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Escape Into Soundwaves From the Comfort of Your Home

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It’s possible to slip beyond the confines of your living quarters, without even turning a doorknob or cracking a window. Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett, public radio veterans and founders of the World According to Sound, a podcast that spotlights a particular sound in each mini 90-second episode, have found an escape hatch: intent listening. 

“Our podcast was initially a reaction to working in public radio. You know, news and journalism and storytelling — stories with characters — a form we were doing for years on end,” Hoff told Hyperallergic. “We thought, ‘The medium is clearly much bigger than that. Let’s try to do something that actually uses sound, and not just for language.’” 

The first episode of the World According to Sound, released in 2015, is devoted to the burbling mud pots of the Salton Sea. Since then, the California-based collaborators have created 126 podcast episodes delving into an eclectic sonic world, featuring nature sounds from the bottom of the ocean to an iceberg in Antarctica, black holes colliding, music made from stalactites, auditory hallucinations, the sound of colors, data conceptualized through sound, and lots more. The series aired for a spell on National Public Radio’s show All Things Considered and is available on the World According to Sound’s website and Apple Podcasts.

Sam Harnett in the field recording the sound of a mud pot at the Salton Sea

In August 2016, about a year-and-a-half after launching the podcast, Hoff and Harnett hosted their first in-person live show at an art space in San Francisco. Drawing from their growing sound archive, the pair created an eight-channel surround-sound show and invited the public for a communal listening experience.

The audience sat in seats arranged in a square in the center of a darkened room circled by eight powerful speakers and subwoofers. Hoff and Harnett could control each speaker independently to play with the physicality of sound in the room. They’d create a sense of movement by panning sound throughout the space and unleash rumblings that vibrated across the attendees’ bodies. Each participant received an eye mask to wear for the duration of the show to encourage an unadulterated focus on listening. “Visual stimuli will overtake so aggressively. You just can’t turn it off. You really have to block out the visual to really get into the sound,” Harnett said. The eye masks help “foreground one of our senses” that often doesn’t get that treatment, as Hoff put it.

Participants wear eye masks for the duration of the World According to Sound to encourage an unadulterated focus on listening.

In 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hoff and Harnett concocted a stay-at-home friendly format: a listening event designed for headphones. After the success of their first headphone-based live show in the spring, they launched a nine-event season called Outside In that started on December 3, 2020 and runs through February 4, 2021 on Thursdays at 6pm PST (9pm EST). Billed as a “surround sound escape from the pandemic,” each binaural show takes place via a live YouTube stream (with alternatives for those who live abroad or don’t have solid internet connections), featuring about 90 minutes of focused listening, followed by a Q&A with the hosts and a special guest with a connection to the evening’s show. Some shows are centered around a theme. Others are devoted to a particular sound artist, musician, or work.

Admission to Outside In includes a black eye mask and a leaflet with 12 tips for having the best experience possible, which can be distilled to: Pick a comfortable, distraction-free space to enjoy the show. Put your phone away. Turn down the lights. Tune in at the designated time. Slide the eye mask over your eyes. Pull headphones over your ears. And listen, really listen.

Leaflet for the World According to Sound (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For me, discovering this show has breathed new life into stagnant stay-at-home days and given me a meditative tool for coping with ever creeping anxiety. The first show wrapped its tendrils around me and shifted something free. I was hooked and soon signed up for a season pass. Trying to explain my transcendent sensory experience, one not rooted in language, proved tricky at first. As I enthused to friends, I could feel them glazing over, the same way I have when subjected to winding stories about an otherworldly dream or drug-fueled trip.

Now that I’ve attended the first four events in the series, the meaning that Outside In holds for me is growing clearer. It’s an occasion, something that feels rare lately. It’s a date with my headphones that I anticipate each week, carving out time and taking care to set up a cozy listening spot. It’s a break from relentless dailiness and a respite from glowing rectangles, the ones that a headline in the Onion jokes a little too aptly that we spend 90% of waking hours staring at. The series adds a texture of novelty and surprise, something I miss from the “before times” when it was easier to make serendipitous discoveries in the outside world without the influence of an algorithm.

The World According to Sound eye mask (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The experience is thoroughly transporting and delightfully escapist. Though that term often is tinged with judgment for avoiding reality, sometimes a new perspective is a perfect antidote. There’s also the other side to escape: arrival. The show serves as a portal delivering listeners to expansive worlds where sound waves shapeshift into unfolding landscapes and moods.

Each show starts with a soothing countdown. I feel a vivid swirling sensation behind the inky void of my blindfold as I surrender to sound, letting the sonic world pour into the headphones cupping my ears and wash over me. The tones of a pipe organ. The skritch-skritch-skritch of a pencil writing on paper. The streets of Cairo in 1928. An orchestra of metronomes. Rumblings from the deepest part of the ocean floor. The rolling baritone of foghorns. The drip-drip-drip of aqueducts beneath the city of Rome. The crackle-whoosh of hairdryers. The tiny snapping sounds of barnacles feeding. 

Sometimes I thrill at identifying a sound before its source is revealed. Sometimes my mind’s eye melts like a lava lamp with abstract forms and colors and associations. I occasionally drift into the terrain of memory, recalling the “nature walks” my dad and I took when I was a child, walking quietly around our neighborhood taking note of the life forms around us, fodder for future poetry. I wonder, was that the last time I listened so fully? Zoning out and losing yourself is part of the experience of Outside In.

“Soundscape No. 3,” a collage by Julie Smith Schneider inspired by the Outside In listening series, echoes the shape of sound waves and forms featured in the shows — icebergs, glaciers, oceans — and evokes the terrains of soundscapes and landscapes. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

So is homing in and noticing. “Listening and being really focused, it’s kind of a coping mechanism for a hard time,” Harnett said during the Q&A that followed the fourth event in the series, an evening dedicated to the work of pioneering sound artist Bill Fontana. “And you can do that at any time. You can be walking around the city and be listening: ‘I hear traffic in the distance. I hear a fog horn.’ It’s a way to ground yourself in the present.”

When I peel off the eye mask at the end of a show, that collective aural dream, I feel changed. I’ve traveled somewhere beyond the shoebox diorama of my city apartment. I feel lighter, relieved to have stepped away from all the clicking and tapping and worrying, and lost myself in my senses for a while. In the world of Outside In, sound is a sensory, contemplative space to freely explore the contours of our universe and imaginations.

A peek at upcoming live shows: 

  • Bodies, celebrating human bodies, planetary bodies, and bodies of water (January 14)
  • Matmos, the only pure music show in the series, featuring an original work by this duo of electronic musicians (January 21)
  • Solitude, a montage of remote, lonesome sounds (January 28)
  • Kronos Quartet, a night of music, sonic experiments, and sounds that inspire the long-running string quartet (February 4)

More info and tickets available at the World According to Sound.

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