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  • The Sound of Life: What Is a Soundscape?

    This is the first article in a two-part series.

    Close your eyes for a moment and listen to the space you are in. From my chair, I can hear the rhythmic agitation of my washing machine’s spin cycle muffled only slightly by a closed door. In the next room, my fiancé picks out a lilting melody on his mandolin. Even further away, the hint of a low drone, like that of a jet passing by in the sky, reminds me of the presence of the refrigerator upstairs in the kitchen. If I concentrate more, I can hear the distant whine of leaf blowers down the street, though what they could possibly be blowing in the middle of the winter is beyond me. And right next to the click clack of my typing as I commit these words to the page is the purr of an external hard drive, a reassuring sounding of the digital age.

    These are the sounds of my daily life. These sounds possess many universalities shared by the peoples of the world: sonic reminders of electricity, indoor plumbing, the combustion engine. Yet they are also simultaneously totally unique to the place they occur, and may include the far-off cry of the rooster, or a call to prayer.

    As you read the above passage, you likely heard the sounds described in your mind, a process called audiation. While my audiation may be different from my friend’s, the vivid mental sonic imagery illustrates the power of sound as a medium for communication. It can relay meaning, emotion, memory, and facts through language, music, and field recordings. Sound, when understood as an environment, is a soundscape: a powerful tool that helps humans relate to their surroundings. They can be consciously designed by an individual or group of individuals, or the byproduct of historical, political, and cultural circumstances. They may be musical compositions, ethnographic anthropological field recordings, recordings of a rainforest taken by an ecologist, or imaginings of a sound designer/historian ruminating upon the sounds of the past.

    Cities and Memory: Utopia

    Cities and Memory: Utopia takes Thomas More’s Utopia and creates something new from the collective imagination of artists around the world. Sound artists each took a small section of the woodcut map of Utopia and created a soundscape imagining how that place (and the society living in it) might sound.

    Utopia: The beauty that emerges from conflict (Marinna Guzy)

    Soundscapes define communities—their boundaries, their actors, their geographic intricacies, and industries. They arise through the interactions between external and internal forces within a community. The things that make the soundscape of a place different from any other place in the world are soundmarks. The soundmark of your home may be a small fountain bubbling away in the corner of your living room, or the tinkle of a wind chime in your backyard. You like these sounds because they make you feel a certain way, and now they color everyone else’s impression of the sonic environment of your personal space.

    The soundmark of your neighborhood might be the local pool, with the sound of splashing and children laughing dominating the soundscape of every summer. But during the fall and winter, perhaps the soundscape of your town is dominated by the soundmark of the daily bellow of a steam whistle at the local paper mill. Perhaps you added the fountain and wind chime to your home to combat the aesthetic unpleasantness of the steam whistle. You created your soundscape in dialogue with, and as a reaction to, that of your greater community.

    These choices illuminate aspects of your aesthetic sensibility and your personal background and culture. Your neighbor’s response to the steam whistle may have been to cultivate a garden attractive to songbirds so that their personal soundscape would be constantly filled with birdsong. All members of the community may have individual reactions to the greater soundscape. This contrast between the soundscape at the micro and macro levels helps paint a picture of the diverse makeup of a community. This is the power of the soundscape.

    Cities and Memory: Utopia
    The courtyard of the Owens-Thomas House in Savannah, Georgia.
    Photo by Marinna Guzy

    Close your eyes again. Imagine a space that is not unlike the one described above. Only now, the low purr of the refrigerator slowly fades away and the distant moan of the leaf blower has been replaced by the rhythmic clip clop of horses’ hooves. The washing machine spin cycle has been replaced by clothes flapping from a line out in the yard. You hear shuffling footsteps and the creak of a wicker basket pressed against a body. It is easier to hear your heartbeat, and your breath, sighs echoing the wind whistling through the cracks in the window. It is a soundscape of a time long passed. This could be the soundscape of a nineteenth century household, even a specific nineteenth century household.

    In an environmental context, the soundscape helps us understand the acoustic ecology of a place. A forest filled with many types of birdsong and other animal activity would indicate a healthy, diverse, and resilient ecosystem. Conversely, an ecosystem dominated by a single sound source, such as the buzz of the cicada, illustrates a potential lack of diversity and resilience. The more resilient an environment is, the greater its ability to weather a significant disturbance without irreparable harm and change.

    Also important are the ways in which sounds interact with each other. The “acoustic niche” hypothesis developed by Bernie Krause states that all organisms occupy a functionally specific frequency band within an ecosystem. For example, if in a meadow there are crickets and birds, the cricket call will be either at a different frequency band or will occur at a different time of day from that of the bird call so that each group of organisms’ communications for survival, such as mating calls, can more easily be heard. Competing noise arising from human activity forces organisms to alter their behavior to adapt to new frequencies, like traffic. Once clear acoustic niches become muddled as organisms’ natural modes of communication become ineffective amid the changes, jeopardizing species fitness and survival.

    Human communities are no different. The distinction between sonic facets of communities is increasingly difficult to discern at the surface level. Much like a cicada call, the blare of Western pop music in restaurants and taxi cabs dominates soundscapes across the globe. Acres of Brazilian rainforest have given way to cattle ranches and pastureland, bringing with them completely new soundscapes and soundmarks. However, even among this change, it is important to remember that underneath the seemingly homogenous surface, rich cultural wells still exist in the form of grassroots music, storytelling, and industry. All these require is a little amplification to be heard.

    The human experience is highly sonic. Because one of the core properties of sound is its ephemerality—it does not endure long past its production, and even a recording is but a subjective representation of reality—it is easy to forget, even though it is one of our primary senses. It is critical that we do not forget about sound, because of its decidedly cultural role within our acoustic ecology. Remembering the sounds of the past can provide us with indications of the evolution of a community, affording people with the tools to look toward the future. A coastal community can mobilize the memories of the sounds of hammer into wood at a shipyard as a driving force to revitalize an industry fallen to the wayside. Fostering global cultural diversity helps to instill in people a sense of place and belonging. The culture of a community is its lifeblood and something shared as a reaffirmation of the community’s importance and vibrancy.

    In part two, I will explore the soundscape in practice, showcasing my personal sound art process through the creation of three historic soundscapes in collaboration with the Owens-Thomas House, a historic house museum, which is part of the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia.

    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.

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