Jeff Jacoby on sound art

This interview was originally conducted for inclusion in our “Sound Art” theme.

Jeff Jacoby is a Sound Designer and Sound Artist with over 40 years of experience. With an Emmy to his name plus two other Emmy nominations, 2 Cine´ Golden Eagles, 2 Crystal Radios, 2 Benjamin Franklins, and 5 BEA Best of Competition awards, Jeff Jacoby is a name that you should know. Coming from a family of entertainment industry professionals, Jeff is adept at his craft.

DS: Hi Jeff and thanks for joining us. Can you tell us about your background in radio, television, and film and how you got started in sound?

JJ: I was brought up in the business. My parents were a big part of the early days of TV in New York and were also filmmakers, and my grandfather was a well-known composer and arranger. My entire family’s been engaged in Hollywood and New York for generations. So being in this business goes way back in my family.

My parents were key, they were in television before it was recorded. This all plays into my story because I have a comfort level with being in show business, because I spent so much time on set and around production.

What I can tell you about my interest in sound design and other forms of sonic art is that when I was about 8 years old, I was already completely fascinated with sound. I remember clearly when my parents gave me a reel to reel tape recorder around that time as a birthday present. It was a tiny little plastic and metal thing, maybe 6 inches by 4 inches, with three inch reels of tape. And they gave it to me because they knew I loved sound. They called me “the listener” or “the observer” for years, because I would sit around and just listen. And I still do. I remember bringing that tape recorder down to the grand piano that we kept in our living area, because we all played a little, and my grandfather would visit and play for hours. Late at night when nobody was around, I would open up the back of the piano, stick the little microphone into the back of the piano next to the felt hammers, pluck the strings with my fingers and record the weird sounds that my hands made on the strings. Then I’d go up stairs, sit on my bed, and flip the tape reels upside down so they played back in reverse. I loved doing that. And I’ve been doing odd sonic stuff like that ever since.

I became smitten with radio when I first went to college in 1973—Franconia College up in New Hampshire. Richard Nixon called Franconia College “the sin on the hill,” which was actually pretty accurate. I did a radio show called “Morning Mania” that involved all sorts of strange manipulations. I left there after a year and got involved in community radio in Connecticut (WLNV), and after another year I then headed to The Evergreen State College in Washington, and wound up doing five radio shows a week at the college station, KAOS FM.

I think that’s where I really began to understand radio as a venue for sonic art, although I didn’t call it that. I worked with several other students doing those shows, and we also did radio in Portland, Oregon, which is 2 hours south of Olympia. One of my good buddies, Tom Hood, was involved in the beginnings of KBOO, a big community radio station in Portland that still enjoys a big audience, and Tom is now the Chief Engineer. His father actually started the station. So over the course of 24 hours we would go down there and do radio, and then go back up to Olympia to do more radio. We went back and forth so much that we called ourselves the Northwest’s only Traveling Radio Show. Now called The Traveling Radio Show, it’s still active today.

I was also doing experimental music at that time, working on the Buchla system, and the very early AARP 2600. I can’t believe I still remember this stuff. Importantly, our radio shows, while they were very much about satire and general silliness of all types, always included a very large dose of what I now know was sound art. We would get on the air and use every piece of equipment available to us:, turntables, reel to reel tape recorders, microphones, noise devices, entire second studios that we would put on the air with the first studio. We would join them together. We would fan out. Then we would just start making noise in those studios with tapes that we made, low end microphones at windows, and we would mix all these things together. I don’t know that sound art was a thing then. At least not known as sound art. I still use those in current compositions – which is a lot of fun and spans decades of work.

In ’79 I moved back to the east coast, back to Connecticut, which is where I had gone to high school. I continued to work at community radio stations. I started a production company in 1980 called Living Sound Productions. I was a producer, and a director, writer, performer, but mostly worked in audio. I produced educational and industrial video, and much of my work revolved around sound for those projects and industrial video, and what have you.

I did documentaries, TV and radio shows, some IMAX stuff, and lots of audio recording, mixing, and designing. Westport is kind of the Hollywood of New York, so a lot of celebrities live out there. I got to know their agents, and I became kind of the go-to guy for the celebs in southern Connecticut. Living Sound moved several times over 20 years, so I built several studios over the decades.

