Monday, 27 April 2009

The Psychosis of the Modern Workplace

The office, the modern workplace of the masses, cleaner, quieter and safer than the factory. The passive "head" jobs of the communication and information era replacing the physical manual labour of an industrial past. We are led to believe that the office and the modern way of working is an all round healthier alternative to the dangers of a heavy manufacturing industry.

But is this really the case, especially when it comes to sound? The noise in the average modern office still reaches levels to which prolonged exposure is damaging, not specifically to the ears but to the body and mind.

When we converse, our brains actually work very hard to filter out background noise to enable us to focus on the voices of those we are speaking with? So what is the effect on our brains of overhearing so many one sided telephone conversations? I imagine it is making it work overtime and therefore limiting out ability to think.

Add to this the constant airy hum and drone of air conditioning, the fidgety, arhythmic clatter of a 100 keyboards, the high pitch ringing, beeping and pulsing of telephones, the disjointed banging of cups, draws and doors, and the erratic, unintelligible beep of computers and i think we are part way to understanding the psychosis of the modern workplace.

I hear rhythms in most situations these days and they help me to find my own pace, to lock in and synthesise with my environment, but I don't hear them in the office, every sound is random, sporadic and chaotic.

The basis of office work is communication and analysis, yet sonically the conditions of the workplace are the opposite to what is required to carry out such tasks effectively and without putting undue strain on the brain and body.

Could this be another contributing factor to the headaches people quickly put down to excessive computer usage? the increase in psychological illness? Is the strain put on the brain in the office the new opium of the masses, gradually wearing people down until they can think no more?

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Its oh so quiet

There are so many sounds that we encounter everyday that we barely notice, all of which have subtle affects on our bodies and minds. Often they are the sounds of our most familiar environments such as home and work. It is common to notice these sounds when they appear unfamiliar and new; I am always driven to distraction by strange whirs and creeks when I move into a new house, but within a month i can no longer hear them, or rather I no longer listen to them. They are still there, still playing on my mind and affecting my body, the vibrations are still changing my temperature, mood and tension, I am just no longer aware of them in a sonic fashion.

Bearing this in mind I spent a quiet Wednesday afternoon laying still and listening to the sounds of my apartment and its immediate soundscape. It takes a while for the sounds to begin to filter through, to realise that there are a succession of hums and drones surrounding me, constructed from a multiplicity of sonic granules, but after a few minutes I begin to break them down into pockets and particles, and to gain an understanding of their construction and relationships.

Most noticeable is the layered fuzz, crackle and whir of the computer fan, which lends a granulated distortion to the air, moving, jumping and vibrating when listened to closely, still and drone like when the listening is more casual. High pitch gurgles meet the wispy exhalation of air, stabs of mid range electrical fury and low continuous whir.

This is joined by the lower and more ferocious bluster of the fridge, bubbling, whirring and rumbling gently before stuttering and grunting to a standstill only to start up again a few minutes later with a high pitch drone. I can hear my finger and the soft fabric of my sleeve gently scraping and dragging abrasively against paper, and further afield the awkward high pitch drone and clunking stop of the lift.

Outside, sporadic high impact mid range bangs, the sound of heavy steel on steel, tense my body and increase my heart rate, long drawn out gloopy sirens swirl around, near and far provoking intense images of a high action police chase and the immediate thoughts of crime and violence. Softer low pitch metallic bangs spurt outside the window as car doors are shut, followed by the raspy air of moving cars increasing swiftly in pitch and intensity as their location changes.

The distant chainsaw buzz of a bike engine mixes with the intonation of incomprehensible voices, varying rhythms and pitches symbolise gender and mood without words or visual accompaniment. Back inside, my head is fuzzing and clouded with the drones of my apartment, and despite a state of near meditation it is pulsing, throbbing and cluttered with noise.

Finally I notice a close and high pitch glistening sound, crackling and pulsing just around my ears, the sound of my own body? Tinnitus? Wi-fi? I can't be sure but after several minutes of deep still listening I have definitely broken down the drones around me into fragments, and am now hearing subtleties, frequencies and movements that I have never listened to before.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

With the trams currently kept out of the city centre and many of the roads blocked off for road works, there was a whole new soundscape in Manchester centre today. Instead of the usual fuzz, roar and heave of engines it was the confused mumble of a thousand voices that circled around my head.

