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    Aaron Rosenblum listens to jackhammers. Specifically, he listens to how they resound off buildings, to the way the sound of them changes when a car pulls up between him and a construction worker. He also listens to frogs and katydids, train horns and traffic. There’s a radio station downtown with two blaring loudspeakers out front, each tuned to a different station. “Stand in the middle, you’ve got Tom Petty to your left and Cardi B on your right,” he says. “I like to stand in the middle and hear a polyrhythm. It’s like looking for these things that were intentional on the part of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, but you can kind of find these accidental, very confusing things they couldn’t have intentionally done.”

    Rosenblum is a musician and sound artist, somebody attuned to the noise most of us tune out. Now in his mid-30s, he’s been making field recordings — of crickets, crosswalks, cars — since his college days, when he put together a degree in experimental music at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. The work of Luc Ferrari — a classical composer who created a piece called “Presque Rien” (“almost nothing”) out of field recordings from a seaside village — made such an impression on Rosenblum that he started taping sounds on a MiniDisc recorder he’d originally borrowed from his brother to tape concerts. Rosenblum went on to name his now-defunct radio show “Presque Rien,” which was on Louisville’s WXOX-FM and featured mostly field recordings.

    On the way to this interview, Rosenblum says, he focused on the audible crosswalk signals downtown, the speaker’s telltale drawl rooting any listener firmly in Derby Town. Places have sonic identities, Rosenblum says — soundscapes: a term applicable beyond cheesy New Age music, it turns out.

    What sounds make Louisville Louisville? Well, it’s a railroad town. There's an interplay between manmade and natural sounds, like a water pump droning in a koi pond at Bernheim Arboretum — something Rosenblum loved so much he initially mistook it for a sound-art installation, then left a recorder on it for about 20 minutes. A 10-minute drive gets you out of the urban sprawl and into the soundtrack of nature. He hasn’t had the chance to record at Churchill Downs or Slugger Field, but both are on his list. “This is a river town,” he says. “You’re not going to hear a steam calliope where there isn’t a steamboat.”

    Rosenblum has started a project called Kentuckiana Sounds, aimed at capturing the region like a landscape painter — but with sound instead of color. Head to kentuckianasounds.org and you’ll find a map pockmarked with 50-something flags, each leading to a field recording from the flag’s location. Katydids sing along to a chirping crosswalk signal at Eighth and Chestnut streets. A booming voice calls a game at Cardinal Stadium. Birds twitter at Bernheim. The sounds create a multifaceted portrait of the region — ecological and industrial. Even political: In one recording submitted by a fan, voices murmur outside legislative rooms in Frankfort during a teachers’ rally last year.

    Rosenblum has hundreds of field recordings that could probably fill a map on their own, but he wanted to include sounds others had recorded, too. “Going to the site and listening encourages them to consider our soundscape,” he says. Anybody with an iPhone (or even an old cassette recorder) can submit a recording to Kentuckiana Sounds, as long as it captures some sense of place. No bootlegs of concerts or one-off sounds, like a second-long recording of a car horn. This isn’t a sound-effects library. Oh, and no narration.

    At the Heine Brothers’ Coffee where we’re meeting downtown, I try to apply Rosenblum’s method of listening, but the cacophony of muzak, overlapping conversations, hissing espresso machines and clanging glassware overwhelms me. Am I missing out on sonic nirvana? Does this all really sit easy in his ears?

     To my relief, no. “In my 20s, when my brain was exploding with new ways of hearing the world, I thought, ‘This is great! I’m gonna make it so when I get on a plane and there’s a person with a baby in the seat next to me, and the baby is crying for four hours, I’ll just think it’s interesting.’ I don’t,” Rosenblum says. “There are definitely sounds that still irritate me.”

    This originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Ears Have It." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Illustration by Shae Goodlett

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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