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Environmental issues

The Sound Works of Jed Speare
November 27, 2007 1:48:21 PM

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For the better part of the last 15 years, local artist, organizer, and composer Jed Speare has been an integral member of Boston’s artistic community. A former head of the Mobius Artists Group, he is director of the Studio Soto Gallery in Fort Point (a gallery that at the moment is without a home, having been forced out of its Melcher Street space by development). Under his leadership, Soto became a focal point for experimental music and sound art in the city, hosting dozens of concerts by local and internationally known musicians (including a number of shows by Non-Event, the music series that I co-organize).

Yet when Speare performs at the Mobius Gallery on December 7, it will be only his second concert in almost two decades. The ostensible occasion is the upcoming release of a deluxe two-disc collection of his early tape compositions and electro-acoustic works, Sound Works 1982–1987 (Family Vineyard). But he sees it as something more. “The album party will be less about the specific tape works on the double CD and more about acknowledging and sharing with friends and colleagues in the sound and performance community.” (Others on the bill include James Coleman, Larry Johnson, Marjorie Morgan, Brendan Murray, Bhob Rainey, Tom Plsek, Vic Rawlings, and Jay Sullivan.)

When he made the recordings collected on Sound Works, Speare was living in San Francisco. Although he’d been trained as a composer, he had in the late ’70s become interested in electro-acoustic and tape music. Inspired by R. Murray Schafer’s influential writings on environmental sound and soundscapes, as well as the work of composers like Pierre Schaefer, Pierre Henry, and Iannis Xenakis, Speare began working with magnetic tape, microphones, and reel-to-reel recorders to create dense, atmospheric musique concrète, in which he used the rich variety of sounds around him as raw compositional material.

His best-known work from that period is  Cable Car Soundscapes , a 1982 cult classic of sorts — at least for fans of sound documentaries, field recordings, and musique concrète. Released on the Smithsonian Folkways label, it begins as a traditional sound documentary about San Francisco’s iconic cable cars before evolving into a textured, abstract composition.

By the late ’80s, Speare’s interests had shifted away from tape composition and performance. “I started focusing on other time-based media — performance and video, directing and performing in combination with sound — and transposed the skills and sensibility learned in music to those media.”

His interests followed new and unusual trajectories. He began working as a hearing conservationist in factories, giving hearing tests to workers, and in his various art projects he became increasingly interested in finding and creating “zones of quiet” amid the din of contemporary life. “These endeavors were as important and essential to me as composition, and in a sense they superseded it. They were not about creating sound for abstraction, consumption, and edification but rather about affecting people’s lives directly in the living sound environment.”

On the occasion of his 50th birthday, Speare revisited his earlier sound work, organizing his tapes, digitizing them, and creating the collection that would become Sound Works 1982–1987. At first the compilation was intended as a gift for friends. Eventually he made contact with the head of the indie label Family Vineyard, who was a great admirer of Cable Car Soundscapes and was happy to release the collection. Speare is also composing and performing again, beginning with a reel-to-reel-versus-cassette-tape duo set last October at Soto with local musician Howard Stelzer. “I am still putting the tools that I will use together, mixing old and new,” he says of his return to tape music. “The tactility of shaping sound will always be a part of that.”

JED SPEARE | Mobius Gallery, 725 Harrison Ave, Boston | December 7 | 617. 542.7416

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