If you’ve listened to Michigan Radio in the last few years, you’ll probably recognize this sound:
This slippery little flourish signaled that you were about to hear a piece from Sounds of the State, a collaborative project between A&D and Michigan Radio that has been a regular feature on the station for three years.
Stephanie Rowden and Kath Weider-Roos curated the series, which featured 30-second ‘radio haiku,’ crafted from sounds and memories from places around Michigan — a solitary barred owl in the night forest; a memory of freighter horns passing on the St. Clair River. Listeners responded enthusiastically to the project, sending in their own “sounds of the state” and notes of appreciation. All the submissions are online at: http://soundsofthestate.org.
To commemorate the end of Sounds of the State on the air, Stephanie and Kath sat down to talk about their favorite moments from the project, but also, more generally, about working with sound and sound art.
Kath: Steph, your background is in the art world so making work for a broadcast audience was relatively new, wasn’t it? I wonder, what surprised you most about this project?
Stephanie: Just about everything! For starters I would never have predicted when we started our conversation with Tamar Charney at Michigan Radio that the project would have turned out to be so big — that we’d end up with so many pieces. And also that we'd be wearing so many hats in order to make those pieces — producer, teacher, coach. I’m used to working on my own. But I think my favorite surprise was the reach and impact of broadcast, particularly Michigan Radio. I continually meet people who tell me they've heard the series and have been trying to figure out how to record a sound that was meaningful to them. I like thinking about people listening even just a little more closely to the world around them....
Kath: I know, I was amazed by how many people wanted to participate in this project. It really struck a chord, I guess. People share photos all the time, but they don’t usually exchange sounds...so it was like, “finally, someone asked!” Is there something about sound, in particular, and the way it triggers memories and felt experiences in us...?
Stephanie: For sure. I think sound has a very particular grasp on our imagination. And I wonder if experiences of listening activate the deep part of us that sat around the campfire for thousands of years listening in the dark. When we’re listening, we're active, very active, in creating images in the minds eye. Or maybe it's really the mind's ear. In a way, this project, was about taking a moment in our day to really listen.
Kath: And it turns out some people are listening to some very weird things — I think the strangest recording that got sent in was "Neuron Activity of Cockroaches." I like the description on our website, which I think you wrote — “A soothing sound for an electrophysiologist.”
Stephanie: Actually, that was his wording! Some of the submissions, like this one, weren’t recognizable on their own so we couldn’t put them on the air. But, with just a little bit of description, they were fascinating.
Kath: I would have loved to have shared more of these on the radio but the 22-second form was surprisingly difficult to master — it was like learning miniature painting or something — every little second counted.
Stephanie: I think the small frame of 22 seconds was our friend and enemy in this project: with each piece it was a challenge how to telegraph to the listener a vivid, immediate sense of place, and give the piece some sort of narrative or sonic arc in only 22 seconds.
Kath: One of the most interesting sound memories I recorded was one we couldn't fit into that frame. It came from Joann McDaniel, a hilarious colleague in the school of Art & Design. When I asked her to think of a sound that triggered a memory, she surprised me. It was a certain cell phone ringtone that, to this day, gives her chills when she hears it on someone else’s phone. She went through a period of about a year when her 5-year-old nephew was diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemo therapy. She exchanged a million calls with her sister, who would update her on his doctor visits and his status. So every time she heard her phone ring, she would fill with dread. Obviously, this particular sound memory was too much for our little 22-second moment in between news breaks on Michigan Radio.
Stephanie: Joann’s story is a great example of a powerful sound moment that just couldn't be made to work in this context — it would trivialize the story.
Kath: Yes, so...the sounds that made it to the air had to register quickly and be enough of a shared experience that they didn’t require a lot of words. Remember how hard it was to get the sound of the snow plows?
Stephanie: I'm sure I worked about 12 hours just to pull together that 22 seconds. Nutty! It started with some great description from A&D lecturer Michael Flynn about a sound that, frankly, I hadn't thought too much about—a snow plow rumbling along. It was the middle of winter, and every time I'd run out there to catch the sound, I'd miss the plow. This was happening day after day. I stashed my gear by the front door of my house so I could be in the ready and it was becoming an obsession. Finally I woke up at 1 am one morning convinced I could hear a plow far in distance. So there I am in my pajamas standing outside my front door in a snow drift, and I hear a small voice: "Mom? Is that you? What are you doing?!" I woke up my son, but I finally got the snow plow.
