Reflections on Sonic Environments

Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen


The apartment that I used to rent in Amsterdam did not have very thick walls. As a result, I could frequently hear what my neighbors were doing. I heard them walking around, doing the dishes, laughing, and arguing. On the one hand, these sounds gave indications as to how my neighbors were living their lives. Yet on the other hand, because the sounds gave only partial clues, many aspects of their domestic lives remained obscure.

Particularly their conversations were impossible to understand. I could hear the neighbors talk, but because the sound was muffled, I was unable to make out what they were saying. Only by the tone, i.e. the dynamics, rhythm, and pitch, of their voices I could guess the mental state they were in while talking. I could tell whether they had, say, a quarrel, or if a joke was told, but what the quarrel or the joke was about, I could not make out. The voices and conversations were recognizable as such, yet the contents of these conversations remained incomprehensible.

Given the fact that I was involuntarily involved in these conversations, due to the thin walls of my apartment, gave them an intrusive character. As Jean-Luc Nancy explains, “[the intruder’s] coming does not stop: he continues to come, and his coming does not stop intruding in some way: in other words, without right or familiarity, not according to custom, being, on the contrary, a disturbance, a trouble in the midst of intimacy” (Nancy 2008: 161). I could not close myself off from these conversations unless I left the room I was in, thus leaving the space that I considered my own. The conversations were disturbances that transformed my private, intimate space into one that had lost most of its privacy and intimacy. Moreover, I was forced to eavesdrop on the conversations, an activity that was bound to fail due their incomprehensibility. Thus, on the one hand their conversations where an intrusion of my private space, but at the same time I was intruding the privacy of my neighbors by being a (fallible) earwitness. The only difference was that this did not register as an intrusion to them, as they remained unaware of my listening in on their conversations.


                                                                                                                              The Study

                                                        The Shop

            Sirens                                                                                                                                                                  The Gym


                    The Bedroom


                             The Ear and/versus the Eye

                Sound Design    



                                                    Footsteps                                                                                                                                      Rattle and Hum

                                                                       Your Space