DS: What are some of the projects that you worked on in radio, television, and film? I know you already mentioned The Traveling Radio Show.

JJ: The Traveling Radio Show was my own show. I got lucky with that when it got picked up by the NPR affiliate and ran for about 5 years. But I’ve worked on literally hundreds of productions. Mostly New York based stuff, but also LA, and national and international programs. I did audio, directed, and produced for a lot of educational shows, TV and radio spots, documentaries, things like that. One of the shows I enjoyed a lot was a doc that was done by Karyl Evans. I worked with a very famous composer—Neely Bruce out of Wesleyan University. We won awards for that, so it got pretty well known. But for me it was something new every day, and I wouldn’t be able to list them. There were lots.

DS: Can you talk a little about sound art? What is it? How did you get started in it?

JJ: Well the start of course, had to do with those radio days back in college. That’s really where I had the chance to experiment with sound. I didn’t really begin to think of myself as a sound artist until I was in my mid 40’s when I went to graduate school in Boston. It was about 1998, and I was getting a little tired of running a production company every day. So I thought about doing something else, and I decided to try teaching.

I kept running Living Sound, but I also started teaching part time at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut near New Haven, not far from where I lived. I was teaching video, audio, and radio there. After a year, I was encouraged to become a full time professor. I thought that was funny at the time, but an important mentor, Liam O’Brien, said “no, really, you should think about that”. So I thought about it and decided that I was interested. I told Liam I wanted to proceed and he said “good, now go get an advanced degree”, which I thought was even funnier, because going back to school wasn’t something I would have ever considered. At that point I was 46 or 47, something like that. And not long after that, I did go to grad school.

I went to Lesley University in Cambridge. The college of Art and Design. I earned an MFA in Visual & Sonic Art. It was a teacher in that program, in 2004 that took me aside and said “oh, you’re a sound artist” and I thought “I guess I am”. Since then I’ve done a relatively large amount of study on the subject, and have been engaged in my own artwork. And so I realized that all that crazy stuff we did back in college and after, those sound collages—that was sound art. We just didn’t know. So I suppose I’ve been doing sound art for 45 years.

DS: Can you define for us what is sound art?

JJ: I think it would be fair to say that one can spend an entire magazine, let alone one article, discussing what art is. What’s visual art? I think everybody would have a slightly different answer. But I would say that sound art, or certainly my sound art, is about using the sounds of the world around us as a palette.

I use my recorders to capture sound all the time. Close sounds, distant sounds or what John Cage would have called small sounds or big sounds. I bring those into my studio: specific hits, environments, room tones, ambiences, and I will begin to assemble them in a way that feels right. It’s composing, really, just not specifically musical. And, of course, I have a lot of noise making devices in my studio, from elaborate synths to software packages, and things to bang on, pluck, or play in front of a microphone. There was a movement called Musique Concrète in France in the 1940’s which is probably what I am most closely aligned with. I’m using sounds of the world to compose pieces. So, simply put, I would define sound art as using sound as your palette to create compositions.

DS: Is there a history of sound art that you know about?

JJ: Of course, and it’s noisy. The most intriguing part of it to think about, I think…if you think about painting, how long has painting been around?

DS: Forever.

JJ: Right.

DS: Cave drawings.

JJ: It’s a natural human need to be creative and to express oneself. So painting has a long and formal history. They’ve had awhile to get established. Sound art is relatively new, it just happened around the turn of the twentieth century, because you can’t have sound art, really, without recording. And recording didn’t happen until the late 19th century. And it didn’t happen in a way that people could access until the 1930’s when they started recording directly on wax, and with wire recorders. So the recording arts and sound art have a similar trajectory.

You can trace the beginning of the idea of using sound as fine art to an art group just before World War I, over in Italy and Switzerland, called the Futurists. They engaged with the idea of using sound—not musical sound—in performance. Before they had access to recording equipment, they actually put on noise concerts. They built instruments that emulated the sound of the world called Intonarumori, which often made clacking or whirring noises and sounds that sounded like horses, or carts, or basic machinery. Then they started to speak about it, and write about it, and do more of it.

