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The Nation

Pressing the Mute Button on Our Daily Soundtrack

December 19, 2004|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

"If you go to the mountains today, the silence is so remarkable you just listen to it. We evolved under that. Our ears have not evolved to handle the noises we're bombarded with daily.... If indeed we were able to return to a truly quieter world -- free from the noise of jet engines, bulldozers, pneumatic drills and the like -- I believe it would be a blessing."

But it could also be a bit unsettling.

Although the invention of a digital leaf blower probably wouldn't upset anybody, other changes in the sonic tapestry might create a sense of loss. That's where Folkways Records enters the picture. In 1948, Moses Asch, an electronic engineer who spent the early part of his career installing public-address systems, set out to immortalize "anything that is sound."

Most of his catalog was music (he was the first to sign Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly), but he also issued recordings of elevators, jackhammers, mosquitoes, cocktail parties, calliopes and an acetylene torch cutting through an automobile engine, to name a few.

Before his death in 1986, Asch agreed to donate his archive to the Smithsonian Institution -- on the condition that everything would permanently stay in print and be available for purchase.

"Do you delete the letter Q from the alphabet just because you don't use it as much as the others?" he reasoned.

Asch's legacy is mind-boggling. "If I did nothing but listen to the collection 40 hours a week, it would take two years to hear everything," Folkways director Sheehy said.

At the label's website (www.folkways.si.edu), visitors can buy or sample hundreds of acoustic oddities, from "Supervised Surgical Operation on a Small Boy With a Cyst in His Neck" to "Sonoran Spadefoot Toad When Seized by a Hognosed Snake."

(At least one recording might be fake. A 1950 disc, "Sounds of the Rain Forest," is rumored to have been taped in a New York shower.)

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Tuned In, Tuned Out

Why do some antique sounds, such as steam locomotive whistles, remain widely missed while others go to the graveyard barely noticed?

Part of it is personal taste. "Noise for one person is hi-fi for someone else," said Steven Feld, a professor of anthropology and music at the University of New Mexico in Santa Fe.

Culture also plays a role.

Author Nick Harrison illustrates the point in "Promises to Keep," a book of spiritual meditations, with a story about a Native American and a native New Yorker walking through Manhattan.

When the American Indian says he hears a cricket amid the clamor of the city, the New Yorker snorts, "You're crazy."

But the Native American listens again, then crosses the street, digs into a planter and finds the insect. When the New Yorker expresses amazement, the Indian replies, "My ears are no different from yours. It simply depends on what you are listening to. Here, let me show you."

The American Indian then drops a fistful of coins onto the sidewalk and every head within a block turns around.

Although the story might be apocryphal, the point about people listening differently is accurate, Beaber said: "A lot of hearing is learned."

In the U.S., movies and TV have trained the human ear to think some studio-created sounds are more "real" than the originals. In winter scenes, for example, the crunch of someone walking across 50 pounds of cornstarch seems more authentic than the muffled noise of real snow, Valentino says.

However, the ability of Hollywood sound engineers to conjure audience emotion will fade in the near future, Beaber predicts.

Right now, sounds such as creaking doors help create drama on the screen, he said. But the day is coming when door technology, which hasn't changed in centuries, will switch to an airtight, silent mechanism like something out of "Star Trek," he said.

"Once people have lived in a world where doors don't creak," that sound effect will lose its dramatic punch, Beaber said.

It's happening with shoes. Although the clip-clop of leather soles against sidewalks is still a movie staple, in real life the sound of walking has largely been anesthetized by rubber soles.

Eventually, Hollywood will have to rely more on visual cues than audio effects, Beaber said.

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Select Significance

Nostalgia for expired noises is similar to not noticing the hum of a refrigerator until it shuts off. "You only remember the sound in retrospect," said Deutsch, the UC San Diego professor. And then you quickly forget about it again.

When compact disc players first hit the market, music lovers initially grew hyper-aware of all the cracks and pops on their old phonograph records, she noted. Some people even missed the scratches, comparing the background noise to the crackle of a fire.

In the long run, every audio dinosaur will suffer the same fate, Beaber said. Air raid sirens, stock tickers, Pong video games -- each one carries significance for the generation that grew up with it, but once that generation dies, the sound becomes lifeless.

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