Take Off Your Headphones and Enjoy the Soundscape

Mia Boykin

November 14, 2023 — Modern musical notation, lyric opera, the violin, and Måneskin all have one thing in common – they are the product of Italy’s rich culture of music and sound. This semester in Fiesole, our Hoyas are immersing themselves into this cultural touchstone through Villa Sounds, a special concert series taking place at Villa Le Balze. 

“I was aware…from a previous trip to Italy, just how the spaces for music in many of the buildings here [are] just so qualitatively wonderful, you can see why the violin would have been invented here,” says Professor David Schulman, violinist, professor and the creator and organizer of Villa Sounds. Schulman is serving as the Villa’s Faculty Member in Residence for the fall 2023 semester, teaching the course MUSC-3610 Audio Decameron.

The core of the concert series, and the class, is the recognition of soundscapes. Schulman says, “It’s like the aural context in which things happen, things between people…the use of sounds usually other than voices. And how they interact is just very interesting because it carries meaning. It carries emotional scenes often.” 

Sound montage compiled by Prof. Schulman. Photo: Refugio Cruz/September 2023

During the concert series, Schulman uses the entire Villa as the setting for his soundscape. From the gardens to the terraces to indoor spaces, he taps into a layer of music creation that often seems ignored, where the free movement of sounds is prioritized, and it’s not trapped inside of a room or a concert hall.

The concert series has held multiple performances throughout the semester, all taking place at the Villa. In the first two concerts, Schulman performed solo but incorporated an assignment from his class. Each student in the class had to present a recording of a sound they had heard, and then Schulman created a montage of noises to act as background to his live violin performance. 

Several students seated on folding chairs listening to a man playing violin in the distance.
Students listen to Prof. Schulman play on the Villa’s terrace overlooking Florence. Photo: Sara Muellner/October 2023

“So that became a part of this soundscape that was pre-recorded, that was, of course mixing with the sounds that you hear in the garden, the natural sounds, but also the sounds of the city from farther away,” he says.

And things can be even more fun when he brings guests. At the third performance, Schulman performed with two students from the Fiesole School of Music (FSM), a nearby school with prestigious musicians from all around the world. 

At this concert, while Schulman played outside, Villa students moved around the grounds to hear how the sound changed from various vantage points. Eventually, the FSM musicians began playing inside the Villa, meshing the music wafting from indoors with the sounds from outside, creating a wholly new soundscape. 

Schulman also emphasized the well-being of students, and how the concert series presents them with a new and relaxing way to enjoy the Villa in addition to the more traditional academic setting it provides. 

Three students sitting on a couch in the Villa's "Music Room" with a woman in a red dress standing at a pianoforte with her back to the camera.
Students listen to Fiesole School of Music musicians in the Music Room and standing outside. Photo: Sara Muellner/October 2023

“This really gives the students some more time to be up at the villa, you know, like not in class, right? And so like I would play the concert…and then they would have a game night, or have dinner…. It’s really a nice setting for that, just chilling out, as a social thing, and being up there for the sunset is just beautiful.” 

Emily Diaz (CAS ‘25) provides her insight surrounding the concert series. She says, “It brings pieces of your own identity and what you think is important and what you think is valuable together.  It makes you feel a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. I really like them. And also Schulman is extremely talented, very talented.”

The concert series seems to be a hit amongst students, giving them the chance to mentally map the landscape of the Villa through music. Diaz is also a member of Schulman’s Audio Decameron class this semester. 

“I think this class has really brought me out of my comfort zone, and to look at the perspectives when it comes to sound because it [the class] has a focus on looking at sounds that we might not really pay attention to on a day-to-day basis, which is really interesting,” she said. 

From the perspective of a student, Schulman’s class may seem daunting. Not only does it require you to open your ears to unconventional sounds, but also dives into the rich history of the Boccaccio’s Decameron. Diaz explained that the class is weekly cut in half, with half of the students reading a section of the Decameron, while the other half must leave the Villa and record sounds. Under Schulman’s instruction, the sounds and analysis come together in the classroom in a sort of impromptu concert as well as used for the actual concert series. 

“We each play our sound of the week, but all together. And then the other students are walking around. It’s a very collective thing. And for me, personally, hearing all of these sounds kind of makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger. It’s one thing to recognize your sound, but then recognize someone else’s sound from another place….” 

Video of the concert on September 19, 2023. Video: Emily Diaz/September 2023

This collective effect of the concert series is vital to the bonds students at the Villa are making this semester. Schulman’s emphasis on finding the unknown sounds to work with has changed one of Diaz’s habits. 

“I no longer walk with my headphones when I’m in Florence, and I used to do it all the time at Georgetown. Like now I walk and I recognize the sounds around me and it [the class] allowed me to be more in the present.”

This takeaway from Schulman’s class and concert series is one that even Hoyas at home should consider: the soundscape of the world around you is ever-present, and it’s here for you to listen to. 

This attention to sound is a skill that is unique to Schulman’s class at the Villa. Though he does teach Podcasting at Georgetown, this experience of sound work cannot be found anywhere else for a Georgetown student.