Recomposing the City: New Directions in Urban Sound Art


Gascia Ouzounian and Sarah Lappin

In 2013, we, a musicologist/musician and an architectural historian/architect, founded Recomposing the City: Sound Art and Urban Architectures in Belfast, Northern Ireland. We were inspired by contemporary architecture’s increasing tendency towards art, a subject that comes into focus in the recent volume Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture (2014). In their introductory essay to that volume, editors Spyros Papapetros and Julian Rose stress “the urgency of reexamining the relationship [between art and architecture] at a time when their growing interchange is everywhere in evidence, even if it is only beginning to be understood” (Papapetros and Rose 2014: xiii).


Equally, we were fascinated by the propensity of sound artists to work as spatial practitioners. To borrow a term from Blesser and Salter (2006), not only do numerous sound artists practice as “aural architects” in the fullest sense of the word – creating spaces and environments in and through sound – but many also further advance what might be regarded as the expanded field of aural architecture: urban acoustic planning, aural archaeology, sound mapping, acoustic ecology, mobile sound art, and other new and extended modes of auditory spatial practice.


In our immediate community in Belfast, we were particularly inspired by a diverse group of sound artists whose work posed deep challenges to how the post-conflict city was imagined, represented, and experienced. Our 2014 article for Leonardo Music Journal investigated the ways in which sound art can redraw boundaries in a city that has historically been marked by numerous and complex sectarian divisions. We suggested that sound art could be said to “recompose the city,” effectively positioning the city “not as an object or collection of objects, but instead as a resonant idea that is co-created by, and shared among, its inhabitants, visitors and, most especially, its listeners” (Ouzounian 2013: 48). Through the lens of urban sound art, we argued, the city itself could be understood as being composed, and recomposed, through sound.

Still, we felt that the concept of city-as-resonant-idea would necessarily be limited without meaningful and sustained engagement on the part of architects, urban planners, policymakers and others who are directly involved in shaping the built environment. Thus, in 2013 we invited a diverse group of architects and planners, as well as government officials, sound artists and theorists, to join us in critically examining the role of sound in the design and planning of urban space. The overwhelmingly enthusiastic response we received spoke to the desire of artists and built environment professionals alike to consider new approaches to the city via the acoustic dimension of urban space.

In the first year of Recomposing the City we hosted over a dozen public seminars, concerts, exhibitions, and an International Symposium in Belfast.[1] The papers collected in this volume of the Journal of Sonic Studies (JSS) stem from the Recomposing the City International Symposium in 2014, a lively gathering that was followed with an equally stimulating Postgraduate Student Symposium in 2015. However, the papers published in this present volume represent only a small part of the dialogue that Recomposing the City has facilitated. Thus, in this editorial we will reflect on our group’s larger concerns as well as on the insights of those artists and scholars who have generously contributed to this ongoing dialogue.

[1] See the website for Recomposing the City for details of these events. Our activities in 2013-2014 were made possible through the generous support of the Institution for Collaborative Research in the Humanities at Queen’s University Belfast.

This work was generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the project 'Hearing Trouble: Sound Art in Post-Conflict Cities' (AH/M008037/1).

New Directions in Urban Sound Art


Two initiatives in the area of urban sound art/urban inquiry that we regard as key exemplars are Tuned City, initiated by Gesine Pagels and Carsten Stabenow and curated by Stabenow since 2008, and bonn hoeren, curated by Carsten Seiffarth since 2010. Tuned City was conceived as a platform for investigating “sound as a tool and means of urban practice” (Pagels and Stabenow 2008: 98). It has already taken place in Berlin, Nürnberg, Tallinn, and Brussels, and Stabenow is currently investigating future sites.[2] A Berlin-based artist and curator, Stabenow has taken extraordinary care to develop Tuned City in such a way that the activities that fall under its rubric are genuinely site-responsive. Stabenow invites artists and researchers to respond in specific ways to a range of local urban conditions, contexts, histories, and sites. This has resulted in a remarkable series of activities, projects, and gatherings in which different cities have been re-examined and re-encountered through sound and sound art.

