Sonic Rupture: A Practice-led Approach to Urban Soundscape Design - Jordan Lacey. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016
by Marcel Cobussen
As a scholar, writing books and articles, you might have this reoccurring small fear that once you are almost finished with a project, a book will be published which deals with nearly the same issues, which uses approximately the same arguments, and which has items included that you simply didn’t think of or forgot.
I almost had this experience while reading Jordan Lacey’s Sonic Rupture last September during the same period in which I was working on my inaugural lecture. Lots of ideas presented by Lacey resonated almost too perfectly with my own thoughts on the role of sound art in public urban environments, thoughts I considered original and innovative, thoughts offering a new perspective on this matter. Being disappointed could have been one reaction, feeling frustrated another one. However, a far more productive reaction, in my experience, is to regard Lacey as a kindred spirit, a companion who is asking us to give attention to the same issue that I am interested in, namely the design (or lack of design) of our urban sonic environment. So, instead of being hypercritical, I warmly recommend this book to anyone drawn to learn more about the role sound art can play in analyzing, reflecting on, and improving urban soundscapes.
One buzzword found in the first chapters of Sonic Rupture is “recalibration.” Here is one example: “Existing urban soundscape design approaches require recalibration to more effectively respond to the noises of contemporary urban soundscapes” (p. vii). In this sentence Lacey at once criticizes two “parties:” on the one hand, urban planners and property developers who all too often ignore the sonic consequences of their interventions and, on the other hand, the first generation of acoustic ecologists whose agenda mainly contained plans to reduce noise and restore hi-fi soundscapes. Lacey’s alternative is to simply accept that urban environments are noisy and “to consider noise as a material that has the potential to augment the imaginative capacities of the human body” (p. ix). A bit warlike, Lacey aims at networks of “sonic ruptures,” sound installations that make sonic urban environments more heterogeneous, which should lead to new creative human experiences within everyday settings. Although well-intentioned, I am a bit skeptical about this proposal. The idea that art in general and sound art in particular can structurally solve certain aspects of urban problems sounds a bit too pretentious and idealistic to me, especially during these times in which art is sidelined as a leftish or intellectualist hobby. I see more potential in Lacey’s suggestions at the end of his book where he states that ruptures should find their place within “the language of functionalism” (p. 174) that permeates or dominates our current thinking on city planning and urban development. In order to achieve this, urban planners, developers, and creative practitioners (sound artists) should work together, preferably at an early stage of decision-making processes (p. 176). Following this suggestion would, in my opinion, indeed lead to a far more fundamental and influential role for sound artists working in the public domain: their role would not be limited to (often temporarily) embellishing an otherwise boring or irritating sonic environment, but could substantially contribute to a culture of thinking about the (sonic) design of our daily milieus.
Earlier on in the book, Lacey gives some nice examples of sonic interventions in urban spaces which exceed the mere artistic and aim more for general human well-being: Bruce Odland’s and Sam Auinger’s work “Harmonic Bridge,” which transforms traffic noises into an interesting soundscape; Björn Hellström’s site-specific sound-art installation for the shopping mall Gallerian in downtown Stockholm; and Peter Zumthor’s 2011 “Serpentine Pavilion,” which, while not an official sound art work, is a place abstracted from the regular (traffic) noises of London – an interior space to sit, to walk, and to observe.
On a more general level, Lacey extensively describes five strategies sound artists can employ to improve the sonic qualities of an environment, all of them illustrated by already existing “good practices.” He calls the first strategy addition: when a noise source cannot be removed, artists can add sounds to the environment or augment specific sounds that are already there in order to create a more heterogeneous soundscape (p. 147); however, Lacey warns, one should be careful not to antagonize residents, e.g. because of the sounds’ potential loudness.
The second strategy is the opposite of addition, subtraction. Sound artists can attempt to remove dominating noise sources from the environment. This could be regarded as a way of silencing a space, but the idea is that it thereby reveals sounds that would otherwise be masked because of the intensity or the particular frequencies of the more dominant sounds.
The third strategy is called passion, described by Lacey as the “desire to draw a passionate response from the listener” because these works have the capacity “to challenge the banality of the everyday” (p. 156); they should evoke playfulness, sensuality, and pure joy. Lacey mentions Jim Green’s “Laughing Escalator” as an example.
A fourth strategy is to transform everyday sounds into new sonic experiences. Through the reworking of site-specific sounds, people are given the opportunity to perceive their environment differently, just as soundwalking holds the capacity to transform one’s perception of everyday sounds, e.g. by stimulating one’s (sonic) imagination.
Quite closely related to the second strategy is disclosure, the fifth and final strategy discussed by Lacey, which demonstrates that, beyond dominant sounds that shape everyday sonic experiences, there are hidden qualities waiting to be revealed (p. 165). Disclosure does not always lead to concrete interventions, as is the case with subtraction, but brings one into an attentive listening relationship with a specific place: fully allowing into one’s attention (and, perhaps, appreciation) the sounds that are already there. Example: Christina Kubisch’s “Electrical Walks.” An interesting effect of disclosure might be that sounds previously considered as noise are somehow accepted as interesting, rich, and diverse, thereby being less of a nuisance.
As mentioned before, it is clear that Lacey goes beyond the ideas of the first generation acoustic ecologists. To return once more to his buzzword, the aim of Sonic Rupture can be summarized as: to “recalibrate [the] urban soundscape design research towards a new creative interface with noisy urban soundscapes” (p. 8). Whereas Murray Schafer et al. have a predominantly negative approach towards urban noises and long for their removal, Lacey considers noise as “an interface for creative action” (p. 34), thereby offering a more affirmative and non-judgmental alternative. However, the book does not dive deep into the socio-political aspects of noise: questions concerning “whose noise?” and “who is bothered by which noises?” are scarcely addressed, questions that could increase our understanding of which groups and/or individuals are claiming a public urban space. Instead, Lacey regards noise primarily as potential sonic material for a sound artwork, thereby staying within a safe, aesthetically-framed argumentation. However, that does not detract from the interesting openings Sonic Rupture offers for engaging with and perhaps improving our everyday urban sonic environments.