UPDATE 12/16/15: Are you a fan of Irv’s work? Want to collaborate or share your personal story of discovering the environments series? Drop me a line at jonathaneennewton [at] gmail [dot] com. Exciting projects in the works.
UPDATE 10/8/14: I’m now working with Syntonic Research, Irv Teibel’s label, to sort through his papers and recordings and compile a number of projects related to his life. More forthcoming. I edited this post to correct errors and reflect what I now know about him and his work.
When YouTube began hosting videos longer than fifteen minutes an unexpected flood of environmental recordings followed. My recent search for “nature sounds” yielded nearly endless results, with some videos charting views in the millions. It’s not surprising that many of the examples I previewed were short loops stitched together from subpar field recordings–nature’s broken records. The shear number recordings, however, raises questions on the manufacturing and packaging of nature in the name of health.
In the September issue of The Wire, writer Dan Barrow devotes a short column to the ubiquity of sleep-inducing media. He traces the lineage of nature recordings designed and marketed to improve wellness back to the influential environments series (1969-79) created by Irv Teibel.
Irv Teibel (1938-2010)
The series featured eleven LPs each with two side-long soundscapes. The track names ranged from documentary (“Dawn at New Hope, Pennsylvania”) to downright vivid (“Psychologically Ultimate Seashore”). I picked up two on vinyl this past week, and, after an initial pass, it’s clear that Teibel’s “totally new concepts in stereo sound” were matched only by his imaginative marketing. One provocative tagline proclaimed “The music of the future isn’t music.” Each jacket also included “listener test responses,” often unattributed testimonials filtered through a hippie haze.
While many of Teibel’s soundscapes are hyperreal field recordings enhanced through early digital processing at Bell Labs, Environments 2 stands out for it’s proto-new age aesthetics.
From the liner notes:
“Tintinnabulation” can be played at any speed, from 78 to 16 rpm, in full stereo. At different speeds, the sounds change in tone and apparent size, although the harmonics remain unchanged. The effect, unlike real bells, is fully controllable by the use of your volume, bass, and treble controls.
In the 1970s, these recordings pushed LP lengths at thirty minutes per side when played at 33 1/3. Combined with the variable speed option, listeners could enjoy over an hour of psychoacoustic sounds to aid in concentration, sleep, and even lovemaking (see Environments 5).
Many labels have produced similar recordings since the 1970s, often pushing the genre towards new age, a direction Teibel apparently despised. However, contemporary labels like Earth Ear carry the torch of high quality natural recordings. Acoustic Ecology Institute director Jim Cummings started the label in 1998 as an alternative to the mediocre relaxation recordings available in retail megastores. While he admits the company never made much money, he sustains that the label was artistically and conceptually successful. Today the company is largely inactive but still occasionally releases recordings for the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology.
I’m endlessly interested in investigating the ways sound has been marketed as a utility and I’ll continue to write deeply about the intersections of music, nature and health on this blog.
If you’ve used a nature recording, app, or sound machine, I’d love to hear your feedback on their efficacy–if they worked, or if they added to the din of modern living.