Category: ‘Acoustic ecology’

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.

 

#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.

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

Bulgaria 2015: Parkour Lite and other Material Goodies

July 27, 2015 Posted by Milena D

IMG_7292Back in 2011, when I attended WFAE in Corfu, Greece, I remember talking to one of the attendees about her research. It had something to do with cultural constructions of embodiment related to the built environment, which of course always reflects the ideology of time and that particular society. E.g. I remember her saying that in Germany, the quest for minimalism and order with very flat surfaces, glossy materials and rectangular edges create a very particular type of upright embodiment – posture, specifically. In contrast, Mediterranean cultures tend to be characterised by uneven surfaces, different road materials and tiles, hills, more embellished architectural details and built structures. In Bulgaria this time I’ve really noticed how the roads require a lot more effort to walk on, it’s a bit of a full-body experience because you have to dodge holes in the ground, unevenly laid-out tiles, exposed concrete blocks, duck parked cars, mud dried up in weird shapes and mounds, steps and curbs of different height, to say nothing of crossing the road. You would literally be hard-pressed to find even and consistent materials, even road pavements, symmetry or clean proportions. It’s like the physical world is in various forms of decay and either it was never quite proper to begin with, or being in various forms of decay has become the normalized state of things. New things are built, no doubt, and better than I ever have seen before, with specially-ordered European tiles and blocks and wood, and marble. Actually old marble, quite popular in certain periods of time, has really stood the test of time and remained one of the lesser decayed objects in space.

IMG_7578Basically much of walking in Varna is like hiking, and my guess is that people’s posture and embodiment has evolved and developed around navigating this environment of parkour lite – physical obstacles, weeds, garbage, parked vehicles, trees and bushes. And this isn’t in the outskirts of town – this is right around the corner from very central neighbourhoods including the Centre. If I were to speculate – though I admit I am having a hard time noticing such subtle differences, the posture of Bulgarians is a bit hunched-over, possibly due to engaging the whole body in walking through and over and around material structures. Unrelated to embodiment, but somehow related to this discussion of physical space and how it is culturally configured and experienced (at a less than conscious level no doubt) is just the general visual surroundings. Similarly to the roads, I think of the visualscape as the opposite of German minimalism, but also the opposite of European baroque. There is a nary a thing in place or in coherent style with each other in the general cityscape. You’d be hard-pressed to find a row of cars that are parked in relative right angles to each other. Even buildings are perched on weird angles and corners, architectural styles not really matching anything in the vicinity. It’s kind of a collage of mismatched objects, colours and materials, like one of those roadside restaurants you walk into where the owners have the singing fish on the wall and knick-knacks from all their years (and eras) of travel and operations. Since the ‘beautifying of the environment’ initiatives that so characterized the period of Communism went off the rails in the early 1990s, the ‘unclaimed’ spaces of cityscape, the publicly-owned bits of road and land, have remained utterly uncared for and barely maintained, in complete disarray. I remember initiatives in my childhood when we got together as neighbourhood teams and performed ‘actions’ to clean up, beautify and generally maintain our shared spaces in between residential apartment buildings. Communism was generally responsible for a clean look and feel, sensible modernist realism. Aristotelian in ideology, the motto was – order in the environment is order in society – and by extension, emotional and psychic order inside each individual.

ParkourPublic space, unclaimed as it is, is in this way sharply delineated from private space, where individual tastes and material resources shine in the careful, stylish designs of private homes, cafes, restaurants and other commercial establishments. There is a great variety of materials again, in contrast to the fairly standard materials featured in the sensible design of North America (the West coast in particular): custom marble and tiles, planks, chairs, decorations, accessories, art and designer artistic furniture. In the same cafe/bar, across a broken down underpass, right by my grandparents’ place, one can see at least four different types of entire designer ecosystems, developed and complete with requisite materials, ambience, down to the last detail including patio furniture outside; and inside – private booths with red leather couches, matching tables and private television sets. Even the ashtrays on every table are unique and stylish – never seen two of the same kind at any of the establishments I’ve been in. In Varna there is almost a kind of competition for cafe/bars to outdo each other in the absolutely ridiculous, pompous seating and decoration design. Incredible harmony of style, really an art experience more than a culinary one. Special mention goes to these two – Bar de Rouge at the gates of the Marine Garden (right) with its giant multicolour plastic thrones; and one of the new establishments by Horisont (Akacii) next to a brand new centre for sport and cultural events. But there are many others, beautiful gems scattered in an ocean of dust and dirt, and finding them is like an escape from reality that maybe people here need more than the more advanced western nations.

IMG_7573  Akacii

Bulgaria 2015: Conceptual Smellscapes

July 21, 2015 Posted by Milena D

I’ll just start by saying my holiday in Bulgaria this time is greatly enriched by a new awareness of smell, and a more informed, dedicated attention to soundscapes. A more mature sensory ethnographic sensibility. @multisensorymel ’s point that smellscapes can be thought of as ‘conceptual’ has given me some food for thought. But for now, before I draw conclusions or ‘see’ patterns, I need to just list some smells and initial impressions before I forget them completely.

