The Gardner Museum’s Sound Lab provides an intimate window into the lives of Boston’s teens


How much attention do you pay to the sounds around you? If you listen, they can tell a big story.

This is what some high school students learned as they helped a local artist prepare what is called a “Sound Lab” for the ambitious new exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, “Listen Hear: The Art of Sound,” which opened this week.

Together, artist Elisa Hamilton and several teenagers have created recordings to encourage museum visitors to open their ears to the sounds of their own lives.

“Start listening more closely”

The Sound Lab is one of 10 installations inside and outside the museum that explore the often untapped power of audio. (It runs until March 18, while the others are on display until September 5.) The urban teens who participated in the Sound Lab belong to Gardner’s neighboring community partner groups. I visited the artist and some of the young collaborators to find out more.

“My mission for the museum was to merge sound and community,” Hamilton told me as I walked through his rotating albums in Gardner’s Calderwood Concert Hall.

The community part was easy for Hamilton, as his work generally focuses on bringing people together to share and discover the joys often hidden in ordinary places, experiences and things.

But using sound – and asking young people to really listen – was new.

“Listening together is no longer something we do a lot more. We listen alone, with headphones, ”Hamilton mused with a laugh. “We upload just one song and we certainly don’t critically listen to our ordinary life. So that was my first goal, it was to get teens to start listening more closely.

33-year-old artist and director of community engagement at the museum, Rhea Vedro, has worked with four neighboring community partners in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill. They hoped that the teens of the Hyde Square Task Force, the Roxbury Youth Orchestra and the Edward M. Kennedy School for Health Careers Drama Club would help them – and ultimately visitors to Gardner – to listen more carefully.

Drama student Craig Cummings places a record on a turntable to listen to his recording for the first time. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

“I didn’t know what it would be like to work with teenagers who are used to watching TV and using iPhones, so I had reservations about how this generation might come to this project,” Hamilton admitted, then said. declared, “and I was Totally Wrong!”

Capture culture and everyday life

Hamilton recalled what happened when she asked teens at EMK School to record sounds from their everyday lives that say something about who they are.

“They actually recorded the most intimate sounds of the groups, the teenagers that you will meet today,” she said. “Several of them brought their recorders to family meals. A young woman recorded her dinner in a Latin restaurant.

Hamilton played that moment for me. The clinking of glasses and cutlery joined the rhythm of warm voices.

“It captured part of my Honduran culture,” recalls 17-year-old Juliana Pereira, “and all of these different types of food and language.”

Juliana, who lives in Jamaica Plain, then described the scene.

“My mom was talking to the chef, and it was all these lovely words in my native language, which is Spanish, and I felt really sincere that I had to record it. Because I know my family, we love to be together, even in tough times, when it’s hard to be together, “she said.” We do our best to be a family. And that’s just all the love that we just captured.

Director Laura Boston and drama students Craig Cummings and Juliana Pereira listen to Juliana's recording for the first time.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Director Laura Boston and drama students Craig Cummings and Juliana Pereira listen to Juliana’s recording for the first time. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Another student captured the sounds of nature. 17-year-old Craig Cummings recorded his walk back through Franklin Park.

“This is where I go and think and contemplate all the things I love to do,” he told me. “And I wanted to walk in this forest – to hear only the crackle of leaves, the chirping of birds, to hear only nature – that was really the best thing to describe who I am. “

It was a revelation for Craig’s teacher, EMK Drama Club Director Laura Boston.

“Craig is a very outgoing student who loves music, who loves to talk,” she said. “So the choice he made to record some sort of lonely moment in nature really interested me, because I felt like I was learning a bit more about Craig as a person. “

These kinds of reactions are exactly what the museum and the artist were hoping for.

Turn sound into something you can hold

Hamilton also introduced teenagers to vinyl records. To many of them, they were like ancient and foreign artifacts. They listened to 78s and 45s and heard performers like the Andrews Sisters, Etta James and Bing Crosby for the first time. The artist recorded this too.

Ultimately, Hamilton documented community groups in action, doing what they normally do together when they meet. Then she had their sounds transformed into vinyl records with their photos and illustrations.

The album covers of the "Sound laboratory" project.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Album covers of the “Sound Lab” project. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Juliana performed a monologue in front of her friends at a theater club. She wrote it from a woman’s perspective in a museum painting. We listened to his album in the concert hall of the museum.

“Please worship me, that’s all I have to live for.” What do you see when you look at me? Am I pretty enough for you? Do you like what you see? I can be thinner. I may even be paler. Anything, please! Take photos. You with the sketchbook – yes, you! Draw me, love me! Do you like my dress? You should draw me thinner, more beautiful, please. Do not leave. Please.”

Applause from her teacher and peers faded as the needle reached the end of the track.

Juliana and her drama club friend Craig hadn’t heard these albums in their lives until this very moment. They hugged and laughed. Juliana gasped: “Oh my god! I’m just speechless, oh my god. It was my very first time hearing myself through audio, and I’m just shy and blushing all over the place. Then she added, “I look at myself right before I joined the drama club, and I never imagined I would go this far. I have so much to be thankful for.

Juliana and Craig both say that listening to each other on these albums is like going back to the day Hamilton recorded their monologues. Listening together means making them appreciate their theater club experience in a new way.

“I probably wouldn’t be as emotional as I am now if I listened to it at home on my own,” Craig said. Then Juliana added, “We learned a lot about each other. I’m just grateful to have you as a friend, my brother. Craig nodded and said, “Same here, Julie. Same here.”

Pereira and Cummings watch Craig's record spin and listen to his recording for the first time.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Pereira and Cummings watch Craig’s record spin and listen to his recording for the first time. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Hamilton says what just happened is like a dream come true. “I really wanted to do this piece about the participants,” she said. “I really wanted the community group we were working with to shine. “

When I asked Director of Community Engagement Rhea Vedro why the Gardner wanted to create the Sound Lab, she said, ‘are able to lend a cache to what they do, and they are able to. bringing real knowledge about what’s important to people at the museum when we think about interpretation, when we think about programming, so it’s really important.

The vinyl turns on the "Sound laboratory" platinum, surrounded by student-designed albums.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
The vinyl runs on the “Sound Lab” turntable, surrounded by albums designed by the students. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Artist Elisa Hamilton chose albums because she wanted to turn the sounds of community groups into objects that people could see, hold and play on a turntable. Now visitors can play teenage records on listening stations in the concert hall of the Gardner Museum.

When the “Sound Lab” is completed, the specially designed albums and decks will be donated to the community groups that created them. Hamilton hopes the archives she helped them start will continue to grow.

Juliana admits that she’s a little nervous for people to listen to her monologue, but she hopes they will have the same kind of accomplishments she had.

“I just feel like we take listening for granted,” she reflected, “and I think with this project it made me realize that there was a lot to listen. It’s not just about listening to the latest pop song on the radio, it’s also about listening in front of your window, and it’s their own music. It’s nature’s music. is the music of life.

What is the music that we can all find everyday.


Elisa Hamilton’s “Sound Lab” is in place at the Isabella Stewart Museum until March 18th. The participating teens will be on site for the next two Saturdays. “Sound Lab” is part of the museum’s new exhibit, “Listen Hear, The Art of Sound”, which is open until September 5th.


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