Monday, 19 April 2010

This world sounds different to you and me

I have been reading about the lives of illegal immigrants in Britain recently. Lives dictated by fear, entrapment and exploitation. This got me thinking a lot about how even though we share the same space and hear the same sounds as each other; the meaning and experience can be vastly different.

To me a siren may be startling, but it tells me that someone else is in danger or trouble. To someone working and living illegally without papers, a siren means 'is it me this time?' A knock on the door to me tells me that someone has come to visit, it is a positive and pleasant sound. To people living illegally it is a sound of fear. 'Who can this be, and what do they want?'

Living in cramped, overcrowded houses, sharing bedrooms and often beds with several people, all working different shifts throughout the day and night means that the wonderful sounds of company and humanity are also difficult to appreciate, as there is no break or reflection. Sleep is sporadic and broken by the lack of quiet time and space.

From crowded house onto crowded minibus into crowded, brutally loud workplace and back again. No peace in which to process events. Language barriers closing down the opportunity and stimulation of words, compressing them to unintelligible noises, harsh tones and fear.

This world sounds different to you and me.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The mysterious silence of the volcano

The sudden eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano on Wednesday morning after nearly 200 dormant years, has had an interesting affect on our soundscape here in the UK and across much of Europe too.

Anyone who has heard my recordings or read earlier posts will be well aware of the low pitched rumble that creeps into even the most beautifully peaceful sounding places. The boom of the aircraft fighting to be heard amongst the birds and the breeze.

Well no aircrafts have left or arrived in British airspace for three days now as the ash clouds from the volcano have made it too dangerous to fly. The roar overhead has left us.

I would love to say that I've really noticed the quiet in the sky, but to be honest I haven't, because day to day there are so many other industrial and traffic related noises around the city that clarity hasn't exactly been restored. For people living closer to airports and flight paths, or for those out in the country where it's a bit quieter though, there is a real difference.

I rode out into the countryside today and must admit that it was strange to sit and listen without the bassy wobble above. I actually felt a little unnerved hearing the trees creak. I'm not used to it being so quiet. Something familiar was missing.

It made me realise that normally, even when I think I am only hearing one plane overhead, the sound of all those planes in the sky must be merging together and dispersing infrasonics (frequencies too low to hear) all around us. Adding a hidden depth to our soundscape which has gradually become the norm.

This deep bass bubble which engulfs us has been popped, giving us the clarity and freedom to hear nature unspoiled, but we are so used to it being there that the countryside sounds tinny and empty without it.

It would take longer than we're going to be allowed to get used to a world outside the bubble, as the planes will surely be back in the sky within the week. I hope though that this experience enables me to hear, feel and understand more clearly, the often unnoticed affect of the sonics of airtraffic on my environment.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

She's Electric

Another great story from the world of sound. Now that electric cars are on the verge of mass production in the west, car companies are debating over what to do about their sound.

Some are developing ways of recreating existing engine sounds for their supercars' so as not to lose the roar of driving, whilst others are looking at amplifying the unique sound of the electric engine, even going as far as to fit speakers to pump the sound out.

Nissan appear to have even gone one better that this though and developed a futuristic melodic chime to alert people that the near noiseless electric runaround is approaching. You couldn't make it up.

See the full article here

Monday, 15 March 2010

Acoustic Engineering Boosts Productivity?

Anyone who has struggled with stress and concentration in the office should have a look at this article. There is definitely not enough thought put into making workplaces sonically comfortable, but with greater emphasis on acoustic architecture many of the distractions and annoyances in noisy offices can be greatly reduced.

I like the way this article sells it as a way to increase productivity, telling the boss that we are costing them thousands of pounds a year through sonic distraction. But then I guess that is the language of business and if it makes them listen that's fine by me.

