Soundscapes

Overview

Soundscapes are audio recordings or performances that attempt to present the multiple, overlapping, sounds one might hear in specific acoustic environments, either exclusively or in combination with musical composition / performance. Acoustic environments include all the sounds (human, mechanical, environmental) within a particular area (built or natural) as they are modified by the environment. Soundwalks promote listening to a soundscape by walking to sound sources. Sound maps plot sound sources at specific locations and promote listening to targeted sounds within a soundscape. Information and listening opportunities are provided. Transects sample particular or characteristic sounds along a path through a space or place, which, when combined, provide a mix or collage of the soundscape.

Background

Soundscapes feature the sonic components of acoustic environments and their perception by humans. Soundscapes might represent real or imagined places: forests, oceans, cities, space, or other worlds. The sounds might be natural—animal vocalizations, weather, other—human activities—music, sound design, conversation, work or mechanical sounds. Soundscapes are sometimes called sonic geographies.

R. Murray Schafer developed the term soundscape as part of founding the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, in the late 1960s. He argued that a great deal can be learned from studying the social dimensions of sound. His work continues to influence soundscape artists and people active in the interdisciplinary field of acoustic ecology. [1]

For example, Steven Feld says that soundscapes are not separate from human invention / interaction.

Soundscapes, no less than landscapes, are not just physical exteriors, spatially surrounding or apart from actors who attend to them as a way of making their place in and through the world. Soundscapes are invested with significance by those whose bodies and lives resonate with them in social time and space. Like landscapes, they are as much psychical as physical phenomena, as much cultural constructs as materials ones. . . . Sound both emanates from and penetrates bodies; this reciprocity of reflection and absorption is a creative means of orientation—one that tunes bodies to places and times through their sounding potential. Hearing and producing sound are thus embodied competencies that situate actors and their agency in particular historical worlds. These competencies contribute to their distinct and shared ways of being human; they contribute to possibilities for and realizations of authority, understanding, reflexivity, compassion, and identity. [2]

Soundscapes

Schafer speaks of soundscapes as fluid fields, potentially immersive aural environments, changed with the introduction of each new sound. Describing soundscapes, Schafer used the term "hi-fi" to denote an acoustic environment where one can listen to sounds clearly without masking or crowding. Conversely, "lo-fi" describes a dense and noisy acoustic environment, like a city. In either type of acoustic environment, Schafer notes the presence of keynote sounds (background sounds, like wind, traffic, or water), sound signals (predominate foreground sounds that should be listened to carefully), and sound marks (sounds unique or particular to the context). In this example nature / environment soundscape, the sound mark is the sound of the woodpecker repeated throughout.
"Soundscape 1"
John F. Barber

Rather than nature or environmental sounds, soundscapes might focus on mechanical sounds. This example uses field recordings of antique, gas-powered tractors and farm machinery at a county fair.
"Symphony for Antique Tractors"
John F. Barber

Soundscapes might combine environmental and human sounds as in this example, also composed from field recordings at a county fair.
"Voice of the Fair"
John F. Barber

Soundscapes might also combine environmental, human, and mechanical sounds, as in this example, recording at a pedestrian crossing on Bay Street, Savannah, Georgia.
"Bay Street Crossing"
John F. Barber

Imaginary places, with different sound sources, might also promote soundscapes. This example imagines sounds that might be heard in the operating room of an alien spacecraft.
"Alien Operating Room"
John F. Barber

Another imaginary place is inside the Internet. This soundscape, "Internet Soundscape," imagines the sounds of electronic commerce. Learn more and listen.

Michael Vincent says we can hear literary, musical events in soundscapes. For example, restaurant soundscapes can be heard as "spoken word choral performances." The hushed tones of conversation prior to the start of a movie are "akin to the tuning of an orchestra before an evening performance." [3] Building on that idea, I created this soundscape for Dene Grigar's work of participatory electronic literature, Curlew, a story about a man's struggles with the ocean, the elements, and the gods.
"Curlew Soundscape"
John F. Barber

We might also imagine soundscapes as improbable combinations of sounds in order to provide an aural narrative.
"Soundscape 1: Remix"
John F. Barber

Finally, Garbriele Proy says the effect of listening to a soundscape should be immersion in its sounds, as well as one's memories of similar aural environments. [4] In this regard, soundscapes might help us understand information not normally presented as sound. The Listen to Wikipedia website is a sonification of recent changes to Wikipedia. Bells indicate additions. String plucks subtractions. Pitch changes according to the size of the edit. The larger the edit, the deeper the note. The result is a soundscape of the constant editing of Wikipedia content.

