Library of Congress
Jim Metzner has spent nearly five decades documenting and sharing the sounds of the world, from immersive portraits of American cities to indelible moments with people and wildlife in places as varied as Alaska, Australia, Japan, Greece, Cuba, Nepal and Morocco.
He sees his job as listening to sounds, not capturing them, as he told NPR. morning edition in a recent interview.
“Sometimes you hear people say, ‘You know, I captured that sound’ and ‘I captured that sound,'” he adds. “From the start, I never felt like I was capturing anything. I felt like these things were gifts. You receive something amazing, the first thing you want to do is say “Oh my God, listen to this! me share this with someone!’ ”
Metzner has shared these sounds with many listeners over the years, mostly through radio shows, including his own nationally-aired series, Pulse of the planetbroadcast daily from 1989 until the beginning of this year.
Now more people will be able to hear more of the world thanks to Metzner’s tape. The Library of Congress announced earlier this month that it had acquired his entire work, which includes thousands of recordings in addition to photographs, diaries, podcasts and storybooks. The collection contains some 28,000 mixed-material objects dating from the 1970s to 2019.
The Library of Congress says its digital preservation work is just beginning, but has released a finding aid for the paper portion of the collection that people can use “as a general guide to the depth and breadth” of the records. that will eventually become available. .
“They include soundscapes of every description from around the world and interviews with scientists, artists and indigenous peoples,” said Matt Barton, curator of recorded sound at the library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, in a statement. communicated. “While many recorders focus entirely on a single subject – nature, music, or science – Metzner’s recordings convey a full spectrum of human experience accompanied by the wide range of sounds of the natural world.”
Metzner collects poignant moments globally
Metzner’s career began with a moment of achievement in the 1970s, when he first ventured onto the UMass Amherst campus equipped with a stereo recorder, microphone and headphones. . Metzner remembers pressing the red button and hearing a veritable symphony: a couple walking and talking nearby, a bicycle rolling through the gravel, a bird flying overhead, bells in the distance.
“And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. What an amazing coincidence,” he recalls. “But it wasn’t a coincidence – this stuff happened all the time, I just hadn’t paid attention to it. And it was the microphone and the recorder that said, “Wake up…you live in a world of sound”. It’s here.’ And it was like giving it to me on a platter.”
Metzner has continued to focus on these sound-rich moments over the years, even as the scope of his work has expanded from local to national to global. He produced You hear Boston and You hear San Francisco before expanding to you hear america and, for several years in the 1980s, sounds of science.
He then turned to production Pulse of the planet, a daily radio show that presented hundreds of public and commercial stations with two-minute segments of soundscapes and interviews primarily focused on science, nature and culture. It ended in June after more than 30 years and 8,000 segments, but continues as a long-running monthly podcast under the same name.
His adventures filled thousands of tapes as technology evolved
These pursuits have taken Metzner around the world and into situations ranging from the ordinary to the unforgettable, whether it’s a Berber wedding festival in Morocco, a Japanese pottery village, the Saratoga racetrack in New York or the scene of cowboys herding cattle on the plains of Brazil – where he tried to run ahead of the herd in order to hear the vaqueros singing.
“The steer they were keeping was a longhorn steer. And one of the steers saw me and didn’t like what he saw. Put your head down, load me hard,” Metzner recalled. “I’m standing there with 14 pounds of gear, I’m going, ‘I’m a dead man.’ I thought for a second, ‘Oh my God, maybe I’ll take this Nakamishi 550 and put it in front of me.’ So I thought, ‘No! I can’t do this!’ I couldn’t even bear the thought of my gear getting gored.
“Then at the last possible second, one of the cowboys nonchalantly comes trotting towards the cow. He’s carrying a stick, and he just kicks the steer, and the steer walks away. Then the cowboy… .just tip his hat and run off… But I got a great recording. Nobody ever got a recording like this.
Along the way – and as technology evolved – Metzner recorded over 200 reels of ¼ inch tapes, over 2,000 audio cassettes and over 1,000 DATs (digital audio tapes) and digital Minidiscs, and has created some 100,000 sound files with digital recording equipment. , according to the Library of Congress.
He says his collection includes tapes of local and national programs as well as unedited interviews and the sounds he recorded to make them.
His life’s work continues
Metzner, now 70, hasn’t hung up his mic yet – in fact, he’s heading to New Zealand to record sounds and share his knowledge as a Fulbright media and communications specialist.
He tells NPR he is grateful to the Library of Congress for preserving his life’s work, which he describes as a profound honor. But he also wants to make sure he’s actually heard, not just “buried in an archive.”
Metzner spoke to the library about the possibilities of preserving these sounds. He also thinks of other ways to celebrate the art of soundscape. In the age of the smartphone, this includes creating an online forum where people – both professional recorders and ordinary citizens – can submit sounds that are important to their communities and culture, in order to create a global crowdsourced archive.
He hopes more people will discover – and recognize the value – of soundscapes, which he describes as “part of our natural heritage” and “the touchstone of our feelings”.
“You can go to a museum and see the photographs of Diane Arbus. You can see the paintings of René Magritte,” he adds. “Why not soundscapes? They are just as much an art form.”
The audio portion of this story was produced by Phil Harrell and edited by Olivia Hampton.