I'd just settle for a few less headaches.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Survival of the Fittest

Interesting article here discussing the effects of human noise on animal behaviour and how we are disrupting their ability to mate, hunt, forage and avoid predators. The full report is available from the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The most common effect is known as masking, whereby a human constructed sound such as that of a railway or road impedes an animals ability to hear a mating call or the scuttling of its next meal.

Animals and birds do adapt to a degree though. Studies have found that inner city birds often sing louder or at a different pitch to their country companions in order to be heard over the traffic and commotion.

But not all species have the ability to adapt to the ever changing human environment, and the speed at which things change in the modern world means that even the ones that do are having to evolve at a pace that will surely leave some behind.

Maybe it's just survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom, but it doesn't seem fair that humans get to play such a part in it.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Sonic Resources

There is now a link on the right hand side of the blog for Sonic Literature which will take you to my google books library where you can find some excellent literature on sound.

Large excerpts of many of the books are available to read online for free so its a good place to start if you're interested. There are also links to some interesting sound websites and sound maps too.

Ben Tausig of Weird Vibrations is also constructing a sound studies bibliography here which you can add to by signing up to the sound studies group. Find out more here.

Hope this is useful.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Sound and the Art of Listening

Having been consciously studying sound in the environment for some time now, I feel that I have gained a heightened awareness of the world around me. The chirp of the birds, the space of the valleys, the muting ambiance of the snow; I am passionate about the way these things affect us, what they represent and signify, and what they tell us about the ever changing time and space we are in. Sound also tells us much about the interaction between our senses and the things that determine our mood and emotions.

I know that listening to bird song makes me happy, peaceful and relaxed, but I can also get immense pleasure from sounds with less calming connotations. A road drill can deliver some exciting rhythms, tones and timbres that would not be out of place on record. It is the art of listening and understanding that provides the satisfaction.

Ignoring connotations is one of the hardest things to do though. They are the foundations upon which our media saturated world is hosted. We are told that bird song is relaxing, and it is. But why? It is a collection of rhythm, melody, harmony and timbre. Maybe the higher pitches leave space for the human voice amongst them? Or is it that if we can hear the birds we are already in a peaceful space, architecturally or mentally.

There are beautiful rich sounds to be found all around and I know that if I am taking the time to consciously listen to them that I am feeling peaceful and appreciative of the world around me. And not just the sounds, but the aromas, the colours and the feel of the air. Likewise, if I am agitated and struggling to concentrate, the hum of my refrigerator can drive me to distraction as my entire focus is drawn to its every detail.

This is not to say though that different sounds do not have different affects on our bodies and minds. Those mellow, high pitch, floating bird songs do make me feel and think differently to the ferocious roar of the drill.

The next time you are on a bus, in the office or just out in town, take five minutes to listen to what is going and try to understand how your body reacts to different noises. What sounds make you jump, cause your temperature to drop, your heart rate to increase, your chest tighten and body tense? What has happened sonically that may have caused you to suddenly exhale and relax? This is quite difficult to do because if you concentrate too hard you will exert control over your body that may cause it to react differently. The key is to be aware but not too expectant.

So my point here is that sound has a definite direct affect on our body and mind, but in tandem, the art of listening tells us much about how we already feel. All sounds can be dynamic and interesting, but only when we find the space to step back and listen to them.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Outside-iN and the Buskers of Manchester

The act of busking is an interesting one. To some it is music, to others it is noise, and to many it is just another component of city life. This of course has much to do with perception, and for me buskers bridge the gap between music and environmental sound.

This is particularly true in Manchester where Market Street and the surrounding area plays host to so many street musicians. They provide the city with rhythm, melody and song, but their audience is transient and passive, drifting from sound to sound.

The beat of the Djembe, pluck of the Kora, squeeze of the Accordion, strum of the Guitar and the expression of the Sax all fill the air, blending and competing with the charge of footsteps and chorus of voices that channel through the city. Fighting for sonic space amongst the buses, trams and cars that flood the city's soundscape.

