Sonic Wallpapers and subjectivity

As you will have noticed from some of my previous posts, this winter I will be drawing on the MoDA wallpaper collection for inspiration for a new project. Sonic Wallpaper explores wallpaper from auditory and social perspectives, asking what would it be like if we decorated our homes with sounds? The main concept is that while we talk about the way our rooms will look when we are consulting wallpaper sample books or looking at shade cards, we do not often talk about how they will sound. Extending the familiar rituals of browsing wallpapers and talking about likes/dislikes and the effects of the wallpapers into sound-pieces will hopefully invite people browsing the collection to imagine what it would be like if rolls of sound could be acquired for papering our living spaces with audible content, as well as with colours, pictures and textures.

To begin with, a selection of MoDA wallpaper samples will be presented to a series of invited guests, whose conversations about those samples will form the basis for a series of innovative audio works. Willing volunteers will be encouraged to imagine different wallpapers in their homes, and to think about the effects the wallpapers might have in different rooms. Their responses – “no, too loud,” “too bright,” “too busy,” “I love that, it’s very calm,” “I love the birds on this design,” etc. – will then be sensitively edited, and sounds will be collected and added in so that it seems as if the discussions relate to an imaginary, Sonic Wallpaper, as well as to the wallpapers in MoDA’s collection which can be seen. For an audio glimpse of this idea, please check out the Audioboo that I made, describing the project:

Sonic Wallpaper (mp3)

In the trailer I used recordings of:

applying wheatpaste to wallpaper and newspaper and smoothing paper – literal sonic wallpaper
Brenda’s beach at Amroth
rain on our tent at Rannoch Moor
Sarah’s chickens
a car alarm on our road – loud
The sounds of The Sonic Picnic at BEAM festival – busy
crickets and aeroplanes in Caversham near the A4074 – calm
birds – the songthrush at Brenda’s – nice birds
my harp – the sounds of fantasy
wheatpaste and wallpaper – textures

I had a lovely discussion with Mark when he got in from work last night and was forced to immediately listen to my audio trailer; I had previously been using the sound of water gushing out of a lock gate (to me, a lovely splooshy sound) at the stage where I say “I love that, it’s really calm and relaxing” and Mark said it wasn’t very “calm” to his ears. This got me thinking about how subjective our relationship to sounds is. Mark suggested that I instead pick out some of the cricket recordings I made when we walked along the A4074 at night-time together. I specifically remember that he was crashed out on the grass when I was making my cricket recordings, and so the sound of crickets has very mellow associations for him, which I found interesting in terms of his categorisation of that sound as a “calm, relaxing” sort of a sound.

Many exponents of John Cagean thought are against placing any kind of value judgements on sounds, because the idea that some sounds are more worthwhile or beautiful than others leads in many cases to a kind of dichotomy where what is generally categorised as “Music” is considered more worthwhile than what is generally categorised as “noise”. The outcome of such dichotomies is that we miss the music of life itself, and in dismantling the hierarchy of sounds, Cage sought to elevate all sounds to the status of Music.

In music, we should be satisfied with opening our ears. Everything can musically enter an ear open to all sounds! Not only the music we consider beautiful but also the music that is life itself…the more we discover that the noises of the outside world are musical, the more music there is… in the case of sound, whether the sound be loud or soft, flat or sharp, or whatever you like, that doesn’t constitute a sufficient motive for not opening ourselves up to what it is, as for any sound which may possibly occur.

John Cage, For the Birds, 1981

I love the ambition and the celebratory aspects of Cage’s vision but I believe too that it is possible to celebrate everyday sounds whilst also exploring our subjective and personal feelings towards them. This is especially true in the context of domestic spaces which are shaped so deeply by our individual needs and tastes.

Many sounds which I love in other contexts might not be easy to live with as wallpaper… but then I feel there are also many sounds which I may not have considered, which might add amazing imaginative qualities to domestic spaces, and Sonic Wallpaper is about discovering such sounds together, and creatively playing with the idea of sounds in the home, as we play with moodboards and swatches, for colour.

