Recorded sound had no greater friend than Tony Schwartz, the audio documentarian, advertising guru, media consultant, and exalted citizen of the aural universe, who passed away Saturday a few months shy of his 85th birthday. He’ll be forever linked to his best-known work—the infamous “Daisy” ad from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 re-election campaign (See Youtube video here)—but to many, Schwartz is beloved for sharing with the world his lifelong infatuation with the musicality of prosaic sounds.
Beginning in 1945, Schwartz, armed with a microphone and Webcor wire recorder, set out to capture the sounds of the world around him—the dogs barking, the kids playing, the street-corner preacher, the cab driver’s running monologue—for the pure pleasure of it. Afflicted since the age of 13 with chronic agoraphobia, Schwartz was incapable of traveling more than a few blocks from his apartment, so he made field recordings of the sounds of his Manhattan neighborhood and released them on a series of long-playing albums, the most prominent called New York 19 (named for the local postal zone which would later be renamed NY, NY 10019).
Despite the fact that he didn’t travel, or maybe because of it, Schwartz nursed an outsized case of wanderlust, which he began to satisfy sonically by trading tape recordings with people all over the globe. In just a few years, he’d amassed a staggering collection of audio documents, folk music performances and far-flung greetings from other amateur recording enthusiasts in nearly four dozen countries. Over the years, Schwartz produced 19 full-length LPs of his various audio collections. One of these albums, Exchange: Friendship Around the World Thru Tape Exchange, (it was later retitled The World in My Mail Box) contains a sampling of tapes Schwartz received from such outposts as Haiti, India, Norway, South Africa, Peru as well as North American locales like South Dakota, New Mexico and Pittsburgh, PA.
A Major in Germany (MP3, from The World in My Mail Box)
Schwartz employed his tape recorder the way others used a camera, documenting, investigating and archiving intimate moments of sound, both incidental and, increasingly, planned. Schwartz staged audio events—he called them “stories”—to further explore and share with others his own fascinations. For instance, on his 1962 album You’re Stepping on My Shadow, Schwartz enlisted the innovative clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre to perform some rather unusual duets:
Music in Marble Halls (MP3, from You’re Stepping on My Shadow)
In addition to the albums of audio wonderment he produced for Folkways and Columbia Records, Schwartz had another significant platform from which he shared his sweet and eccentric observations: For 31 years he broadcast a weekly program on New York’s public radio station WNYC. (Go here to hear a captivating 1961 broadcast of Schwartz’s audio magazine “Adventure in Sound.”) “The best thing about radio,” he once said, “is that people were born without earlids. You can’t close your ears to it.”
Over the course of his many decades spent hunting and gathering the euphony of the everyday, Schwartz became a keen observer of human communication and specifically the human voice. Through the countless hours he spent listening up-close to the subjects he recorded, Schwartz came to understand that most persuasive speech invoked a kind of participation on the part of the listener, striking what he called a “responsive chord.” This analysis served him well in his career as an advertising executive and media theorist. (Marshall McLuhan dubbed him the “guru of the electronic age”). Working from his home studio, Schwartz produced thousands of television and radio spots, developing innovative approaches that became standard practice in the industry. He also designed and produced memorable political advertising.
In 2007 Schwartz’s entire body of work was acquired by the Library of Congress, which is planning to digitize his recordings, ads, and political spots and make them available to the public.