The first thing that struck me arriving at the Sofia airport was the heat and smell of bodies tightly packed in dense lineups at passport control. There isn’t much space for ‘personal space’ in this culture so I had to adapt – this time paying attention – to being in such close proximity of people. It’s not that people don’t wash or use deodorant. It’s just that it’s so hot, those things inevitably fail to mask human sweat and body odour. Antiperspirant commercials were made for the moderate western climate where air-conditioned spaces contain much of people’s daily movements and interactions. The second thing that struck me was the unbearable stench in the airport toilets. I realized, I think for the first time, that this is a problem of plumbing and not (just) of inadequate cleaning. There is something in the original infrastructure of sewage and water pipes that has corroded the inside of plumbing to the point where there is this heavy, sharp, stinging smell of urine/acid. The cold tile or marble floors are mostly clean, the ceramic toilet seats are new (I certainly remember what the old ones looked like) yet the smell is there. Much more faintly the same smell can be experienced in a variety of establishments including all the toilet rooms in private homes. Toilet rooms is precisely what people have and I do wonder if certain infrastructural decisions were made a long time ago on the assumption that bathrooms (i.e. shower rooms) are separate spaces altogether from toilet rooms. When I strain my memory I do remember the same acrid smell protruding through the heaps of cleaning product and air fresheners that we always had in our washroom. Definitely plumbing and insulation.

Stepping outside the airport, a pleasant surprise was the freshness of the air, the sense of open space, light, unpolluted atmosphere, which is ridiculous because it’s quite polluted there, and there certainly isn’t the same culture of ‘non-pollution’ that I’m used to thinking of in north america. Also, no humidity. I think that really helps with the way the air and the heat felt. Started noticing a lot of the sideawalks inside residential neighbourhoods are large slabs of stone and smaller pebble-stone octagons, with dry dirt powder in between, all crooked and torn up in places. Asphalt small roads are full of holes where water and other debris accumulate; both cars and pedestrians are used to the extra effort to physically navigate the difficult terrain.

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Another reason for the general air quality and smellscape / sensory atmosphere is the wide variety and general abundance of deciduous trees that not only clean but perfume the air with their flower buds and leaves (much smellier I think then their evergreen counterparts). It is not in fact uncommon to have tons of fruit trees all over town, including on small residential streets, left over from pre-communist times when houses had their own vegetable gardens, fruit trees and bushes. This makes the air, particularly in Varna, sweet and fragrant, yet fresh from the salty sea breeze. However, fruit fallen to the ground rots in the sun so there is also a prevailing spoiled fruit scent, soaked into the heated pavements. There is an overall ‘clean dusty’ smell if that makes sense. Because the sidewalk materials are so hard and non-porous, in the absence of frequent rain the earth in between tiles and stones dries and loses the smell of moist soil that I associate with Vancouver’s rainy climate.

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The air is further fragrant from the many sidewalk produce stands where warm scent of vegetables and ripe (but not overripe) fruit mix into a kind of soft, earthy, sweet aroma. If I were to draw this in colour, it would be rich, sand yellow, terracotta orange, with hues of light blue. Come to think of it, that’s how I would draw the entire smellscape of Varna, with the earthy fragrance of trees and the salty breeze of the sea air.

One last moment to share. I don’t know if it’s just been that long that I’ve been away, or just I haven’t been as aware of the smellscape of home, but when I made my usual pilgrimage to my childhood beach this year (“Officer’s beach, Akacii”) I had a moment, right here – I stopped to take a picture. It’s the bottom of the marine garden walkway before the stairs that descend down to the beach. It’s the moment where the general smell-ambience of green-leaf deciduous trees was pierced sharply but pleasantly by a fresh salty sunny smell of the Black sea below. It’s hard to explain – influx of memories that almost physically grabbed me, realization of how much different the salty water smell is from that I’ve come to experience on the Pacific northwest. It was an emotional high note, the smell felt like it pierced me right through the heart, and I stood, right here, weeping a little, trying not to look too odd. This was the moment of ‘coming back home’, wave of nostalgia just washing over me, surprising me with how much I miss this place.

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Soundwalk (New Brighton) New Music Series

June 19, 2015 Posted by Milena D

NewBrighton2015-3Just a quick note to comment on a soundwalk I recently attended, led by my good friend Helena Krobath. We spent over an hour in the most beautiful sunshine walking through the Wall St./ McGill area and ending up at New Broughton beach. In addition to the rich soundscape the walk was also very fragrant – sun, I find really brings out fresh greenery smells, tree bark, distant salty ocean breeze, and once we got down to the beach, very much heavy seaweed-salt water and shell sand smell. (but don’t ask me to describe shell sand smell, I just feel like I could smell it) The soundscape in this area has a fascinating history, of which I only know that once it was a fisherman’s ghetto of Asian migrants (Korean?) and in general the area has stayed vastly industrial, with big cargo ferries and oil tankers rolling in and out, refueling, loading, unloading. While the oceanview nature of the region has overwhelmingly moved it in the direction of gentrification pushing real estate prices up (check out Avant: the newest in East Van oceanfront living), the soundscape remains saturated with the rumble of harbour machinery, freight elevators, constant roar of cargo trucks, the passage of cargo trains and the clanking of switching tracks, squealing brakes, and nearby Memorial Ironworkers’ Bridge (Second Narrows) commuter traffic.

