Open Letter Re: Policy on Sexual Assault on Campus

October 20, 2016 Posted by Milena D

*** Sent to the input@sfu.ca account towards consultation on policy re: sexual violence on campus***

To Whom it May Concern,

first off I’d like to commend the university on embarking on this consultation process to update and form much needed policy regarding the wide gamut of potential sexual misconduct and violence on campus. It has for a long time been unclear what regulations there are, who might one turn to and what they can expect; who has what power to help effect a situation and what responsibility different university structures have to both survivors and accused. I’d like to share a few thoughts and raise a few issues.

First off, as the steps read right now in terms of ‘what can you do right now’ following an episode of sexual violence, they read completely inadequate to me. There is an implication that a complete and immediate rape has happened, the police will neatly collect evidence and the case is clear cut, the ‘perfect rape’; alternatively the procedure on sending someone to SFU counselling implies that they have experienced a mild emotional disturbance and it is up to them to solve it with the help of a counsellor (a perpetrator-less crime). Neither of these situations read as particularly relevant and in fact I imagine that in 95% of the cases, the situation would be one of the following:

  • a student is sexually harassed or assaulted by another student in various ways that may or may not have direct ‘evidence’ (e.g. inappropriate language and touching, stalking, or violence and force) in which case a student might confide in a staff member or teacher, or even initially just to a friend. Currently there are NO clear steps as to what staff or faculty can do besides brush it off to another department. The problem is students are coming to us as trusted allies and confidants and we re-victimize them by not being able to take any measures or make anything happen logistically in our respective departments.
  • same is true for graduate students being assaulted by another graduate student. because of unclear policy the department and student’s advisor can do NOTHING to mitigate the fact that a victim might have to continuously encounter her (or his) abuser on a daily basis. This is NOT acceptable. It completely undermines the educational experience and the student’s sense of self, and in many cases has cost people their academic standing and future careers.
  • a student might experience sexual harassment from someone in a position of power to them – teacher, staff, administrator, employer – right now the policy stipulates nothing as to how that will be dealt with from a workplace perspective at the first line of complaint, or ongoingly.
  • a staff or faculty may experience sexual harassment by someone in a position of power – again, the same situation; very unclear in some cases whose responsibility is to deal with the situation and how.

The question ultimately is not one of how to deal with ‘reported’ incidents – we need to care about all the many assaults and microaggressions that happen on campus that will never get reported – we need to target rape culture directly and foster a different kind of social and educational environment for students on campus!

Now the important parts of this discussion that need to change – institutionally, and in terms of campus culture – are the issue of consent, the burden of evidence and the placement of responsibility. We need to foster, via education and initiatives, a culture of consent. We need to understand that 1) most forms of assault, violence and coercion might not leave convenient physical evidence – we need to believe victims first, no exceptions! that does not mean convicting anyone, that means just what it means, believe victims; 2) there are a huge variety of reasons women (or men) won’t come forward right away after an incident – they are in shock, they are in a vulnerable position of power, they are ashamed, they are scared, someone is coercing or advising them not to – failure to come forward immediately is NOT a reason to doubt or disbelieve a victim. There needs to be very concrete immediate steps fitting the situation (for the cases described above) that someone in specific positions can take, and assume responsibility. Sending folks to Health and Counselling services is utterly inadequate and only communicates to victims that no one can do anything for them and they need to solve their problem on their own.

Ultimately what I’d like to see is not only policy and procedures for how to deal with reported incidents of sexual violence, but initiatives for education and prevention including standardized training, at undergraduate and graduate and faculty and staff orientations. Proper conduct needs to be clearly defined and frequently communicated at all levels. Right now all of these steps and policies are fuzzy and unclear. There has to be a clear entity in each case that takes responsibility and clear next steps to alleviate the situation of people who have been victimized. The consequences for such misconduct have to be serious and seriously taken, again at every level.

