Apprehension. The sounds of the city are all around us, but here inside a brief reprieve. Darkness. Ears relax and open as the harsh streetscape fades. An assault to the nose. Urine. Glass crackles underfoot. Sitting here on my musical stool I begin to sense the city anew. In front, traffic, a busy rush between lights. Ambience. Construction, stronger to my right. Honk honk honk. Tick tick tick. A plane soars overhead framed by the decrepit walls and shimmering new glass panels. Drilling. Two cranes hover to the right, suspended. The left, a quieter spot. Tune in to the constant reverberating hum of air. Clap clap clap clap. Time to start, we’re running in synchronicity. With a heavy metal rattle, the exterior construction lift ascends a new build block of flats, squeaking, tapping, shuddering down again, a smooth descent. The breeze changes direction, shifts my attention. Car doors thud, softly. Plane, right to left, my window up to the sky. A man, talking on his phone and carrying a rustling plastic bag, crosses to my right. In the same moment the car, less than a metre in front of me, gently purrs and shuts off again. I had not noticed the driver get inside. Was he too close? Another thud, another car door slamming shut. Construction all around. Beep beep. Tink. From my spot, dead centre of the car park, I can not see or hear any of my accomplices. Two birds squawk, crows, and a fly buzzes just past my nose. Thuds, louder. But nothing moves.
Stop, says Sam. There’s something wrong. Have ten minutes passed already? An unruly recording device. Now in this moment when we’re not recording everything happens. A large metal door opens on the derelict scrub, and a man emerges banging out a pot. He disappears again, and then the door opens and another man looks out. A car leaves, another arrives, a man walks through carrying a metal stepladder, rattling. An ambulance siren speeds along the right perimeter, crossing across the front. The man leaning on the car in front (he has taken leave of his seat inside) laughs gently to himself, his back visibly shaking, he is on his phone. Among all this we’re recording again. My sensation of time, or what is happening and where, is muddled. A man approaches jingling keys, the van door opens and he steps inside, leaving the door open. Click slide, a second van door opens. The construction lift is rattling up again and another plane drones along the same pathway, following the same trajectory. ‘Oi!’ from afar, the construction site, and the second van door slides shut again. A voice, a man is talking on his phone. A car slides gently, almost silently, out of the car park and the breeze picks up, sounding the leaves along the left wall. Sirens, this time police, right then along and away. These are the sounds of the city, under construction, in a constant state of emergency. Life unfolds outside. Footfall, heavier on one side than the other, uneven. A man (on phone) passes my left, a car enters, a plane passes. Synchronicity. I pause to recalibrate. What other sounds are alive in this place? The ‘Oi!’ breaks in again and the man, passing to my left on his phone, scuffs the gravel, a loose piece rolling and jumping along. The sun has shifted, I’m in shadow. Everything cools down, falls into rhythm. A gentle passing though, a constant movement. Doors close, buildings rise, people pass by. Up and down, the lift. Movement within stillness.
* * *
Written in a little over ten minutes while perched on a stool in the middle of Whitechapel High Street NCP car park, this fieldnote was an attempt to record the sonic environment using my body, a notebook and pen. At the same time, nine field recordists were making audio recordings using a selection of devices from static points around the site. Together, we were listening to the sounds of the city, engaging our ears in what composer and sound artist Sam Auinger describes as a ‘hearing perspective’. Known for his large-scale public sound installations that transform city noise into spaces that encourage connection to our environment and our community through hearing, Auinger was leading the exercise as part of Field Studies, an annual four-day masterclass led by acclaimed international artists and composers, complemented by a programme of workshops, evening lectures, screenings and performances, and organised by Joseph Kohlmaier at Musarc/The Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University.
Originally conceived as a field-recording course, Field Studies is an opportunity to learn how sound can be recorded; how hearing affects the way we perceive place and space; and how ‘sound’ can operate as a paradigm and starting point in creative practice and discourse. The ‘cours de poetique’, a title adopted from a short essay by Paul Valéry, invited a group of strangers to form an ‘ensemble’ and develop a performance based on a common sense of purpose. I had decided to get back to basics and make a different sort of recording. Taking inspiration from George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a sociological survey of ‘the rest’ made one overcast weekend in October 1974, I attempted not to look at, but to listen to, the infraordinary and everyday elements of place.
Scouting the site for recording spots, the group discussed the difficulties of listening presented by the site – the overwhelming street, the muffled corner, the exposed thoroughfare. Listening, wherever, was going to be hard work. The impossibility of the task – of writing at the speed of hearing, of finding words to articulate sounds, and of attending to everything in a moment, hit home when I noticed, too late, that a car had at some unknown time parked directly in front of me – a moment I shared with Perec, who noted: ‘(Obvious limits to such an undertaking: even when my only goal is just to observe, I don’t see what takes place a few meters from me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking)’ (Perec 2010, 15).
Stretching my ears and attending to the sounds of everyday life that are annoying, unbearable, or that otherwise go unnoticed, the city opened up around me. There is so much that we don’t ordinarily want to hear, as Les Back writes, ‘Our ears become soundproofed, double-glazed like our homes to keep out the noise of the city’ (2010, 34), yet listening intently brought the city to life in new ways, disclosing a world in a state of perpetual transition.
Writing about artist Janet Cardiff’s audio-walk through the surrounding areas of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, for example, David Pinder notes how the scaffolding and hoardings of construction sites ‘accentuate the feeling of the impermanence of the landscape as well as being indicative more specifically of the transformations affecting parts of Spitalfields through gentrification, the expansion of City of London financial institutions, and flows of people and capital’ (Pinder 2001, 8-9).
Listening to the site in the company of nine field recordists also brought to attention the ways in which sound reflects, reverberates, is amplified and absorbed through the materiality of the world. The NCP poster pasted on the wall at the car park entrance stated this was ‘more than just a car park’. That day, it was a sounding of what Joseph Kohlmaier describes as ‘the thoughtless industrial sound design that we, as urban dwellers, have accepted as inevitable.’ He writes, ‘All infrastructure is designed. Our ears were simply not part of the design brief’ (2011, 67).
Listening to the city, then, highlights an urgent need not simply to close our ears, but to establish a culture of listening in architecture and urban design, and to rethink the ways in which sound can be harnessed.
With special thanks to Sam Auinger and field recordists Annemarie Borg, Lizzie Cackett, Jerry Fleming, Iain Hetherington, Mint Loader, Ian Macpherson, Rachael Melanson, Edward Owusu, Ed Pond, and Martyna Poznańska.
Back, L. (2010) ‘The Listeners’, New Humanist. http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/2346/the-listeners.
Kohlmaier, J. (2011) ‘Sonus loci: The mediumship of sound in architecture’, Sound@Media.
Perec, G. (2010) An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Cambridge MA, Wakefield Press.
Pinder, D. (2001) ‘Ghostly footsteps: voices, memories and walks in the city’, Ecumene, 8, 1, 1-19.