Sonic city: The art of sound

Posted on October 18, 2014 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

Recently I have been contemplating sounds and silence a lot.

My relationship with the sounds and silence changed when I started practising meditation; and as a consequence, my senses have been heightened significantly. Yet I had to go through a transitional period initially because I was overwhelmed by my increased sensory sensitivity. I couldn't cope with being in a crowded and noisy room full of people because I felt like the noise had been amplified more than usual. At the same time, I was learning to 'listen' again and appreciating the sound of silence. But I soon realised that it is almost impossible to be in a completely silent environment because there is always background noise, even in nature. There are sounds of animals, insects, rain, wind and leaves rattling, but to be able to detect and differentiate these sounds require some kind of awareness. City dwellers would block out certain sounds in order to cope with the noise level in the city, and over time we become more immune to sounds in the city (and this applies especially to those who constantly have their headphones on).


phone map

Mobile phone conversations across London are highlighted in this map


When we listen to music, it has an ability to trigger our emotions, and we can be transported to a different state of mind, be it sentimental, joyful, irritable or calm etc. Yet sounds of nature or random noise contain no narrative, and so we rarely pay attention to the background noise that surrounds us all the time. In a recent interview, Sir John Hegarty, ( founding creative partner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising agency and author of the book 'Hegarty on Creativity') made this valid statement on how people nowadays choose to block out their surroundings rather than interact with it:


I get really, really pissed off when I see my creative people coming in with headphones in… and they put a little wall round themselves. They listen to their music – and yes music is wonderful, I made a career out of using great music. But if you walk around cutting yourself off you are eliminating influence, you are eliminating the possibility that you are going to pick up stories, ideas, thoughts that are happening all around you and as a creative person that is completely wrong.”


His statement reminds me of American avant-garde composer, writer, artist and sound lover John Cage's 1952 conceptual piece 4′33″. This Zen Buddhism-inspired piece is 'performed' by the musicians on stage without sound, which not only challenges the audience's expectations but it also makes them listen and become aware of the surroundings. The clip below reveals his insightful views on sounds and silence, and I found it fascinating that he regarded sounds as 'just sounds' but nothing else...


John Cage on sounds and silence


Over the last few years, I noticed the term 'sound artist' popping up more frequently. Sound or sonic art, which is regarded as a form of conceptual art has been receiving more attention than ever. Last year, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a sound installation and an sound exhibition respectively. Yet this form of art has been around for about a century, and its roots can be traced back to Italian Futurist artist Luigi Russolo's L’Arte dei rumori (Art of noise) published in 1916. This manifesto revolutionalised the way people perceive noise and sound, and it has influenced many musicians (including John Cage), acousticians, artists and so forth.

Another pioneer who greatly influenced Cage and many others including contemporary sound artist Bill Fontana was the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp (Cage and Duchamp even collaborated on several occasions including a short sequence in the film by Hans Richter "Dream that Money can buy" made in 1947). Although not a musician, Duchamp composed two musical works and a conceptual piece around 1913. And his profound and thought-provoking view on sound as a sculptural medium was noted in The Green box (1934), "Musical Sculpture: sounds lasting and leaving from different places and forming a sound sculpture that lasts."

American experimental composer and sound artist (also a friend of Cage), Alvin Lucier has been exploring the physical properties of sound since the 1960s. His career's turning point arrived when created "Music for solo performer" in 1965; in this piece, electrodes are attached to his head so that his alpha brainwaves are amplified in front of an audience (it sounds very bizarre even by today's standard). Then in 1969, he created "I am sitting in a room", in which Lucier records himself narrating a text, and then plays the recording back into the room, re-recording it over and over again. Both of his pieces are ground-breaking and like Cage's work, they challenge the listeners/audience to view sound as wavelengths rather than musical notes.


I am sitting in a room from Brodo on Vimeo.


Yet for decades, sound art has not been fully recognised by the public, probably because most people are not quite sure what category it falls into. Is it installation art with sound? Can sound be an art form? I think these are the most common questions that puzzle the general public. And when the prestigious Turner Prize was awarded to Scottish artist Susan Philipsz for her sound installation 'Lowlands' in 2010 (the first time a sound installation had been nominated and won), it helped to change the public's perception on sound art and made them more aware of this art form.


Susan Philipsz's Lowlands


This year, Thinking Digital Arts paired artist/designer Dominic Wilcox and creative technologist James Rutherford together to collaborate on a new commission in Newcastle. Taking tourist binoculars as inspiration, they created Binaudios, a device that enables the user to ‘listen’ to the sounds of the city. The Binaudios can be pointed at over 40 different locations, seen out of the Sage Gateshead window and different sounds can be heard associated to each specific location. Here is a video of the device and the sounds that can be heard:


Binaudios: Sounds of a city from Dominic Wilcox on Vimeo.


Last month, I attended a Late London event called Sonic City at The Museum of London Docklands, which explored sound and hidden noise in our city. Sound artist Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) created a multi-channel sound work, an installation that featured an expansive collage of voices from all over the world. I was particularly intrigued by contemporary sonic explorer and collector, Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey's sound talk, where he played a recording of the mechanical engine sounds inside Tower bridge. The website also contains a sound map of London, where you would find recordings of background atmospheres and incidental noises from all over London. Utterly fascinating.

I also took part in another event called The art of listening, created by sound artist Helen Frosi, of the SoundFjord lab. Participants were invited to respond to sound through the medium of drawing, creating something visual using your sonic perceptions. It was fun to draw by following the sound waves because it was spontaneous and quite liberating to go the flow of the sound rather than planning on what to draw.

The final event I took part in was a sound walk led by sound artist Maria Papadomanolaki from Points of Listening based at the University of Arts London. The walk took place on the quayside outside of the museum, we were divided into groups and each group was given a designated point and a card to write down our thoughts, feelings and ideas at each point. I have never been on a sound walk in the city before, and so the experience was quite an 'ear-opener' for me. It is quite astonishing how much extraneous noise our human auditory system can filter out without us even realising it!


Next time if you are out on a busy street, instead of putting your headphones on, try to detect and differentiate all the noise around you and ask yourself if you can hear a pattern? What is the frequency? Are you feeling irritated by the the noise? But why? Does the noise cause any vibration? Does your body feel the vibration internally? Like Hegarty said, don't cut yourself off from the world around you, embrace and observe it, it is only by doing so that we can fully experience life as it is and appreciate the wonders the city has to offer us.


This post was posted in London, Music & Sound, Art, Videos & animations, Sound art and was tagged with London, sound art, sonic city, John Cage