After 40 Years of New Sounds, John Schaefer is Still Actively Listening

When John Schaefer started broadcasting his WNYC show New Sounds in 1981, he was just playing music he liked from his personal record collection. At the time, WNYC had contemporary music shows that covered modernist atonal music, and one show hosted by critic Tim Page that showcased minimalism, but Schaefer wanted to play the genre-explorers like Laurie Anderson, the crossover artists like Brian Eno, and sounds that came from places all over the globe. He wanted to create a radio show that gave people a space to be curious listeners, to take them on a path that leads toward discovery.

“It’s all about opening doors and inviting people in,” Schaefer says. “It’s not just that there’s a door; there’s a whole hallway of doors, and you might like what you find in some of them.”

That ethos has carried New Sounds from its early days as an operation born out of Schaefer’s record collection into a mainstay hub for open-eared listening. At its heart, Schaefer says: “[New Sounds] is for people who suspect there’s more out there than what they know, and that bothers them. They don’t need to like it, but they at least want to know what it is.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of New Sounds, which currently runs every evening on WNYC at 11pm and hosts a 24/7 livestream on their website. To produce the show, Schaefer works with Caryn Havlik, who’s been part of the program for 20 years. Over the past four decades, New Sounds has broadcast music spanning eras, genres, styles, and locations, giving its listeners enthusiastic, contextualized conversations about the music. Artists featured include people like the Bang on a Can composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang, composer and pianist Vijay Iyer, guitarist Yasmin Williams, and Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar. Each episode focuses on a different topic, like pieces that use the typewriter or songs that have no words; others focus on regions or genres, like a recent African and Pan-African Brass-centric show.

In characteristic New Sounds fashion, they’re celebrating the anniversary with explorative live concerts. The second, which is slated for October 21, celebrates the life of composer Ingram Marshall. Hosted by Schaefer, the evening is a memorial tribute to the composer, who passed away this spring at age 80. Marshall’s work explored tape and digital delay, Indonesian gamelan, postminimalism, and hints of Romantic era-classical music, and is an example of the kind of eclectic music that can be heard on the show.

John Schaefer speaks at the WNYC & WQXR Celebrate 40 Years Of 'New Sounds' event at Brooklyn Bowl--Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images

John Schaefer speaks at the WNYC & WQXR Celebrate 40 Years Of ‘New Sounds’ event at Brooklyn Bowl–Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Long before Schaefer established New Sounds, he was soaking up the sounds of New York as a kid taking subway rides to school and learning about the vibrant rap and punk scenes in the city. His household wasn’t particularly musical, but he, like the listeners he now imagines for his radio show, was always certain there was more out there than just the classic rock mainstays that emanated from record players and the popular radio stations.

During high school, a friend introduced Schaefer to the famous downtown New York club CBGB, which was a central location for punk and new wave music. This friend had cousins and a brother who played in The Shirts, a band who performed at CBGB often, and when Schaefer went to the venue for the first time, something opened up inside of him. “There’s this kind of music that doesn’t care about the mainstream, that doesn’t care about getting commercial radio play, that was just mind blowing to me,” he remembers. Then David Bowie released his Berlin album, Low, which similarly expanded Schaefer’s mind about what music could be.

There was a whole world of sound out there that I had been hearing, but I had never listened to. That distinction between hearing and listening…that was just a moment that I guess I’m still recovering from.

While studying at Fordham University, Schaefer stumbled upon the school radio station, WFUV, after taking what he thought was a shortcut on his way to class. He’d never seen the station before that day, but after he found it, he rarely left, spending most of his time in college in those studios. The students ran every part of the station (except for weekend shows). So Schaefer was able to get experience from all angles. He hosted classical broadcasts, overnight rock, morning pop, evening news — he even figured out how to rig a mixing board into the mouthpiece of a payphone so they could broadcast hockey games.

But it was picking up the weekend gig as an engineer on the Indian music show that led Schaefer to his first paid radio job. It was fast-paced, involving sifting through short tracks and listening to numerous “ear-opening” sounds. He became friends with the host, who’d later let him record episodes of New Sounds at his Inwood home when the WNYC studios were closed for repairs.

Schaefer’s journey has been driven by his persistent interest in actively taking in music. He has trouble choosing his all-time favorite artists — but he can name the ones that have “changed how he listens.” One of those is David Hykes, a composer who founded and leads the group Harmonic Choir, an ensemble that explores overtone singing. Schaefer knew about overtones when the group came on his show, but when Hykes demonstrated the technique to him, he became enthralled with it.

“There was a whole world of sound out there that I had been hearing, but I had never listened to,” Schaefer says. “That distinction between hearing and listening…that was just a moment that I guess I’m still recovering from.”

John Schaefer--Photo by Marco Antonio

John Schaefer–Photo by Marco Antonio

While New Sounds has certainly grown since the beginning, the program’s commitment to active listening has stayed the same. What has changed is the show’s content, which has evolved with Schaefer, his listeners, and changing social currents in contemporary music. In the past, Schaefer recalls needing to put in more effort to make sure his shows told stories about people besides white men. Now, he notices himself easily making playlists that feature artists from many different backgrounds. “I think that’s been a huge important change in the show, but simply because it’s reflecting a huge and important change in the music community, as well,” Schaefer says. And since he began the show, genre lines have eroded — listeners aren’t as cloistered to the labels they see in record stores, which Schaefer sees as an energizing force for the future.

As much as listening to New Sounds allows audiences space to find music they haven’t heard before, running the program requires Schaefer to unearth and learn along the way, too. That’s what’s kept it alive all these years — the dream of always finding some new possibility, and of doing it together. “People tell me ‘oh, I’ve discovered so much music through your show,’” Schaefer says. “I’m right there with you. I’m discovering this stuff, too. And that has been the thing, probably more than anything else, that has driven the show for so long. There’s constantly a discovery to be made.”


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