There’s a very famous member of the futurists called Luigi Russolo, who wrote a manifesto, as he called it, on listening – that I still use in my classes, called The Art of Noises. He talks about walking through a city and truly listening as a human experience. After World War I, the movement kind of morphed into what we call Dada, and then into Surrealism. So the beginnings of what we think of as sound art, really started with the Futurists about a hundred years ago.

DS: Are there any big names in sound art?

JJ: There are. Most of them are associated with mid 20th century. Although there are now current figures that are very well known. I think few would argue that the biggest name in sound art would be John Cage. He was a classically trained composer, who got into the use of sound and silence, and did all kinds of weird stuff. One of his most famous is called 4’33” which is four minutes and thirty three seconds. He would come out on stage, sit at the piano, get settled, open the cover to the keyboard, and then do nothing. Just nothing. There’s a great piece of film at a college campus, I forget which one, where he does this and the college kids go crazy. They start throwing things and eventually climb on stage. He was demonstrating, I think, that the sounds of the audience, the sounds that they were making themselves, was the show. There’s a great appearance on a talk show where he has a table of radios, and he’s going to turn on all these radios to different frequencies and mix them together to do a live sound art composition. For some reason they don’t work. So he kind of shrugs his shoulders and he starts to push them off the table one at a time, making crashing sounds all over the stage, and that becomes his composition. And when he sits down, the host says “you do realize that the audience was laughing at you the entire time” and John Cage replies “well, it’s better than crying”. Cage was one of the earliest figures that we think of as modern sound art.

But there are many important figures Pierre Schaeffer, who created the Musique Concrete that I spoke of previously, Pauline Oliveros who taught at Mills College for decades, and current folks doing really cool stuff: Pamela Z, Janet Cardiff, Bill Fontanta, Stan Shaff of the Audium, here in San Francisco. You can google this, go to Wikipedia and type in sound art and there are lists and lists and lists. Just maybe add my name the next time you go.

DS: Was there a specific transition point where you switched from doing radio and film to doing sound art, or did they kind of live side by side for you?

JJ: I grew up in the film business, so I did film, and then video happened, so I did video. I still do video, but I wouldn’t call it a primary activity right now. There was never a specific transition for me, because sound and sonic space has always been a primary interest. My sound art work and my radio art very much merge, cross, diverge, and come back together. Mostly I use radio as a sound art venue. I also do some radio production of a more traditional sort, such as documentaries, and The Traveling Radio Show, which is still semi-active. I’m thinking about resurrecting that as a podcast. But I also do sound art installations, performances, writing, and, of course, teaching at SF State.

I would clarify one more thing about sound art practice. There are so many ways to define it and practice it. Certainly not all, but most sound artists that I’ve encountered tend toward the idea of pointing to sound as a “new” art medium. So you’ll walk into a museum for a sound art exhibit and what you encounter is a sign in page, and you walk over and sign in on the page, and your pencil on the paper makes huge noises in the room. Or there’s a sensor that catches you as you walk by and it causes something to make noise. Or there are speakers swirling around in the room doing odd things. Most of the sound art that I encounter involves that sort of approach. I enjoy these approaches thoroughly, and do relate to them, but it’s not what I do. I have a sincere interest in storytelling, so my sound art work tends to lean towards a narrative composition even if it’s not immediately apparent. In any case, I’ve always been pointed towards sonic art and sonic production, and so for me sound as fine art is a kind of natural outgrowth and extension of what I’ve always done.

DS: What are some specific examples of sound art projects that you have done?

JJ: In recent years, meaning for 15 or so, there are three primary projects that I’ve been involved in, although there are quite a few smaller ones along the way. Maybe the three I think about the most now are my sonic art composition and performance series called “Into Sonic Space,” where I compose or I perform improvisational work on stage. Dark Rides, which is a series of compositions that reference dark rides at amusement parks, such as the Tunnel of Love or the House of Horrors, and so on. And a new series called Cut Ups, which uses both very old compositions from my youth and mixes them with new compositions in a semi-random way. I’m a little more deliberate than that, but it’s still…pieces of this, and pieces of that, pieces of this.

