On Tuesday, students gathered in the Norris Lake room, where a multitude of seats were surrounded with a circular array of eight PA speakers. Each seat contained a black eye mask, similar to what one would wear while they sleep. The audience was instructed to put on the masks as the lights were turned off and the show began.
The event, titled “The World According To Sound”, is an audio-visual (or really, non-visual) experience hosted by radio producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett. They also host a show of the same name on NPR’s “All Things Considered”. While each episode of the radio show is usually around 90 seconds, analyzing one sound in depth, this live show lasted nearly an hour and a half, focusing on the sounds being played, with the occasional narration from Hoff and Harnett describing what the audience was hearing.
The sounds ranged from high-depth recordings of giraffes, mud lots and the Golden Gate Bridge, to what we can’t normally hear — amplified recordings of the vibrations made by ants, the 2011 Japan earthquake and even a psychologist-sanctioned simulation of an auditory hallucination. Some were peaceful, such as a soundscape of Yellowstone National Park, while others became loud and disorienting, like a sound collage of grunts and screams from sporting events.
Hoff said in a Q&A session after the performance that they want they audience to walk away with “the idea that we’re so overstimulated, there’s little space for just hearing primarily a sound experience.”
“There is a lot to learn from just listening to a sound,” said Hoff. “If you can learn to listen, you can understand the world differently, and it’s an interesting way to experience the world.”
“We had been working on [the radio show] for about 6 months,” Harnett said about the inspiration for the live show, “and it just became clear to both of us that we have all these crazy sounds that people haven’t heard before...I got sick of working with two channels, like a left and right; it seems so limiting for what we have, we had to expand it to more than two….the possibility of working with sound in a three-dimensional space became really clear to us once we had all these great sounds that we were just listening to in stereo.”
Similar to the work of psychedelic artists like Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix, Hoff and Harnett utilized the surround-sound environment to allow the audience to paint the picture of the scene in their minds. The opening sequence was comprised of recorded conversation between Hoff and Harnett while they set up their equipment, while the audience could hear one of them walk from one end of the room to the other via the audio of their footsteps.
While the show did feature bits of experimental music such as a snippet of John Cage’s 4’33 and an excerpt from a symphony of washing machines, neither Hoff nor Harnett has a musical background.
“This is kind of an experiment for us,” Harnett said. “We’re neither musicians nor sound artists; we come from the radio world. But this is like, extremely exciting and interesting for us to work in a live space and have people actually there to react, which is rare for the radio world.”
The audience reacted positively to the event.
“It was a great example of getting to really focus on sound and not having to worry about the visuals,” Conor Lannan, a Northwestern a second-year student in Northwestern’s MA in Sound Arts and Industries program, said. “It’s not like anything else I’ve ever seen.”