Posts Tagged: ‘soundscape’

Soundmapping as Critical Cartography

July 26, 2017 Posted by Milena D

For those kindly interested readers, I’m posting the accepted version SAGE allows me to post via Academia.edu in order to allow those without institutional affiliation to read it, and – hopefully! – comment and engage in conversation with me.

The short of it is that I combine some timely principles from radical cartography to the practice of soundmapping, which in my view has been perched on the verge of a political overhaul for some time. What I mean by that is, setting aside technical matters, soundmapping – mapping in general – is a political activity and needs to be understood as such. Soundmaps – whether crowdsourced or specially created – are communicational artefacts, which both attempt to, and do, say something about place, community, belonging, balance, ecology, problematics, etc. Since they are finite in the types of content and manner of representation they can conceivably contain, the exclusion of other elements is as important to the message as the inclusion of existing elements. In other words, as others have pointed out, the absence of certain places, the overrepresentation of noise, the presence and authorship of certain acoustic environments, is politically significant. The rest – in the paper.

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.

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.

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

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: WLD @QE Park

July 25, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So this year for World Listening Day (and by the way it always seems like we in Vancouver – the birthplace of acoustic ecology and all that jazz – always fall short of our international colleagues in terms of taking advantage of the day towards public education and sound awareness) a little group, a subsection of the Vancouver Soundwalking Collective, decided to re-enact a historic soundwalk by Hildegard Westerkamp, 40 years ago, in Queen Elizabeth Park. Also, I brought S. in for her first soundwalk. The soundwalk was recorded by Tyler Kinnear but for the first time I have no desire to hear it, nor did I have a particular desire to record while I was on it. As i said in the discussion after, for me it was more of a memory walk.

But not of memories I have in the park – it was only my second time there – memories from my childhood, of trees, of smells, of air, of sights. As we moved through open fields by the duck pond and then narrow passages through bushes over the creek, up narrow paths with trees overhanging at the sides, coming up on little bridges overlooking the whole park, and the cityscape in the distance, I was reflecting on everything else but sound. I was reflecting on the feeling of relief that I had in wide open spaces, and the feeling of suspense in shady, narrow passages; the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, the flower beds and decorative trees; and the unfamiliarity of having all these different people around me, speaking different languages, doing their own little photoshoots in the park.

Reflecting on multi-sensoriality it really isn’t just about sight, sound, smell or touch. I don’t know what the words are and if there even are any words for ‘atmosphere’, ‘aura’, ‘impression’, ‘imprint’, but those are the kinds of things i had an experience about as I moved through different spaces and different sensory environments.

Sensory Postcard: SFU campus

July 25, 2014 Posted by Milena D

As an aside note, I am always playing catch-up with all my ‘sensory postcards’ – I take way too many photos, videos and audio recordings and can never manage to turn all of these experiences into blog entries…it really has become about ‘recording to remember now, not remember later’ (the tagline from fieldnotes). I guess if I really wanted to turn these experiences into a proper archive I have to be more disciplined and make myself blog every day or something of that sort. Once a month is not enough – I am so in the habit of collecting these that I do it literally everyday. So here’s one for the memory lane.

I’ve been at SFU for over 12 years….I started on this very same campus, Burnaby mountain, living in the campus dorms, walking along the concrete-and-grassy combination that sort of epitomize this campus. There is just so much ‘meadow’ space here that it’s never been a problem to find an empty-ish lawn and park oneself down for some alone time. I remember spending many days and days parking myself in different corners, nooks and crannies of the mountain. I feel a bit like a tree that stands in one place seeing change take shape in front. In the time I’ve been here the campus has gone from empty grass and forest to a cornerstone of shops and supermarket and artificial fountain and a big condo development – elementary school even! Around 1/3rd of the campus has been completely gutted and renovated, and probably a 1/6th of brand new space has been added. Yet there are still these empty grassy areas that are so private, so quiet, so ‘alone-with-your-thoughts’ and hence the sensory postcard. This feeling of being hidden away, of being surrounded by concrete and forest at the same time, is kind of unique and safe in its familiarity. And even aurally, the combination of distant buss roar and children’s voices just within earshot brings back memories of living on campus during the summer alongside constant summer camps. This sound, it’s both irritating to my desire for serenity, and at the same time joyous and uplifting in its predictability. It’s the sound of renewal if I had to name it. Always new kids, always willing to make a racket.