But why do people choose to busk? What is their life like? Do they see themselves as important to our community? What do they sound like without the city's accompaniment? How do our impressions of musicians differ when we pay to sit and watch them as opposed to hearing them in passing?

Outside-iN hopes to answer some of these questions through a series of performances and interviews at Nexus Art Cafe, as we invite Manchester's buskers to come and perform to a seated audience and talk to us about their experiences.

Check back here and on the Nexus website for performance dates and interviews, and if you're a busker from Manchester looking to get involved then please let us know.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Gently Shifting from Rhythm to Drone

I have been thinking a lot recently about how our soundscapes change over time, and one of the points that I keep coming back to is the shift from a rhythmic world to one of drone.

Take transport for example. A horse drawn cart provides rich and dynamic rhythmic timbres, each one with its own characteristics and subtleties. Whereas the overriding sound of a car is that of a continuous zoom, drones which vary slightly in pitch dependent on speed. And with the electric car seemingly not far from common use this will be reduced further to a whir.

Machinery too. Listen to an old hand powered Singer sewing machine, clunking and turning with infinite possibility. Then listen to a modern electric machine. Some of the rhythm is still there, but the sound is overwhelmingly that of a fierce hum.

This is evident too in the playback of music. An old jukebox or gramophone is full of the rhythmic sounds of moving parts. Audio signals advising us of what is to come. Modern home record players and tape decks provide slightly less rhythmic interest, CD players almost none and MP3's none at all. The clang, drop and turn replaced by the zzzrr of the computer fan.

There are of course many rhythms still to be heard, but the further we move toward a digital society governed by electric machines, the harder they are to find.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

My Sound of Recession pt2

Following on from the previous post I just wanted to lay down a few more thoughts on how the recession could be affecting our soundscapes.

Imagine we lose our job. If we no longer need to wake up early we no longer need to be woken by the piercing jolt of the alarm. We may no longer take the bus, train or tram; modes of transport rich in sonic activity, both mechanical and human.

We are no longer visiting the office, factory or shop. Gone is the sound of machinery, air conditioning units, telephones and chatter. There is no traffic noise on the road that we no longer walk along, no "big issue", no chorus of footsteps leaving the station, marching and singing on reverberant floors.

But we don't live in silence when our routines change, our worlds simply open up to a whole new variety of sounds.

The laughter of the children we now look after. The chopping, whizzing and sizzling of food that we have the time to prepare. The warming bustle of the market where we now have time to collect our ingredients, replacing the cold din and haste of the supermarket.

The calming natural sounds of the park and countryside that can be visited for free, the gentle motion of the bicycle whirring rhythmically along, and the sound of the earth as the garden is tended.

There are also the sounds of emptiness though, confined to the hum of the refrigerator, the force of the vacuum and the whir of the computer. The droll of daytime TV blaring amongst empty walls.

If the latter begin to get us down, it is important to try to take the time to step back and experience some of the more beneficial sounds and activities that life has to offer.

Friday, 19 February 2010

My Sound of Recession

So what is the sound of recession? Economic decline can have a huge impact on our soundscapes, both in the private and public domain.

As I have said in previous posts, my home is a quieter place, as a half finished development stands incomplete across from my window. Apart from the occasional roar and crash of glass falling from one of the windows it is largely mute.

So to are the shops that lay empty, stripped of the clanging cash registers and music that filled them, the hum of the lights and electricity, the chatter of their workforce and the bustle of commerce.

When I think of recession though, quiet barely comes into it. The sounds of chaos, confusion and clutter come to mind as representations of the effect on peoples lives; their state of mind in a time when jobs are lost, businesses collapse and property loses its value.

I think of those who will be most effected by cuts in public spending and services, how changes that have a small effect on some lives can tip others into despair. The repossessions, violence and pain spurned from debts which cannot be met. Stress, anger and helplessness.

