In his Epistles, the poet Horace decried the constant din of first-century-BC Rome: “Would you have me, amid so great noise both by night and day, try to sing?” But sing he did. A similar tension energized “my eyes . . . my ears . . . ,” the performance by O+A (sound artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger) at District Hall on Friday, sponsored by the Goethe-Institut and Non-Event. The exploration of the city’s sonic wallpaper was framed as advocacy, but the piece was also an aesthetic statement — often a paradoxically beautiful one.
Part soundtrack, part documentary essay, part theater, “my eyes . . . my ears . . . ” emphasized questions over answers. While Auinger digitally tuned the quadraphonic soundscape, images passed across a trio of screens: snapshots and video of the pair’s tours, on foot and by car, through various urban environments. Odland, narrating into a desk microphone, took a Virgilian role: commenting, conversing with his on-screen double, scribbling in a notebook, offering a running gloss of wry observations and provocative interrogation, as the sounds (subway trains, tires on pavement, hard echoes of steel and glass) rumbled and roared.
The piece circled repeated motives. A sound check: snapped fingers establishing spatial reference and synchronization, but also existential echolocation. “Standing waves”: the city’s omnipresent but unnoticed industrial hum. Aural and visual disassociation: fragmentary video and still images (at least until the latter were abandoned due to a technical glitch) reversing the usual polarity of sight over sound. And the transition from outside and inside — the car as “an exoskeleton,” as Odland put it, a shell against its own created environment; the pair, on video, repeatedly entering District Hall itself from off the street, crossing from an uncontrolled sonic environment to a controlled (but no less alienating) one. The centerpiece was a walk through a Brooklyn, N.Y., park, the two noticing everything they could see but not hear over the scrim of cars and trains, other visitors to the park defaulting to activities privileging sight over sound.
A post-performance round table, moderated by Northeastern University’s Dietmar Offenhuber and featuring urban planners and architects (MIT’s Meejin Yoon, Harvard’s Tom Ryan, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Prataap Patrose), skewed toward the prescriptive. Ryan stressed the lack of even a basic sonic vocabulary among architects and designers; Yoon contrasted the engineered specificity of O+A’s evocation with the happenstance commotion of urban noise. But Patrose was more ruminative, noting how one’s ears can become tuned to a given city’s idiosyncrasies, how such specific sounds rope in memory and, by extension, imagination. Likewise, the performance itself critiqued the urban soundscape’s ubiquity and even inhumanity while still making those sounds compelling and dramatic. Listening, the piece suggests, is the beginning of agency. “The first step,” Odland remarked, “is to become sensitive to the sounds we make.”
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Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.