Soundcities

Franzi Mack

Image: Steve Tanza, Soundcities – Herd Above The Noise. https://stanza.co.uk/soundcities_herd/index.html

Since the late 90s, the London artist Steve Tanza, aka Stanza, has been crowdsourcing sounds from various cities around the world via his sound mapping platform soundcities.com. The database now includes thousands of field recordings, which he encourages the public to use for projects and performances. 

His accompanying installation “Soundcities – Herd Above The Noise” explores the relationship between city-sound and identity. The artwork comprises a complex network of 300 speakers and connecting cables laid out on the floor, representing an abstract map of London. The sounds played through the speakers, and their location in the exhibition space, correspond to where the recordings have been tagged on the crowdsourcing platform, essentially creating an audio tour of the city that visitors can physically navigate through. Stanza thereby expands on the concept of the ‘flat’ web-based sound map, creating a multidimensional experience which listeners can shape by positioning their body in space.

“The city is its own music, constantly evolving, a beautiful composition of squeaks, clanks, and pulses,” Stanza writes on his website. “The city is the orchestra, and we are just conductors whose […] actions compose this music as we walk around.”

Stanza’s installation visually evokes the notion of a city, but by abstracting geographic and architectural features, the artist gives visitors a chance to focus on their sense of hearing. The soundscape, claims Stanza, “reveals a city’s identity” — especially as cities look increasingly alike. His modular installation can be reconfigured to take visitors on a tour through any city featured on the Soundcities platform. 

The absence of labels adds to the experience’s subjectiveness, leaving ample room for interpretation — something I both appreciate but also see as a shortcoming. How each soundscape is conceived relies heavily on the listener’s previous knowledge or assumptions about the city and the curator’s and contributors’ choices of which sounds to include and which to omit, whereas those choices aren’t communicated in any way. Neither does the installation reveal to the listener where the field recordings are coming from, nor does it address the personal relationship of the sound to the contributor. Why did they hit record? I would love to know whether they acted spontaneously or planned the recording. Whether they are visitors or residents. Do they believe the sound to be characteristic of their city? Is their sounding world identical to those of others inhabiting the same space? 

Another thing that Stanza didn’t address in his documentation was specifics about the temporality of the artwork. Does the installation relay a snapshot of the city at a given moment, or does it at once depict multiple points in time? Given that the platform launched in 2000, I think that the artwork might have the potential to make audible how certain places have transformed over the years. How did London sound 15 years ago compared to today? Can we, for example, listen to gentrification? 

Application

For my final project I am investigating a network of German covid deniers and conspiracy theorists and their extensive use of the communication platform Telegram. I’ve been flirting with the idea of creating a sound map of the movement for a while now. The notion of translating Querdenken’s digital presence into a soundscape seems intriguing as it would echo how the network spills from the online into the physical world.

Sound, invisible to our eye, seems to possess a great potential for mapping invisible geographies, that otherwise lay silent, such as these virtual spaces. Nonetheless, for a long time I wasn’t sure about how to create an actual map (rather than a data-sonification sound clip) without having coordinates to plot on. What I take from Stanza’s project is his loose interpretation of geography or spatiality.

Figma prototype

I had previously worked on a relational map of the movement — could it act as a blueprint for laying out different sound recordings? By adding a third dimension, listeners could navigate through the virtual space, with sounds fading in and out, depending on their location. Might this action reveal patterns or overlapping trajectories between different channels? Or render audible how certain comments might be concentrated in specific areas?

Which sounds will be featured? Querdenken’s instigators are frequently sharing video and voice messages in their channels, thereby, in a way, creating their own field recordings. I want to take those as a starting point for composing Querdenken’s soundscape.

As I don’t plan to create an installation like Stanza’s, I am wondering if it is feasible for me to create an interface that emulates the physical experience; That allows one to move through the soundscape virtually — with multiple channels audible at a time, each channel’s volume adjusted according to the proximity of the listener.

I like Stanza’s approach of setting up a modular framework that can then be populated with different recordings, as such a framework would allow me to find out on the go, which sounds to include, in what frequency and over which time frame — just by listening.

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