Outside the Center of Sound

Thoughts on World Listening Day 2020

Tomorrow is World Listening Day, an event started ten years ago to encourage people to think about their soundscape or sonic environment. There are some formal ways you can participate—like making a recording and uploading it to this great sound map, or tuning in to some remote events being shared on this Facebook group—but really all you have to do is slow down, take some time to listen, and reflect on what you hear.

I went to my first World Listening Day (WLD) event in 2011 and kind of hated it. I was visiting New York from Iowa City to do research at the American Museum of Natural History, which means I was in full “dissertation mode”: a combination of wild, insatiable intellectual curiosity and a pervasive distrust for every idea I encountered, including my own. I was inspired and disgusted, convinced of my own genius and filled with self-doubt. I was alone with my thoughts in the big city. I was, fundamentally, a grad student.

So I went to a WLD event happening at NYU in a newly constructed music facility. There were little studios set up as listening rooms and a conference room for talks and performances. The program for the event was almost exclusively the presentation of experimental compositions, most of which incorporated field recordings from New York City. There was a field recording mash-up by Joel Chadabe; a data sonification piece by Andrea Polli; and Aleksei Stevens’ “Standing Water: A Soundmap of the Gowanus Canal.” Here’s a brief excerpt from that:

And here’s what I wrote about that piece, on a long-dead personal blog:

By far the most traditionally “compositional” piece of the evening, it was an 18-minute soundscape comprised of 6 movements, each named after a place along the canal (“Hamilton Avenue Drawbridge,” for example). As the composer states in the program, the canal is “infamously polluted,” yet I would describe his sonic portrayal as beautiful: alternately haunting, aggressive, contemplative, and dramatic.

Though complimentary, I actually meant this as a critique. What was the point, I wondered, to aestheticize pollution to the point of sounding beautiful? What political or ecological statement did that actually make? And, while I was on a roll, why was sequestering ourselves in sound-isolated rooms six floors above the Manhattan streets listening to Western art music considered a reasonable way to experience “the soundscape?” What did we mean by “soundscape” anyway?

I revisited these questions often over the next several years as I was writing my dissertation, and then again just this week as I was thinking about WLD. What happened in New York that night that irked me so much? How should we listen to and/or appreciate “soundscapes?” Should we at all? Or is “the soundscape” itself a term whose ubiquity has rendered it void of politics? What were its politics to begin with?

The term is often attributed to Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer who began talking about “the soundscape” in his writings starting in the late 1960s. He’s considered the founding father of acoustic ecology, and this is why WLD is celebrated on July 18th—it’s Schafer’s birthday. (He’s alive, by the way, and this will be his 87th birthday.) But as historians have documented, he wasn’t the first to use the term, and even in the late 1960s, as Schafer was developing the ideas around soundscapes and acoustic ecology, that word was also being used by Michael Southworth, a geographer who documented and studied the sounds of Boston. The historical record of how “the soundscape” has been used over time has been extensively documented by Jonathan Sterne in his 2015 essay, “The Stereophonic Spaces of Soundscape.”

But the issue of who said it first actually isn’t that important here. What Sterne astutely points out—and what I circled around in my own research—is that even though “the soundscape” is often understood in physical terms, like a landscape, it is essentially inseparable from the musical practices and sound recording technologies of the time in which it was developed. Though “the soundscape” is now often understood as a characteristic of geographical locations (“the soundscape of Vancouver”), it is also a technique for listening, one that developed alongside hi-fi stereos and experimental music. What this means is that the concept of “the soundscape” is inherently contradictory. Here’s Sterne:

While the concept as we use it today is designed to get people to appreciate the sounds of both natural and built environments, to confront the world as it is, the concept demands that the listener relate to the world as if it is a recording or composition—in short, as a work—but a work that is its own means of conveyance, and one that is heard in a particular way.

And that, of course, is what I experienced in New York: a night of compositions that was as much a celebration of composers (or the very idea of “composition”) as it was an appreciation of “the soundscape.” It was based in an understanding of the soundscape as a kind of raw material from which both music and environments could be sculpted. It presumed a shared appreciation of the aesthetics of experimental music. And it quite literally situated us within the apparatus of the contemporary music studio. It presented itself as a presentation of place (“New York City soundscapes”), but it was actually a demonstration of experimental and academic music making. Essentially, the highly edited and curated experiences of “the soundscape” do not place the listener inside an actual soundscape, but inside a set of listening practices. As Sterne argues, it makes the listener the center of sound. And the risks of spending too much time in there are actually pretty high.

We’re living in a moment that has demanded all of us to reconsider our complicity and participation in systems of oppression. And the soundscape is a part of that. When you listen tomorrow, or today, or any day, you’ll find that it is easy, and tempting, to linger on the sounds of the natural world, which might seem quite lovely, or to reject the sounds of the built environment, which might seem unpleasant. It’s also easy to make lists, to identify different types of sounds, their volume and pitch, different species of birds, cars, or mobile phones. You might find yourself reflecting on your own connection to the natural world, your place in it. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is making yourself the center of sound. Any given soundscape has infinite points of entry; where you are standing is only one of those.

The harder work is to go a step further, to listen for the logic behind those sounds, to ask why you are hearing them here and now. How do we hear the networks of capitalism? The structural and systemic problems of racism? The policies of urban and suburban design that let some people in and keep some people out? It’s one thing to hear and catalog the sounds of a particular space; it’s another thing to reflect on and question your own position within that space.

For this year’s WLD, some people are already doing that harder work. Artist and composer Norman Long’s reflection from a park in the south-east of Chicago makes explicit the connections between quiet reflection and mindfulness and the trauma of racism and violence. Reflecting on his own breathing and self-care practices, he writes,

This mindfulness practice of breathing brought me back to the COVID-19 respiratory virus, and the murder of George Floyd. In both of these instances African Americans are more vulnerable to contract the virus and more likely to be murdered by police. There is also the fact that most areas with high rates of air pollution and toxicity are overwhelmingly poor and African-American. When we breathe we are mindful of our mind/body/land connection, our connection to each other and our connection to those who cannot breathe.

These are the kind of connections we need to remember and consider right now—and for a long time to come. However you find your time, space, and position this week, I hope you’ll take a minute to stop and listen. Let me know if you do, either here or on Twitter using the hashtag #WLD2020.

Talk soon,
Craig