I am concerned. I am concerned because in the “What we’ve heard so far” section I see much of the familiar refrain of ‘what if women are making this up’, ‘let’s not jump to conclusions’, ‘where’s the evidence’. I am writing and urging others to write because I want to see these antiquated, privileged and frankly misogynist sentiments gone from SFU’s culture and governance. I don’t want to read more media stories about how SFU has actively swept sexual assault allegations under the rug and left the slow functioning of institutional process cost young people their emotional sanity and academic futures.

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Sensory Postcard – Bikes (Binaural edition)

August 16, 2016 Posted by Milena D

I haven’t written about sensory postcards in a while but that’s definitely not because I haven’t been doing them, but because of, well, time, and trying to move more pressing projects out the door. I am applying for various grants to make my urban soundscape project “Listening to the City” (Listening as Intervention) a reality – that includes creating an interactive map of my recordings and short videos, featuring the capabilities of various apps, etc. If I get a bigger grant I’m going to be expanding my project to a more complete urban soundscape ethnography using mobile tools. So fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, one new and exciting development has been using in-ear binaural mics to record in the city: Roland CS-10EM. They do seem to be the best on the market, aside from the newcomers Hooke Audio for mobile devices (iPhone). They start shipping this September so the headset isn’t quite out yet. Here’s my review of the Roland buds: while the design is contoured for the ear canal I still had a lot of trouble keeping the buds in my particular ears, they kept falling out and generally feeling loose and kinda off. The good news: these mics produced amazing quality sound with very very little handling noise. To be honest I expected quite a bit of handling noise and wind noise just from my head movements, but in fact there was less body transfer noise than when using an external mic with a field recorder. It is also particularly nice to be able to monitor and record at the same time and on the same device – they look completely discreet and unobtrusive, and generally less equipment to carry around. It does, however, get exhausting on the ears after a while to hear everything in such an exaggerated manner, so I found I had to take breaks and turn off monitoring.

My initial goal was to record the sound of biking. I have been thinking about creating an ethnographic multi-channel sound story about biking in the city, mixed with listening to music and various city sounds that kind of weave in and out during a typical journey. I had been experimenting with a Zoom H1 for a while, with various placements on my body, upper pocket, back pant pocket, leg strap – but alas, everything produced the expected result – a fair bit of handling noise and tons of wind from the movement itself. Not something I could simply edit away, it’s throughout and it kind of drowns the sound of the bike itself.

With binaural mics it’s not too much different really, except if I am stationary in a place where a lot of bikes pass through (bike lane) I can capture some really neat bike clicking and wheel spinning sounds with Doppler shifts.  Interestingly, I would recommend recording Doppler shifts with a stationary field recorder, because due to head movement it’s actually harder to localize movement with binaural mics. Dopplers are best heard when stereo-flattened (but with decent left-right isolation). Here’s what I was able to record on the Seawall in Vancouver’s Yaletown district with my binaural Rolands.

 

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#SoundCon-ing for World Listening Day 2016 #WLD2016

July 18, 2016 Posted by Milena D

Just finished speaking just very briefly on the idea of critical soundmapping – which I’m happy to say is not at all even remotely original an idea. It is wonderful to see a global emergent field of sound studies entering the conversation, which at times in acoustic ecology has been stale – new and diverse voices all pointing to the fact that listening even as an unmediated practice is NOT value-free, or objective or neutral, it is always subjective, political, personal, critical. Amazing feeling to be part of this community – I’m very grateful and wish you all a wonderful listening day. Jul 18th – the birthday of R Murray Schafer, and also Nelson Mandela, who, let’s remember emphasized the importance of education as a tool for change. Let’s listen critically, and to a variety of voices, not only those that are closest and scream the loudest. Sounds lost and found.