While Tuned City evolves in relation to multiple – and substantially different – urban contexts, bonn hoeren turns an ear to a single city, Bonn, from 1949 to 1990 the de facto capital of West Germany. bonn hoeren is conceived and directed by Carsten Seiffarth, a tireless and dynamic curator who has also supported the creation and exhibition of hundreds of sound art works through the organization singuhr.[3] Every year, bonn hoeren appoints a City Sound Artist to create sound works in and for the city of Bonn. Since 2010, the bonn hoeren artists have included Sam Auinger, Erwin Stache, Andreas Oldörp, Christina Kubisch, Stefan Rummel, Max Eastley, and Edwin van der Heide – influential artists who have each made substantial contributions to the fields of urban and public sound art. Again, the initiative has resulted in an astonishing range of projects, events, and activities. In Recomposing the City’s workshops on sound and urbanism for emerging architects, we have in particular drawn upon Sam Auinger’s Listening Sites in Bonn (2011), a map of Bonn that he describes as “an invitation to visit various sites in Bonn and experience their auditory qualities, to consciously expand the individual perception, recognition and interpretation of urban settings [and] places – our urban living space – through the aural dimension (Auinger 2011).


While Tuned City and bonn hoeren have facilitated the urban perspectives of multiple and diverse artists, two recent urban sound initiatives that have been driven by individual artists, and that are examined in this present volume, are Berlin Sonic Places (2012) by Peter Cusack and Manual for Acoustic Planning and Urban Sound Design (MAP) (2014) by Sven Andersen. Cusack, a leading figure in soundscape studies, was a plenary speaker at the Recomposing the City 2014 International Symposium. Cusack spoke eloquently on his research into urban sound environments, including his ongoing work in Berlin, for which he has been interacting with architects and planners, community groups, and sustainability organizations. In our interview with Cusack for this volume, we discuss the particular challenges and pitfalls of engaging with policymakers on issues of urban sound, and Cusack elaborates on his idea of “sonic place” as a conceptual device for studying and mapping urban soundscapes.


Sven Anderson, an American artist who has resided in Dublin since 2001, developed the Manual for Acoustic Planning project in the context of the Dublin City Public Art Programme’s “Interacting with the City” initiative. For this initiative the city sought to support projects that would engage the “diverse resources of the City Council itself, not just in terms of locations and permissions, but also with respect to the range of skill-sets, knowledge and people within the organization” (Anderson 2014). In part, Anderson’s winning proposal entailed developing permanent and public sound installations in Dublin via discussion, dialogue, and negotiation with city officials as well as the city’s public. Positioning himself in the experimental role of “urban acoustic planner,” Anderson was embedded within Dublin City Council for an entire year during which time he engaged in a “multitude of collaborative actions that [served] to develop a community of active listening in relation to the city” (see Public Art Ireland 2014). Notably, these collaborative actions spanned bureaucratic and artistic realms, bringing the relatively “niche” field of urban sound art/inquiry into governmental and administrative contexts – a subject that Anderson examines in detail in this present volume.


In a larger sense it could be argued that the current context in which urban sound art operates – as exemplified by projects like Tuned City, bonn hoeren, Berlin Sonic Places, and Manual for Acoustic Planning – specifically requires artists and curators to confront a spate of infrastructural, bureaucratic, legislative and administrative systems. This topic is examined in Zenica-born cultural theorist Anamarija Batista’s current PhD project “Sound Artists as Urban Planners: A Look at the Cooperation between Artistic and Urban Practices.” At our 2014 International Symposium Batista posed a question that has become increasingly pertinent to sound artists and curators: why is the acoustic dimension of urban space “neglected and not elaborated” in ways that extend beyond noise regulation? Recomposing the City has evolved in response to a similar question: in what ways can creative approaches to urban sound be mobilized through interdisciplinary collaborations between sound artists, architects, planners, and other built environment professionals? An extended version of this question might be, how can such collaborations benefit from – and critically impact upon – official, sanctioned, and legislated approaches to sound in urban space?


