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The guardian of the sounds of the world

martha garde

Washington, Dec. 12 The first time the American Jim Metzner used headphones and a tape recorder to listen to what was happening around him, he felt “magic”. Since then he has spent five decades documenting the sounds of the world, which are now in the hands of the US Library of Congress.

Its collection, of more than 28,000 recordings, photographs, written diaries and podcasts, offers a scientific, artistic and musical journey through different parts of the planet: from Brazil to New Zealand, Nepal or Cuba.

Metzner, 73, studied acting and worked as a songwriter and singer before a lack of success in the latter field led him to pursue ethnomusicology at the University of Massachusetts.

“To be an actor and a singer, you have to know how to listen. If they had told me when I was in high school that I was going to end up being a radio producer and traveling all over the world recording sounds, I would have said: ‘You are crazy.’ But at the same time, everything what I did in a way led me to that,” he says in an interview with EFE.

One of his first recordings, before dedicating himself to it professionally, was a conversation with his grandfather about life. But when he had his first stereo recorder, his way of seeing and feeling the world completely changed, and with that surprise came the desire to share his discoveries.

His daily program “Pulse of the Planet”, barely two minutes long and which has become a weekly podcast since June, served to channel those interests. “I am interested in the world and I am in love with its sounds. Curiosity is good, but it is not enough, because my curiosity does not have to reach you as a listener,” he says.

Metzner, a native of Manhattan, New York, contextualized the recorded sounds with explanations from scientists, artists, and other experts. And he admits that sometimes a tape recorder helps to see the beauty in ordinary things.

Things like the Brazilian tropical rain, the butter making process, the cormorant fishing technique, the Cuban folkloric ballet Cutumba or the Mexican Day of the Dead, which open the door to traditions and sensations sometimes captured by himself and others with the help of other reporters.

When he started, he remembers, his recorders were the size of a printer.

“Part of the job is to be very still and very quiet as a listener and as a technician. It involves some technique. Also knowing where you put the microphones and which ones you use. You have to be both a scientist, a technician and an artist. Above all an artist if you want your work is heard and shared”, he maintains.

His favorite sound is the conversation between a Brazilian girl and a parrot, an exchange filled with the little girl’s laughter, and he regrets not having managed to record the singing of some students from a Maori school to which he was invited during a recent stay in New Zealand.

Metzner has compiled those adventures in a book entitled “The magic wand and the breadcrumb trail. Adventures of a lifelong listener”, which does not yet have a publisher, but will incorporate QR codes so that the reader can hear the sounds mentioned.

Being part of the permanent collection of the US National Library of Congress, the largest audiovisual archive in the world, is “a great honor,” he adds. The acquisition of his material, from the 1970s to 2019, took place in early 2020, shortly after the pandemic, and was announced last September.

What interests the producer most is that his work is heard and shared. And to this end, it also has American Soundscapes, a website open to listeners’ collaborations, which aspires to continue compiling memorable sounds from different countries with the help this time of people of all nationalities. EFE

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