This year the ARTEFACT festival in Leuven was themed around exploring the development of the city, and cultural practices relating to urbanism. During ARTEFACT, an exhibition at STUK runs alongside a packed schedule of workshops, lectures and performances. It was into this exciting context that I was invited to present my work in the excellent company of Peter Cusack, (whose work I have mentioned here before) and Pascal Amphoux of CRESSON (Centre de recherche sur l’espace sonore et l’environnement urbain). This was a really exciting opportunity for me, especially because I got the opportunity to work with Peter Cusack exploring the sounds of Leuven, because I got to meet Pascal Amphoux, and because I got to hear a Carrilon playing James Bond!
Julia Eckhardt at Q-O2 had seen a presentation of mine at CRiSAP in 2011 in which I had talked about the importance of paying attention to the sounds of our local places. Julia wanted me to expand on the idea I had touched on in that presentation of relating the domestic soundscape to the urban soundscape. In the CRiSAP presentation I had talked about a tree I love in Reading; a mulberry tree. Then I had talked about the jam that I made from the fruits of that tree, and about the links between the civic gardens where the tree grows and my own kitchen, and about the detailed knowledge of the sounds of a place that you glean by living in it and listening.
I was very nervous about having a much longer period of time to fill (30 – 40 minutes) and uncertain about how I could relate my explorations of my local environment to the exploration of foreign cities, and so I spent a great deal of time thinking about the presentation and assembled some images and words to show to the wonderful audience who showed up to go on a soundwalk with myself, Peter, and Pascal, and then to listen to us talk about our different perspectives on the sounds of urban places.
The soundwalk really deserves its own post, so for now I will just share some of the thoughts and field-recordings and pictures which I presented in Leuven; I hope you find them interesting and I would love to hear your thoughts on the connections between “feeling at home” in the city, and knowing its sounds.
I began my talk by explaining that there is a score by the composer Pauline Oliveros, the gist of which is “decide a moment in everyday life which catches your attention is an art moment. Think about how you would record that art moment, and share it with other people”. My practice could be seen as a continual effort at trying to realise this score, with the emphasis being on “find in everyday life” and “share with other people”.
One day, if I keep trying, I might get really good at it.
I asked the audience to think about where they lived, and why they lived there.
I explained that this is where I live.
And that this is why I live there*.
This is one of the main sounds which defines my street. It is the sound of passing planes, and it is part of how I feel time during the days where I work at home. It is the soundscape of hanging out the laundry and of weeding the plants or taking out the compost. I do not mind it at all; it is part of the sound that makes me feel that I am home.
One sound I love here is that of the pizza shop on the nearby main road closing its shutters at night. One day I will get my microphones set up to record it in a way that reflects how I hear it, tucked up in bed, waiting for the sonic full stop to my day to happen and send us all to sleep.
Pizza shops and planes.
Most of us have not moved to the city for its wonderful sounds.
We live where we do for love, for work, for family, for the good schools, for opportunity. We live in big cities for personal reasons, and paying attention to the sounds of our urban environments to me in my case at least is about listening to my life and being present to the existence that I find myself in.
I began exploring the domestic soundscape because I realised that in daily life there are so many amazing sounds around us to which we do not give our full attention. I asked people in Leuven if they ever fried eggs, and if they have ever really listened to the act of frying an egg. Because it’s really an amazing sound. And once you have paid close attention to those beautiful spluttering sonorities, all eggs for ever after taste better and seem somehow eggier for having been appreciated in the fullness of their sonic splendour.
I am interested in celebrating the wonder within the everyday; I find the idea that we can have an amazing experience listening to something as simple as frying an egg very liberating. Since we all probably have at least fried one egg in our lifetimes, it would be worth taking 3 minutes to really listen to what that sounds like.
Field-recording and actively listening gives you a brilliant perspective on time. Unlike a photograph which takes place within a fraction of a second, field-recordings reflect the actual time that things take. Things like going to buy a pint of milk; sweeping the kitchen floor; taking out the recycling; things like frying an egg.
These are the moments in which we live; this is the soundtrack to our life happening.
