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  • The Sound of Life: The Making of a Soundscape

    This is the second article in a two-part series. Read part one.

    The conception of these soundscapes stems from a deep love of history that I have had since childhood. The idea of recreating the sound of the past in a way that was meaningful to modern listeners provided me with a creative challenge. My aim was to tell a story solely through sound while simultaneously presenting an authentic and valid interpretation of a group of people at a specific point in time.

    As an artwork, it is possible to take a few liberties with the creation of a historic soundscape. However, it is important to keep in mind that the historical record, the primary research material for any sort of historical soundscape creation, is inherently problematic and fraught with cultural, sexual, educational, and racial bias that cannot be ignored. I wanted to be faithful to my subjects in a way that was fair and, hopefully, emotionally engaging. What I did not anticipate during the creation process of my historic soundscapes was that their relationship to the modern soundscape was far more meaningful than the historic soundscapes were themselves.

    The Owens-Thomas House: A Case Study

    The Owens-Thomas House is a Regency style house located on a picturesque square in downtown Savannah, Georgia. It is a popular tourist attraction, famous for hosting the Marquis de Lafayette during his visit to the city in 1825. I was initially drawn to the house because it possessed a rare example of nineteenth century internal plumbing, some of which remains intact. Imagining nineteenth century toilets and showers was too compelling to ignore. After taking a tour of the house, I decided that the basement would be the perfect candidate for my historic soundscapes.

    This space housed the kitchen, the scullery, a laundry room, an additional bathing space containing the shower, and the primary cistern for the indoor plumbing system. These spaces involved domestic tasks, making this part of the house the domain of slaves and women, including the mistress of the house and her children. I was interested in this socio-cultural layer and the challenges it presented: slaves, women, and children are historically marginalized and less documented classes of people. I wanted to try to give a voice to a story that might not have otherwise been told.


    The most critical step in the creation of any soundscape is to establish its purpose. This involves identifying the intended audience base, as well as the scope and design framework of its construction. In the case of the Owens-Thomas House, there were two compelling but completely disparate narrative opportunities: the creation of a strictly documentary soundscape, or the creation of a work of historical fiction. Each required distinctive sonic components and would have had different impacts on listeners. I could have created an elaborate work of historical fiction: perhaps a discussion between the mistress of the house and the cook about dinner being served for some important historical personage, exploring the power dynamic between a woman and her slaves.

    While historical fiction allows for greater human connection, and a narrative from the point of view of an individual whose story might not otherwise be widely heard, it can be difficult to present in a way that does not feel inauthentic or too heavily reliant on assumptions. Ultimately, I did not feel comfortable creating characters who were slaves. At the most basic level, it would have been impossible to create an accurate representation, as they would have spoken in a dialect that, while closely related to modern Gullah creole, no longer exists.

    I chose to represent a strictly documentary approach to the space. This presents far less interpretational ambiguity and is more scientific and journalistic, ostensibly containing only the facts. I chose not to include human voice at all, though I knew the risk of this decision was the alienation of my audience. People are far more likely to engage with a work of sound art that contains something easily relatable, such as conversation. Without it, the composition quickly becomes abstract. My goal was to provide a snapshot of nineteenth century quotidian life to the twenty-first century listener, preserving sonic historic authenticity, while somehow making it engaging and memorable for listeners.

    Barring the inclusion of human voice, the only way I knew people would still be interested was if I took meticulous care to research and gather the sounds necessary for the construction of the soundscapes; even a documentary must have some sort of narrative. With extensive multidisciplinary research, I created brief descriptions of the activities taking place in each room. Then I created a list of all the sounds that would bring those activities to life: not a simple task. There is no that magically tells you what you should include.

    Photo by Marinna Guzy
    This was the setup to perform an impulse response, a recording representing how a simple pulse is altered by the acoustic properties of a space.
    Photo by Marinna Guzy
    Photo by Marinna Guzy
    Impulse response setup in the shower.
    Photo by Marinna Guzy

    At the beginning of this process, I was committed to ensuring that all sounds were made from genuinely historic artifacts. However, after conducting some preliminary recording experiments, it quickly became apparent this is not always feasible, nor necessary. First, you cannot record historic artifacts in the proper historic context. A historic egg-beater cannot be used to beat eggs; it can only be recorded by itself. This is not an accurate sonic representation. Additionally, some artifacts do not have a distinct historical auditory signature. A broom from 1880 sweeping across a historic brick hearth sounds identical to a broom from 1980.

    The repercussions of this realization for the historic soundscape designer are simple but powerful: if the product maintains the integrity of the sonic environment, the methods through which the designer achieves the product are not important. Instead, the designer is at liberty to ensure the best recordings possible, even if it means that those recordings are made in a controlled studio environment.