A Bass heavy wave of cross rhythmic and incomprehensible voices swept through town, bubbling, jolting and circling in panorama, occasionally penetrated by clearer, higher pitched voices cutting through the mass, but still largely incomprehensible amongst the clutter.

It is a joy to hear the human voice in such a way, stripped of recognisable language but full of nuance, tone and interaction, telling the story of space and time through sound rather than words. It is the same when we communicate with people who we do not share a common language, through echoic mimicry we listen to and replicate tones, intonations and sounds rather than words.

By closing your eyes and listening to such scenes you can really sense the space around you, mood, size and materials are all audible if you listen carefully enough and you can draw a solid mental image of your surroundings.

Doing this today though I realised that things can easily get confusing when sound synonymous with another environment is suddenly inserted where it is not expected. People were selling whistles which replicated the various calls and screech's of the howler monkey, and they sounded fairly realistic amongst the noise of the crowds. So when I closed my eyes I had the bizarre sensation of hearing what sounded like a thousand people trekking through the jungle.

This demonstrates to me that although it is important to understand sound in relation to place, it is also good to think about sounds simply as sounds. Try not to always associate them with particular objects or settings, think as well about their pitches, rhythms, movements, moods, reverberations and timbres.

Think about how you can get a feel for your environment through sound without automatically converting your hearing into stored images and signified knowledge. Allow yourself to learn something new from sound as well as using it to better understand what you already know.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

What a difference a day makes

My exploration of our sonic world has led to many discoveries, but I think that the most important so far is the recognition that every tiny event and action, be it natural or man made, has a huge impact on our sonic landscape.

And so despite common themes and repetitions, any particular place is likely to provide different soundscapes from day to day, with most varying several times throughout the day as well. Much of my listening is done quite early in the morning as I find more clarity and definition earlier in the day, but the same places sound completely different as the day progresses and more factors begin to impact on the soundscape.

This point was made all the clearer to me this morning when I returned to Grosvenor Square, the site of the futuresonic birds for regular readers, with my newly acquired portable recording device hoping to capture the birds in full flow and work their sounds into a track to post on here.

Little did I know there would be pneumatic drilling and roadworks so close to the park that at first the birds were barely audible. I realised that my futuresonic track of birdsong was not going to be recorded today but after a little mic placement I found an intriguing balance and juxtaposition within which the heavy, bassey, jarring sounds and vibrations of the roadworks provided a roaring backdrop for the sweet, high pitched and harmonious bird song and the two factors combined together to create layers of sonic interest.

I recorded for about seven minutes and couldn't wait to get home to listen again and do some editing on my computer, so I jumped on my bike and eagerly cycled home, connected my new machine, booted up the PC and accidentally deleted the lot. I can't believe it. Oh well, there is a learning curve with all new toys, back to the manual.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Everything is tactile

Walking through Picadilly Gardens early this morning, during that period when the city is just waking up, everything and everyone is drowsy, there is calm in the air. Sounds which are normally abrasive when contributing to an intrusive barrage of city noise are clear, soft and understandable. I feel much more in tune with the machinery of the city than I ever have before, everything is tactile.

A hundred Footsteps fall in and out of rhythm, varying materials, weights and speeds each creating uniquely audible sounds, but also acting the role of multiplicity in this grand travelling soundscape. The distantly walled space of Picadilly Gardens provides a perfect space to hear all the individual steps gently touching concrete, subtly reverberating, merging and dispersing.

They are joined by the rhythmic lap and drag of plastic wheels rolling over jagged terrain, exhales of air from the lonely buses, some sharp and loud, others soft and drawn out, interrupted by the high pitched aching squeal they emit upon start up, overtaken by the low warm pur, roar and stutter of the engine breaking into motion.

Its a lovely feeling to be able to appreciate and feel in touch with sounds that so often irritate and confuse me, and also to hear so clearly how the pieces of my daily soundscape fit together. Give it another hour and many of these sounds would be inaudible, or at least their subtleties would be as they merged together making it difficult to hear how everything finds its place.

I guess this is also what it means to hear space, the space between sounds that enables us to distinguish one from another, to locate its source, hear its impact and resolution, but also to hear the acoustic space of our immediate environment, the walls, buildings and pathways that absorb and reverberate in their own special ways.