By Danny LaChance | photos By robin lietz
“Have you ever heard an Indian water buffalo?” composer Christopher Marianetti ’03 asks before making a sound somewhere between a horse’s neigh and a trombone’s downward slide. “It’s insane. It sounds like a creature from another planet,” he laughs.
Sounds like this one are the unconventional notes in Marianetti’s musical universe, and recording and arranging them in meaningful ways are the foundation of his approach to composing music. Where most composers stick to major and minor chords, he imagines recorded sounds he’s collected on different continents: desks in Brooklyn scraping against linoleum; hands beating rhythmically on a worn snare drum in an artists’ café in Zimbabwe; a musician on a Manhattan street corner recalling events from his itinerant past.
Marianetti isn’t the first musician to challenge conventional assumptions about what music is and how it should be composed. Minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass have done that as well. But he is quickly emerging as a leader in using this approach to music making as a tool for building and connecting communities around the world.
He’s doing this through Found Sound Nation, a New York City–based nonprofit he cofounded with fellow New York musician Jeremy Thal. Found Sound Nation, Marianetti says, is like a traveling sound squad. In short-term visits to sites around the world, they work with youth and communities to collaboratively create music; help people understand the principles of computer-based sound recording and engineering; build the infrastructure and expertise necessary to produce, record, and remix sound; and produce an initial project. In two short years, Marianetti has worked with groups as diverse as juvenile detention center youth in New York and meditation teachers at a Northern India ashram.
Inspiration for the organization came from an experience Marianetti had in Milan, Italy, shortly after his Macalester graduation. He was studying composition at the city’s International Academy of Music, immersed in a world of music that seemed abstract and theoretical. “Something felt like it was missing from my musical life,” he explains. “I wanted to do something more social with my music.”
His wish was about to be granted. Hearing of Marianetti’s interest in sound recording, the conservatory director’s wife asked him if he wanted to work with a group of first graders she taught at a local elementary school. In the two weeks of classroom time that followed, Marianetti recorded the students making all sorts of sounds, vocal and otherwise. Then, after importing the sounds into his computer, he had the students visually arrange the color-coded sounds in their own sequences on a projected screen. Using music software and the projections as his guide, he spliced together the recordings into a song.
“I was surprised at how weird, complex, and original the music was,” Marianetti says. New career possibilities entered his head along with the haunting music. Several years later, back in the United States, Marianetti visited students in the Bronx classroom of Soshana Daniels ’03, whom he’d run into at one of his concerts. What started as three kids banging on a table in classroom-turned-recording studio grew, in a matter of days, into more than 30 kids producing an album of original musical recordings. Found Sound Nation was born.
Since its inception, Found Sound Nation has helped youth activists from New York and Philadelphia record their experiences on a service-learning trip to New Orleans. It has created performance art pieces related to HIV/AIDS with youth at the Harare International Festival of the Arts in Zimbabwe; recorded CDs of original music with youth and adults in New York public schools, hospitals, and juvenile detention centers. And it has recorded a dynamic guide to meditation with teachers at the Ashram Paryavaran Vidyalaya school in the Northern Indian Himalayan region of Uttarakhand.
Teaching communities to recognize the taken-for-granted sounds unique to their environment is a big part of his work, says Marianetti. “A lot of artists talk about discovering their voice or finding their sound,” he says. “I think this can also mean going to an institution or neighborhood and asking, ‘What is the sound of this place?’”
Having worked with groups on four continents to answer that question, Marianetti says his organization’s next goal is to encourage sharing across different sound communities to create an imagined musical nation that transcends geographical, linguistic, and political borders. This summer, Found Sound Nation will travel to Haiti, where, as part of the country’s long-term recovery plan, the Ciné Institute is attempting to rebuild and expand its film industry.
Marianetti and collaborators will help the Haitians produce and record music for their latest films, and also create a sound library for the institute’s filmmakers. But when their work is complete, the institute’s sound library won’t just have sounds from a Caribbean island. It will come fully stocked with giggles from New Orleans, drumbeats from Harare, chair scraping from Milan—and, of course, the whinnying cry of one North Indian water buffalo.