In exploring new and critically informed approaches to the design and planning of urban space, Recomposing the City has benefitted in particular from the input of Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB), an architectural lobbying organization that operated in Belfast from 2009 to 2015. Spearheaded by architects Mark Hackett and Declan Hill and planning expert Ken Sterrett, FAB was established in order to campaign “for a better and more equitable built environment in Belfast” (see www.forumbelfast.org). At our 2014 International Symposium, FAB presented their detailed and unflinching work that, through mapping, design proposals, and new pedagogies of urbanism, exposes both the problems and the underlying social and political contexts with which the contemporary city contends. The Missing City Map (2009) exemplifies both FAB’s ability to present research to diverse audiences through the use of compelling graphic representations of space and sociality as well as its ability to critique design and planning decisions at a variety of levels. The Missing City Map, widely distributed and exhibited at the UK pavilion at the Venice Biennale for Architecture in 2012, identifies the swathes of the city that have been left empty by developers or converted into car parks. Such work invites designers, including aural architects, to interrogate the city and its challenges at a variety of scales.

[2] Likewise, Stabenow has documented Tuned City online with great rigor, thus facilitating understanding and providing inspiration for other projects on an international level.

[3] singuhr operated as a sound art gallery in Berlin from 1996 to 2014 and currently operates as an artist residency program in Berlin. It is co-curated by Carsten Seiffarth and Markus Steffens.

Intersections of Sound Art and Architecture


Recomposing the City is further indebted to the insights of those artists/researchers who specifically work across architecture and sound art. We have been fortunate to host seminars, concerts, and exhibitions by several sound artist/architects whose work brings a new dimensionality to the growing interdiscipline of aural architecture. They include the Dublin-based architect and musician Steve Larkin, who creates architectural designs that account for the physical properties of sound as well as reflect local folk music traditions; Raviv Ganchrow, an Amsterdam-based artist who trained in architecture studies before focusing on sound installations and who co-edited the volume OASE 78, Immersed: Sound and Architecture; the Portuguese composer Diogo Alvim, a trained architect who currently works in experimental music and sound art, and who recently collaborated with the artists Matilde Meireles and Richard O’Sullivan on PLAY (2014), a striking multimedia meditation on a building; and Merijn Royaards, an artist and musician who is currently pursuing PhD research at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London on twentieth century avant-garde sound cultures and their potential to transform how architecture is understood.


Perhaps more than any other artist/scholar in recent decades, the American-born, Berlin-based artist and writer Brandon LaBelle has made both substantial and varied contributions to practice/research at the intersection of sound and architecture (see, for example, LaBelle and Roden 1999; LaBelle and Martinho 2011; and LaBelle 2015). In his 2014 seminar for Recomposing the City, LaBelle presented on a range of projects including Room Tone (2008), for which LaBelle created three abstract recordings of his own apartment in Berlin. He shared these recordings with a diverse group of architects, architectural theorists and designers, and invited them to respond by “making a physical model of [LaBelle’s] apartment using the recorded sounds as their only source of information” (LaBelle 2015: 4). The responses were varied, ranging from the whimsical and fantastical to more precise or literal translations of aural information into architectural form. Room Tone effectively revealed the potential of using sound as stimulus for architecture and for the potential of sound or aurality to extend architectural concepts and methods. For example, in his reflections on the Room Tone project, the architectural theorist Robin Wilson writes that “[in initiating] ‘performative conversations’ with space, [LaBelle’s] recordings subtly act to challenge or to shake the material stability of the home. They expose our own habitual complicity as users of domestic space with notions of architectural ‘certainty’, of the need to conceive of the home as ‘finished’ and unchanging space” (Wilson 2015: 9).