But then there are the scratches of hope amongst chaos. Sheds of light through the cracks of a broken machine. The building of new rhythms, struggling together and edging apart, colliding awkwardly in often false dawns.

The piece below, "Hope Amongst Chaos", is a conceptual interpretation of the sound of recession. It was created using the sounds of malfunctioning machinery and skipping records to symbolise a faltering economic system, the stuttering effect it can have on people's lives and the glimmers of hope and opportunity that emerge amongst the chaos.

The quality isn't great here. For a clearer sound you can listen at or send me a message and I'll send you a higher quality CD.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

More snowy sounds

The Met office are forecasting heavy snow tonight, particularly in the North West, so remember to have a good listen this evening and then again in the morning to hear some of the amazing effects that the snow has on your soundscape.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Sound Apps

Whilst posting sound recordings on my blog and soundmap, the theory that we live in a visually dominant society was reinforced by the fact that there are built in applications to upload pictures and videos but no applications to upload sounds.

Its easy enough to get around by importing a player from a third party or creating a video for your sound but lets hope it isn't long before the importance of the sonic is fully realised and we get some built in sound players.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Listening back to a Snowy Winter

Now that the snow in England appears to have passed for good this year, it appears to be a good time to listen back and reflect upon the influence it has had on the sound of our winter.

I always think that the snow has a funny effect on the sound of our environment. There is a sense of stillness and calm even when it is just quite a light sprinkling. Maybe this comes from being able to see something falling from the sky but not really hear it. Unlike wind, rain and hail, snow is barely audible in its decent and impact with the ground, but probably has more affect on sound than any other weather once settled.

It has been a great couple of months in England for studying this, as for a country that tends not to get very much of it, we have had an awful lot. It has often been sudden and unexpected leading to greater affect on everything else.

The first thing I notice when stepping out in the morning after it has snowed through the night, is the eerie quiet, like permanently walking around at four in the morning. There is a mute deadness all around, a kind of muffled but openly spacious sound, like living in a very small space without any walls.

But why? Well I put this down primarily to the texture of the snow, and the fact that it covers all of the reflective, reverberant surfaces that make up the city, with an absorptive coating; sucking sound in and throwing very little of it back out again. Imagine the difference between throwing a tennis ball at a concrete floor and throwing it on a sandy beach. It just doesn't bounce back in the same way.

What this tells me is that I am much more aware of the sonic make-up of the city than I think I am. I can describe what it sounds like outside my studio but I don't tend to hear how the sound reflects off of each individual surface around me to create a distinct sonic environment without considerable concentration. I guess what I mean is that I can tell you that I hear cars and how they sound but it is more difficult to explain exactly why those cars sound the way they do on my street, and minutely different on the next.

But this is exactly the point. We all subconsciously understand our environment through a combination of senses - and hearing is one of them. That is why it sounds so alien outside after a good coating of snow.

This is I suppose what you would call the direct or primary sonic affect of snow on the environment. But then, particularly in a country such as England that it always caught a little by surprise, there are a host of secondary or indirect affects too.

There is less traffic on the roads and what there is goes much slower than normal meaning quieter sounds, less ferocious engines more gentle crunching, sliding and sloshing through the snow.

The sounds of children and many adults too can be heard having fun in places usually empty in the winter as schools and offices close for the day. Busy roads and centres of industry are deserted and quiet whilst parks, gardens and cul-de-sacs become hives of activity rich with joyous sounds. Crunching footsteps, laughter, the wisp, thud and dissolve of flying snowballs.

The sounds of commerce replaced by those of play.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

An Afternoon in the Campo

The sound of the Spanish Campo on a sunny afternoon is one of my all time favourites. It is so full of life and natural beauty. Absolute calm and tranquility, full of noise but completely peaceful. I could sit there for hours just listening to everything going on. No two days the same but always graced with a warm familiarity.

