Sound of Space and Place


Field recordings capture the complexity of sounds that exist in spaces and that make up our understanding of place. By space, I mean a physical structure or building, and by place, I mean the constructed identity of an area or geography tied to the interactions that occur between people and spaces. The sympathetic sounds of place and space captured in recordings of the azhan contribute to the feelings one experiences when listening to the call to prayer. 


Sociologist and soundscape researcher Jean-Paul Thibaud refers to this essence or sense-based experience of sound in his paper, “A Sonic Paradigm of Urban Ambiances.” Thibaud suggests a relationship between observation and our senses that is separate from perception: “What I am trying to describe here is not perception but rather sensation, not the way we interpret, recognize and understand the world we perceive, but rather the way we feel and relate to the world we sense. Sensing rather than perceiving” (Thibaud 2011). My hope is that through the sound map, listeners can become immersed in the sonic environment of a place, which is constructed through sounds and resonances captured through the field recordings. A recording of an azhan is not only a recording of an azhan; it is a recording of the way the people interact with the place in which they live or work in the location and at the time the recording was made. The aim of my work is to encourage people to listen in an active and engaged way to what they hear rather than allow their listening to be informed by assumptions or pre-conceived notions about Islam or the geographies from where the recordings originate. The notion of active listening that I speak of here is connected to a way of listening to the azhan that is connected to it being a Qur’anic recitation that demands participatory listening from Muslims (Eisenberg 2013: 192). Visitors of the sound map come from many religious and non-religious backgrounds, and my hope is that by hearing the azhan, ingesting it aurally, these visitors will participate in a more active form of listening. 


Field recordings can also serve as a point of access to the temporality of a place. By this I mean that field recordings can capture the unfolding of sounds through time, and through this captured audibility, the way that time unfolds. As Thibaud explains in his description of how ambiance unfolds, “Sound is […] the result of an action. This can apply […] to natural events like when the wind blows or the rain pours, rendering audible some features of the environment that were silent until then […] sound gives access to what is happening” (Thibaud 2011). Following this logic I am interested in the recitation of the azhan as an action that happens to the soundscape of Abu Dhabi and the recording of the azhan as a process that allows for the capturing of the unfolding of sounds that might otherwise remain unheard. The recitation provides listeners access to the public sonic elements of the Islamic culture of the place and connects the listener to the physicality of the city by way of the sounds of the mosques dispersed throughout. While the physical structures of the mosques may go unnoticed by some most of the day, the azhan serves as a moment of connection to faith, space, and place. The azhan routinely introduces a sound event into the soundscape of a community, five times daily, each uniquely different, and each representing a clear delineation of time as well as a call to action. 


Recording these moments of action, these happenings to the soundscape of the city, allows us to listen back to these moments, to review, as Thibaud frames it, how the sonic ambiance unfolds in these particular moments of the recitation. The recordings capture not only the act of the recitation itself but also the resonances, echoes, and reflections of recitation in the city and of the city in the moment of the recitation. These recordings capture a multidimensional snapshot of Abu Dhabi, the place. They capture the amplification of one of the four muezzins’ voices, broadcast over satellite to the mosque outside of which I am standing with an audio recorder. They capture the distortion and mediation of the particular amplification system and loudspeakers of that mosque, the ambient reflections and interminglings of the same broadcasted azhan that is being amplified through the different systems and different speakers of nearby mosques. These recordings capture the often very loud wall reflections and reverberations of nearby concrete and glass buildings, and in some of the older parts of the downtown, like the Madinat Zayed Megablock, these soundwaves travel further before bouncing off a nearby building, as the area still maintains many older concrete structures less than twenty stories tall that fall below the line of the minarets. In contrast, in the Central Souq Megablock the sound waves of the azhan are reflected off and also confined within a multitude of high-rise buildings made of concrete, steel, and glass, keeping the sounds of the recitation largely contained within the space. 


While eating dinner at a rooftop restaurant in Abu Dhabi several years ago, I was pleased to hear the Isha azhan (evening call) in the distance. The sound was beautiful, expansive, and full. I quickly realized that I was hearing three different azhans, all having begun at different times, creating an incredible counterpoint. The following day I returned to the same area of the city, but this time at street level. Standing alongside a major downtown intersection, next to the restaurant, I could see five different mosques. I attempted to record the maghrib azhan, but the sound was dramatically different than what I had heard the night before. At street level, I heard one dominant recitation and a second faint in the background, both flanked by the honking of cars and sounds of nightlife on the street. I noticed that one of the mosques at the intersection was not active, and another was a Shi’ite mosque that sounded the azhan slightly following the sounding of the unified azhan.


Ethnomusicologist Andrew Eisenberg (2013) tells us that the public nature of the azhan has historically served to help define Islamic communities, or the Muslim quarter in heterogeneous cities. This relates to Lee’s idea of the azhan as a soundmark, which defines a community by creating a sonic boundary around a homogenous community. The city of Abu Dhabi contains a heterogeneous population of people from around the world, with different native languages and religious beliefs. However, all of these people live within the range of the soundmark created by the azhan, which Lee argues surrounds a homogeneous community. This of course creates a conflict of understanding, which begs the question, can sound be a factor in defining a place? And if so, what can sound tell us about a place? The use of the azhan as a soundmark, in the way Lee describes it, is not entirely applicable to the city of Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of a Muslim country with a majority expatriate population representing a range of religious beliefs. However, there is no specific Muslim quarter, as Eisenberg observes is typical in heterogeneous societies. Abu Dhabi city is instead a heterogeneous society with a homogeneous soundscape, recordings of which I believe help to reveal the diversity and complexity of the place.