The Soundscape Movement: What does the City sound like?

Friedrichstraße Railway Station
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Followers of the Soundscape movement search out “acoustic landscapes” in urban settings – for a variety of reasons.

Marco Medkour is someone who listens very closely to his home city, Cologne. He collects the sounds of the city. Medkour, who studied biology, has already marked his sound map on the Internet with 30 locations: Brüsseler Platz in summer, a ride in a paternoster lift at an adult education centre, a scrap yard, various bus and tram stops, all places that build up the kind of auditory tension to be heard in the recording Die singenden Schranken von Holweide (“The Singing Level Crossing Gates of Holweide”): the gates close with a melodic groan, a train rumbles towards the listener, it hisses and stops, again the gates groan, the train sets off, the rattling becomes quieter, shoes patter on the paving stones in the street.

The Singing Level Crossing Gates of Holweide, Copyright: Soundmap of  Cologne
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“All recordings tell a story,” says Medkour, who describes himself as an archivist. He records what is going on at each location for about 15 minutes with a digital recorder. He posts one to three minutes of it on the Internet, unedited. At first, he recorded the sounds in order to weave them into the music he was composing. Then he carried on collecting because he had a “love of sound”. He even listens to the recordings at home. “It’s a nice way of reminding yourself of a place,” he says. “Better than a photograph.”

Hearing rather than seeing

Yukio King. Photograph: Anja Freyhoff-King Shifting attention from the visual to the acoustic is one of the main concerns of the Soundscape movement, which emerged during the mid-1960s in Canada around the composer and university lecturer Raymond Murray Schafer. Upset by the levels of background noise prevalent in the city where he lived, Vancouver, he surrounded himself with students who were also interested in ways of preventing noise pollution. He analysed what he called acoustic ecology and worked to make people more aware of the impact environmental noise could have. For Yukio King, an American who lives in Berlin, the fact that the movement had “a heavily moralistic subtext” is one reason to be cautious about Shafer’s theories today. “Noise is bad and silence is good, that is too simple,” says King, who works on the sounds of Berlin.

Enhancing urban areas in acoustic terms

Helmholtzplatz in Berlin, Copyright:
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The qualified urban planner does not just gather these sounds, but goes a step further: Since sound creates atmosphere in the city, he is interested in how sound can influence perceptions positively. As at Helmholtzplatz in the East Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg. All you could hear there a few years ago were barking dogs and clinking beer bottles. Now that many young families have moved into the neighbourhood, the cries of children drown out these sounds: which King feels has enhanced the area in acoustic terms.
In his 2007 project Urban Soundmarks, he not only documented the soundscape of a neighbourhood in Neukölln, a disadvantaged area in the south of Berlin, but drew up an urban planning concept that incorporated sound design and presented it to the borough council. His suggestion was that open-air cafes or a market could acoustically improve this relatively quiet neighbourhood. It was a fine idea that will remain a pipe dream for the time being. People have other worries in the troubled borough of Neukölln. “It was an attempt to start a dialogue,” King says now of his study, which he carried out for the masters course in sound studies he completed last year.

Creating an awareness of sound

The course, which has been running since 2006 at Berlin University of the Arts, is intended to spark exchanges of opinion and information with urban planners and architects. Staff from the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning train the students’ ability to listen as they move through urban spaces. “Without being aware of it, urban planners and architects are constantly creating sound designs with the structures they build and the construction materials they use,” says the head of the course, Professor Holger Schulze, and illustrates the problem with an example: When famous works from New York’s Museum of Modern Art were shown at the New National Gallery in Berlin a few years ago, the tills were accommodated in a container in front of the New National Gallery – right next to the traffic lights of a big road junction. “It was very stressful noise-wise for the people who were waiting there,” says Schulze. “The decision to place the tills in that place had a negative influence on the social situation: the people in the queue were in a bad mood. It just hadn’t been considered.” The course is intended to create an awareness of these issues.

So what do cities sound like?

Talking Bus Stop on Berliner Straße, Copyright: Soundmap of  Cologne
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That, says Holger Schulze, is very individual and depends on where you happen to be at the time. “I travel a lot by public transport. As far as I am concerned, Berlin is dominated by the loud squealing of the underground and the light urban railways.” He sees this as a characteristic acoustic feature of the city, just like the broad streets with their massive stone buildings. “In wide streets, the sound waves travel quite long distances and you get reverberations,” says Schulze. “What is more, the massive stone buildings absorb sound, more than steel or glass do.”
Yukio King too thinks that Berlin does not seem terribly loud on account of its broad streets. Apart from the squealing underground, he mentions the many languages at the multicultural market in Kreuzberg as a typical Berlin sound.
Marco Medkour believes a mixture of different languages is typical of Cologne as well. “But many cities sound much the same, in any case,” he says, “Transport systems, rivers, migration.” However, there is one special sound in Cologne: “The metallic screeching” of the hordes of rose ringed parakeets that live freely there. And then there is the Rhine, which is dominated by inland shipping at Cologne. “There is always a light chugging to be heard,” he says. “On the Elbe at Dresden, by contrast, the silence is idyllic.”
Katja Hanke
is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

Translation: Martin Pearce
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2009

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