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Found Sound

By John Lithgow

I’ve often marveled over how one person’s noise is another’s music – and vice versa. Aren’t our ears strange and wonderful accessories? This palooza is quite flexible because it can be done off and on over any period for as long as it seems fun.

Who can play?
All ages

What do we need?
Portable tape recorder, tape, conductor’s baton (feather duster, ruler, pencil)

Running time?
As long as it takes

Budget?
$

What’s the Palooza?

Create a composition of interesting sounds you collect in your everyday life. John Cage’s infamous 1952 composition, “4’33’”, called for four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence to be filled by whatever random sounds were heard in the concert hall each night: coughs, rustling, sneezes. Considered rather radical at the time, the first performance was held in Woodstock, New York, at the Maverick Concert Hall.

Okay, silence as music might be hard to imagine. But Cage also used rubber mallets, metal hammers, toy pianos, and wooden objects. So point your tape recorder toward a toilet flushing, hanging pots and pans, a fan, or the washing machine – be a maestro and create a musical composition, a la John Cage. Set sound free!

Record various sounds, exploring all over the house, in nooks and crannies. Living room sounds. Kitchen sounds. Bathroom sounds (oops, excuse me!). Take the activity outside to record in the backyard, at the park, in train stations, at stores – as many places as you can.

All sorts of things can happen when you're open to new ideas and playing around with things.Try to avoid the obvious “musical” objects. Instead of the telephone’s ring, record the dial tone or a busy signal. Rather that a doorbell, try the click of the bolt lock.

Now listen to all the found sounds you’ve collected, picking and choosing favorites to use in a composition. Decide what order you want the sounds to be in, maybe jotting them down on a piece of paper: clanging pots, dripping faucet, whistle, vacuum cleaner. (A younger child can dictate a composition to an adult.) You might want to think about whether there’s a scale of some kind, perhaps from lowest-pitch to highest-pitch sounds. Go back and rerecord them in the particular order that you like best.

Arrange a concert hall with the tape recorder position on a pedestal, a podium perhaps in front, and chairs for the “live” audience – whether it’s the family, the family pet, or a collection of action figures. Make a sign with the name of the auditorium and a program listing the composer (that’s you!), the “instruments,” and the date. Naming the composition is half the fun: Concerto for Blender and Bathtub? Sonata in Six Spoons Sharp? Of course you must “conduct” as the tape plays, and then take a modest bow!

Name Your Score

Use this delicious list of musical terms for found sound opuses (or is that opi?).

Adagio
Etude
Minuet
Presto
Allegro
Forte
Musette
Quadrille
Andante
Fugue
Nocturne
Rigaudon
Canon
Galliard
Nonet
Rondo
Cantabile
Gavotte
Obbligato
Scherzo
Cantata
Glissando
Octet
Serenade
Capriccio
Grandioso
Oratorio
Sonata
Cavatina
Grave
Ostinato
Sonatina
Concerto
Grazioso
Partita
Staccato
Courante
Impromptu
Piano
Tessitura
Da capo
Intermezzo
Pizzicato
Tremolo
Energico
Legato
Portamento
Trill
Espressivo
Madrigal
Prelude
Vivace

This palooza, and many other actities for keeping kids amused and engaged can be found in A Lithgow Palooza: 101 Ways to Entertain and Inspire your Kids by John Lithgow (Simon & Schuster/Fireside, $16.00)

From A LITHGOW PALOOZA! by John Lithgow. Copyright © 2004 by John Lithgow. Reprinted by permission of Fireside, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. N.Y.

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