Urban Sounds: Acoustic Transformations in the 21st Century City

A recent conference at Goethe Institut, Montreal, entitled “Urban Sounds: Acoustic Transformations in the 21st Century City” featured a conversation with sound artists Sam Auinger (DE/AT) and Carsten Stabenow (DE). Sam described how a few days after the eruption of Grímsvötn in Icelanad, the copious amounts of ash blasted into the atmosphere inhibited air traffic for three days all across Northern Europe. In Frankfurt, the first of those days was a welcome break from the continuous humdrum of aircraft engines. In its absence, frankfurters were able to hear anew many sounds that had been forgotten or masked by the drone of the everyday. On day two, however, worries quickly began to set in. “What would become of our city,” people thought. For most citizens, Sam commented, the vibrations of (air) traffic and of industry are inextricably linked to the power of the economy: “the vibrations are what makes a city work.” As soundscape is a part of the landscape, then, what changes for the human inhabitants of the place at that moment? As in the case described, the economy was of foremost concern rather than the enjoyment of temporarily reduced sonic clutter or perhaps the primal fear of the unknown.

Carsten began by displaying Hieronimus Bosch’s The battle between Carnival and Lent as an example of what the medieval city might have sounded like to the artist. This work could be considered as a part of a genealogy of noise, and “[city] noise is nothing but condensed information” said the artist. Noise: a random, chaotic, constant flow; Signal (or information): an explicit, orderly, discreet event. Carten uses the built environment and building materials to redirect the listener’s attention towards neglected sounds and new listening practices, as a part of an alternative aural experience.

Urban sound art is not a new phenomenon. The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World tells the story of Athanasius Kircher, “the last man who knew everything.” Kircher had discovered that different frequency bands can be associated with specific vowels (a technique used in contemporary technical ear training for sound engineers) and had proposed recreating vowel sounds by varying the space between different buildings along with some compelling mapping techniques. Because he had noticed that certain sounds echo back at a different pitch (i.e. vowel), he hypothesized that if a speaker of language A was at a specific distance from a given wall, his vowel would be transformed into the appropriate equivalent in language B; the ultimate goal of the exercise was to devise a universal translator.

Carsten’s own project, Tuned City features a number of projects aimed at helping urban communities to hear their city in a new way.

From the official description of the talks:

Public Roundtable lead by Chris Salter, Artist, Co-Director Hexagram and Concordia University Research Chair in New Media, Technology and the Senses (QC/CA/US) Participants: Sam Auinger (DE/AT), Marthe Boucher (QC), Carsten Stabenow (DE).

The ubiquity of sound within the built environment and its continual transformation through new social technological means is becoming a major global theme, not only in art and design but in the planning of cities and economic and social policy in the North and South. This concluding roundtable brings together sound artist/sonic thinker Sam Auinger, curator Carsten Stabenow, artist/researcher-creator Chris Salter and Marthe Boucher, Head of the Permits and Inspections Division at Ville-Marie’s Department of Urban Planning to explore the socio-technical-cultural-economic impact of sound’s relationship to the built environment and the ways in which we can begin to bring sonic thinking into our everyday urban practices.

About the Montreal city planners contribution to the conversation, see Noise walls.