Regarding Dark Rides, when I was 9 there was an exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. I can’t remember which corporate sponsor it was, I think it was GE, and they had a walk through dark ride. You went through a door, and you got on a path, and you wound your way down a path through a given environment that changed as you proceeded. I was really captivated by the experience of full immersion—sound, smell, feel, everything. It was this incredibly immersive experience, and I figured out in art school that I’ve been trying to recreate that experience ever since, somehow. Short of building myself an amusement park, which I’ve considered, I realized at some point that I can continue doing this with sound. I can create full dark rides with just sound. I can place you in a completely immersive environment, because sound hits you viscerally in a way that visuals do not, in my view (pun intended). Sound is such a personal, intimate experience, and can really stimulate your imagination. Sometimes I feel like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he builds the mountain constantly. He’s obsessed. I’m obsessed with the idea of creating dark rides. It’s just using sounds from a specific space and also sounds from my imagination, and mixing them together and creating a dark ride.

DS: So is “dark ride” your term then?

JJ: It’s a known term for amusement park rides that take place in the dark. And I’ve got a photograph of a closed amusement park from 1930 or something and it says “experience the dark rides”, on the wall. So I’m just co-opting it and using it for sonic experiences.

DS: Are there any popular or famous sound art exhibits that people can go see?

JJ: Yes, of course. Sound art is having a bit of a moment for the past decade or so, and so is much more in the forefront of mainstream, curated artwork. Many museums from the Whitney in New York to SFMOMA in San Francisco, often showcase sound art now. Paris, Amsterdam, and Canadian cities have long offered sound art exhibits and institutions. The Bay Area is a hot bed of sonic experience. One of the great things to do, it’s retro, but it’s really fun, is the Audium…on Bush Street here in San Francisco, by Stan Shaff, a very well-known figure in the sound art world. He still does live performances in a circular theater with 150 speakers, that you can go to for $20 or something like that, on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s pretty darn cool. I’m still trying to get him to let me perform there.

DS: Are there any sound art websites or resources that you can refer people to?

JJ: They proliferate all the time, including mine, The real answer to that is that it’s a job for Google. Just google “sound art”, and you’ll find a plethora of interesting and weird places to go, like the Association of Independents in Radio, or the Audium, and many independent websites .

DS: What do you see for the future of sound art?

JJ: I think sound art has been discovered as a thing. It’s not going to go away. It’s having a moment because it’s still relatively new in terms of mainstream discovery by the general population. I think it will just continue to grow. We’ve also seen enormous growth and recognition in sound design work for film. Places like Skywalker Sound and others, certainly all over LA and New York, actually get the budget and the time to do proper sound work now, at least some of the time. People now understand the importance and impact of good sound in cinema. They’re also wrapping their heads around the idea of sound as fine art, and I think we’ll just see more and more of it.

DS: Are there any sound art installations or future projects that you would like to see built?

JJ: Oh sure, I want to see that sonic amusement park! If you could just loan me a couple hundred million, I could get started. We could put it in San Francisco. No, that’s probably a bad idea – maybe in the East Bay. I don’t know. I’d love to see that happen. I’d also love to see more narrative sonic art. But I only get to do my own work, and other people get to do their own work, and that’s a wonderful thing. That’s how it should be. So who really knows where it’s going. With Podcasting growing at an alarming rate, folks are rediscovering radio without even knowing it, and the appreciation of sonic experience has growth there as well.

DS: Any final thoughts or advice for new people just starting out?

JJ: I talk about this in my role as a professor all the time, because students say “how do I get started”, whether it’s in sonic art, or video production, or radio, or production management, or voice over performance, or something else. It’s not a matter of how to get started, it’s a matter of doing it. Just start doing it now, and keep doing it, and do it forever, because someone wonderful once said “if you do what you’re passionate about, you may make money at it, or you may not, but either way it’s going to be okay because you’re doing what you’re passionate about”. And that’s pretty good advice. Sound production and sonic arts in all forms is still growing pretty rapidly, so there’s a lot of places to get into that universe. It’s radio, fine art, podcasting, sound design and much more. However you get involved you’re in the sonic universe, so there’s a lot of opportunity. Just listen closely. Start being a maker. And in all things, cultivate a sense of wonder.

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