Posts Tagged: ‘sound study’

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.

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!

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

Sound Study: Yaletown (Part 1)

January 14, 2015 Posted by Milena D

This post has been coming for six months. I created this study in the summer of 2014 and I felt that it was so successful as an ethnographic methodology and experiential, inductive form of inquiry that I presented about it at the 2014 Social Science and Humanities Congress, at a special session called “The Digital Gymnasium”. What I like about it the most is that it developed as a totally organic activity. Here I was, cat-sitting in Yaletown for a friend of mine, and with the beautiful weather and being so close to the Sea wall I kept going out and enjoying the neighbourhood. Now these days I usually get into an intensive process of audio recording + decibel readings + notes and observations when I travel somewhere different than my usual surroundings. It’s hard to maintain a constant attentiveness and interested – not so much in listening – but in carefully documenting the surrounding soundscape (a topic that I dedicated an upcoming entry at the CASE blog series). But seeing as I was now staying at Yaletown, a place I don’t spend that much time in, but a staple of a neighbourhood in Vancouver anyway, I decided to treat it as a ‘foreign’ place and go around recording and documenting sound, seeing what might emerge from being attentive to the soundscape. As I’ve mentioned before, I think of these media vignettes as ‘sensory postcards’ of a place, that together, as a digital archive, sort of reveal something bigger, holistic, more than the sum of its parts about the community, geographical place and its culture.

The specific apps I used to create sensory postcards include Faber Acoustical’s app dB, a Recorder app, audio-photo apps Picle and Speakingphoto as well as social podcasting apps soundloud and audioboo. The dB app listens silently through the mic input, and displays a running decibel level. Picle uses a photograph and overlays 10 seconds of sound onto a picture. Yaletown is a wealthy area that overlooks the English Bay and is in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I wanted to explore how different spaces are characterized sonically and visually, and compare the recordings I made with my direct experiences. One of the first things that caught my attention was how the landscape and soundscape interacted to form an almost intentionally designed experience, and in particular, the way the careful arrangement of the visual environment tricked my ears into hearing less noise, and ultimately experiencing my surroundings as peaceful and serene (in correspondence with the ‘sailboat’ postcard view on offer).

This first example is literally two sides of the same street, a few feet away from each other. On one side we have a popular open patio restaurant, a lot of music and people talking leaking out to the street. Across from it we overlook the marina and the Sea wall, which is often used by people biking and walking. Here’s what they sound like. Notice how crossing the street shaves off almost 10 decibels. And yet even for the ‘quiet’ one, we’re still in the high 60s, not exactly the serenity one would expect.

Now my personal view is that this perceptual convergence I’m experiencing in putting together the soundscape with the landscape is less of an intentional design (as if city planners actually considered sound in any aesthetical, rather than purely functional and logistic sense!), and more a result of habituation to constructed media images, where soundscapes are always ‘replaced’ and carefully matched to the ‘mood’ or atmosphere of each image. Here is another example just from around the corner, where a grocery story (Urban Fair) overlooks the Roundhouse courtyard. Notice that once again we have an almost 10 decibel difference.

The expected irony of course is that the supermarket is way noisier than the outside, even though the area is fairly busy with local and distant traffic. And speaking of traffic, staying at my friend’s place near the Sea wall but a few blocks away from the water – boy was it loud! Here, for comparison we have a kind of ‘urban’ playground’ across from the Roundhouse, and the soundscape leaking into an 8th floor apartment a few short blocks away.