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Sensory Postcards as New Media Ethnography

March 14, 2016 Posted by Milena D

For a couple of years now, ever since I ‘seriously’ started engaged my dissertation research, I’ve been forming up this idea of sensory postcards as a methodology for doing everyday ethnography – but also, I guess, sensory postcards as a DIY new media practice that is facilitated by the ubiquity and mediation of mobile smart technologies. I even wrote this little thing for the Ethnography Matters blog. What I want to suggest is that by taking pictures, collecting environmental data and creating and sharing videos and recordings online, end users are participating in a kind of methodological approach to re-mediating experience and environmental surroundings. The only difference between that and a citizen-science or citizen-journalist initiative is that the same activity (of capturing multimodally) has a specific organization and structure, aimed intentionally at a public outcome. This post has actually marinated in my draft folder for a long time and I’d like to just let it go for now because there is a lot lot more to it, and I won’t fit it all in one entry, but one has to start somewhere. This blog is in fact already a collection of different ways of doing ‘new media ethnographies’ or ‘mobile ethnographies’ of the everyday: using visual, locative, measurement-based, and aural materials; putting them together in a variety of ways. The one limitation I have placed on my practice has always been – whatever can be accomplished on the device alone. Nothing leaves the device to be dissected and remediated on the computer as I’m truly interested in how mobile devices can be used, and how designers in fact respond to the on-the-ground use of these devices, so I see it as essential to continuously push the limits and communicate publicly about these experiments. Below is a small collage I made using several different apps: Over, which allows poster-font annotating of photos, SpeakingPhoto, which takes a static picture and overlays 10 to 30 seconds of sound recording over it, and again, SpeakingPhoto which allows collaging – stringing together of different ‘aural postcards’ into a slideshow. What I find interesting in making a slideshow is that it not only strings together individual entries into a narrative, but it also readily highlights the contrast between different sonic environments, by virtue of sharply transitioning from one to another.

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Eternal 4:33

February 8, 2016 Posted by Milena D

The recording that you’re about to hear (or not) is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of ambience during the endurance marathon that is the show Eternal (seen by yours truly at the PUSH festival 2016 in Vancouver). Now, don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It’s a two-hour continuous take in split-screen of two actors method-rehearsing the same scene. After 1/4 of the audience filed out after the first 10 minutes, I must admit I felt thrilled and excited to be at a piece that inspires so much outrage. After having given a lecture on repetition (in audio recording and how exact repetition has influenced all manners of creative and commercial endeavours) I was struck at how non-annoying the repetition here was. Yes, our brains desire difference, the expectance of different lines makes you stand on the edge of your seat waiting … then registering that the lines are the same. Yet, so much about each take was not the same! Both actors, working off each other went through a huge range of nuance of expression, inflection, paralanguage, connotation and emotion in exchanging those lines. What was more, and the reason I’m writing this post is, I went through a huge range of interpretations of the exchange. Here are some of those in relatively sequential order:

  • they are not speaking to each other, the recordings are totally separate
  • oh wait, they are speaking to each other
  • but some of the responses don’t make sense – so possibly the phrases are scrambled and our job as audience is to piece together the ‘real’ story
  • is he talking about her? is she clementine? is she talking about herself in the 3rd person?
  • wait, is it an affair that the guy had? or did they just meet?
  • lots of trying to figure out where the story begins…considering each line as the first line
  • maybe the very last take will be the phrases put in their proper places so that we get the real story – but I somehow doubt it we’ll get a resolution here
  • maybe he is saying the female lines and she is speaking the male lines?
  • this is a psychology experiment to see when they will crack
  • it’s a psychology experiment to see when we will crack?

And then somewhere mid-way I started to think of this as really a John Cage kind of experience where the repetition of the scene serves to highlight the extraneous soundscapes. People started – increasingly vocally and confidently, to laugh, chuckle, even speak lines out loud with the authors. Shuffling and jingling noises of people getting up and coming and going from the room punctuated the continuous scene exchange. Sometime in the last quarter I recorded exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the ambience as sort of my own performance art, being participatory – as the piece I think invited us to be – and now this performance lives on in this post, amplifying its meaning beyond my initial inspiratorial moment.

