Urban sound art
The Acoustic Turn – Who Owns the Sound of the City?

Leipzig St. Trinitatis
Leipzig St. Trinitatis | Photo: Frank Kaltenbach

Although the visual has dominated our perception for decades now, a turn seems to be in the making. A young generation of artists and researchers no longer perceive the sounds of the city as noise, but instead recognise acoustic patterns in it that they consider to be worthy of aesthetic discovery and transformation. The more silent and at the same time denser the electro-mobilised city of the future becomes, the more important will be the artificial shaping of its sound.

Whether a city sounds like a violin, a cello or a contrabass is decided by the quality of its surfaces and the geometry of its spaces. The student initiative noises e.V. of the University of Koblenz is of this opinion, and in July 2015 drilled down on the qualities of their city’s sounds in their workshop “Klanglandschaften Koblenz – Altstadtrauschen” (i.e. sound-scapes of Koblenz – noise of the old-city historic district).

Urban sounds in Bonn

In Bonn this search for acoustic trails and traces is already institutionalised. In 2010, Curator Carsten Seiffarth succeeded in convincing the Beethoven Foundation for Art and Culture to invite “urban sound artists,” who – analogous to historical city chroniclers – would work with the sounds of the city for an entire year as artists in residence. Seiffarth has made a name for himself since 1996, among other things with the Sound Art Gallery Singuhr and the tuned city festival.

His programme bonn hoeren, which is devoted to the themes of urban planning, the public sphere, architecture and the Rhine banks as landscape, was at first limited in time until 2014. But enthusiastic citizens and cooperation partners urged him to continue. Some installations, such as the Hörorte (i.e. listening places) of the first urban sound artist Sam Auinger, are still running today. The point of these soundscapes, soundwalks or listening walks is not a blanket sonication, but instead measured situative sound experiences.

“Starting in 2015, in order to open up the format to new impulses, we no longer just invite German-language artists,” explains Seiffarth. “Close contacts with artistic research centres in London, with CRISAP, Hong Kong or Osaka can only enrich us. At the moment Dutch ‘urban sound artist’ Edwin van der Heide is acoustically studying the University of Bonn.” The student competition sonotopia was held for the first time in 2015. Norwegian award winner Helen Førde demonstrates that the scene is international here as well.

International sound-scapes

In 2018 Bonn intends to go a step further: with cooperation partners from Canada, the USA and Latin America. No wonder, after all, it was the Canadian pioneer of “acoustic ecology” Raymond Murray Schafer, who created the World Soundscape Project in 1971 to document sound-scapes around the world. In her seminars at the Bauhaus University Weimar, Professor Nathalie Singer also conveys the mutual influences between Germany and the USA: pioneering films of the 1920’s and 1930’s such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin – Symphonie der Großstadt (Berlin - Symphony of a Great City) or Oskar Fischinger’s audio film experiment Klingende Ornamente (Ornament Sound Experiments) have not least inspired John Cage

The brothers Abel, Carlo and Max Korinsky are fascinated by the fact that human hearing can preferentially locate horizontal acoustic perceptions in space. They make use of Vertical Sound Lab, software they have developed themselves, to study the unknown dimensions of sounds coming from above. The acoustic illusions were especially impressive in the large-scale spatial volume of Berlin Cathedral or Gasometer in Berlin-Schöneberg.

The implementation of sound art interventions in public space is not always an easy matter. According to EU directives, noise maps prescribe the soundproofing that must be met; time-limited special exemptions by the city are the sole antidote to complaints by individual citizens that can nix any project.

Architecture and sound

Cologne, Kolumba Museum Cologne, Kolumba Museum | Photo: Frank Kaltenbach And there are also too few architects who attend to the acoustic effects of their buildings. Exceptions are the Kolumba Museum’s perforated, sound-absorbing brick facade by Peter Zumthor, the perforated metal facade under the colourful ceramic bars of the Museum Brandhorst in Munich by Sauerbruch Hutton, or the water curtain that pushes the street noise of the Martin Luther Ring into the background with its splashing, the visually open churchyard of the new Catholic provost Church of the Holy Trinity in Leipzig by the architectural firm Schulz und Schulz.

Munich, Museum Brandhorst Munich, Museum Brandhorst | Photo: Frank Kaltenbach In 2014 US artist Sven Anderson, in cooperation with the Dublin City Council, was awarded the European Soundscape Award 2014 for his Manual for Acoustic Planning and Urban Sound Design. His summation: Sound artists ought to be integrated as equal partners into administrative structures along with urban planners and architects. Following the predominance of language as object of philosophical investigation (linguistic turn) and its replacement by the power of the image (iconic turn), author Petra Maria Meyer, in her 2010 book Acoustic Turn, has provided the theoretical framework for the acoustic turn; one which has long since been realised by artists.