He spent decades recording soundscapes. Now they're going to the Library of Congress
Updated September 26, 2022 at 11:35 AM ET
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's Morning Edition in a recent interview.
"Sometimes you hear people say, 'You know, I captured this sound' and 'I captured that sound,' " he adds. "Right from the get-go, I never felt that I was capturing anything. I felt like these things were gifts. You receive something extraordinary, the first thing you want to do is say, 'Oh my God, listen to this! Let me share this with somebody!' "
Metzner has shared those sounds with many listeners over the years, mostly through radio programs including his own nationally syndicated series, Pulse of the Planet, which aired daily from 1989 until earlier this year.
Now more people will be able to hear more of the world through Metzner's tape. The Library of Congress announced earlier this month that it has acquired the full body of his work, which includes thousands of recordings in addition to photographs, journals, podcasts and storybooks. The collection contains some 28,000 mixed material items dating from the 1970s to 2019.
The Library of Congress says its digital preservation work is just getting started, but has released a finding aid to the paper portion of the collection that people can use "as a general guide to the depth and breadth" of the recordings that will eventually become available.
"They include soundscapes of every description from around the world and interviews with scientists, artists and indigenous peoples," Matt Barton, curator of recorded sound at the library's National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, said in a statement. "Whereas many recordists focus entirely on a single subject — nature, music or science — Metzner's recordings convey a full spectrum of human experience accompanied by the vast array of sounds from the natural world."
Metzner collects poignant moments on a global scale
Metzner's career began with a moment of realization in the 1970s, when he first ventured onto the campus of UMass Amherst equipped with a stereo recorder, microphone and earphones. Metzner recalled pushing the red button and hearing a veritable symphony: a couple walking and talking nearby, a bicycle riding through gravel, a bird flying overhead, bells in the distance.
"And I was going like, 'Wow, this is amazing. What an extraordinary coincidence,'' he recalled. "But it wasn't a coincidence — this stuff was happening all the time, I just hadn't been paying attention to it. And it was the microphone and the recorder that said, 'Wake up ... you live in a world of sound. Here it is.' And it was, like, handing it to me on a platter."
Metzner continued to focus on those sound-rich moments over the years, even as the scope of his work broadened from local to national to global. He produced You're Hearing Boston and You're Hearing San Francisco before broadening out to You're Hearing America and, for several years in the 1980s, Sounds of Science.
He then turned his attention to producing Pulse of the Planet, a daily radio program that brought hundreds of public and commercial stations two-minute segments of soundscapes and interviews mostly focused on science, nature and culture. It ended in June after more than 30 years and 8,000 segments, but continues as a long-form monthly podcast under the same name.
His adventures filled thousands of tapes as tech evolved
Those pursuits took Metzner around the world and into situations ranging from the ordinary to the unforgettable, whether that's a Berber wedding festival in Morocco, a Japanese pottery village, New York's Saratoga racetrack or the scene of cowboys herding cattle in the plains of Brazil — where he tried to run out ahead of the herd in order to get sound of the vaqueros singing to them.
"The steer which they were herding were longhorn steer. And one of the steer saw me and sort of didn't like what he saw. Lowers his head, charges at me full bore," Metzner recalls. "I'm standing there with 14 pounds of equipment, 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.' Then I thought, 'No! I can't do that!' I couldn't even bear the thought of my equipment getting gored.
"Then at the last possible second, one of the cowboys comes nonchalantly trotting up to the cow. He's carrying a stick, and he just taps the steer, and the steer veers off. Then the cowboy ... just tips his hat and runs off ... But I got a great recording. No one has ever gotten a recording like that."
Along the way — and as technology evolved — Metzner recorded more than 200 reels of ¼-inch tapes, more than 2,000 audio cassettes and more than 1,000 DAT (digital audio tapes) and digital Minidiscs, and created some 100,000 sound files with digital recording gear, according to the Library of Congress.
It says his collection includes tape from the local and national programs as well as the unedited interviews and sounds he recorded to make them.
His life's work continues
Metzner, now in his 70s, isn't hanging up his microphone quite yet — in fact, he's headed to New Zealand to record sounds and share knowledge as a Fulbright specialist in media and communication.
He tells NPR he's grateful to the Library of Congress for preserving his life's work, which he describes as a deep honor. But he also wants to make sure it's actually being heard, not just "buried in an archive."
Metzner's been talking to the library about the possibilities for curating those sounds. He's also thinking about other ways to celebrate the art of the soundscape. In the age of the smartphone, that includes creating an online forum where people — both professional recordists and ordinary citizens — can submit sounds that are important to their communities and culture, to create a global crowd-sourced archive.
He hopes more people will get to experience — and recognize the value — of soundscapes, which he describes as "part of our natural heritage" and "the touchstones to our feelings."
"You can go to a museum and see Diane Arbus' photographs. You can see René Magritte's paintings," he adds. "Why not soundscapes? They are every bit as much of an art form."
The audio portion of this story was produced by Phil Harrell and edited by Olivia Hampton.
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