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The Sound of Bubbles

December 13, 2015 Posted by Milena D

In my overall focus on everyday soundscapes (and by ‘focus’ I mean purist preoccupation) I do tend to overlook the vast and exciting domain of auditory sensory training in the food and beverage industries, something that has not escaped the watchful eye of @multisensorymel. While it seems that taste and smell are more prevalent as ‘constructed’ sensory competencies in areas such as perfumery and wine sommelier training, I suspect there are ‘folk’ ways of using the sonic characteristics of food and beverages as ways of evaluating their quality and comment of their characteristics. Mel McBride’s work focuses precisely on critiquing the received wisdoms of smell-based training in such industries as techniques that are needlessly constructed, culturally-defined and prohibitive of lay entry as ways of differentiating professional from everyday sensing. Something that Bourdieu critiques in terms of distinctions between low, high and middle-brow art. I’m even more interested in the ways that the emergent genre of the ‘hipster foodie’ and celebrity chef television references, in mostly sidebar manner, the sound of cooking food as a form of auditory culinary expertise. I’m sure those of us who cook can come up with at least several unique examples of using sound as a guiding mechanism in cooking: sizzling oil at the right temperature, the pop of opening something sealed to evaluate its freshness, crushing bits of food to gauge their freshness or cooked-ness, etc. Here’s a research idea: interview practicing chefs about how they utilize sound awareness in cooking, consciously or subconsciously; hand in hand with, code instances where the sound of cooking is explicitly referenced on cooking shows on television.

With this long preamble, my fun introduction into this area was Mel’s spread of bubbly drinks (along with goats cheese, baguettes and olive oils) for our Making Sense, Sensing Place workshop at RE/Lab. I recorded the sound of four different types of drinks being poured: two kinds of sparkling wine (not champagne), perrier soda water and a can of san pelegrino orange soda. The two examples below are the Crement and Brut. While the Crement has a pretty consistent high-frequency fizz throughout, the Brut has a more dynamic fizz that intensifies as poured and goes into lower registers as it generates more froth before it fizzes out. It almost sounds like a low-pass filter, almost melodic in its short lifespan. Interesting to note the fizz-out for sparkling wine is much much longer in both cases than soda/pop, perhaps due to the different fermentation processes?

Between sparkling water and orange soda, what’s interesting to observe is how soda water starts out with a really thin, sharp carbon evaporation and pours in wet-sounding bubbles, fizzing out pretty quickly after. Orange soda on the other hand goes into deeper registers while pouring suggesting greater frothing – perhaps due to the orange flavoring? Or the tin can storage? The sound itself begs questions of chemical composition, material interaction and manners of preservation – to me the beauty of a ‘sound-based’ inquiry!

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Making Sense – Intersensory workshop (RE/Lab)

December 1, 2015 Posted by Milena D

A month ago @multisensorymel (Melanie McBride) and myself improvised a small-scale intersensory workshop out of Ryerson’s RE/Lab (Responsive Ecologies Lab) with the support of lab director Jason Nolan, as well as Daniel Harley and several RA colleagues. A combined blog post is still forthcoming, but I wanted to take the opportunity to start jotting down some initial impressions of the experience. So the idea, for me, was to 1) try and combine more than one sensory modality as an inquiry entrypoint, and 2) try and incorporate a ‘making’ aspect in the workshop as a meaningful way of transforming participants’ sensory experience.

There really are a multitude of ways to go about engaging with sound in ‘real’ or non-real time that lend themselves to various forms of sensory attention in the moment. I have less personal experience but do love the idea of ‘sonic graphs’ which entails logging sonic events, textures and ambiences through an often ad-hoc notation system. Sonic graphs would be done at a stationary position either at intervals of time, or for a particular duration. Soundwalks on the other hand, are silent walks that focus on walking and movement and experiencing sound while moving. A sound map (the second image) representing different sonic features of a community or area is another way of engaging with sonic environments. A sound map would be typically something one draws from a stationary position or after a listening experience, and the idea there is to capture something more general about the soundscape – the prominence of different sounds and where they originate in the soundscape (acoustic profiles), the timbral and textural qualities of different sound sources, and the relationships between different sounds relative to the listening subject.

