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How much attention do you pay to the sounds around you? If you listen, they can tell quite a story.
That’s what some high school students learned while helping a local artist prepare what's being called a "Sound Lab" for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's ambitious new exhibition, "Listen Hear: The Art of Sound," which opened this week.
Together, artist Elisa Hamilton and several teens created recordings to encourage museum visitors to open their ears to the sounds in their own lives.
'Start Listening More Closely'
The Sound Lab is one of 10 installations set up inside and outside of the museum that explore the often untapped power of audio. (It runs through March 18, while the others are on display until Sept. 5.) The urban teens that participated in the Sound Lab are from the Gardner's nearby community partner groups. I visited with the artist and a few of the youthful collaborators to find out more.
“My charge from the museum was to merge sound and community,” Hamilton told me as I walked in on her spinning albums in the Gardner's Calderwood concert hall.
The community part was easy for Hamilton, because her work usually focuses on bringing people together to share and discover the often hidden joys in ordinary places, experiences and things.
But using sound — and asking young people to really listen — was new.
“Listening together isn’t something that we do a whole lot anymore. We listen alone, with headphones,” Hamilton reflected with a burst of laughter. “We download a single song, and we’re certainly not listening critically to our ordinary lives. So that was my first focus — was to get the teens to start listening more closely.”
The 33-year-old artist and the museum's community engagement director Rhea Vedro worked with four nearby community partners in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill. They hoped teens from the Hyde Square Task Force, the Roxbury Youth Orchestra and the drama club at the Edward M. Kennedy School for Health Careers would help them — and ultimately Gardner visitors — to listen more closely.
“I didn’t know what it would be like working with teens who are used to watching TV and using iPhones, so I had reservations about the way this generation might come to this project,” Hamilton admitted, then said, “and I was totally wrong!”
Capturing Culture And Everyday Life
Hamilton recalled what happened when she asked the teens from the EMK school to record sounds from their everyday lives that say something about who they are.
“They actually recorded the most intimate sounds of the groups, the teens that you’ll meet today," she said. "Several of them brought their recorders into family meals. One young woman recorded their dinner at a Latin restaurant.”
Hamilton played that moment for me. The clinking of glasses and cutlery joined with the lilt of warm voices.
“It captured some of my culture of Honduras,” 17-year-old Juliana Pereira remembered, “and all of these different types of food, and the language.”
Juliana, who lives in Jamaica Plain, went on to describe the scene.
“My mom was talking to the chef, and it was all these nice words in my native language, which is Spanish, and it just felt very genuine that I had to record it. Because I know my family, we love to be around each other — even in hard times, when it’s hard to be with one another," she said. "We try our best to stay a family. And it’s just the whole love we just capture.”
Another student captured the sounds of nature. Seventeen-year-old Craig Cummings recorded his walk home through Franklin Park.
“That’s where I go and think and just contemplate everything I like to do,” he told me. “And I feel like walking through that forest — just hearing nothing but the leaves crackling, the birds chirping, just hearing nothing but nature — it was just really the best thing to describe the person that I am.”
This was a revelation for Craig's teacher, EMK drama club director Laura Boston.
“Craig is a very outgoing student who likes music, who likes to talk,” she said. “So the choice that he made in recording sort of a solitary moment in nature was really interesting to me, because I felt like I learned a little bit more about Craig as a person.”
These sorts of reactions are exactly what the museum and the artist have been hoping for.
Spinning Sound Into Something You Can Hold
Hamilton also introduced the teens to vinyl records. For a lot of them they were like foreign, ancient artifacts. They listened to 78s and 45s and heard artists including the Andrews Sisters, Etta James and Bing Crosby for the first time. The artist recorded that, too.
Ultimately, Hamilton documented the community groups in action, doing what they normally do together when they meet. Then she had their sounds made into LPs with their photos and artwork emblazoned on them.
Juliana performed a monologue in front of her friends in drama club. She wrote it from the point of view of a woman in a painting at a museum. We listened to her album in the museum's concert hall.
“Adore me please, that's all I have to live for. What do you see when you look at me? Am I pretty enough for you? Do you like what you see? I can be more thinner. I can even be more paler. Anything, please! Take pictures. You with the sketchbook — yes, you! Draw me, love me! Do you like my dress? You should draw me thinner, more beautiful, please. Don’t leave. Please.”
The applause from her teacher and peers faded as the needle reached the end of the track.
Juliana and her drama club friend Craig hadn't heard these albums from their lives until this very moment. They hugged each other and laughed. Juliana gasped, “Oh my god! I’m just speechless, oh my god. That was the very first time I heard myself through audio, and I’m just bashful and blushing all over.” Then she added, “I just look back on myself before joining drama club, and I would never have imagined me getting this far. I just have so much to be thankful for.”
Both Juliana and Craig say listening to themselves on these albums is like pressing rewind back to the day when Hamilton recorded their monologues. Listening together is making them appreciate their drama club experience in a new way.
“I probably wouldn’t be as emotional as I am right now if I listened to it at home all by myself,” Craig said. Then Juliana added, “We learned a lot about each other. I’m just grateful to have you as a friend, bro.” Craig nodded and said, “Same here, Julie. Same here.”
Hamilton says what just transpired is like a dream come true. “I really wanted to make this piece about the participants,” she said. “I really wanted to let the community group we worked with shine.”
When I asked community engagement director Rhea Vedro why the Gardner wanted to create the Sound Lab she said, “It’s a place that has a certain amount of cache, and so as soon as you bring community groups that are doing good work to these spaces we’re able to lend cache to what they’re doing, and they’re able to lend real life knowledge about what’s important to people to the museum as we think about interpretation, as we think about programming, so it’s really important.”
Artist Elisa Hamilton chose albums because she wanted to make the community groups' sounds into objects people could see, hold and play on a turntable. Now visitors can spin the teens' records at listening stations set up in the Gardner Museum's concert hall.
When the “Sound Lab” is over the specially designed albums and turntables will be donated to the community groups that made them. Hamilton hopes the archive she helped them start will continue to grow.
Juliana admits she's a little nervous about having people listen to her monologue, but she hopes they will have the same sort of realizations she's had.
“I just feel like we take listening for granted,” she mused, “and I think with this project it made me realize there’s a lot to listen to. It’s not just listening to the latest pop song on the radio — it’s also listening outside you window, and that’s their own music. That’s nature’s music. That’s life’s music.”
Which is music we can all find every day.
Elisa Hamilton's "Sound Lab" is up at the Isabella Stewart Museum through March 18. The participating teens will be on site for the next two Saturdays. "Sound Lab" is part of the museum's new exhibition, “Listen Hear, The Art of Sound,” which is open through Sept. 5.
This segment aired on March 9, 2017.
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