The Acoustic City – Edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen. Berlin: Jovis, 2014


By Marcel Cobussen

Perhaps the main reason I am interested in soundscapes of urban environments is because it usually receives practically zero attention from urban architects, planners, and city governments. Whereas visual — and to a lesser extent tactile — aspects of interventions in a cityscape often lead to endless discussions and political fuss, the idea that those interventions also affect the sonic signature of certain places is often ignored or remains simply under the radar. Nuancing this assumption, admittedly not based on extensive empirical evidence, I can only think of one exception: noise pollution, mostly still measured in dBs only. Irritation number one is still either our noisy neighbor playing loud music when we want to sleep or the construction workers starting (far too) early in the morning. By the way, these street noises have bothered our ancestors as much as they do us today (see, for example, Karin Bijsterveld’s contribution to The Auditory Culture Reader).

For several decades however, scholars and sound artists have shown an increasing interest in how we (re)design our urban sonic environments, The Acoustic City being one of the textual results. We are becoming more and more aware of the many ways sounds are affecting our experiences of our (urban) milieu (see The Journal of Sonic Studies 11 and many other publications). Basically, two strands can be distinguished here: on the one hand, portable devices such as mobile phones and iPods - in a way the successors of not only the Walkman, but also of transistor radios - as well as, for example, car audio systems make it possible and very easy to turn away from environmental sounds (see e.g. Bull 2004; Bijsterveld et al 2014) or to interact with them when it suits us (see e.g. Thibaud 2004). On the other hand, we register — consciously or unconsciously — and react to the existing sonic environment: we extract information from it, we get annoyed by it, we redesign it, either permanently or temporarily, either by reducing and altering sounds or their volume, or by adding sounds, e.g. through sound installations, music events, by creating parks which attract birds or by building highways which chase birds away, etc. (see Schafer 1994).

Both strands, both reactions to the urban and public sonic environments not only influence our ears: what we can hear and how we listen; sounds and sonic atmospheres (Gernot Böhme) or ambiances (Thibaud) directly and indirectly codetermine individual and collective behavior, on social, economic, political, religious, and ethical levels. For me this was one of the most important issues the 27 contributors to The Acoustic City address from various points of view, various disciplines, various cultures or geographical places, and various historical periods (although mainly contemporary): the book navigates between reflections on spatio-temporal complexities of sound as an acoustic phenomenon and the wider social and historical contexts within which sounds are experienced (p. 9).

Part 1 — Urban Soundscapes — already reveals the versatility not only of the book but of the acoustic city as a topic: Steven Connor’s essay about the role and position of bird sounds in relation to human or non-natural sounds is followed by Nina Power’s contribution which focuses on recorded messages by female-sounding voices as a form of control and soft coercion, David Novak’s text about the noise of Japanese railways, with its homey and warm qualities, and Matthew Gandy’s article on the cultural and political complexities of sounds in the (science) fiction of J.G. Ballard.

The opening article of Part 2 — Acoustic Flậnerie — by Joeri Bruyninckx echoes Steven Connor’s essay, as both are dealing with the position of bird sounds in urban spaces. Bruyninckx concludes that bird sounds affect the soundscape of a city but also that the city’s din has an influence on what, when, and how birds sing. Kate Jones’ contribution deals with less audible animal sounds in cities, those of bats; their ultrasounds must be converted by a device to make it possible for humans to detect the great variety of sounds different bat species produce. BJ Nilsen’s essay works from the hypothesis that sounds of specific urban areas represent social structures. This hypothesis is briefly tested by comparing recordings from Berlin’s Hinterhöfe, London’s Victoria Station area, and a fish market in the old town of Naples. The topic of Anders Albrechtslund’s article is eavesdropping; mainly relying on this type of aural surveillance in movies, his argument is that all types of surveillance are in principle subject to malfunctioning and misinterpretation.

