At first, Tony Schwartz powered an audio recorder that he kept in his car using a generator that he built himself. He’d drag a long cable from the car to his microphone, recording whatever caught his ear on the streets of New York.
This was the 1940s, when portable recording equipment was bulky, heavy, and frankly not very portable. But Schwartz didn’t mind. He’d hack audio recorders by adding a battery and a shoulder strap, move the buttons to make them easier to access as he walked the streets, and snake a microphone through his sleeve so he could attach it to his wrist. He’d hold an unlit cigarette so he could unobtrusively angle the microphone toward whatever he wanted to record.
For decades, Schwartz documented the sounds of his neighborhood—the west side of midtown Manhattan. It was the epicenter of commercial music, housing Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, and major record companies.
But Schwartz was much more interested in the music of the mundane. He recorded things like a young neighbor holding a funeral for a pet turtle, a time-lapse recording of his young niece’s voice changing as she grew older, and barkers selling wares on street corners.
“It’s just remarkable to hear,” says history Ph.D. student Pascal Massinon, whose study of the politics of home recording has involved meticulously researching Schwartz’s life and work. Massinon wants to figure out whether understanding cultural history can help people better understand politics. “Schwartz was interested in how you can use culture for political means. And with new technology like magnetic tape, there was potential for a real decentralization in terms of who was allowed to produce and own culture.”
Of the albums that Schwartz produced for Smithsonian’s Folkway Records, his best known is probably New York 19, which Massinon describes as a highly curated collection of sounds from Manhattan’s old postal zone 19, Schwartz’s neighborhood.
“I’m really interested in his decisions to record the sounds that he did,” Massinon says. “The sounds of the people living around him—whether it was street musicians, or storefront churches, or people out in the streets selling pens—these weren’t the sounds you were hearing inside the recording studios or the performance spaces that were just next door.
“[Schwartz] felt like the folklore of the neighborhood that he lived in was being systematically downplayed and under-heard. He thought that going out with a tape recorder was one way of amplifying the voices in his neighborhood and disseminating them more widely.”
Schwartz’s work was unique in a place and time when the sounds that characterized his neighborhood—such as the accents and music of immigrant families—were often ignored or, worse, reviled as noise by white New Yorkers. Massinon says, “He was trying to turn something unwanted into something that could be seen as valuable and contributing to the sonic life of the city.”
Massinon dug through Schwartz’s huge body of work at the Library of Congress, which holds more than 30,000 audio recordings that Schwartz produced before his death in 2008. “I love the archives. I love primary research,” says Massinon. “That’s part of how I decided to become a historian—just geeking out and finding these materials, the historical texture of this stuff.”
Massinon found an early piece that Schwartz produced in 1949, in the days leading to the conservative 1950s era of the Cold War, anti-Communism, and the Hollywood blacklist. Schwartz had created a provocative “sonic critique” that lambasted the anti-Communist rhetoric dominating the news media at the time. In an era when home recording equipment had only recently become accessible, Schwartz was using innovative techniques such as juxtaposing disparate pieces of found sound to make a political statement—a rare and potentially self-incriminating political statement, at that.
“It was surprising to me that he was able to do this,” says Massinon. “I’ve done a lot of research on the early years of recording, and you see these pamphlets that are like, ‘One Thousand Ways to Use Your Tape Recorder!’ because people didn’t know what tape recorders were for yet.
“And here he is in 1949, doing something that wasn’t showing up in the guides made by tape manufacturers. None of them said things like, ‘Produce a critical account of the media by recording things off the radio, splicing them together, and editorializing on it.’ He came to it himself.”
Early on, Schwartz was using the medium to air voices that were being aggressively silenced. His early work, such as the Peekskill recording (above) that Schwartz never released publicly in his lifetime, reveals that the network of political leftists was bigger than it may have appeared in the conservative 1950s. Though Schwartz himself was reluctant to associate with leftist politics, Massinon says, “What I’ve found in the recordings that I’ve listened to is small glimpses, small evidence, that he was very receptive to ideas of the Left.”
Pump Up the Volume
Schwartz spent the next five decades recording audio that reflected both the world around him and what he hoped it could become. While working in advertising, he discovered that emotional resonance could move consumers far more effectively than conventional appeals to logic. “I have no interest in sound effects,” Schwartz wrote in The Resonant Chord, his book about media theory. “I’m solely interested in the effect of sound on people.”
Schwartz created the first anti-tobacco ad, which prompted the tobacco industry to voluntarily stop advertising in radio and television. He consulted on hundreds of political campaigns, most famously by creating the provocative “Daisy ad” that many credit for Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide presidential victory in 1964. In the ad, a little girl’s voice counting flower petals fades into a man’s authoritative voice counting down to nuclear destruction.
Schwartz found sophisticated ways to reimagine, revitalize, and comment on the world by turning up the volume on ordinary, ignored, or disregarded sounds. “I think that for him,” says Massinon, “it was the ability to open your ears and listen differently, to not accept the sounds you hear at face value.”