I definitely still love soundwalking, but especially in groups, I catch myself paying attention to many other sensory elements besides sound, even more so than sound. It’s an opportunity for introspection more than anything. Similarly to a soundwalk I went to in Queen Elizabeth Park last summer I was remembering a lot of childhood memories – climbing trees, playing in bushes and ditches, exploring the abandoned weed-ridden areas hidden behind and away from residential areas. So much joy and adventure and sense of discovery playing in abandoned construction sites, wooded areas and ditches, boarded up houses, etc. This neighbourhood with its combination of (now) fancy houses and the very industrial harbour reminds me of my childhood. The smell of the wild bushes that ran alongside most of the walk were very strong memory triggers. Walking in a large group of people is not really a novelty for me (hasn’t been for a while) but at this point *not recording* is a novelty so I do find myself being less of a dedicated, intentional listener, and more simply letting sensory experience flood into memories and into stream of consciousness and introspection. To re-answer the crux of all questions, it’s not that sound presents a massively different and unique view of the world, it’s that intentionally tuning into one sense provides an opportunity to open all senses in a different way – it creates a different framework for perception, than the one we habitually use, which is primarily informed by semiotic shortcuts, that is, a cerebral, conceptual and culturally-informed way of encountering the world. And to me this is the key part – listening, yes – but why! Just to unlearn passive behaviours – no, that has never been good enough for me.

“Why There Will Never Be Instagram for Audio”

April 13, 2015 Posted by Milena D

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 11.12.36 AMIn this guest blog post on the CASE (Canadian Association for Sound Ecology) blog I talk about soundwalking, recording and the wider context of media curation, everyday photography and social networks.

Sound Study: Olympic Village

November 11, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So in the past six months I’ve been thinking about the concept of sound study as something more than a ‘postcard’, a sustained exploration of the geographical, sensory, cultural and social environment through the channel of listening. At the same time understanding that listening is always connected to the other senses and to the social experience of being in place.

Sensory Postcard: Ghost Train 2014

November 4, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Following last year’s Ghost train ride, I went again this year, and this time I was prepared to record. Last year’s entry is special to me, because it was really one of the first experiences that made me reframe my entries from ‘aural’ to ‘sensory’ postcards. There was something about riding on that tiny rickety train, on real tracks, through the foggy night forest of Stanley Park, stacked up against other people, and surrounded by mechanical props as well as live actors, that made that experience particularly multi-sensory. And coming to expect these impressions, I set out to record them this year, as well as just pay more structured attention to them. Here is a shorter vignette version of the ghost train experience this year, themed “Mother Goose”. On a side note, I think the funding for this year’s festival was severely cut as there were about 1/10th of the amount of props and actors pulling this together. And here is a longer audio recording in Audioboo of a section that was particularly eerie where the train goes over the little lake. You can almost hear the fogginess of the night forest, the echoes and reflections off the water coming from multiple installation sites in the vicinity. Plus the foreground audience reactions and rhythmical tacking of the train itself.

Sensory Postcard: Galiano Island

October 20, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So once again, it was the time of my annual pilgrimage to Galiano Island, where I spent two weeks with one dog, two cats, and one girlfriend (one of the weeks). I have listened, thought and written about this before (including at the Acoustic Ecology journal), so nothing new…but this time around I had some new thoughts, because I spent even more time outside sitting with my thoughts, while the dog rolled around in the wet sand. This is something I hardly do any more, but used to do a lot when I walked my dog in my childhood – walk silently with my thoughts and experience the surrounding environment.

2014-09-27 13.22.44One obvious delight about the house where I stayed on Galiano was of course the massive expanse of acoustic horizon, the fresh air that I was really appreciating this time, and just all kinds of little bits of material things – weird field spider webs in the morning, crisp smell of morning dew, grass, pine trees. I also love the resident crows that make their daily circles at dusk sort of chatting (quarreling?) back and forth to each other. I’ve actually gotten to be really fascinated with crows lately…they are super intelligent, and I always feel like their behaviour and language is just beyond my understanding but so close I can tell it is intelligent and meaningful. It’s hard to describe how us humans as intelligent beings can recognize (or think we can recognize) and tell apart meaningful exchange from instinct-driven behaviour?…

Anyway, this post was meant to be a tribute to the materiality of existance, finding joy and awakening in smelling, feeling, listening, seeing beauty and life in nature, in its serenity and chaos. I love to just sit an observe small areas like tidepools, or ant-hills, everything has a place, and it’s a microcosm within the social construction we call ‘culture’ – as if, delusionally, we are the only ones here, or the only ones who matter.