Soundwalks

Soundwalks are excursions in acoustic environments for the purpose of listening to the sounds of that environment's soundscape. The term and practice of soundwalks evolved from the World Soundscape Project, founded by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s-early 1970s at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.

Soundwalks can be designed for individual or group listening. They can cover a wide or small area, even targeted potions of a soundscape. Soundwalks that address portions or targeted portions of a soundscape are often called "location-based" or "locative." See examples by Jeremy Hight and Christina Kubisch, below.

No matter the approach, the objective of soundwalks is to provide active participation with a soundscape by reactivating one's sense of hearing and encouraging active listening. Soundwalks encourage one to listen carefully and critically to sounds and consider their contribution to the acoustic environment. [5]

Exemplary sound walks

34 North 118 West
Jeremy Hight, Jeff Knowlton, Naomi Spellman
2003, Los Angeles, California
Combining audio narrative, digital media, and GPS technology, "34 North 118 West" delivers an interactive story centered around the railroad freight depot situated at 34 North latitude and 118 West longitude in downtown Los Angeles, California, early in the 20th century. Participants walked throughout the area with a tablet computer equipped with a GPS card and headphones. Physical maps are also available. GPS tracks one's position in the neighborhood and triggers audio-visual narratives when entering hot spots created by Hight, Knowlton, and Spellman. The streets, the buildings, the ghosts of former residents, all provide fragments that, taken together, provide a deep and rich narrative of this place. By evoking these multiple narratives, many lost or forgotten, participants uncovered the hidden history of this once thriving part of downtown Los Angeles. "34 North 118 West," with its combination of urban infrastructure and storytelling is a pioneering locative narrative. Learn more.

Electrical Walks
Christina Kubisch
2003 - present, various locations
Subtitled "Electromagnetic Investigations in the City," this ongoing project, begun in 2003 by Berlin-based sound artist Christina Kubisch, uses specially-built headphones to receive electromagnetic signals from the city environment and convert them into sound. Kubisch maps a given territory, noting hot spots (ATM machines, security systems, electronic cash registers, subway systems, etc.) where the signals are particularly strong or interesting. Participants, wearing headphones, undertake an auditory walk through the invisible network of electromagnetic information. Electrical walks have been offered in Germany, England, France, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Spain, Taiwan, and the United States. I created this example from samples of Kubisch's electrical walks including a light advertisement in Sendai, Japan; a magnetic field in the Science Museum, London, England; a subway in Taipei, Taiwan; a decorative electrical flame, at an unknown location; and Gare de l'Est, Paris, France.

Resources

Detour
A very interesting example of contemporary locative narrative. Audio stories set in San Francisco. The samples sound promising. The app sounds tempting.

Electrical Walks at Kubich's website
Samples of raw sounds from Kubisch's electrical walks

"Hypercities Project"
2009
"A collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment."

A Large Slow River
Janet Cardiff
2001
Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff is noted for her sound walks. This one features a mystery inside her narrated walking tour of a lake in Ontario, Canada. Recorded in binaural sound, this CD-based walk is part fiction, part picture book, part soundscape, and very immersive. Headphones provide the best listening experience.

The Missing Voice
Janet Cardiff
1999, Whitechapel Library, London
Subtitled "(Case Study B): An Audio Walk," this CD-based audio walk by Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff, begins in the crime section of the Whitechapel Library. Cardiff's breathy voice, coming from the CD, listened to with a portable player and headphones, leads one on a physical and psychological tour of Spitalfields and the City of London. The tour ends at the Liverpool Street Station. One has to find their way back to the library. Part urban guide, part historical account, part detective fiction, part film noir, recorded in binaural stereo, the piece provides an uncanny surround sound context. This, along with the merging of sound effects and real street noises and Cardiff's stream-of-consciousness descriptions of simultaneous scenarios reinforce the isolation, the anonymity, the invisibility, of the individual in a large city. Searching for connection, for relationships, the solitary person often creates drama, imagines her life the soundtrack for a movie experienced by a walk through the set rather than a theatre viewing. The listener's hears hear one thing. Her brain thinks another. Cardiff: "Sound allows people to use their imagination more than film or video." The thinking voice mixes with other voices, removing one from the story. The listener/viewer, with a delicious lack of control or authority over the outcome, becomes a participant in the experience. Schizophrenia? Or, audio drama? Headphones provide the best listening experience.

