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The Man Who Recorded, Tamed and Then Sold Nature Sounds to America
April 05, 2016 | Cara Giaimo | Atlas Obscura
In the 1970s, you could buy a pet rock, or a lava lamp. People had even pawned the Brooklyn Bridge a few times.

But no one sold the ocean until Irv Teibel.

If you flip on a waterfall to fall asleep, if you keep in your bookmarks, if you associate well-being with the sound of streams and crickets or wonder why the beach never quite sounds as tranquil as you imagine, it's because of Teibel. New York's least likely media mogul was the mastermind behind Environments, a series of records he swore were "The Future of Music." From 1969 to 1979, he took the best parts of nature, turned them up to 11, engraved them on 12-inch records, and sold them back to us by the millions. He had a musician's ear, an artist's heart, and a salesman's tongue, and his work lives on in yoga studios, Skymall catalogs, and the sea-blue eyes of Brian Eno. If you haven't heard of him, it's only because he designed his own legacy to be invisible.

This is the story of a man who tried to capture the world, and really wanted us to listen.

The Countercultural Sea

The liner notes and disc for Environments 1: "The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore/Optimum Aviary." (Photo: Cara Giaimo)

Irving Solomon Teibel was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1938. Though his full name has a cadence any melodist would envy, everyone called him Irv. He took an early interest in preserving sound—his childhood home was lively with classical music, and he'd bring recording equipment to his brother Phil's violin concerts, to add them to the stacks.

ADVERTISINGAs he got older, he zigzagged between disciplines and cities, picking up new modes of apprehension and expression: applied science at Rochester Institute of Technology, photography at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, public relations for the U.S. Army in Germany, publishing in London. While stationed in Stuttgart in the 1950s, he dug into the local scene, studying electronic music and splicing tape with fellow musique concréte fans at a radio station. Promotion by day, sonic experiments by night—Teibel may not have known it, but he was building the toolkit he'd call on to makeEnvironments.

By 1965, he was 27 years old and a jack-of-all-trades Manhattanite. He wrote and photographed for magazines like Look and Car and Driver, designed record jackets, and, after composer John Watts set up a synthesizer-based curriculum, studied electronic music at the New School for Social Research. In his spare time, he ogled fancy motorcycles, kept a running file of weird restaurants, and gigged around, helping his artist friends with their after-hours endeavors.

Teibel recording in the British countryside in the late 1970s. (Photo: Courtesy Syntonic Research)

In short, like many young people in New York at the time, he was experimenting with the array of different creative tools available to the growing counterculture. Teibel's own calling manifested in 1968, as he crewed on a shoot for a feature called Coming Attractions. The film, directed by Tony and Beverly Grant Conrad, was a fantastical, dream-soaked portrait of a drag queen named Francis Francine, facing an uncertain future while haunted by a "Spirit of Seductions Past." That same year, the Conrads' friend Walter de Maria released a disc called "Ocean Music," featuring 20 minutes of crashing surf. Seeking a similar sense of sonic restlessness, the directors sent Teibel to Coney Island to record the waves off Brighton Beach.

Coming Attractions has a perfectly splotched 1960s art house pedigree: Tony Conrad played violin with what would become The Velvet Underground, and Beverly Grant headlined films by notorious performance artist Jack Smith. Francis Francine was a Warhol muse and and early genderqueer superstar, and Walter de Maria, already an up-and-coming sculptor, would soon make an indelible mark byfilling a SoHo room with dirt. Even the Conrads' marriage was somehow transgressive—they got together after working together on a Smith film in which she played a cobra woman and he played a mummy, a decision that caused Smith to disown them both for being too normal.

Thrown into this avant-garde who's-who, Teibel could have been starstruck. Instead, out angling his microphone at the Brighton Beach surf, he got seastruck. Teibel's roving mind craved a magnet—he loved his sleepless city, but it was no good for calming down, or corralling his thoughts. Even his hobbies had lost some luster. After years of manipulating noise for fun, he told a friend, he suddenly "found it hard to do anything pleasant" with it.

The sea sounds, though, were easy to love. Taken back to his Manhattan apartment and looped on repeat, they were even better. They quieted his mind. They helped him concentrate. They did something plain old human music couldn't.

"A Perfect Ocean"

Soon after his Brighton Beach breakthrough, Teibel went for his regular chess game with a friend who worked in psychoacoustics, studying how sound affects the nervous system. As Teibel later related in computer magazine Digital Deli, this friend happened to bring up Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, a 19th-century German polymath who was convinced that natural sounds—even those as mundane as the wind, or the sea—might have "great psychological benefits, if only some means of accurate reproduction could be found."

A century after this speculation, such means were now old hat. Teibel had just used them to bottle the ocean. "This casual mention of Helmholtz' musings," he wrote, "triggered a 'what-if' that was to have a profound effect on the next decade of my life." He later told his daughter that it was like "waking up and being on top of an elephant."

Teibel informed the Conrads that he wanted to start a record label. When they declined to go in on it, he left their project and went back to the beach himself.

But making the sounds he recorded match the sea in his head was no easy feat, and required a then-rare collaborator—a computer.

Compared to music, or spoken conversation, the ocean is "noisy," full of surprising tones and frequencies your average microphone doesn't bother to preserve. And though the human ear is used to filling in gaps left by a choppy radio or telephone, Teibel found it to be much less forgiving when taking in natural sounds. "Into this maelstrom of inaccuracy I plunged with my trusty Uher portable stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder and a tangle of microphones and cables," he wrote. "Nearly a year later I had produced a hundred stereo recordings not one of which actually sounded, to my mind's eye, like the ocean I wanted to hear."

Luckily for him, Teibel's perfectionism was matched by his roster of useful fri
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