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I’ve experienced many types of soundwalks that others have led and each person, naturally, has a different approach to them. Over the years, some trusty guidelines for doing soundwalks have accumulated for me:

  • silence. when you’re speaking you’re not listening, and it’s very hard for someone who isn’t very experienced with soundwalking to switch between modes of aural attention and other attention: because we use sound (speech) to communicate and use our ears for other contextual and practical information our brains literally process sonic information in two different areas of the auditory cortex, making it very difficult cognitively to switch back and forth.
  • pacing. movement is very much linked to sensory perception and processing of sensory info – that has been pointed out by many, and the thing that makes a difference in my experience of soundwalking is slowing down from a purposeful fast walking pace (which puts our senses on a level of ‘functional’ everyday routine) to a contemplative pace that makes our sensory system sort of restart, ‘clean the cache’ so to speak and introduce some novelty in perceiving (similarly to the model of ‘deep listening’ developed by Pauline Oliveros)
  • resetting. in general our perceptual apparatus is predicated on detecting differences against a constant, which, in the case of sound, allows us the evolutionary possibility to become habituated to all sorts of urban noise, household hums and drones and the like. So a ‘refreshing’ or re-setting of our listening strategy is always a necessary part of a soundscape awareness exercise.
  • contrast. In soundwalks one approach that helps with resetting our listening sensibilities is organizing a route around contrasting sonic spaces: areas of quiet followed by noisy street, outside-inside contrasts, monotone-type soundscapes vs. timbrally/spectrally rich soundscapes, and near-far sonic experiences: e.g. leading a group close to a sound source and then away, experiencing the acoustic profiles of prominent or interesting sounds in a given environment.
  • sociality. a soundwalk of one doesn’t really work that well. There is a kind of magic that happens when a sizeable group of people move through space together without soundmaking: we stand out in a different way, but it also de-normalizes typical sociality because instead of discussing things as they happen we must stay present and reflect privately, together.
  • post-discussion. As John Dewey states, we don’t learn from experiences, we learn from reflecting on our experiences. Well, that’s debatable, as I would say we do learn something from just experience. For a soundwalk to have its proper impact, however, a group discussion after the experience is very important as it allows folks to share and compare impressions and work out-loud the experience of being a listener in this novel way.

Eatons Smell/Soundwalk (Nov 9, 2015)
The soundwalk into Eatons centre certainly contained excellent examples of contrast, e.g. between the acoustically dry underpass from the metro line to the centre, to the vast open reverberant space of the Eatons atrium full of sounds and music spilling out from every shop against the constant keynote of the fountain in the centre. What always fascinates me about malls is the negotiation (or lack thereof – implied mutual acceptance) between public and private space that can be felt so tangibly in the sonic realm – while the common areas are semi-public, they are overflown with music that signifies private commercial efforts designed for a particular brand identity and customer experience. At the same time the space itself, in its very architecture of high domes, glass and aluminum, is designed to create a sound field of masking of human sounds. Instead of being able to segregate conversations, the space creates a soundscape of one never-ending hubbub of voices, shuffling objects, echoing footsteps; I want to think of this phenomenon as having a certain rhythm, but it’s easier to think of it as a texture. The water feature, one of the only intentional sonic designs is intended to ‘equalize’ and further mask individual sounds with its wide frequency spectrum. Almost makes me want to look into the history of the ‘water feature’ as an element that has been introduced in city design, but also as a marker of wealth, style and class in private real estate. I find it a bit laughable because the sound is kind of lost in the midst of all the noise that is bouncing off all the glass domes, and all the competing music spilling out into the atrium. I certainly have never been able to sit by a mall fountain and suspend my disbelief about where I am and imagine I’m sitting by a bubbling brook in the forest. I do, however, think that the space design of malls is – whether intentionally, or unintentionally – designed to create a soundfield that de-emphasizes individual experience, hiding individual sounds inside the field, matching the mall’s purpose as an anonymous commercial space, and not the village square of personalized exchanges. At the same time, the constant dynamism of ‘anonymous’ indeterminate noise fits the mall’s character as a vibrant, happening space of commerce, socialization and the ‘right’ kind of lifestyle. Short clip:

In terms of smells, some interesting things I learned from Mel was that the rubbery, industrial smell in sports shops like Foot Locker is actually off-gassing from the production and materials used in lower-end versus higher end shoes, clothes, etc. A similar off-gassing from fabric colouring and polyester would be found in department clothes stores. By contrast high-end clothes shops (symbolically located on the upper, quieter floors) smelled like coffee and nice tobacco, fresh linen and dried fruit. Basically like natural fibers and materials. Very interesting to explore the private-public spaces in that way, through smell, and sound at the same time. Smellscapes were much more contained and intense in my view, I’d say more subliminal as symbolic experiences. The atrium smelled very much like lots of people, contained air and around the fountain – vaguely like minerals and chlorine.