Paying attention to the domestic soundscape has made me more accutely aware of all the sounds everywhere, and in Reading I have developed a beautiful sense of the town as a sonic space, with its own particularities and secrets, intimately wound with my errands and the unbroken lines that run between private life and public space as I move seamlessly between these two realms. We move through the city connected always to our personal reasons for being there. To meet our beloved after work; to fetch the kids from school; commuting to and from work.
Going to buy a pie with our partner.
There is a woman in Reading who reads out a huge long list of all the possible pies you could have, in the wonderful local treasure that is Sweeneys pie shop. We can never remember all the options, and we always have to check a few points before we order. It is a poem of pie that can be heard for the modest price of an actual pie, and one of my favourite Reading sounds.
I also know where there dwells a cunning Robin who has found himself a post from which to sing his beautiful song. Running out of town towards the Madjeski Stadium, the canal is flanked on one side by the A33 and on the other by the back of a long straight road of terraced houses. The canal widens out at this point. Industrial metal buildings on the A33, the shining expanse of the Kennet & Avon, and the tall brick surfaces of the terraced houses combine to make a resonant chamber, into which this Robin can throw his song, cheering a grey, wintry walk home with his notes.
This is not the sound of a bird singing by a river; it is the sound that comforts people who are walking to or from work, or the shops, with their families and friends and partners, or alone.
It is also not to be confused with a completely different Avian feature of Reading, the spot at the end of Cholmely Road, where all the families bring their bread and rice to give to the assembled crowd of swans, pigeons, geese and all manner of other savvy urban fowl.
It is not only that we shape the city with our walks and explorations of it, but that it shapes us, too. I have on occasion gone to this place specifically to hear the sounds that pigeons make cooing by your feet as you stand by the water. It is right beside a railway bridge, but the sounds of the trains thundering over every few seconds only make the little quiet sounds in between seem more precious.
This is not the sound of birds by a river; it is the soundscape of a place where people take their children to feed the ducks.
As well as recommending any Belgians visiting Reading to frequent the end of Cholmely road armed with snacks, I also explained that one of our most endangered sounds can be heard through the simple act of going into Jacksons department story with a five pound note, intending to buy a handkerchief for 75p.
It’s very important to take the wrong change, because this is what occasions the cashiers in this last family-owned department store to pop your money into a tube, and send it upwards via the pneumatic system to an office where it will be dealt with. Several sucking and thunking and mechanical sounds later, your tube is returned with your change and receipt folded within.
Jacksons of Reading is closing next year which is a sad loss of a local institution. Not only will there be far less interesting places to buy tea-towels, tapestry wool, handkerchiefs, tights, big knickers and flowery swimming hats in the Jacksons-less future, but also the closure of the shop will remove this distinctive sound from Reading forever.
There are many ways of celebrating the soundscape of the city other than recording it.
In 2009, Mark and I embarked on a cheeky adventure to treat Reading as a giant art exhibit. Many things we encountered or noticed in our wanderings were relabelled as art, especially this giant noisy bridge over which trains pass, and beneath which traffic flows continuously. The bridge goes over the ring road and resonates loudly with the sound of all the cars beneath. I had always found it a challenging place to be in, but in reimagining Reading as a giant art gallery, we called the bridge “THE NOISE MACHINE – A PERMANENT INSTALLATION”. This idea remains lodged in my head as a memory of enjoying Reading with fresh eyes and ears, and playing in the urban environment with my partner, authoring our own version of this town. The thought of “THE NOISE MACHINE – A PERMANENT INSTALLATION” tickles me every time I pass beneath the bridge to the extent that I now only have positive associations with the sounds of traffic in that one specific place.
I have explored many techniques for celebrating the sounds which I encounter in daily life both at home and in urban space.
I think all the time about the relationships between the words “here” and “hear”; they sound the same, and the sound of the word instantly connects places with sounds.
The readers who have followed this blog for years will remember SOUNDBANK, and the practice of writing about sounds in as much detail as I could which I embarked upon in 2009 and which I am still working on.
In exercising my imagination to try and record the whole texture of the supermarket on 23rd December 2009 when everyone was panic-buying the last essential ingredients for their Christmas dinners, I found that all the details in the sounds – from the shiny clattering of trolleys to the cascade of beeps from checkouts – have become features of shopping trips which I deliberately listen for.
