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Listening to the City
by David Suisman
Tony Schwartz was arguably the second greatest sound recordist in American history. The only person more important was Alan Lomax, and in some respects they resembled each other. Schwartz and Lomax were both great humanists, and both, as the saying goes, had “big ears”: they were able to find value and meaning in an unusually broad range of sounds. Both lived long lives, too—Lomax died at the age of 87 in 2002, Schwartz at the age of 84 in 2008. And during those long lives, both recorded extensively—indefatigably, even—such that both amassed enormous personal archives, and both of those archives now reside in the Library of Congress. The Lomax collection contains some 6,400 sound recordings; the Schwartz collection, which is still being catalogued, contains in the neighborhood of 30,000. Both men were practitioners cum theorists. And both, in their politics, were radical pluralists and, in different ways, internationalists.
In other respects, however, Schwartz was not Lomax’s twin but his opposite. Whereas Lomax did most of his recording in rural areas, Schwartz’s milieu was New York City. Whereas Lomax roamed the world, Schwartz suffered from agoraphobia and found it difficult to venture outside his own Manhattan neighborhood, on the west side of Midtown. Whereas Lomax explored the world of music, Schwartz, it might be said, was more interested in sound and media. Whereas Lomax dedicated nearly all of his professional life to working as a folklorist and sound collector, for Schwartz, sound recording was an avocation, a labor of lifelong love, which he explicitly refused to make his livelihood, for fear that doing so would corrupt the kinds of sounds he would record. Professionally, Schwartz worked as an advertising consultant and media theorist. He designed Lyndon Johnson’s notorious “Daisy” commercial in 1964 and racked up a long list of achievements in commercial and political advertising besides. As a media theorist, he broke new ground with ideas about affect and the relationship between aural and visual perception. Lomax’s impulses were atavistic; he longed for music untouched by modernity. Schwartz was a modernist; Marshall McLuhan called him “the guru of the electronic age.” If that’s not enough, Schwartz also did sound design for Broadway plays and for an Academy Award-winning film, Frank Film, in the 1970s.
Schwartz bought his first sound recorder, a Webster, in 1945, and immediately began making amateur, informal recordings. Soon, he modified his apparatus so that it could be powered by a portable battery, thereby rigging up what may have been the world’s first portable tape recorder. In the years that followed, Schwartz came to develop a technique for using tape recorders similar to that of a skilled photographer. He carried a small recorder with him wherever he went and had the sensibility to use it, either overtly or covertly, at any moment. In his estimation, he could begin recording within fifteen seconds of becoming aware of a situation, and indeed, he snapped on his recorder at moments such as when a taxi in which he rode got in a traffic accident; when a fire broke out in his apartment building; and during a bank robbery in his neighborhood bank. (This last recording, alas, consisted mainly of a heavy pall of silence and the bank’s Muzak system playing in the background.)
To convey, even hastily, the breadth and character of his sound recording work is not easy. Today, he is best known for the eleven records he released on the Folkways label in the 1950s and 60s, and one on Columbia. The first, from 1954, was New York 19, featuring an eclectic variety of recordings all made within Schwartz’s midtown postal code (today, the zip codes 10036 and 10019). In the first cut on the record, he explained his rationale for doing the kind of recording that he did:
AUDIO: WHY COLLECT RECORDINGS
In subsequent years, other records followed, such as 1, 2, 3 and a Zing Zing Zing: Street Games and Songs of the Children of New York City; Nueva York, described as a “tape documentary of Puerto Rican New Yorkers”; World in My Mail Box, consisting of recordings people sent him from around the world; A Dog’s Life, a humorous documentary in which Schwartz adopts a dog and gets a crash course in New York dog culture; and Music in the Streets, featuring street musicians, Washington Square folkies, religious worshippers, parade goers, and a range of other street sounds, such as the cries of sidewalk pitchmen, whose sonority Schwartz sought to celebrate. The record that came out on Columbia was The New York Taxi Driver, consisting of stories and pearls of wisdom from in-cab interviews. In 1959, this record reached the Top Five on the Billboard charts (in the category of “Documentary or Spoken Word Other Than Comedy.”) According to an article by Nat Hentoff the same year, Schwartz had numerous other albums in the offing too, including “an album on the folklore of food, involving sound expeditions to foreign restaurants; a study of a pawnshop and its clients; a survey of superstitions; an investigation of what children think of their teachers; and an album of people’s reactions to radio and television.” Sadly, none of these ever appeared.
Slideshow: Tony Schwartz album art, Smithsonian Folkways
Slideshow: Illustrations from New York 19
Street Musicians (Saxophone, Glass Bowls, Bongo Boys, Carnegie Hall Fiddler, Guitar, Accordion, Moondog)
Out My Window (unreleased)
From Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution
Archival leaflet: Click to enlarge and view caption