    After gathering all my sounds together—a combination of authentic recordings and studio performances—I assembled them into soundscapes, placing the sounds in a spatialized field to immerse the listener in the experience. I also constructed a set of modern soundscapes corresponding to each of the rooms. The contrast between these soundscapes was stark. The sonic environment of 1830s Savannah was markedly quieter than that of modern Savannah. Overall ambient noise was incredibly low, resulting in an almost hyper-real rendering of the sounds of activity within the space. The modern-day spaces were muddled by overpowering HVAC noise, obtrusive cell phone rings, and the incessant rumble of traffic.

    In this contrast, I discovered the true power of the historic soundscapes. When juxtaposed with their modern counterparts, they illustrate the high level of noise and pervasiveness of technology that we allow ourselves to endure. While the historic soundscapes possess value as clinical descriptions of what might have been, this is only of minor curiosity to anyone outside the field of history. However, their power as artworks allowed the historic soundscapes to serve as means of self-analysis and critique, calling attention to sonic facets of modern society. My hope is that listeners will bring their personal experiences to these soundscapes, reflecting upon the differences between kitchens, laundry rooms, and bathrooms that they have experienced with those of the Owens-Thomas House.

    Soundscape of the cistern area. Paroramic photo by Leon Hsu

    Soundscape of the kitchen. Paroramic photo by Leon Hsu

    Soundscape of the laundry room. Paroramic photo by Leon Hsu

    Conscious Listening

    This is only one example of ways that soundscapes can be used to critique and positively change the existing sonic environment. Every day sound gains prominence in the collective consciousness. Soundscape studies have become a fixture at many universities. Scores of sound art and soundscape projects now exist, using the internet as a means of collaboration, inviting people all over the world to engage with their sonic surroundings.

    Cities and Memory based out of Oxford, UK, for example, invites contributors to explore locations throughout the globe through field recordings or “reimagined” versions of those recordings. The National Parks Service, through their Natural Sounds program, actively works to preserve and restore the soundscapes of the parks. They augment natural sounds with sounds possessing cultural significance to individual parks to ensure the endurance of these rich and vivid soundscapes for years to come.

    Music is one of the most commonly harnessed soundscape types for cultural expression, as songs draw you into an environment of their creation. Incorporating street sounds in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” or Stevie Wonder’s dramatic narrative encapsulated within “Living for the City,” and even strains of audience mixed into live concert albums, provides context for the music. These extra-musical elements force listeners to make cultural associations.

    Finally, soundscapes help people reconnect with one of their primary senses in a meaningful and focused way. This has critical repercussions for policy development and regulations. As people grow more aware of their sonic environment, they consider the impact of noise on human and environmental health. Architects, city planners, and engineers are responding to these demands, designing with acoustics in mind. Many cities and businesses are exploring the use of electric vehicles, reducing traffic noise levels, and communities are banding together to address noise pollution.

    Photo by beau-foto
    Photo by Flickr user beau-foto

    Now, close your eyes for a moment. What do you hear? Make a note of the human-generated sounds (anthrophony), the sound of the wind and rain (geophony), and the sound produced by biological life, (biophony). Which are more prevalent? How do the sounds make you feel? Tired? Angry? Happy? Productive? Lethargic? Stand up and walk outside. Is there a sound that is particularly compelling? If so, go toward it. Observe how the soundscape changes around you. Which sounds are now prevalent and which have fallen to the wayside? When you reach your sonic destination, pause and listen. Is there another sound which catches your ear? Follow it. Continue until your perception of sound supplants your other senses. Now that you have listened to it, would you change your current sonic environment?

    While it is important to be aware of how others are listening and relating to their soundscapes, it is most important to understand your relationship to your own soundscape. What is your ideal soundscape, and what steps can you take to craft that environment? Change in the soundscape will only come through individual action. Examine your habits and your actions. Is it necessary to slam the doors in your house, or might the surroundings be more sonically pleasing if you take an extra moment to be sure the door closes softly? Perhaps you will decide to spend some extra time outside this fall enjoying the sound of children playing, leaves falling, and birds chirping, leaving your leaf-blower in the shed, choosing to rake the detritus by hand.

    If you become conscious of how your sounds impact the world around you, you can become the driving force behind a more sonically conscious society. Now is the time to act to make the world sound the way you want it to.

    Marinna Guzy is a sound artist, writer, and photographer focused on the intersection of art and social justice, especially in relation to culture and the environment. She currently serves as the supervising sound editor and sound designer at Raconteur Sound.

    Blesser, Barry, and Linda Salter. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2007.

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