Part 3 is called Sound Cultures. John Scanlan kicks off with an essay on Van Halen’s experiments with sound and amplification, which should express the sonic aesthetics of a Los Angeles “backyardism” (p. 69). Readers are taken from LA to Helsinki with Tony Mitchell’s text on the film directors Aki and Mika Kaurismäki; topics of their movies as well as the main actors are often people from the Finnish (alternative) music scene. Tim Caspar Boehme’s contribution compares the aesthetics of “the Berlin School” (Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Günter Schickert) of the 1970s to those of “the Düsseldorf School” (Kraftwerk, Neu!, Can). Next, Andrew Harris takes us to East London, to Bark Psychosis and Disco Inferno, two experimental guitar bands, suggesting a connection between their music and this suburban, socio-economically marginalized region. Louis Moreno takes us back to the US, to Detroit this time, reflecting on a dialectic between the spatial, the social, and the sonic through the representation of this city in various musics. From Detroit’s funk and techno to Goa’s rave parties, connecting digital technology and anti-urban Romanticism, Arun Saldanha notices relations between music and environment (sun, rocks), music and bodily activities (dancing, sleeping, working), and music and spatiotemporal politics (factions of people present at these parties with different desires and interests). The last three essays of Part 3 take us to Africa. Rekopantswe Mate writes about the extremely loud and misogynistic music in informal urban public transport vehicles in Zimbabwe, offering affirmation to the masculine, poor drivers who are often abusing (mostly female) passengers. Maria Suriano’s contribution deals with Tanzanian “Bongo Flava,” a blend of foreign-derived musical styles with standard and street Swahili, particularly popular in disadvantaged neighborhoods as it gives residents a voice and thereby a sort of dignity. Conventionally accepted norms are for the most part reaffirmed, often in combination with controversial values, which depict new, global subcultures and aspirations (p. 129). Bob White’s article about the Democratic Republic of Congo focuses on the role and position of pop music in this not-so-democratic country, ranging from mere indifference to politics/power to resistance (rare) to praising the political leaders (who often use music as a propaganda tool).

Part 4 is baptized Acoustic Ecologies. Stephen Barber’s essay concentrates on spaces of abandoned cinemas and their sonic residues as well as their current sounds. Sandra Jasper describes the construction of Hans Scharoun’s innovative concert hall Philharmonie in 1963 in West-Berlin’s wasteland, thus linking music and sound to modern, urban architecture. Heike Weber’s essay deals with the (re)appropriation of public spaces and their soundscapes in the second half of the 20th century through portable devices such as transistor radios, boom boxes, and Walkmans. Gascia Ouzounian explores (urban) soundmaps that can contribute to a positive approach towards acoustic ecology, to creative listening experiences, to building sonic archives, and to engage with the acoustic environments in a critical-reflective way. Merijn Royaards investigates the limits and possibilities of acoustic notation systems of city sounds through his own artistic work.

Part 5, finally — The Politics of Noise — begins with an essay by Michael Flitner about noise pollution in urban environments; aircraft noises ruin moments of relaxation on terraces or balconies: “The sensitive microsettings are hooked into the larger, techno-political regimes of flight paths” (p. 189). Annoyance is more significant in suburban areas (where “the pastoral” is still desired) and during specific times (at night and leisure time). Kelly Ladd’s contribution, contrary or complementary to Flitner, concentrates on inaudible noise pollution, (somatic) problems created by infrasounds, as an example of how (human) bodies can be (negatively) affected by sonic environments. Leandro Minuchin describes the (counter)political role of noise: deafening pot banging as the civic expression of protest in Buenos Aires by those who usually remain unheard, by those unable to otherwise participate in the political discourse. Joanna Kusiak takes us to luxurious gated condos of a Warsaw district whose owners protested against the noise of nearby cafés and bars, an example of how control over sound and silence is used as a tool of political class struggle. And from Warsaw we go to Govindpuri, a lower-middle class residential area in South West Delhi. Here, the dominance and control of public acoustic spaces is not so much a matter of gentrification as of gender: female voices should be absent, with the exception of the mourning and wailing at public ceremonies. Tripta Chandola thus tells us something about permissible sonic intersections at very specific moments and spaces.

The Acoustic City thus contains plenty of ethnographic observations and site-specific reports. It comes with a CD containing 22 field recordings and/or musics, loosely connected to several of the textual contributions (the order of the tracks does not correspond to the order of the texts to which they [may] refer, and the recordings are not always made by the authors). Through its subdivision into 5 different sections, the book suggests a clear structure. However, I thought that in the case of several contributions, their assignment to one section rather than another, often seemed quite arbitrary — not that this really matters, by the way. What I do regret, however, is the quite limited space devoted to critical reflection and the very few attempts to add, on top of the observations, some more theoretical or conceptual considerations: in hardly any of the 27 contributions was something substantial added to the central idea of The Acoustic City as (already) presented in the Introduction: that sound, space, and the social are always interconnected. With a few exceptions, the essays are mere illustrations of this point of departure: sounds are produced in a specific place (often a city) by specific people (a social group). Nevertheless, the book is a pleasant introduction to the social, economic, ethical, spatial, artistic, technological, and ethnic sources of sound production.