In Reading I have a soundmap of the city burned into my head, of which these examples are just a glimpse. I know when the bell-ringers practice at St Giles Church (Thursdays), the voice of the Big Issue seller by St Mary’s Butts, the Italian coffee-seller who sings to himself in a lovely baritone in his booth on Broad Street and the rosta of different street entertainers who fill Reading variously with brass, piano and gospel music. I know where you can go to hear the exciting turbo-whirr of a Dyson airblade hand-drier, and which coffee shops have an acoustic which makes them nice to meet a friend in (and which ones are so loud you get a stress headache the second you enter them). And of course I know where to stand to get the clearest impression of the electronic, automated announcement “lovely hot donuts” which relentlessly emanates from a speaker above a weary purveyor of donuts.
These are the sounds that make me feel at home.
So how does one transpose such a subjective, rooted, home-loving, domestic appreciation for one’s local sounds to an art-market obsessed with International travel?
At first I did not like the idea of going away from my little red brick house with my man and my cat inside it; I get homesick when I am away and dislike not being able to cook.
However apart from our pets and kitchens and partners, what also makes our places “home” to us, is friends. Stavroula Kounadea, or rather less formally, my friend Stav, had the foresight to make me a little book when I was first invited to work abroad, in Tallinn, for the Tuned City festival.
“Home” is not just a noun, but also a verb… to home in on something is to know where you need to go, and when I discovered “The Best Coffee Shop in Tallinn” according to Stav, I had some initial guidance to help me to find my way into the secret sonorities of Tallinn, and to feel a sense of connection with the city.
There was also the amazing Tuned City map. This map was produced by the combined efforts of John Grzinich, Patrick McGinley, Carsten Stabenow and Andreas Töpfer, and the main content (i.e. the descriptions of specific sounds) was determined through field work with anthropology students from Tallinn University. Like my own mental soundmap of Reading, it brought a human element to the sounds of Tallinn, and contextualised them in relation to the lives of the people who actually live there.
Because the Tuned City soundmap had included input from so many different people connected with Tallinn as a place, it was a beautiful and personal guide into the sonic textures of the city. I was completely enamoured with the soundmap and keen to find and hear many of the things documented within its pages. Exploring these sounds formed a rich cultural encounter with both the cultural landscape of Tallinn. Listening to the sounds of the turrets in its medieval walls and cycling out to the song festival grounds to hear the acoustics of the Music Shell were very experiential ways to learn about the architectural past of Tallinn and the Estonian National Song and Dance Festivals, for example. Would I have gained such an acute impression of these places and their significance in Estonian culture if I had not specifically listened to them and learnt of them via the soundmap?
Perhaps because of my appreciation for the lovely Pneumatic Tube system at Jacksons, and my interest in how technology that we use every day defines the way our lives sound, I was immediately drawn to the sound of the Komposter detailed on the soundmap as “an endangered sound” of Tallinn. In this little bit of audio produced during Tuned City Tallinn, you can hear me and Kaisa exploring the significance of this sound.
I walked and cycled all round Tallinn during Tuned City, but the sound I will retain the most vivid impression of while I was there, was the sound of the seagulls going crazy at the end of the concert on the last night of the festival. Myself and Kaisa didn’t go into the large brick building for the performance because we were very tired and giggly, and didn’t want to spoil the event for others. In fact we could have screamed with laughter and nobody would have heard us… it was incredibly loud. The seagulls are a major feature of the soundscape of Tallinn and it was amazing to listen to them responding to Tuned City with their own voices.
In really committing to listen to Tallinn while I was there, and in using the Tuned City map, my ears, and Stav’s book for guidance, I found myself a creative home in Estonia, to which I gladly returned again in 2012 and to which I hope to return again this year.
Friendship and cultural exchange are absolutely key to understanding sounds in cities all over the world from a human, anthropological perspective. We share sonic spaces, and we hear the world together, so I am a fan of doing other people’s projects, of joining in with other people’s ventures, in sharing whatever tools we can find or create together to listen to our lives with greater joy.
