Session 9 reflections: Listening to and sounding soundscapes

Dr John Drever

For the penultimate workshop of the series we were treated to a session by John Drever, a sonic artist and sound researcher based at Goldsmiths, University of London. If one had to choose a single keyword for the session, it would have to be the neologism ‘soundscapes’. Attending to soundscapes – which might be defined as the ambient sound or background noise as-it-happens in particular environments – commands, John seemed to suggest, a rather different approach than typically generic approaches to sound.

Approaching soundscapes or sonic environments has a long and diverse tradition, and John cited several interesting examples. Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain, a 1942 propaganda film without narration that depicted life in England during the blitz, was an example of how the use of site-specific sound could introduce a totally new dimension to film. Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete often involved the recording of environmental sound, its division into snippets, and the use of looping and other methods to create innovative musical rhythms. Ludwig Koch was renown for recording a huge array of animal sounds, leading not only to a better appreciation of wildlife, but also the founding of the modern sound archive.

The above explore soundscapes in that they simultaneously privilege both site- and sound-specificity. And for this reason, they are a contrast in particular to what John called ‘generic sound’ – emblematised in particular by the pervasiveness of sound effects, for which John again gave some excellent and often intriguing examples. Thanks to vast sound effect catalogues, such as those produced by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, we usually expect when watching television that, for example, a midnight visit to a cemetery invariably involves a hooting owl, or that a day visit to the seaside will involve the sound of seagulls. We also expect that, when a large passenger airplane touches down on the runway, we will hear squealing tires, even though we don’t tend hear this sound when travelling by air in real life. Indeed, the first use of this squealing tire sound was recorded not from airplane tires but from a braking car. Then there is the ‘Willhelm Scream’ which, even if we don’t know it by name, we’ve nevertheless likely heard (it’s originally from the film Distant Drums) many times over in television and film. What’s more, we even have professional creators of generic sound: Foley artists.

While it is probably obvious why sound effects or generic sounds are so frequently used in film, television and radio, their downside, John argued, is that they create an assumption that all the sound one would ever need is available (for purchase) amongst the many sound effects catalogues. This creates a certain irony for sound engineers: people who are deeply interested in sound, actual sound, yet who are normally engaged in working with sounds of a rather less interesting pedigree. John was suggesting, I think, that this speaks to how we tend to regard sound more generally. There is a tendency to treat sound instrumentally, typically an add-on to the primacy of the visual. What this means is that we tend to ignore or downplay the reality, depths, dimensions, and nuance of sound and sonic environments.

One thing I loved about John’s session was the way he periodically reached into a large bag he’d brought and unveiled for us a new piece of sound kit. Mainly, this ‘kit’ was different iterations of microphones. Actually, John was slightly apologetic about doing this; as he remarked, he didn’t want to be seen as advertising different tools of the sound recording trade. But what was interesting here was that he wasn’t just highlighting a range of technical devices for recording sound, but also, by proxy, illustrating the many dimensions of researching soundscapes. We began, for example, with the highly directional ‘shotgun’ microphone, often used in film and television, and in sporting events and other field recordings to focus on a narrow source of sound and cancel out sound coming from other angles. We also were introduced (most of us for the first time) to binaural microphones, which look rather like small headphone buds, making them ideal for covert recording. Aside from being covert, however, they also record sound much like the human ear hears it, making them ideal for making recordings to listen to with headphones. And things got more and more unfamiliar, from contact microphones, which sense audio vibrations through objects or masses like water (John played us a remarkable underwater recording of shrimp), to telephone pickups, cheap devices available at places like Maplin or Radio Shack that allow for the recording of phone calls (and of course phone tapping) but also pickup electromagnetic fields. As we discovered, my mobile phone has a most interesting sonic landscape of its own! In each of these examples, we were introduced not only to means of recording sound, but the cultural and spatial dimensions of sound in our everyday worlds.

One of the most useful devices was, as John described it, perhaps one of the more ordinary and affordable (his Zoom H2 Handy Recorder). This device allows recording of 360 degrees of sound across 4 channels, and it’s portability and ease of use has opened up, amongst other things, some very interesting preliminary research into the proliferation of high speed hand dryers such as the Dyson Airblade. As John noted, most think of these dyers as a very positive new development; rather than using heated air, they use a much more effective thin layer of cold air at high speed (about 400 mph), which additionally has benefits in terms of energy consumption. Yet it has a major if unacknowledged drawback: a significant increase in noise pollution. These devices are extremely loud, and once placed in a public toilet, can reach decibel levels that are normally considered unacceptable – particularly for those with special needs (e.g. dementia, blind people). In highlighting this emerging research, John pointed out that doing research on soundscapes is about more than generally exploring the nuances and specificity of sound environments. It is not simply the terrain for theorists of sound, or for audiophiles; it is also an area with real potential to open up new areas of pressing ethical and policy concern.

By Scott Rodgers


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