For this edition of JSS we present work of several authors who specifically work at the intersection of sound art and architecture. They include the Canadian architect Colin Ripley, professor of architectural science at Ryerson University in Toronto. In 2006, Ripley chaired the international conference Architecture | Music | Acoustics (A|M|A), among the first gatherings to present a true panoply of voices from across architecture studies, urban studies, and music and sound studies. Hosting a striking seventy papers on topics that ranged from architectural acoustics to sound installation art, A|M|A set the scene for the next decade of interdisciplinary research in this area. At our 2014 International Symposium, Ripley reflected on developments since 2006, focusing specifically on new technologies, responsives, and atmospherics. For the present volume of JSS, Ripley examines the potentials for responsive architecture as “volumetrically variable acoustic space,” as exemplified in the work of the design research practice RVTR, which Ripley co-directs with Geoffrey Thün and Kathy Velikov. Ripley argues that the technology developed in this type of project is relevant not only at the level of the building, but also on the scale of the city. For Ripley, sensitive expansion of aurally-responsive architecture at the urban level is not only desirable, but indeed imperative for ensuring the reality of shared public space beyond headphone-induced individualized worlds.

Conor McCafferty, a Belfast-based scholar/practitioner who works across sound and urbanism, investigates how architecture centers have engaged with sound. After training in sonic arts, McCafferty worked as a Creative Producer at PLACE, the Architecture and Built Environment Centre of Northern Ireland. McCafferty’s article invites us to consider the ways in which sound can newly engage publics and communities in built environment issues, and specifically how sound art and critical listening can potentially empower urban communities by facilitating new modes of civic participation in urban space.


New Perspectives in Aural Architecture: Sonic-Social Space


In highlighting the transformative potential of working with sound in urban contexts, McCafferty points us towards an important new direction in aural architecture, namely, critical perspectives in the realm of “sonic sociality.” For this volume we are delighted to present the writing of emerging scholars whose work embraces new modes of “sonic-social phenomenology” (Born 2013: 33). Christabel Stirling, currently writing a PhD dissertation titled “Musical Urbanism: A comparative ethnography of evolving musical and sonic publics in London” at the University of Oxford, uses ethnographic methodologies to examine the social and political implications of sound works installed in public and urban space. In her article for this volume, “Sound Art/Street Life”, Stirling draws upon Georgina Born’s theory of social mediation (see Born 2005, 2011, and 2012) to show how the interactions and social formations produced by three recent sound art installations in London were mediated not only by the acoustic qualities of the works themselves or “the materialities of the sites they inhabited,” but equally by “personal, social, cultural, [and] institutional [genealogies]” – to date relatively unexamined dimensions that Stirling makes great strides towards illuminating.


In her introductory essay to Music, Sound and Space (2013), a volume that examines the spatialisation of music and sound through a variety of interdisciplinary lenses, Georgina Born maintains that “in addition to a [sonic] phenomenology that incorporates culture, history, and materiality, we require one attuned to the social” (Born 2013: 33). Born proposes a “sonic-social phenomenology” that accounts for the social dimension of sonic space. We believe that socially rooted spatial perspectives are especially important in examining urban sound works, given the myriad social, political, cultural, and economic intersections that comprise urban space. Our own recent writing has shown how sound artists have embraced definitions of space that extend beyond the Euclidean to include social and political space (Ouzounian 2013); we have further outlined a concept of “soundspace” that draws upon critical perspectives in architecture, planning, and sound studies in supporting “critically informed approaches in the design of acoustic environments” to emerge (Ouzounian and Lappin 2014: 36).

In looking to new critical methods in sound art/sound studies, we have been particularly encouraged by the work of Jacqueline Waldock, whose article on “Soundmapping” (2011) for the first issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies challenged the purportedly “inclusive” basis of online, interactive sound maps. More recently, Waldock (2013) developed a “trinitarian” methodology in carrying out a community-based soundscape composition project. This project focused on the use of sound to document the effects of the 2009 Pathfinder urban regeneration scheme in Liverpool, which resulted in the clearance of a low-income housing community, the Welsh Streets, some of whose residents participated in Waldock’s project. Through her trinitarian methodology, Waldock and community participants alike were simultaneously positioned in three roles: artist, activist, and academic. As we learn from Waldock, this positioning was vitally important in confronting the hierarchies that typically frame artist-community relationships, wherein artists typically hold an expert or an advantaged position. Waldock established her methodology specifically in order to “challenge the position that the residents held (that of being dominated by the council’s decisions) as well as breaking down deeply rooted institutional dominances” (Waldock 2015).