Kath: Steph, do you have a favorite Sounds of the State?
Stephanie: If we're talking favorites, one of my all time favs in the series is actually your piece "The Skate." Suddenly, I'm gliding fast along an ice rink. The experience is so physical and visceral. You can really feel him listening to his own world. How the heck did you get such good description from him?
Kath: Oh yeah, I could have made ten haiku from Kevin Bushey’s tape. One of the things I love about radio & video projects is that they take you out into the world to meet people that you wouldn't normally cross paths with. So this guy, Kevin Bushey, is the facilities manager for the Yost Ice Arena and he’s an absolute die-hard hockey fanatic. But he also turned out to be an impromptu poet. I got him to shut his eyes and imagine the rink and the ice and he just went off, summoning up all these great images and words. I also loved how he helped me get the tape I needed, getting in the rink himself and even taking off with the recorder in his hand
as he skated and stopped.
Kath: Okay Steph, let’s talk about your pre-radio life. I guess I’m wondering how you found your way into sound while working in the New York art scene. It’s such a visually-focused world.
Stephanie: I was in art school in New York working in a crowded sculpture studio, and I had just a small sliver of space (think broom closet) to make some sort of installation. It dawned on me that if I inserted some sound (for example, high heels moving along a spacious marble floor) that through the almighty power of suggestion I could invoke a completely different space. It was like magic!
Kath: I love that. Do you find it challenging to be a sound artist within the art world? It seems like one of the reasons that more artists don’t use sound is that exhibition spaces for art are mostly oriented towards the visual. I love sound but I even find it hard to listen in a gallery context...
Stephanie: I have the sense that different kinds of spaces have particular attention spans embedded in them. In a movie theater or concert space we know we're going to be sitting for an hour or two. If you watch people move through a gallery or museum, you can measure their attention span in — I hate to say it — seconds. It's hard to slow down enough to listen, when the setting invisibly and quickly moves you along from one thing to the next. So if you’re crafting an installation for a visual art setting, you have to work hard to get people to quiet down enough to take in a sound piece.
The Reading Room, an installation of books with sound by Stephanie Rowden.
Kath: Yes, that's what I experience. I can't really quiet down enough to listen. I also have an expectation and stubborness about my time and my independence in this context: I will decide when my experience of a piece begins and when it ends. I don't want to relinquish myself in quite the same way (whereas I will do that in a theater or concert context.)
Okay, here’s another question: The phrase “deep listening’ has almost become a cliche, but I have to say, you modelled this so well for me. You are such a deep and curious listener when you are interviewing someone. I wonder, were you always this way or did the listening develop over the years through recording? In other words, how and when did you learn to listen so deeply?
Stephanie: I still feel I’m learning how to listen. I do think the process of recording field sounds and voice has helped me tune my ears though. There's a strange and wonderful shift once you put on headphones and start recording. I think of it as the aural equivalent of looking through through binoculars. There's a sudden focus and precision. When I'm recording I'm much more aware of the textures in a person's natural speaking voice, or the ebb and flow of sounds in a streetscape or landscape. Corny as it sounds, it is a kind of meditation, because suddenly you are really paying attention to just one thing: the qualities of the sounds around you. Of course once you're listening with a microphone and headphones you're also struck by all sounds we live with and tune out just to keep our sanity, but I digress.
Kath: Binoculars for your ears, I love it. This is a great description and you captured something I experienced, for sure. I had listened to sound through headphones while recording video many times, but the video splits your focus. When you've got the microphone out and your headphones on, for a moment vision goes into background as you begin to use sound to orient around you. And yes, there is something meditative about magnifying the sound realm...maybe because we're tuning into a realm we often tune out. And it feels like an inner realm somehow.
Speaking of how we block out sounds, I wonder if this explains, in part, why people seemed to favor the natural sounds we featured on Sounds of the State — water lapping, buzzing forests, pigs at the farm? Perhaps we have a tendency to label other sounds as noise, so we mentally block them out. One of the first things I notice whenever I go home to Georgian Bay, besides that the night sky actually contains stars!, is the enormous quiet. It's like this huge empty space that I had forgotten even existed. Suddenly I feel myself relaxing.