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“Science has given us music for cats”

November 23, 2015 Posted by Milena D

 Oh lord, I think I may be a cat – I love this! Been thinking lately about art and humans and non-humans, and whether art is this elitist thing that belongs to humans only, and generally what is the role of art in human civilization, in society, where does it fit amongst other, seemingly more pressing matters. I don’t know what’s changed for me but I feel like I see clearly for the first time in a long time – I see art as just as urgent part of culture as education, economics, human rights, etc. It’s not about ‘making space’ for art by taking away time from more important life-and-death matters, it’s about art working alongside other activities, initiatives, phenomena. And also – art as an act of generosity and communion, sharing art with the non-humans that live in our environments. E.g. recently I watched a viral YouTube video where brass band musicians started playing on the side of the road for a herd of cows. As the cows came closer, seemingly enjoying the musical interlude more musicians joined and the thing that was really beautiful to see for me was humans labouring for the enjoyment of cows – when the reality of the situation is that 99% of the time cows labour and in fact, die, for our enjoyment. And now, I give you music for cats.
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Science Has Given Us Music For CatsFinally: Someone is making a music album specifically for cats.

Posted by Vocativ on Thursday, November 19, 2015

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Bulgaria 2015: Subliminal sounds

September 18, 2015 Posted by Milena D

So this is one of several posts finally on sound, from my recent visit to Bulgaria. I think sound is so much my default I decided to leave it for last this time but I also don’t want to forget anything. It really all started with the birds in Cambridge. More specifically, the owls, or what I assumed was owls, and then turned out to be doves – but like the fancy, feathery doves, not pedestrian pigeons. I noticed two things – the thick, luxurious sound of the friction of their wings flapping as they take off in the air, or perch down on a branch; that their hoot was different than the ones I’m used to in Vancouver. The doves in Vancouver go “wuu-wuuuuuuu” but the ones in Cambridge go “tuh-tuuu-tuuuuuuu” with an emphasis on the second sound. Likely due to my overall impression / assumption of Cambridge as a very posh, manicured place, I took the doves’ hoot to be the sort of distinguished register of dove-language RP (received pronunciation – as I understand, the utmost crust of educated British). This is a very *obvious* point, but at the time it was a novel discovery that, of course, bird sounds are culturally-influenced just like human sounds are. With this in mind, I listened more carefully in Bulgaria to discover what the crude regional accents of Eastern European doves sound like. From what I observed / listened to (but was unable to record anywhere), eastern doves go “wuuuuuuuuuuh-wuh” with emphasis on the last bit, and what I figured for that is that in Bulgarian, unlike in English, the emphasis often falls on the first or middle syllabus; that, and the fact that Bulgarian folk music has notoriously irregular meter (e.g. chalga). Is it possible that even doves hoot in irregular, Eastern rhythms?

It’s funny that I am noticing so much on this trip because I decided to pay attention, conduct a sort of ad-hoc “sensory ethnography”. The only thing I noticed last time I came here were the birds, just that one time, on one of the warmer days in late October (2011). I was pulled towards that sound because the previous rainy and cold days had been much devoid of bird song. This is the soundscape I recorded:

Now when I listen to it it sounds like the rain forest or the jungle, so many singing birds. And I don’t know how I didn’t notice before that Bulgaria has a lot more urban birds than Canada. Particularly – sparrows. Sparrows are everywhere, they are beautiful fliers, the way they flap their tiny wings and then glide through the air as if rolling down invisible rollercoasters. Their sound matches their whole look – sharp, melodic, bright in timbre. They tend to nest at corners of ceilings and I noticed many cafes and restaurants had installed a wooden slat or two to help sparrows build their impossible corner nests. The more I noticed the birds the more I asked myself, why, why this, here, soundscape, that is different than Vancouver – what else is different here. So, once again, I’ve talked about that in relation to smell, but deciduous trees make a big difference in the whole ecology of wildlife – and thus greatly influence the soundscape. Here is an additional chorus of bird sounds recorded just last month in the countryside (whereas the previous recording was of an urban soundscape).

