Sonic Conflict


Approaching my first weekend in Rotterdam, I was beginning to feel exhausted and discontented with my living circumstances. My eyes felt heavy, but my ears remained on high alert; I was in desperate need of a good night’s rest. I turned on my white noise soundtrack at 9pm and quickly fell into a light sleep. After less than an hour I was abruptly awoken by a loud party gearing up on the second floor: I could clearly hear laughter, the occasional squeal and scream of excitement, and the muddled tones of electronic dance music (EDM). The regular rhythmic pulse of the drums and bass pulsed through the walls and ceiling, vibrating all four corners of my room, rattling my bedframe, and throbbing against my gut. It was only 10:15pm, but I felt entitled to an early night’s rest with the noise-curfew now in effect. Feeling quite curmudgeonly, I briefly debated with myself as to whether it was worthwhile getting out of bed to voice a complaint with my noisy upstairs neighbor. Eventually, it was the heavy bass that drove me out of bed. Sporting pajamas and slippers, I walked up the stairs of the building and down the hallway towards the party with my eyes only half open. After knocking multiple times, the door eventually swung wide open to reveal seven or eight people dancing, enjoying the party. The tenant who answered the door looked at me with a quizzical expression and a tacit query: “Yes?” I asked that he turn down his music since it was disturbing me on the floor below. He replied curtly, “Sure, sorry,” and firmly closed the door. By the time I arrived back downstairs I realized that the music was still blaring and that my plea for some peace and quiet had been ignored. At 10:30pm I posted a message on the WhatsApp group chat: “Anybody else disturbed by the EDM playing on the second floor? I’ve already asked them once to turn it down and would prefer not to ask again.” Although I was reaching out hoping that someone else would be encouraged to voice their own complaint, by 11pm the party suddenly stopped; shortly thereafter a fellow tenant responded: “Yes I was also disturbed but the party has already finished.”


Over the next several weeks I continued using the device to play white noise throughout the evening. I discovered that my noisy neighbor upstairs regularly held parties on Thursday evenings, which, like clockwork, wrapped up by 11pm, presumably when the group headed out to a night club or bar. I acquired a rhythmic routine for my weekly bedtime, staying up slightly later on certain evenings as I waited for the energy on the first floor to become hushed and mellow. By mid-March I gradually stopped relying on the Echo to fall asleep since I was able to automatically tune out the background noise of talkative neighbors and the ambient sounds of media consumption: it took me nearly six weeks to develop an adequate soundscape competence on the first floor of the building. Significantly, I never became fully adjusted to the sounds of freight trains passing at night, and this was one element of the “sonic object setting” (Klett 2014) that could easily pierce the warm blanket of white noise emanating from the Echo. Audio recordings 1 and 2 provide samples of two types of particularly noisy freight trains that could often be heard from my residence. Although these infrequent trains wouldn’t keep me awake at night, they would occasionally jolt me from my slumber. In contrast, audio recording 3 provides a sample of a slower and quieter type of train that I was easily able to tune out with my soundscape competence.


During the first month in Rotterdam, as I used the device to hush the sounds that exceeded my soundscape competence, new domestic habits emerged in relation to my environment. Playing white noise as a coping mechanism helped me restore a sense of privacy, hushing the external sounds of discourse and media consumption. I initially used the orphic affordances of the device to fall asleep, but this became unnecessary as I became intimately familiar with the routine sounds produced by neighbors on the first floor as well as the weekly Thursday-evening parties thrown upstairs. My ears gradually adjusted to the restless acoustic environment to restore a sense of peace and quiet. 


After becoming accustomed with the environment and fluent with the orphic affordances of the device, I no longer felt affronted whenever loud music penetrated my private room during the wakeful hours of everyday life. However, my newfound composure was suddenly disrupted one Saturday morning in March, when I was jolted out of a deep sleep at 4am by what sounded like a burgeoning party being hosted upstairs. I had been asleep for several hours but found myself suddenly wide awake from the rhythmic pulse of the bass buzzing the metallic segments of my bedframe and someone’s voice speaking over a musical track. After tossing and turning for a few moments, I dragged myself out of bed and thrust my feet into my slippers to walk upstairs and voice my complaint. I took my phone with me to make a recording of the experience: Audio recording 4 begins as I am walking down the hallway of the second floor. The music sounds deceptively quiet on the recording, even with the spike in volume that accompanies the door being widely opened. Looking into my neighbor’s room I could see an enormous PA system and a pair of turntables. This was not your average noisy neighbor being moderately insensitive to those in his vicinity, but – based on the musical equipment I saw in his room – this fellow was presumably an aspiring DJ who had converted his home into an after-hours venue to the detriment of everyone in the building who followed more typical circadian rhythms of wakefulness. I could hear the party wrapping up shortly after sinking back in bed, and I could not help but laugh to myself at the absurdity of this living arrangement. 


I recount this personal experience of adjustment to the soundscape of my temporary residence in order to explore the embodied, interpersonal, and environmental dimensions of acoustic privacy. Due to the proximity of the private rooms, my own AEH clashed with those of my noisy neighbor upstairs. Additionally, there were moments when no degree of soundscape competence or orphic mediation was sufficient to provide me with control over the acoustic environment: all I could do was voice my complaints to my disruptive neighbor and eventually to the managers of the student housing service. Although I cannot say it with complete certainty, it seemed that my first-floor neighbors were less vocal in their complaints, raising several questions: How were these other international students coping with the noise? Were they themselves listening to nocturnal music, white noise, or some other orphic media? To what extent did the sounds of the first floor and upstairs parties violate their own AEHs in a way that differed from my own microfascist tendencies?


In addition to the conflictual AEHs between myself and the noisy upstairs neighbor, my sonic preferences and routines differed from those of other first-floor residents. One evening, as I was cooking my dinner in the communal kitchen, an affable neighbor entered and immediately blurted out: “Are you cooking in silence?” I was slightly taken aback by the question, and I asked him if he wondered why I was cooking without listening to music. He said, “Yes, of course. That’s so strange to be cooking while staring at your dinner in silence, waiting for it to be cooked!” I chuckled and did not offer much of an explanation except to say that my smart speaker was inside my bedroom and that it hadn’t occurred to me to bring it for the 30 minutes or so that it would take to prepare a meal. The next evening, I entered the kitchen to find another tenant cooking his dinner while listening to music on the loudspeaker of his phone. I recognized the indie rock band playing, The Strokes, and began to prepare my meal beside him. A moment later the same affable neighbor from the previous day entered the kitchen, quickly spun around, and departed without a word only to return some moments later with his headphones on. The three of us proceeded to cook our separate meals with minimal conversation, one neighbor’s music playing aloud while the other tuned into to a private soundtrack on his headphones while tuning out his neighbor’s in order to realize his own AEH. 

Audio recording 1: Noisy train A

Audio recording 2: Noisy train B

Audio recording 3: Quiet train

Audio recording 4: Late-night disruptive party