So it was that I set off to Oxford with Stav last week to investigate “Make Sound Here” by James Saunders.
Make Sound Here makes use of the GPS and audio recording facilities on mobile phones, and the audio recording platform Audioboo, to create a map detailing the sonic potentials of places. Very simply, you go to a place, you make a sound there by whatever means you like, you photograph the situation with the label “Make Sound Here” displayed prominently, and you record the sounds that you have created there. If you use a smartphone to take the photo, record the sound and upload to Audioboo.fm, the sound will automatically be geo-tagged. However it’s also possible to create recordings using another device and to manually add in photos, geo-location etc. via the Audioboo.fm upload channel created especially for this project. All the instructions are provided here on the Make Sound Here website, where you can also download the labels.
I was led to some previously undiscovered pathways and bridges, railings and passageways, armed with a stick that I had found, inspired by the project to revisit that simple childhood pleasure of playing the railings.
What is lovely is that like the Tuned City soundmap, or indeed my list of sounds that can be found here in Reading, “Make Sound Here” acts as both a map that you can author, and a map that you can follow. The more that people play with the project, the more detailed information will appear on the site about the sound-making fun that is to be had all over the world. All you need is a little sense of mischief and a desire to explore the world with your ears as well as with your eyes.
In our cities, this means at least to me reclaiming urban space from developers and SHOPPING for the possibilities of playing, listening, cultural exchange, and daily joy.
Exploring “Make Sound Here” is a way of making yourself instantly home in any city; of leaving a trace of yourself and of celebrating a bridge, a fence, a hedge, a wall, a railing or some other tiny detail in the landscape.
I explained towards the end of my talk how my various adventures in exploring the domestic soundscape and the related soundscape of Reading informed my sonic adventures in Leuven.
I did what I always do, which is wander about in the streets, photographing the bricks and listening to the sounds.
The bicycles are a massive feature of Leuven; many of the bicycles sound broken in some way, but the squealing, screeching, rattling cacophony of these bicycles is somehow very jubilant, accompanied as it often is by the laughter and voices of the students riding them.
As well as listening for these sounds, I appealed to various online communities for assistance in accessing the soundscape of Leuven. A radio journalist called Katharina Smets telephoned me to ask about our work at Artefact. We had a great chat about the sounds of Leuven, where she had lived for five years, and she kindly sent me an email reflecting on some of the sounds that had been important to her in her daily life when she had lived there.
Following her helpful instructions, I stood in Fonske Frituur, recording the sounds of frites frying and being parceled up in paper in a rhythm, and had the lovely sense that I was perhaps glimpsing the soundscape enjoyed by students waiting for their frites after a few Belgian beers together.
Also, Tiffany wrote to me after I posted in The Yahoo Phonography Group to explain that a major feature of the Leuven soundscape is its historic carrilons. With this inside information, I was able to identify that there would indeed be a 45 minute long concert from the carrilon at K.U.Leuven Central Library on the Ladeuzeplein on the Tuesday night.
I was so unprepared for the wonder of the carrilon! Its bells rained notes down on us, and I found myself listening very intently to all the features of the large square with its pedestrians and cyclists, its little fringe of gentle and quite distant traffic, the reflective faces of the buildings on all four sides of the square, and the benevolence and humour of the bells’ great tones, ringing out ABBA classics, James Bond, and loads of other tunes besides.
I would not have heard this sound at all were it not for the fact that somebody who knew about it told me about it.
I hope that I have shown how the subjective, personal, anthropological approach I adopt for exploring the domestic soundscape can be easily extended throughout cities all over the world. If we share our listening experiences, we can perhaps appreciate the sounds which surround us in daily life a little more, and thereby hear ourselves and each other a little better. I can only ever come as a stranger to a strange city. However perhaps the appreciation I have developed for my own place in the world through listening to it can be applied in other places, and exchanged with other communities? I certainly hope this can be my contribution towards fostering a greater collective appreciation for the sounds which surround us each and every day, and which we live with, and which are such a huge part of how we understand our place in the world.
Thank you for listening.
*for Mark, obviously, not for his pretty pink iced donut…