And this brings me to the truly subliminal sound I discovered this time. When I finally got to my grandmother’s house and spent a night there, open window due to the August heat, I heard a sound there, a night-time sound. My first thought was, I don’t recall hearing this sound in Vancouver, it must be local, and then …. but wait, I do recall hearing this sound throughout my childhood here, as a regular staple of nighttime. Suddenly I remembered decades of getting lulled to sleep by this chorus of what I always assumed were crickets. Now that the clash of old and new sonic realities and listening positions brought my attention to it I got curious. Started trying to listen everywhere for it, countryside and urban spaces, night time and daytime. I did some research online (yes, indeed) to discover that this chorus is actually regional cicadas, not crickets. Cicadas are so fascinating to me because they make a full-bodied chorus and yet they are so small they are practically invisible. So the experience is like listening to something that you can’t see the source of, which is rarely the case in natural / everyday listening. It so happened that my father and I went to visit the neighbourhood he grew up in, Galata, and trekked down through a wooded green area to a small fisherman’s beach. The chorus – in the daytime no less – of cicadas was the loudest, brightest and most timbrally rich I’d ever heard so far.

Back in the city, the cicadas are a bit different. I want to share this next sound because there was such a strong discrepancy between what I heard, my experience of listening, and then re-listening to the recording. I was walking home late-ish, after dinner with friends, along a pedestrian walkway lined with leafy trees, but beside a sort of freeway. I mean cars are cars everywhere, they are loud, but overall I have found the urban soundscape a bit quieter in Bulgaria. As I walked, a little tipsy (thus, relaxed) and because it was quite dark I got to listening to the cicadas. It was so peaceful and decadent I stopped to record it. But my surprise when I listened back to it was, where are the cicadas? All I could hear in the recording is traffic, when at the time, all I could hear was the cicadas. Only around the middle of the recording can I discern the cicadas. See what you can make of it:

 

Further listening: this glorious collection of birds sounds of the world by Cities and Memory

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Bulgaria 2015: Conceptual smell/landscapes

August 10, 2015 Posted by Milena D

This is mostly just a continuation of my previous posts around the same topics – some additional smells, reflections on the built environment and landscape. Again, in order of discovery, some of the smells that have come through more clearly and that I recall from my youth are: cat feces and rotten food. Both are barely present now – it used to be that construction sites would leave piles of sand and other construction materials lying around for really long periods of time. Since the ground is far too hard and dusty, and green spaces overgrown with weeds and gnarly, prickly bushes, hoards of neighbourhood stray cats would go to the toilet in those piles of sand. I mean, cats love it, it’s lots of soft ground to turn and bury their poop. I used to associate piles of sand with the faint yet pungent smell of cat feces buried in it, and actually for a very long time I didn’t understand that sand didn’t have to smell this way. Incidentally those piles of sand was also where us kids played in. I had a friend who was quite keen on cars and we used to take our little toy model cars and build whole cities, roads and highways into the sand for our cars. Finding and removing cat poo was a normal part of the process. There is still a lot of construction but it tends to go a bit quicker and perhaps materials have changed too because I am not seeing piles of gravel, sand or other construction materials around. Which is why catching this familiar waft a few days ago was a jolt to the memory. Not that I’m bemoaning the loss of eau de catpoo.

