Listening to Tucson

Tucson musician and artist Glenn Weyant continues recording the sounds of our city and desert world

It's 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and downtown Tucson—minus the men and women in business suits and office casual—is awake despite the empty streets.

But today, it's not about the sights. This is a sound walk with Glenn Weyant. The only goal is to pay attention to every sound from corner to corner, alley ways and those places made special without the weekday bustle of city and county workers and traffic, lots of traffic.

There's a mythology to a Sunday morning, I think to myself, as I begin this walk with Weyant. Sunday mornings are reserved for lingering in bed, leisurely coffee with extra cream and sugar, the New York Times and the eggs and bacon of brunch.

However, on this downtown Sunday morning, it grows obvious with each step that Sundays are reserved for the early preparations of restaurant workers, bicyclists reveling in empty streets and sidewalks, the homeless waking and walking, and birds competing with the crosswalk street-signal chirps, and slowly, people finding themselves downtown for brunch.

Earlier in the week, I walked the UA campus with Weyant on a particularly windy day. From the Main Library we walked to the Student Union and ended our sound walk at the Old Main fountain. Sitting along the fountain, Weyant and I talk about this art of listening, and how this act of just being quiet and walking gives you a sense of place that's impossible to feel when rushing across campus.

No, that day was flip-flops, gravel, and cataloging the differing sounds the wind makes through mesquite, palm trees and the clusters of cacti that dot campus.

A sound artist, Weyant spends a good deal of his time listening and recording those sounds. Last summer, he spent his days recording the sounds of our downtown, Reid Park and the UA campus for his latest project Sonorous Desert City Project, a collection and composition of sounds put on a CD funded by a $2,500 Tucson Pima Arts Council grant.

Weyant, originally from New Jersey, has called Tucson home the past 20 years. At 51 now, he says his interest in sound began in his childhood. In the early 1980s he studied journalism, and using micro cassette recorders, he'd record the sounds around him. As technology improved he'd find other devices to record, like four-track recorders.

When he was working in New York City he'd listen to the Columbia University radio station for its "interesting strange programs," and he'd find himself listening to the areas on the dial between the stations. He recorded those to create what he calls nonmusical soundscapes.

In the early years after his move to Tucson, two of his recordings made it on National Public Radio. From the big backyard of the rental he shared with his wife, he recorded doves. It was the first time he'd heard that natural desert cacophony. When it played on NPR it was called Tucson's Morning Chorus, and it played across the country.

The lesson for Weyant was that sounds connect with people—sounds matter.

He went on to another project that's gained the sound musician further attention—playing the border wall. Starting nine years ago, Weyant says it was a response to growing number of people dying in the desert and what he, as an early journalist, saw as a lack of attention to the humanitarian disaster taking place in the region.

In the beginning he played the border fence between the two Nogales sister cities—the mish-mash fence that existed for generations before being replaced by the metal behemoth hell bent on separating what used to naturally flow back and forth. From the sounds of the world surrounding the fence—birds, border-crossing traffic and the people on both sides—Weyant has also taken cello bows and mallets to create what some may think is a more traditional musical form.

"Playing the border wall gave me a voice that I didn't have before," Weyant says. "I'm not from here, but what was taking place, what's still taking place—I wanted to do something. I saw it as a way to tell the story of what was going on."

On a visit back to a stretch of the wall near Sasabe after his first border wall gig, Weyant says he met a man from New Orleans working for the Sundt Corporation in charge of building the new border fence. A post-Katrina refugee, the man, named Levy, inspected wells along the border carrying a huge multicolored parasol.

"He stopped to ask what we were doing and we got him to hold the camera while we played," he recalls. Another time he went back to play the wall, Mexico sent their helicopters and eventually Border Patrol arrived, too. Of course, it only added to the music and sounds Weyant heard, performed and recorded.

One thing that's clear is that Weyant's career has always been about working with what he has and sharing his recordings. In the 1990s, his distribution method was putting cassette tapes in a zip lock bag and leaving them around Tucson. Inside he'd leave a post card explaining the project and his address. On occasion people would let him know, with one person writing, "My mother told me that if you don't have something good to say ..."

"Still he wrote," Weyant says, laughing.

In the late 1990s, Weyant started playing at Solar Culture with other musicians in a band called Prepping Finger Salad. Other artists in town organized evenings bringing together music and art. Weyant says he taught himself how to play saxophone and took up improvisational jazz, but the arrival of his first child made it difficult to practice.

That's when he returned to his early interest in ambient sounds. When he started the recordings for The Sonorous Desert City Project, Weyant says he found himself in the Iron Horse neighborhood near the Buffet bar and another dense student housing project getting its finishing touches.

"As a migrant from the East Coast I see how valuable Tucson is in planning and development. On the East Coast there isn't much left to develop," he says.

"Here, in Tucson, in the desert, I couldn't believe some of the development things taking place. I feel the same way about the downtown area and how it's changing. I don't think the city has thought enough about it acoustically and how it's changed and is changing."

Once the large student housing building went up in the old Iron Horse neighborhood off Ninth Street, Weyant says the sounds changed, bouncing off the multiple story building's large walls onto the historic neighborhood homes surrounding it.

"I wanted to make sure to record that space. I collected hours of sound," he says.

Part of his inspiration recording sounds for his project are the changes Tucson is going through—the student housing hives, the downtown bars, the change from trolley to streetcar, and even the environment—birds, helicopters, monsoon, cicadas and the people celebrating and living. During festivals like the All Souls Procession and the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, Weyant says he strapped his recording equipment to the basket on his bicycle and walked through crowds recording music, drumming and snippets of conversation.

"I'd like to do this all over again in 10 years—apply for another grant and go back to the same locations and do the same recordings and compare how they sound. There will be new technologies, but also new volumes of people and more change," Weyant says.

"This now, this is honoring what exists. And then later, seeing how we've changed. If we don't hear a lot of native birds are those bellweathers of a changing environment."

The compositions he puts together, while some may argue that they have no music component, to Weyant they are absolutely music, and life, like our Sunday morning sound walk, is full of rhythm. That's obvious as we walk through downtown—the doors to Proper are open and an employee is making pasta hours before the restaurant officially opens; a bicyclist with a wide smile on his face has a playing card pinned to his tire; and even the homeless man we've now passed twice makes a sound as his pack rubs against his shoulders.

"Again I have a different approach to this. There's a political side and there's a musical component. Trains, for example. When they go past, the sound of their wheels and mechanical parts," he says.

"Trains and water become orchestral. Every sound has value and I appreciate them as music."

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