Although my personal preference is for unaided listening, a few minutes focused listening through headphones can be quite overwhelming as you hear the detailed nuances of the cacophony that surrounds you. Below is my recording of "An afternoon in the campo". Just a few minutes unedited field recording that provides a sonic glimpse of a truly beautiful place.

The vibrant calls, twitters and patterns of a thousand birds conversing, overlapping and interacting in absolute panorama, rarely seen but heard as clear as the baby blue sky. The gentle flapping of wings, rustling amongst leaves or brittle snapping of dainty twigs remind me that they are really there and occasionally draw my gaze to a nearby bush or tree.

Usually though it is the distance that attracts my focus. The hills, shades of brown and green dotted with the white specs of Hacienda's and the iron shacks of nearby goat farms.

The gentle warbling, paddling and squelching of chickens and ducks sporadically interspersed with the piercing scream of a cockerel echoing across the valley, engaged in a verse of call and response, territories and hierarchy claimed and defended through sound.

Dogs bark across the hillside, building a great ambiance of tones and timbres, asserting themselves, defying their size and shape with ferocious growls and throaty, gravelly barks that rise and fall with the peaceful purr of the occasional campo van, putt putting along dusty roads.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Bird Vs Flying Machine - Some more thoughts

Here are a few of my thoughts inspired by listening back to "Bird vs Flying Machine" (see post below).

The birds created this beautiful cacophony , so varied and intriguing, beautifully intertwined and harmonious, melodic and tuneful, full of varied tones, rhythms, pitches and counterpoints. Giant timbres overlapping in the air. And then there was the plane above. A continuous hum, drone and roar. The sound of grey looming overhead, casting a giant cloud over the soundscape.

This got me thinking about how man borrows from nature, recreating what we need in machinic form. The plane allows man to fly as the birds do but it cannot sing. Is is louder, bigger and more powerful, but it doesn't spread seed, converse with its neighbours or breed new life. It doesn't glide and sing in harmony amongst others, choosing instead to chug on alone, avoiding contact and interaction .

We can emulate the function but we cannot recreate the beauty. But then I suppose this is the purpose of commerce. It is not to primarily look or sound, but to carry, to make and save money and to streamline and tighten at every opportunity.

But is this to not look close enough? Given closer thought our modern form of flying en mass shares much more than just the sky with the birds. For they don't really fly alone, but as part of a complex system, at different heights, speeds and times, monitored, organised and conducted by air traffic controllers. I suppose the airport is their tree branch, a place to rest, refuel and catch up with fellow fliers.

And in a way planes spread their seed to as they deliver people from place to place, sharing knowledge, ideas and culture, spreading new life across the globe. Carrying food across continents, filling supermarket shelves or delivering aid. There are also the planes that do literally fly together in sequence, be it for artistic purpose at air shows or in combat situations during conflict.

I think what intrigues me so much about this is the fact that it has taken so much time, money and resource for man to emulate something that birds can do so effortlessly and without capital. What makes this particular example so interesting though is that of all the means of travel we have, flying is the only one upon which we rely one hundred percent on technology.

Cars, trains, lorries and buses all allow us to move quicker and carry more but we could still walk instead if they didn't exist. The same for boats. Ok, we may not be able swim around the world, but we can swim, and some people do so over extraordinary distances.

But however many times we try jumping and flapping our arms, we always come back down.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Bird vs Flying Machine

Listening back to some field recording I have been doing in Southern Spain recently, I came across a really interesting section of sound that I want to share with you. What you can hear is a plane flying overhead and a cacophony of birds twittering and singing away in the foreground.

This was recorded just with the stereo mic of my portable recorder, and the way that the two distinct sounds are so well balanced has set off so many thoughts and questions for me regarding the relationship between man and nature, how we emulate, recreate and then feedback so many things from the natural world, and how nature continues to adapt and interact with the things we throw at it.

I know studies have been done that prove that birds sing louder and higher pitched in cities than the countryside, and I wonder if the roar of an aeroplane has the same effect.