IMG_8135IMG_8134Rotting garbage is another typical summer smell and it is once again tied to infrastructure. Garbage bins used to be these big rusted metal containers open at the top (or maybe they had flaps but no one closed them) where you’d fling your bag of garb into. When they quickly filled up (in large due to no opportunity of composting in the city) with watermelon and cantaloupe remains the bins will overflow onto the ground and start running down the street, the juices baking and decomposing in the hot sun. I remember going out on the street and barely being able to breathe in the air, it was so pungent with rotting fruit; actually organic bits rotting next to non-organic waste. And that was before the time of plastic wrappers and plastic bags. Today, the amount of open waste is greatly decreased with the introduction of self-compacting garbage bins with sliding tops. They are elevated off the ground and there are more of them in general. Plus in many neighbourhoods the city has introduced a closed-lid set of three plastic bins for garbage, plastic and paper recycling. I have to also wonder to what degree any food bits lying around are quickly consumed by urban scavengers – the many stray dogs and cats, and the ever-watchful large city birds.

What has increased in the last years is the amount of cars parked all over sidewalks, green zones and generally sideways on the streets. As a result car exhaust is felt tangibly in the air, and sidewalk tiles are broken and ripped out. Thinking about this, I’d say it is only due to the presence of many and large deciduous trees who constantly clean and rejuvenate the air that the atmosphere isn’t more polluted and exhaust and gasoline are not felt as sharply in the smellscape as they ought to. In the interest of completing the picture, like any other urban smellscape of a developing country, particularly one that gets quite hot in the summer, human body odour is a big part of the experience of being in close proximity to others. Being in close proximity is of course necessitated by other typical actions e.g. being on the bus or standing in line for something (a.n. standing in line is a particular cultural action with its own history and complex socio-cultural-political reasons). This article actually, Modern Desires in Urban Nigeria, does a great job of touching on some of the core issues around civic development, (emergent) class structure and social consciousness through a sensory perspective, taking body odour as a unit of analysis. There is indeed a generational as well as a cultural divide between those who have access to bathing regularly and those who use or overuse deodorants. Growing up I remember the explosion of aerosol sprays that young people will carry in their purses and keep reapplying throughout the heavy heat of the day. Same young people consumed now Western media and attempted to dress in an attractive ‘sexually provocative’ way (and I mean, boys and girls). This, juxtaposed to smelling the sweaty b.o. of older people on the bus and in closed spaces, overdressed in thicker layers, the undertones being the musk of unwashed bodies.

Similarly to the article, I’d point out that electricity is really expensive (still) in Bulgaria so heating a water tank was no small deal, as I well recall throughout my childhood. And another thing – you pay for water consumption – as in, you pay for the water you use, so it’s not really an option for someone less financially fortunate to even bathe in cold water regularly. Of course there is also cultural habit that separates different classes, particularly urban – rural people. The less you bathe the less you can smell yourself, the more you bathe the more you can smell others too (my own theory, but possibly, a fact). It is also possible that people’s bodies adjust in the heat to not sweat as much – I noticed, having lived in the moderate climate of British Columbia, where summer temperatures reach the heights of 25C, I am affronted by existing in humid 33C, something I don’t recall being that much of an issue before. With all that, if I were to draw a trajectory of the last twenty years strictly in terms of the presence of body odour in public places, there is a marked improvement in the overall ‘urbanization’ of the culture and much improved material situation (despite everyone’s complains) reflected in the much reduced (compared to 15-20 years ago) levels of b.o. in public space.

IMG_8038One last anecdote about smell I want to leave behind is embodied by this picture. I took it when a friend led us into an older apartment building in his home town, Silistra. I remember the smell well as the one in my own apartment building, where I grew up. For some reason I associate it with the visual appearance of these older mail boxes, possibly because spending time in that smellscape was necessitated by checking for mail. I have no idea if the wood of the boxes itself contributes to the smell but in any case, the smell is this shady, as in cool to the feel, air of concrete, stone-masonry, mold?. It’s and always has been to me both pleasant and unpleasant. It’s not a nice smell objectively, it’s slightly rotten or off, but not organic. At the same time I associate coming from the sweltering heat outside into this cool, cold-smelling shady place, the entry hallway of the building, to find comfort from the heat, going up the stairs two at a time. And now, of course part of the pleasant-ness of the smell is in the memories it brings up.

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