Sensory postcard: People & Urban Spaces

February 12, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Following the previous post, I continue my offerings of Speaking Photo and Picle-inspired slideshow recordings, a series I’d like to call people in spaces. Meaning, what interests me is the type, level and timbre of ambiance that happens when you put one, two or many people in a given space. Once again, because I’m using the same software for all of these, it is interesting the compare the different sound envrionments through the slideshow. This one below begins in a mall on a typical weekend, followed by a dense house party over Xmas – apartment sized space without music; after that we zip over to a busy popular restaurant at night time, a large space with many nooks and crannies – sounding almost identical to the house party; finally we have the overall quieter ambience of an apple store.

One thing that frustrated me in these exercises using the apps was the lack of annotation on the pictures. It is weird when you think of it – even for a slideshow program, not to be able to input a title or heading or something of that sort. The program certainly doesn’t input anything itself. So, I decided to extend the experiment and involve another app – Over. Over allows you to annotate pictures with funky fonts and titles. But, the problem is, what I’d have to do in the otherwise spontaneous moment, is pull out my phone, take a picture, open it in Over, enter a title, save it; open Speaking Photo, select the annotated picture, and press record. Basically takes the spontaneity out of it a bit. What should be a 10-second maneuver, becomes a 1 minute maneuvre, and if there was a transient sound I really wanted to capture, there it goes. It is also cumbersome and makes me want to do it less. This is exactly how apps and technology encourage – not define – but encourage specific behaviours and not others, specific expectations too. I expect for an app to do everything I want it to do. And when it doesn’t, I’m upset.

I don’t know why, but I like the recording better in this next video. Perhaps Speaking Photo has a higher quality of recording but these are better. I won’t explain the locations because they are listed this time. All I’ll say is that these spaces and actions sort of encapsulate my day working in gastown – including inside the office space, at lunch break, in the elevator, etc.

Aural Postcard: Ambleside Beach

September 14, 2012 Posted by Milena D

I actually made this recording last year but clearly haven’t gotten around to posting it yet. It’s funny usually every summer i’m like a terminator determined to pack in as much sun, beach, water and sand i can into my existence. This year i was so burned out from work, I was content to just not work, and barely got out once or twice. Went to the beach all of three times, and didn’t go in the water once. I think all of this was my final recapitulation to Vancouver “summers” – it was just never hot enough for the damn ocean to warm up enough for swimming. This recording is such a pleasant memory because last year I still had that innocence and hope that real summer was just around the corner. This particular visit to the beach was so pleasant and peaceful, what struck me there was the serenity of the waves lapping at the beach with gentle people sounds around that I wasn’t annoyed by (which I usually am) Anyway, enjoy the quietude and ambiance:

Ambleside beach

Aural postcard: Can-Am championship

July 10, 2012 Posted by Milena D

Mainly what I wanted to demonstrate here is the chaotic – both visually and sonically – environment of the Can-Am championships, Vancouver 2012. In this corner of the video we see the Qigong competitors moving along to soft music with focus and concentration, next to the more advanced Taiji individual forms. Then the video pans to the right where two large rinks are dedicated to Southern style kung-fu with lots of energy, yelling, thumping, kicking and twirling in the air. Further yet in the other side of the gym are the karate-do, tae-kwon-do boxing and wushu competitions. I was mostly fascinated with the soundscape. So busy, so counter-intuitive for the calm zen focus required for Qigong. I’m reminded of Ursula Franklin’s Silence and Notion of the Commons where she introduces the practices of Quaker communities. Taiji, something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and Qigong strike me as practices in need of some sort of silence – external or / and internal? Actually, the movement itself is silence. Just like the movements of wushu and southern kung-fu are themselves loudness. In any case, I wanted to capture the atmosphere of this event in its audio-visual glory. It was quite different on competition day as compared with the opening ceremony where triumphant warrior musical orchestrations accompanied all the school demos. Sans the glamour of evening glow, competitions were more like the metaphorical daytime light, unforgiving, full of energy, stress and possibility. Team cheers and chants were then the soundtrack of the better martial arts forms, with the only exceptions being Qigong group forms with the little distorted transistor radio soundtracks, the grit of the low-quality music player clashing with the intended grace of the forms.

Filmed with an iPhone 4 camera.