What would it be like to fill a room with the periodic sounds of whispers? echoes? bells? To paper the bathroom with the sounds of the beach in Miami? Or to paper the bedroom with the sounds of sighing trees or distant motorway traffic? When I moved to a bedsit for a short while, I was so homesick for the sounds of the home I shared before and share again with Mark, that I sometimes went through all the domestic recordings I had made, to listen again to the boiler, us cooking together, the sounds of loading the dishwasher and so on. There is a subjectivity to domestic space – its close connection to our needs and feelings – which makes the study of sounds therein particularly potent. So I do not mind at all allowing taste to enter into the discussion, because I think that there are enough ways to celebrate sounds without having to pretend that we could live with all of them all of the time.

What sounds would you describe – personally – as being too loud? too busy? calm/relaxing? fantasy-inducing? especially textural? favourite birds? What sound would you like to hear when you wake first thing in your bed? What Sonic Wallpaper to wake up and hear?

Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

6 Responses to Sonic Wallpapers and subjectivity

  1. emmylou says:

    I like the sound of rain; on tents or on my glass skylights, especially in the dark and warm. It also smells good so that is an added bonus.

    I do not like the sound of someone knocking to get into their house for over an hour when they had been locked out when I was trying to sleep at the weekend. There is also a bike rider who routinely rides really fast round the IDR late at night, I don’t object to the sound of the bike; it’s a good noise, but the potential for a loud crash makes me really panicky every time I hear hear it.

    • I wonder who this mysterious, athletic, late-night cyclist is, doing circuits on the IDR? I can imagine that in the context of that road it is a scary sound. And the knocking sounds very annoying when you were trying to sleep… so interesting that these sounds change according to their context. Thanks for sharing your sounds.

  2. Chris says:

    There is a rookery in the beech trees here. They have their routines but craw time about an hour before sunset when they return home in commuter uproar and later when they are settling down in drowsy conversation are both full of reassuring sound. They seem to like having humans around the place.

  3. Nature Boy says:

    I like the idea… virtual soundscapes for the house. Nice article.

  4. tomofholland says:

    I was thinking about meta-sounds: e.g. for the kitchen, you’d have the kettle coming to the boil, something simmmering on the hob, the chopping of vegetables, the clanging of utensils. For the lounge the rustling of newspapers being turned (although, when was the last time I read news in the PAPERS? I get it all from the interent now), some music in the background. Sitting down into that sqeaky chair. At dusk, the swishing of curtains closing.

    But trying to expand this into other rooms would perhaps not always work. Who would want to go into the smallest room and then you’d hear the noises of somebody “doing their business”? (this reminds me: when I lived in a shared house as a student, we taped Beavis & Butthead episodes onto cassette tapes and we wired a walkman with speakers into the light switch, so each time you switched on the light you heard “huhuhuhuh. hey beavis. huhhuhuh. cool. huhuhuh”. Our own sonic wallpaper!) And let’s not even begin pondering the bedroom noises.

    On the other hand, you could turn things upside down by playing the sounds you’d associate with one room, in another room. A surrealist decoration!

  5. tomofholland says:

    When I was thinking more about sonic wallpaper, I suddenly thought of the sounds inherent of putting up wallpaper.

    The tunnel-y noise of loads of rolls shuffling together. The clatter of unfolding trestles and putting an old door on them. Wallpaper paste flakes falling in the water,followed by stirring; which starts off splashy, but becomes more gloopy as the flakes dissolve and absorb the water. More paper sounds follow (I love the sounds paper makes): unrolling paper, cutting paper, the pasting of paper, which sounds a bit like those jazzy drums played with drumstick brushes. Fold the paper, let soak and then try to put it up. Apart from the expletives that seem to be part and parcel of such jobs, the paper will unfold and be stuck on the wall. Shifting to get it just so. More brush noises, this time to get the air bubbles out.

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