also aligns it with non-musical contemporaries, namely Outside In. Attendees press play all at once, embarking on the journey together.

The impact of such events derives from the unfamiliar (and arguably anti-capitalist) practice of wading through abstract sounds that have no explicit educational value, as well as the knowledge that other people are doing it right alongside you — or, at least they were at some point. That’s just it, says Finkelmeier: People can always save the audio from Hatched (the same is true for Outside In, all of which is recorded and archived for ticket holders) and, should they choose to listen again, the knowledge that they weren’t alone when they first experienced it will be palpable. When you have a “timestamp of life,” she says, the presence of others sticks around.

A sense of shared experience makes even on-demand audio able to stake a claim in this area. It’s in this way that, across the Charles River in Medford, Massachusetts, a budding project called Sound on Mystic can still achieve connectivity through a physically solitary journey.

Audio, submitted by about a dozen local artists, will be anchored to specific points on a digital map and triggered to play when users approach those points. The experience, housed in an app, is “interactive, it’s immersive, and it’s responding to your motion,” says Ian Coss, an area producer and sound designer who co-created the project. “And it’s pretty accurate, to within about ten feet or so.”

Public art is inherently connective, says Coss, “and even though [Sound on Mystic] is not social — and, by and large, I think it is something people will do on their own — to me, simply placing it in public gives it a kind of social or communal nature,” he says. “That feels special — and something that’s really missing.”

What’s more, even though the types of audio that creators can submit are vast — spoken word, oral histories, sound art, and ambient recordings are just a few — their content will all in some way relate to the Mystic River, the physical setting where people will listen. Like Hatched, the project will draw people out of their homes for a COVID-era spin on public listening, complete with the additional and somewhat startling realization that the artist currently filling your ears may have stood exactly where you’re standing.

There have always been concerts, and one day they’ll come back, but these projects represent something entirely different. They speak right to you, with all the nuance and intimacy that podcasts typically bring, but reminding you that you’re not alone. It can be as special and individual for you as it is for the next guy.

Those two truths are not contradictory; they’re complementary. This is a new kind of experience, a journey individually taken but collectively enjoyed, something personal that you can actually discuss. This experience, in a way, is what current events have so painfully provided; it’s about time there’s one we can more willingly begin.

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.