The Whitechapel Library closed in 2005 and was absorbed by Whitechapel Gallery. One can still download Cardiff's The Missing Voice in three parts and begin the walk just outside the gallery. Information about "The Missing Voice" at the Janet Cardiff and George Bures website.

A Guide to Getting Lost
Jennie Savage
2014
This sound walk, created by international sound artist Jennie Savage, uses audio recorded over five continents, including in Moroccan souks, Indian streets, tropical beaches, a London Market, bustling European towns, and a snowy Canadian city. Use her soundwalk in your acoustic environment as a guide, turning right and left at points narrated by Savage. Or follow your own route as a Wanderer, Idler, or Drifter. Either way, walkers are challenged to see familiar geography afresh, to give themselves up to walking without purpose and to experience serendipitous moments when sound from the recording appears to sync up with "real life" and real time events.

Soundwalk 9:09
John Luther Adams
2016
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A two-part composition ("Uptown" and "Downtown") meant to turn the 8-block walk between The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Breuer into a polyphonic, antiphonic, and personal music adventure. Learn more at The Met website.
See also Cooper, Michael. "Birdsongs, Sirens, and Saxophones for a Stroll Between Museums." The New York Times 4 July 2016. Cooper recounts the overlay of street sounds as he walks between museum buildings while listening to Adams's compositions. Listen to Soundwalk 9:09 Downtown.

Listen to Soundwalk 9:09 Uptown.

Santa Fe Soundwalk
John F. Barber
2014
Walking in the hills above Santa Fe, New Mexico one morning. The wind in the microphone does not drown out someone practicing the trumpet, some birds, and the bells of The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in downtown.

LA Flood Project
Christy Dena, Jeremy Douglass, Juan B. Gutierrez, Jeremy Hight, Marc C. Marino, and Lisa Ann Tao
2010
Positions the audience/user/narrator as the ellipses (. . .) the points between the narrative action: "Voices are being heard on cell phones."

Mowing Lawn
GPS artist Jeremy Wood
2010
Uses satellite navigation technology to compile a personal cartography of his relation to space and time while mowing his lawn.

Sound maps

Sound maps plot sound sources at specific locations within a soundscape, often on a digital map. By providing routes for soundwalks and information about what might be heard at specific locations along them, sound maps promote active participation with the soundscape and encourage participants to listen carefully in order to make critical judgements about the contributions the mapped sounds make to the complete soundscape.

Using computer-based mapping and audio file encoding technologies, sound maps provide access to the sound elements of particular locations within a soundscape. Thus, sound maps can make soundscapes publicly available in a comprehensive fashion as digital databases. Sound maps can also be created collaboratively by users recording site specific soundscapes and uploading them into the sound map.

Notes

[1] Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World: A Pioneering Exploration Into the Past History and Present State of the Most Neglected Aspect Of Our Environment: The Soundscape Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977 and The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and The Tuning of the World Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1994.
Adapted from The New Soundscape, 1966 and The Tuning of the World, 1977.
See also Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Destiny Books, 1993)
Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World: A Pioneering Exploration Into the Past History and Present State of the Most Neglected Aspect of Our Environment: The Soundscape (McClelland and Stewart, 1977).

[2] Feld, Steven. ***

[3] Vincent 2008 Vincent, M. "The Music in Words." In C. Lane, (ed.), p. 59. Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice. CRISAP, London (2008), pp. 57-61.

[4] Proy, Garbriele. "Waldviertel: A Soundscape Composition." Art of Immersive Soundscapes. Pauline Minevich and Ellen Waterman, eds. Regina, Canada: University of Regina Press, 2013. 88-97.

[5] Hildegard Westerkamp, "Soundwalking," in Autumn Leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, Angus Carlyle, ed. (Paris: Entendre, 2007) 49-54.
See also Soundwalking Interactions for brief information about Hildegard Westerkamp, George Bures Miller, R. Murray Schafer, Viv Corringham, Oliver Schroer, Soundwalk at IPMC Conference, Christina Kubisch, The Aural Experience of Physical Space—An Interactive Installation, and Adrian Piper.

