"This Is Noise": Elder Hosts Award-Winning Radio/Sound Artist


The Sound Studies Listening Group recently held its Spring 2018 session, which was special for a couple of reasons. Led by Colin Black, international award-winning radio/sound artist, the event was hosted by Radio/Television/Film Professor Jake Smith in his Faculty-in-Residence apartment at Elder Residential Community. The evening’s program was part of Black’s month-long visit to Northwestern, which was sponsored by the Australian government to facilitate intellectual and cultural exchange through the School of Communication’s Sound Arts & Industries MA program directed by Smith. Thanks to Smith’s connection to the residential experience, Black was able to truly immerse himself in the Northwestern experience by living in Elder’s guest apartment.

“I liked the idea of hosting a visitor who could engage both with the Elder community and a scholarly community around Northwestern," explained Smith. "There are often speakers who come to campus just for a day, give a talk, and leave. The visiting artist/scholar enables a different kind of engagement.”

When asked to describe what it was like living on campus for a month, Black said, “At first, it was a little strange because I had never lived in a university residence hall before. It was much quieter and more orderly than I imagined.” Black’s preconceptions about American college life were also challenged by the spaces he encountered within Elder: “I was really impressed with the standard of the accommodation,” he said.

Of course, the residential experience is about much more than studying and nice amenities. Ultimately, it is the people who make it special. Black was welcomed into the Elder community and had a chance to “engage in meaningful debates” with residents by participating in popular standing traditions like Sunday Cider, when Smith draws hordes of residents into the main lounge for hot apple cider and donuts. Even if Elder residents couldn’t make it to one of Black’s events at the School of Communication, they had an opportunity to meet an internationally known artist in the living room of their campus residence. Black’s most notable works (“In Search of Captain Cat,” “A Lullaby for New Lands,” and “The Ears Outside my Listening Room”) air all over the world and have won prizes such as the Prix Italia.

visiting artist/scholar Colin black talks with students at sunday cider in elder residential community.

visiting artist/scholar Colin black talks with students at sunday cider in elder residential community.

More than anything, Black’s month in residence was a way for Smith to combine both of his Northwestern identities: Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film and Faculty-in-Residence at Elder Residential Community. One of Smith’s favorite things about being a Faculty-in-Residence is that “Elder is a very diverse community, with students from schools and programs across the University.”

“I am used to hosting events at Elder that speak to a wide range of interests,” Smith said. “It was fun to have a guest who could speak across those areas, and also to allow Elder residents to go a little deeper into a particular area of artistic work – sound and radio art – that they might not otherwise know much about.” Aside from seeing Black at Sunday Cider and in the dining hall, students could learn more about his work by accepting Smith’s open invitation to join the Sound Studies Listening Group in the Faculty-in-Residence apartment. Smith billed the evening as “a sonic journey somewhere between fact and fiction, in search of the mythical blind Captain Cat from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.”

As every college student knows, living in a residence hall is not all fun and games. Like students studying in their rooms, Black also had work to do. After all, a new environment meant new soundscapes for him to find, capture, and study. “I love walking by Lake Michigan and listening to the waves crashing on the concrete blocks. The birds in the morning are so different sounding to those in Australia and create a beautiful prelude for the coming day,” Black recalled. “The train announcement at Noyes, which I imagined as ‘This is Noise,’ was for me a proposition to just open my ears and listen to the street as I walked down Noyes Street to Northwestern University.”

Black’s expertise is well-known in the academic community of sound studies. Being able to arrange an extended visit was an exciting milestone for the School of Communication’s cutting-edge graduate program in Sound Arts & Industries. “When I heard [Colin] was looking for a venue to spend some time working on new material, I was eager to bring him to Northwestern, where he could get to know our program, draw from our intellectual and material resources and inspire our students,” said Professor Neil Verma, one of Smith’s department colleagues.

To make the most of Black’s long journey and extended visit, Smith also wanted to enrich the residential experience for Elder residents and pilot an offering that other Faculty-in-Residence might take advantage of in the years ahead. “We hope to expand this program for bringing visiting scholars, artists, and professionals to Northwestern, and allowing them to interact with students and faculty in the residential context,” said Smith. “I’m always looking for new programs, events, and formats to try out in my role as a Faculty-in-Residence – that’s part of what makes the position so much fun. I liked experimenting with the visiting artist/scholar format, and think that this pilot experience with Colin has shown us that there is a lot of potential there.”