Hearing Aid

A trove of recorded sounds preserves everything from tree frog calls to murmurs of the heart

When I first moved to New York City in the 1960s, I rented an apartment at 72 Jane Street in Greenwich Village. With its ornate marble fireplace, tall windows and small, quiet garden, it seemed more 19th century than 20th. Jane Street happened to be on the route taken by New York City's mounted police as they finished their shifts and headed back to the downtown stables. So every evening, as I sat at my desk, I would hear the comforting rhythm of half a dozen horses clip-clopping along the cobblestone street. Hearing those hoofbeats night after night contributed to the powerful romantic connection I felt for the city in those days.

Much of the richness of life is absorbed through the ear. And much of the clash and chaos too. From a mother's lullaby to the drumroll of thunder from an approaching storm to the cacophony of car horns in a traffic jam, the sounds of our lives help define our lives. In a sense—specifically, the second sense—we are what we hear, and at least part of the sum of ourselves resides in the recollections of the summer hum of cicadas or the distant lament of a train whistle at midnight.

Like the remembered perfume of spring lilacs or the rich aroma of a brand-new Buick (that four-hole Roadmaster with red leather seats), certain sounds remain in the mind's ear for years, waiting to be called to the surface. The mimicry of a mockingbird transports my wife to Germany's Black Forest, where she grew up amid coloratura songbirds. But sounds once taken for granted can also fade away, never to be heard again. Children may still call their toy trains "choo-choos," but few of them have ever heard the percussive snorts of a real steam locomotive. (And a whole generation of newspaper reporters have no memory of the collective clatter of typewriters, or the bells that signaled the end of a line of copy.)

Sounds once such an essential part of life—the ring of a pre-digital telephone—are disappearing. But unlike spotted owls and snail darters, endangered sounds have few advocates. "Most sound technology today is designed for dissemination, not preservation," says one of them, Daniel Sheehy, director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a collection not only of tens of thousands of musical examples from around the world but also of such auditory arcana as calliopes, insect sounds and the thrum of a human heart. The trove that Sheehy manages is built on the protean work of Moses Asch, an audio engineer and unrivaled collector of life's vast hearsay evidence. Asch, who founded Folkways in 1948, was among the first to record such legendary folk music figures as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but he also had an omnivorous ear and seemed determined to preserve, as he put it, "anything that is sound."

Asch died in 1986, not long after donating his voluminous collection to the Smithsonian. (Curator Sheehy has said that if he did nothing but listen to recordings 40 hours a week, it would take him two years to hear its entirety.) The collection came with Asch's stipulation that everything in it would remain in circulation and be available for purchase. This year, the label was nominated for five Grammys. (A compilation of kids' songs, "c-ELLA-bration," a tribute to folk singer Ella Jenkins, won for best children's album.)

But it is life's ambient background music that fascinates the true sonophile. "You never know when a sound will become history," says Sheehy. "That's why preservation is so important. Imagine if we could have recorded the sounds of Rome from 2,000 years ago." There are larger collections of odds-and-ends sound in Hollywood, ready to supply authentic backgrounds for period films. But at Folkways, says Sheehy, "we're thinking of 500 years from now."

And the beat goes on. Steven Feld, an anthropologist from the University of New Mexico, rigged up a hat with four microphones, one facing in each direction. He used this odd chapeau to record church bells as he walked through Macedonia during winter festivals, and the resulting disc now sells some 500 copies a year.

Since the sounds of ancient Rome are no longer available to us (unless you trust the soundtrack of Spartacus), what should be recorded today? The answer, says Sheehy, is pretty much everything. "If I were to go out with recording equipment," he says, "I'd want to hear all the ordinary sounds of ordinary life as we live it now—people talking as they walk down the street or order lunch in a restaurant."

Sheehy, who is restoring a classic 1968 Mustang, would even like to record the sounds of American muscle cars, which is fine with me. On a turntable behind my desk is a record album called "The Sounds of Sebring," bought for me when I was a teenager in the 1950s by my sports-car-loving father. I used to listen to the distinctive notes of Porsches, Jaguars, Alfa Romeos and Ferraris over and over, the way my friends listened to Elvis and Bill Haley and Fats Domino. And today, half a century later, I still spend my happiest hours going round and round on racetracks on a well-tuned sport motorcycle. Sounds like cause and effect, does it not? Vroom.

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