Resources

Resources > soundscapes

Droumeva, Milena. Curating Everyday Life: Approaches to Documenting Everyday Soundscapes. M/C Journal 18(4) 2015.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Destiny Books, 1993)

Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World: A Pioneering Exploration Into the Past History and Present State of the Most Neglected Aspect of Our Environment: The Soundscape (McClelland and Stewart, 1977).

Europe's Sounds at Your Fingertips
More than a million audio recordings and thousands of audio-related content, all focused on Europe's sound and music heritage.

World Update: Soundscapes
Provided by BBC World Service

Acoustic Ecology and Soundscape Bibliography
Published material pertaining to the interdisciplinary fields of acoustic ecology, soundscape research, soundscape composition, soundscape education ("ear cleaning"), and acoustic design. The bibliography takes into special account the writings of R. Murray Schafer, the "father of acoustic ecology", and his research team, the World Soundscape Project, by providing information on all editions of their writings, including revisions, collections and some translations. The bibliography is organized into three sections: Primary Literature, Interview and Secondary Literature.

The view from the Shard
From the observation deck of The Shard, sixty-eight stories above the street, you have a pretty incredible 360-degree panorama of London, England. This website allows you to interact with that view, bringing up points of historical and cultural interest, as well as listening to a continuous soundscape. Note, for example, how the sound(s) change as you zoom in or out of distant views or sounds.

Soundscape Recordings from Vienna
Audio recordings of Vienna's urban soundscape (dating from 1981—1983) were made accessible online by the Phonogrammarchiv. The integration of their geo-coordinates enables direct selection of the recordings from the online catalogue via the project's European Soundscape Map.

Thompson, Emily. The Roaring Twenties
An interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City

Western Soundscape Archive
Features ambient and specific recordings of animals and environments throughout the Western United States. A large collection of the holdings are available through Creative Commons licensing

Rhythm Science Sound Sculpture
An interesting exercise from the 2013 Digital Humanities Winter Institute which builds toward a soundscape, from a simple exercise of acousmatic listening.

Mapping the soundscape of Renaissance Florence
From the University of Chicago. Introduces Digital Humanities and what it can do. Reviews two digital humanities projects, one of which utilizes soundscapes to realize understanding of geospatial data.

Toward a sound-based scholarship
Speaks to soundscapes as sound-specific fieldwork within ethnographic scholarship. Interesting references and resource links.

New York Society for Acoustic Ecology
This project describes itself as a container in which to hold many different processes and projects focusing on the city's shifting sonic environment and temporal, physical, and cultural contexts. Among these projects are "Sound Seeker," a Google map-based interface for listening to the sounds of New York. Clicking icons on a map plays the recorded sound, and shows the address, date, time of day, author, and other information regarding the recording; and "City in a Sidewalk," where participants are invited to navigate a provided soundwalk, or create one of their own. Using an online forum, participants can exchange personal narratives, photographs, drawings, sound recordings, environmental data, historical details, maps, and other information about their walks.

WFAE: World Forum for Acoustic Ecology
An international organization engaged in multi-disciplinary study of the social, cultural and ecological aspects of the sonic environment. Part of their mission is "protecting and preserving existing natural soundscapes and time and places of quiet."

Resources > sound walks

Hildegard Westerkamp, "Soundwalking," in Autumn Leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, Angus Carlyle, ed. (Paris: Entendre, 2007) 49-54.
See also Soundwalking Interactions for brief information about Hildegard Westerkamp, George Bures Miller, R. Murray Schafer, Viv Corringham, Oliver Schroer, Soundwalk at IPMC Conference, Christina Kubisch, The Aural Experience of Physical Space—An Interactive Installation, and Adrian Piper.

Resources > sound maps

Aporee Radio Sound Maps Thousands of recordings from urban, rural and natural environments connect sound and space; create a cartography focused on sound. Follow the navigation link to "Maps," or "Stream" where you can listen to continuous selections from the Aporee collection.

Cities and Memory A global field recording and sound art work that presents both the present reality of a place, and its imagined, alternative counterpart. The result is a constantly evolving sound map of real and imagined sounds from around the world.

The Montreal Sound Map Users can upload their own field recordings to a Google map of Montreal, Canada. With attentive listening, users can experience and appreciate the soundscape firsthand

Stanley Park Soundmap A web-based document of the sonic attributes of this urban park located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.