Stephanie: Oh the quiet. I can feel it in your description of the Georgian Bay. How suddenly you experience a spaciousness that you had forgotten existed. Reminds me of that moment when the compressor on the refrigerator blessedly drops out for a while. Ahhh, quiet. You can feel your shoulders drop a bit, like you didn't even know how much effort was going into dealing with the noise.
It’s true that we got a lot of positive response to the nature sounds. I think they came as something of a respite. I struggled with how to include more sounds from the workaday and city environment, since they too are essential sounds of the state. Some of those sounds are not so pleasant to hear repeatedly (screeching brakes in traffic, babies crying.) Some sounds felt like they would be trivialized in such short form (say, sounds from a prison, of which there are many in the state). So, for the radio aspect of the project, we weren’t able to take a fully documentary approach. But the website is great for filling things in and it’s a part of the project that feels to me like it can continue to grow. I like that you can travel around the state using the map, making brief listening stops.
Kath: So Steph, in your work now you seem to be gravitating more and more to sound-only pieces and I wonder why that happened/is happening. Can you talk a bit about the difference between making sculptures/installations that involve sound, versus making sound-only pieces. I'm thinking it's less secure somehow as you go to shape the piece – there's no anchor in physical reality – more stepping into the unknown all the time...? Especially when you don't have a container like the one we had in Sounds of the State.
Stephanie: For a long time in the studio I was curious about ways to create an experience that was visual, physical and aural. And so I made objects and installations as invitations to stop, encounter objects, and discover sounds within those objects. Then I started to wonder what might happen if I let the objects drop away. And I found I could entertain a whole new range of sounds and themes in my work when I wasn't limited to making work that could function in a gallery setting. So while there's nothing physically to anchor the experience, and there's more work I need to do to provide context, there's less to constrain it. These days I feel free to follow my curiosity more about....anything. Like making a short radio piece about prisoner artists. Or following a community of caregivers I stumbled upon. Or cooking up a radio series with you!
Kath: Okay, that brings us to Wolfgang, bless his soul. Let's play a clip from that work in progress. Steph, do you want to set it up?
Stephanie: Well, the piece is called 'Gravitation and Other Graces.’ It’s an audio documentary that explores friendship and old age. It centers around an unusual but dedicated circle of friends and caregivers, and an equally unusually gnomish gentleman.
Kath: I guess I was thinking of this piece when I was thinking about the unknown... A lot of times, when people take on a documentary they have some idea about the narrative arc, I know I did when I worked on this documentary about Mosaic Youth Theatre where we followed them around for a year. When I started I had no idea who the characters were going to be or what exactly would happen, but I did have this natural story built in that was a bit of safety net — that these Detroit kids had to pass really competitive auditions and then write and produce a play which they would then perform at a big professional venue in Detroit.
You just started recording Wolfgang without knowing, well, anything. or is that true?
Stephanie: Really I just knew a little bit. I started my recording thinking I was going to make a short piece about Wolfgang's vegetable garden (he started gardening in his eighties) but ended up being captivated by Wolfgang's circle of friends and caregivers, and the mysterious forces that draw people toward each other beyond traditional family bonds. Who knew I would follow the story for five years and end up with about 90 hours of tape! But like most interesting projects, it started one place, and then took on a life of its own. Over the five years, there was much to contemplate about the weight of caregiving and the mysterious last passage of life.
Kath: Let’s talk about what’s next. So, we mentioned that Sounds of the State is coming to a close. Now it seems more like it’s shape-shifting actually. We’ve begun collecting One Line Poems from writers around the state.
Stephanie: I think our focus all along has been on making pieces that are rich with sound and that can enjoy repeated listening, like a song in a way. We started talking about what we wished we could hear more of on the radio but don’t. And that got us thinking about playing with language, bringing together poets and sound artists to create a new set of audio shorts, also inspired by a place in Michigan or inspired by a piece of sound from a place in Michigan. We talked about this idea with the poet Keith Taylor and he showed us some one line poems by William Matthews.
So we’ve started putting out the call for one line poems relating to places in Michigan and possibly even, the sounds of Michigan — memories, actual sounds, aural impressions. We’re still working with a 30 second time limit on this project. And by the way, we’re taking them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thought I’d put in a little plug there...
Kath: Good, and just to give people an idea, here are just a few we’ve collected so far:
I have torn back the edges of comfort
for another look at the Superior shoreline.
Silently praying to little pink blossoms,
the farmer thins the peach trees.
Stephanie: So yes, let the poems begin!