Closer to home in Belfast we find the example of Stories from the City: Sailortown (2013). Through this project the artist-scholars Isobel Anderson and Fionnuala Fagan brought attention to the plight of the Sailortown community – a marginalized community whose inner-city homes were razed in the 1960s – through the methods of verbatim songwriting and sound installation art. For this present volume, Isobel Anderson, who has previously written on the intersection of sound art and storytelling for JSS, discusses critical approaches to cartography in online sound mapping. Drawing on the recent work of Waldock and others, Anderson suggests that many online sound maps privilege “the sounds themselves” over the social and relational contexts in which the sound environments are recorded. Anderson shows that sound maps can enable the charting of “personal and collective, imagined and remembered, and invisible and physical relationships between sound, the world, and ourselves.” Further, she maintains that sound maps “truly document listening” only when these wider social and relational contexts are engaged.

Towards an Acoustic Urbanism


For architects and planners, the diverse methods and approaches that sound artists have developed in relation to space offer both myriad new lines of enquiry into, and challenges to, normative practice. Many sound art works invite architects to re-interrogate existing spaces and to consider more carefully the materials they use. Likewise, sound artists challenge architects to question the nature of how and why they produce the spaces they do, how those spaces are used, and how this use can change over time. For example, a sound art work in a sacred space might fundamentally alter and expand one’s understanding of how that space can be used, even as the work itself may be invisible, impermanent, and does not otherwise impact upon the physical structure of the building. Using sound as a medium can further enable architects to explain buildings differently to their multiple and diverse audiences. As a medium of communication, sound is much more widely used and more readily understood than traditional architectural drawings, which are often inaccessible to people untrained in reading the orthographic abstraction of plans, sections, and elevations. A salient example is BUG by Mark Bain and Arno Brandlhuber (2008), which invites people to “listen” to the material structure of a building as it changes over time by plugging headphones into the building itself.[4] Compositions created from recordings of urban spaces can further enable diverse audiences – including architects and planners – to appreciate the urban environment in new ways, as Francisco Lopéz’s Sonopolis (2015), featured in this volume, brilliantly demonstrates. Perhaps most significantly, however, it is the ability of sound artists to create space with non-traditional “materials” – using non-tectonic or non-visual means – which represents the most potentially transformative aspect of sound art for those who build spaces and plan cities.

Recomposing the City was founded on the premise that sustained interactions between the normally distinct worlds of sound art, architecture, and urban studies can enable new understandings of the city, and new approaches to urban practice, to emerge. Indeed, the articles in this issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies collectively point towards what we would describe as “acoustic urbanism,” in that they suggest acoustic approaches to the understanding, design, and planning of urban space. While the concept of acoustic urbanism may still be in its infancy, the potential of creative practice and critical inquiry in this area cannot be denied. This volume adds to a growing body of recent work in the area of acoustic urbanism – work that extends from artistic initiatives like Tuned City, bonn hoeren, Berlin Sonic Places, Manual for Acoustic Planning, and numerous others, to recent scholarly volumes including The Acoustic City (Gandy and Nilsen 2014) and conferences like Invisible Places/Sounding Cities: Sound, Urbanism and Sense of Place. Collectively, these efforts suggest that the gap that has historically existed between architecture, planning, and sound art/sound studies is beginning to close. We are encouraged by the many compelling efforts we find in the interdiscipline of acoustic urbanism, and we look forward to the next phase of efforts in this burgeoning field.


[4] This work formed part of the 2008 Tuned City Berlin program and continues to exist as a permanent installation at 9 Brunnenstrasse in Berlin.



We are grateful to all the authors for their contributions and to Marcel Cobussen and the JSS Editorial Board for facilitating this stimulating exchange. We are also thankful to the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities at Queen’s University Belfast for enabling us to establish Recomposing the City and for supporting our 2014 International Symposium. We welcome feedback and responses from readers and communication from those who wish to engage with Recomposing the City and its activities in the future.




Alvim, Diogo, Matilde Meireles and Richard O’Sullivan (2014). PLAY. Multimedia composition and performance, premiered on October 24-25 2014 at Queen’s University Physical Education Centre, Belfast.


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