Berlin Sonic Places: A Brief Guide - Peter Cusack. Hofheim am Taunus: Wolke Verlag, 2017


by Marcel Cobussen

In 2016 the eleventh issue of The Journal of Sonic Studies was dedicated to new directions in urban sound art, including an interview with Peter Cusack about his Berlin Sonic Places project. A website – accompanying and disseminating the results of this project – was already available for some time, but last year a little booklet was also published, comprising several rather brief essays, observations, and reflections that are not included in the website.

In the opening essay Cusack (once more) explains the term “sonic places,” coined by himself. Sonic places are soundscapes connected to a particular place and imply a dynamic relationship between sounds and physical environment, the latter consisting of both natural and human-made elements. Sonic places, their borders often hardly noticeable, differ from visual places, as frequently – especially in cities – vision is restricted by walls or buildings, while sounds connect people to what is out of sight. Sonic places thus contribute to and are part of the personal knowledge of a city’s inhabitants.

Max Dixon’s contribution focuses on the fairly limited attention governments, planners, and developers devote to the sonic ambiance of a city; they do very little to actively initiate soundscape design, even though we are well aware that sounds deeply affect us even when we are not consciously listening. His text contains many ideas which could help to improve current city soundscapes but also warns us against exerting too much control if only because it is impossible to identify particular sounds as inherently positive or negative.

The third essay, by Pascal Amphoux, describes two possible sonic epistemologies, two models to describe the interactions between subjects and their sonic surroundings. The first one is based on a clear separation of subject and object: the subject perceives and experiences a certain sonic space. Conversely, the second one postulates a close co-existence between subject and object in which both affect and are affected by the other, thereby becoming less stable entities.

Fritz Schlüter adds a rather critical review of the sonic redesigning of Berlin’s Nauener Platz, even though this project comprises one of the very few examples where soundscape ideas and attention to the acoustic environment played a major role in the planning and design. Although the residents are quite happy with the (sonic) design, Schlüter not only observes that there is still a lot of traffic noise, he is most critical of the so-called “ear benches” playing bird and beach sounds in a 15 second loop.

The book ends with two short texts by Cusack again, one about his rather well-known Favorite Sounds project in which people are simply asked to list the sounds they enjoy most in their neighborhood. Cusack notices that people’s replies often refer to much more than sound alone: e.g., memories and emotions connected to certain sounds are often added, making clear that our experience of a space is not only multisensorial but also multidimensional. From the respondents’ answers Cusack concludes that cities benefit the most from sonic diversity. In the last text, Cusack lists some reasons why Berlin is quieter than other European cities.

The middle section of the book contains a number of short texts, accompanied by photos, in which a brief description, analysis, and reflection is provided for various (sonic) places in Berlin, from Alexanderplatz to Teufelsberg, from the famous inner courtyards (“Hinterhöfe”) to the S-Bahn station Messe Nord, and from the cemetery Grunewald to the borders of the Panke river.

A handful of impressions:

  • Alexanderplatz: “… very unusually for Berlin, nature is almost silent, so little is to be found here” (21).
  • U-Bahn U8 platform: “There are often unknown low frequency rumblings and vibrations from the passageways and ceiling” (27).
  • Tiergarten: “… the sound of heavy traffic still dominates the ear, but the eye sees only wooded glades and footpaths. It is quite a sensory mismatch” (33).
  • Cobbled streets: “On the one hand the sounds are more interesting, detailed and varied, all potentially positive for a sound environment. On the other they are considerably louder and distracting …” (43).
  • Messe Nord S-Bahn Station: “It is possibly Berlin’s loudest spot … the more so in wet weather when rainwater gives an extra sizzle to the sound of tyres on asphalt” (51).
  • Panke River: “TO my ears it is a good combination: running water briefly submerged by the hum and steeliness of a train followed by gentle ripples again” (55).
  • My Hinterhof: “Church bells too are prominent […] but weather and atmospheric conditions always create subtle changes to their sound” (67).
  • Vaupel Supermarkt: “One of the most continuous and insistent sounds in any supermarket is the hum of refrigerators. It is not necessarily loud but always present. But in this supermarket it seems a little more special. The lovely deep mournful chord here is unusually musical. It can be heard everywhere from the moment you walk in. However, it is at its best around the yogurts” (71).

Although comprising only 94 pages, Berlin Sonic Places. A Brief Guide is a rich resource. The essays and the concept of sonic place provide food for thought, and the middle part, with its concrete examples of sonic places, reveals an affectionate relationship with sounds, even the most ordinary or rather loud ones. Books like this one make me aware again of the sonic environment in which I am living; they help me to listen better or differently; they provide me with ideas about how our sonic environment could be improved; and they offer a vocabulary with which I can communicate about sounds and sonic ambiances. Lovely!