G Force

Sound logic on display

(Barbara Allen)
By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / July 16, 2011

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Q. How does one go from music composition - which gives me immediate visions of John Williams hidden away, writing the scores for “Star Wars’’ - to recording any and all sounds?

A. Well, you know my background’s in music composition, but I also have a fine arts degree, and these days would be considered a crossover artist. But back then, 35 years ago when Canadian composer and soundscape philosopher R. Murray Schafer coined the phrase “soundscape,’’ crossing over wasn’t so common. The abbreviated version is that through his work I came to understand that there were unlimited recording and composition possibilities using the tools of electronic music. In college I didn’t actually like electronic music. But I was interested in sound recording, an early form of electronic music developed by a French radio engineer who recorded trains, locomotives. My interest grew from there.

Q. I have to imagine when an artist looks for inspiration for his next piece of work he keeps an open eye or ear for a particular type of image or object or sound. Given the lack of limitations on what a soundscape artist considers music, how do you focus when seeking that inspiration?

A. You genuinely keep an open mind and recognize that the next great collection of sounds could come from the river behind your house or even your cellphone.

Q. What’s World Listening Day about?

A. It is a collection of concerts around the globe, aimed at fostering awareness of the sound environments around us. It even promotes environmental awareness by encouraging people to just listen and to understand how sound reflects what is happening to the earth and on the earth.

Q. Tell me about some of the sounds you recorded at Deer Island. I’ve never treated sewage, but I’m guessing there are different steps and stages with sounds you were able to capture.

A. Yes, there is pumping, and filtering, and purging sludge. It really is an interesting combination.

Q. With the whole world your stage, what is the most unique sound you’ve ever recorded?

A. Once 30 years ago . . . I met a psychiatric intern at a mental hospital in France. Her supervisor gave me unmitigated access to the ward where she worked. The last day I was there he called me into his office and subsequently paraded three different people in front of me who had unique speech patterns. He thought I might find their sound interesting. I did record them and eventually used their sounds in many projects.

Q. Finish this sentence: When I have not been recording sounds over the years I . . .

A. Became a hearing conservationist, giving hearing tests in industrial factory settings.

Interview was edited and condensed. James H. Burnett III can be reached at

Jed Speare
On his second stint since 1996 as director of the multi-discipline arts cooperative Mobius Artists Group, Speare (at right in white shirt) is a man who embodies the notion that virtually any sound can be considered music. The 57-year-old has pursued a career as a sound artist - an engineer, if you will, who captures and presents as music, for the open-minded and open-eared, recordings of naturally and incidentally occurring sounds. Speare and other members of the New England Phonographers Union will be throwing a concert Monday for World Listening Day, at the Deer Island Treatment Plant in Winthrop, using sounds they’ve curated from the plant. All who wish to attend the concert must RSVP by midnight July 17 to Barbara Allen of the MWRA at with name(s) and means of transportation (by vehicle, with number of occupants, or by bus). All attendees must bring a valid ID.