On Tony Schwartz
November 8, 2011 – On the Streets, Discovering the Voice of the CityBy SAM ROBERTS
“I have a fancy that every city has a voice. Each one has something to say to the one who can hear it.” — O. Henry
Tony Schwartz was a good listener. Lugging a 14-pound portable tape recorder that he developed, he overcame his agoraphobia in 1946, to venture into his West Side neighborhood and capture the voice of New York. Thus began a career that seemed foreordained when a six-month bout of blindness as a teenager transformed him into an audiophile.
He would produce 15,000 commercial and political advertisements — most famously, the devastating ad that Lyndon B. Johnson unleashed against Barry Goldwater in 1964. The television ad featured the voice of a little girl counting the petals on a daisy. Her voice dissolved into a military-style launch countdown to nuclear apocalypse.
“The content of a political commercial is not what’s in it; it’s the resonance between what’s stored in the viewer’s mind and the stimulus that evokes it,” he once said. “In the ‘Daisy’ commercial, we never mentioned Goldwater’s name. We just touched a chord, something that was in a lot of people’s minds.”
Mr. Schwartz’s advertisements, 30,000 folk songs, poems, conversations, stories and dialogues that he recorded, along with his 27 years of radio programs on WNYC and WBAI will be the subject of a retrospective Wednesday at the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Matthew Barton, curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress will conduct an illustrated exploration of “Tony Schwartz and the Sounds of His City.”
Mr. Schwartz recorded tour guides, singing children, fire engines, fog horns, merry-go-round calliopes, cabbies and other urban folkloric sounds that produced the city’s collective voice now archived at the Library of Congressand collected in his albums. He defined the sound of speech as “the body language of the written word.”
“If there were no people on the island of Manhattan, all we would hear are the sounds of nature,” he once said. “All the other sounds of a city are created by its people.”
He rarely left his house on 56th Street near 10th Avenue. He died in 2008 at 84.
“I have no interest in sound effects,” he wrote in “The Responsive Chord,” a book published in 1973. “I am solely interested in the effect of sound on people.” Among the insights he imparted were “The longer a faucet drips, the noisier it becomes,” and “If you’re ever attacked in a hallway, don’t yell ‘Help,’ yell ‘Fire.’”
Mr. Schwartz presciently anticipated camcorders and also cellphones, iPods and other electronic devices that divorce New Yorkers from street sounds.
“Sound from the street was information in the old environment,” he wrote. “It is noise in the modern environment, since it disturbs our relation to electronically mediated sounds and information.” Those sounds, which surround people inside their hermetically sealed apartments and now also are carried outside, leave New Yorkers “alone, even on a crowded street,” he wrote.
Mr. Schwartz, a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, taught auditory perception at Fordham University and was famous for producing the first antismoking ad. The 1963 ad for the American Cancer Society depicted children dressing up in adult clothes with this voice-over: “Children learn by imitating their parents. Do you smoke cigarettes?”
“Some of Tony Schwartz’s interest in sound can certainly be linked to an episode of blindness that he suffered in his teens,” Mr. Barton said. “He regained his sight eventually, but for many weeks, possibly months, he had to interpret sound the way that the blind do. In addition, he grew up during the golden age of radio, when the airwaves were filled with dramas and comedies that were mounted solely with speech, sound effects and music.
“Stevie Wonder has said that for the blind, recordings are like movies, and I think Schwartz often approached his work that way,” Mr. Barton continued. “His programs and albums are not simply collections of sounds; he uses them to tell stories. In his narration, it’s apparent that he is also character in these stories, as they are about his own discovery of people and places.
“He was essentially a humanitarian. He suffered from agoraphobia, but his love of recording and fascination with people helped him deal with that by taking him outside. Even when he focused on what seem to be the most mundane and random noises, he did it as an inquiry into and demonstration of the placing of these sounds in the human experience.”
Mr. Schwartz liked to point out that people were born without ear lids, so “they listen to anything that concerns or interests them. I remember when I was looking for a mortgage, I heard every mortgage commercial. The day I got my mortgage, they stopped running them. I don’t know how they knew.” http://tinyurl.com/6utazob
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