Acoustic Cartography: Performing the Map

By Andreas Kahre


“As for Acoustic cartography, I would make the —perhaps somewhat provocative— assertion that it is not possible.”

- Barry Truax, Acoustic Cartography Event, Western Front, April 2011


Barry Truax’s remark may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it points to one of the most interesting aspects of a project that brings together not only different disciplines, but truly different modes of perceiving the world, and of sharing those perceptions. From an acoustic ecologist’s position, Truax was stating the obvious, but in the context of a culture in which mapmaking has a long history of describing, and thereby entrenching power relationships, his remark is a profound reminder of the inherent differences and assumptions that underlie both the terminology and the conceptual frameworks of the disciplines that were meeting in this project.

At a time when smartphones ‘dynamically’ update the list of a city’s most popular sushi restaurants every time someone’s tweet tips the balance, it is easy to overlook the difference, and to forget the implications of being on,— or off— the map. Culturally coded differences in behaviour sometimes illuminates this point: When Google Streetview began to photograph selected German cities, more than 100,000 people requested that their property should be visually obliterated from Google’s records, and instances where the software failed to remove all traces resulted in hundreds of lawsuits against Google.

Sound, Truax reminds us, cannot be fixed, either spatially, or in time, except in terms of range and periodicity—and most importantly perhaps, it resists representation. Sound is not an object, but a relationship, while the map, as a visual representation of a contested space, is an instrument of power; the speed at which it is updated indicates the pace at which mechanism of surveillance function, but it represents objects, even if it tracks individuals—as in the systems that use cellphone signatures in malls to analyze shopping behaviour. The term acoustic cartography implies an operation that cannot actually be performed, any more than a picture of a set of footprints and arrows actually represents what is to dance the Tango.

The Event

On April 7, 2011, DB Boyko, Curator of the Western Front’s New Music Program introduced participants and panelists, including Gerry Pratt, a faculty member of the Urban Geography Department at the University of British Columbia, Composer and Teacher Barry Truax, of the Communications Department at Simon Fraser University, and Greg J. Smith, the co-creator of the Urban Sound Ecology on-line acoustic mapping project. Some eighty students, artists, and community members were attending the event, which gave Boyko reason to express her delight that projects involving sound mapping continue to generate. As an example, she cited her experience of working with the city of Mississauge to establish an office of Arts and Culture. One of the projects she undertook was a collaboration, on the occasion of the Fluxus-inspired ‘Art’s Birthday’, with Toronto-based New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) to create a sound map, which elicited more press coverage than any other cultural activity in the city that year.

Boyko acknowledged the seminal role of Simon Fraser University’s Department of Communications in creating the World Soundscape Project and CASE (The Canadian Association of Sound Ecology) and especially the contributions of R. Murray Schafer, Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax. DB then went on to introduce the panelists and to acknowledge the contribution of the project participants as well as the university course instructors, Liz Lee from the Department of Geography at UBC and Milena Droumeva from SFU’s School of Communication, and the team supervisors: Teresa Goff, an independent radio producer and journalist, Vincent Andrisani, a PhD student in Communications at SFU and Jennifer Schine, a Masters student also at SFU Communications. The project consisted of three teams: two from UBC, which included participants: Evan Landman, Henry Lebarde, Julie LeBlanc, and Nathan Corbo as Team One, and Imogen Thompson, Eva Tong, and Hannah Epperson as Team Two  Team Three participants from SFU included: Nicole Gilley, Jakob Lijenwall, Jeremy Mamisao, Wendy Li Ting Cheng, and Ash Hutchcroft. A final acknowledgement was given to Luke Pain and Brenda Grunau at CiTR Radio for generously offering the radio station’s recording studios to the students for their projects.

The Project

The Vancouver Acoustic Cartography project, a collaboration between the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, the Department of Human Geography at the University of British Columbia, and the Western Front’s New Music Program, grew out of the Urban Sound Ecology on-line project by Max Ritts and Greg J. Smith in Toronto that was integrated into Lee’s undergraduate geography methods course at UBC.

The goal of the project was to bring an interdisciplinary team of students together in exploring urban geography through sound, and to provide a platform for thinking about the acoustic dimension of urban space and modes of representation, based on a sensual engagement. Three teams of three to five students from two different undergraduate programs — Communications at SFU, and Human Geography at UBC — were invited to hypothesize and explore aspects of an acoustic geography in the city of Vancouver.

Students were asked to formulate a theme, to undertake soundwalks and recording sessions, and to create a sonic archive, that would be uploaded to the website, and relate to a city map which spatially located the walks in relation to Vancouver’s cartography. Ritts contextualized it as follows:

In the broadest sense, this project was envisioned as a way of getting students to think about how an acoustic politics of space is embedded in daily life – in seemingly banal exchanges, and movements, in surprisingly divergent degrees and intensities, and in ways that offer rich meditations on conditioned ways of being in the city. The idea was to facilitate an experiment — one that had goals but little in the way of a roadmap, since there was so little in the way of precedents.

To arrive at their focus or theme, the students were asked to draw from a combination of sources: relevant academic literatures, personal experience, urban explorations, and soundwalk exercises. They were expected to discuss different approaches, evaluate the difficulties of attempting specific explorations, and conduct empirical work.  Each team will use digital field recorders—simple MP3 recording devices like a Zoom H2 or Roland Edirol—to record walks and develop a sonic archive, uploaded to a special site page Greg had added to Urbansoundecology. As well, the students uploaded the successful soundwalks to a city map that would ‘geo-reference’ or spatially locate the walks to their city cartography. The idea here was to see how a geography of walks might emerge that would be suggestive of the theme being explored.

Any environment, at any time of day or night, could potentially provide space for these explorations. The students’ job was to critically assemble a series of soundwalks conveying the geographical reality of their particular theme. The goal with these walks would not be to spy on others or offer juicy narrative detail; but rather to find a way to let the spaces articulate themselves. To assist with technical details and to offer feedback, each team was assigned a soundwalk veteran – someone with personal experience about field-recording in an urban setting.

Team leaders, Goff, Schine and Andrisani helped familiarize the students with various aspects of the process: how to conduct soundwalks, how to discuss urban space in the acoustic register, and how to handle technical details relating to recording and editing software. The final aspect to the project would be to organize a selection of the soundwalks into a single ten minute acoustic composition befitting the theme in question.

Acoustic Geography: A Theoretical Framework

The interest in Acoustic Geography coincides with a shift toward reintegrating the senses that has informed the humanities over the past twenty years. In the case of Geography, this movement away from visual modes and toward a wider involvement of other senses has begun to include sound. As UBC faculty member Gerry Pratt points out, geographers have been aware of the World Soundscape project since the early 1980s and have been particularly interested in the ways in which acoustic ecology reflected several theoretical ideas that had been circulating the humanities and social sciences, as well as recent changes in the city itself.

One reason for this growing interest was that sound offered new tools to geographers in reaction to powerful critiques of vision and visuality; the argument being that vision, which is geographer’s normal mode, works at a distance, grasping through images such as maps, panoramas and aerial photographs, defining the world as “target”, and as such is tied up with hegemonic power relationships, supporting the territorializing impulse of nations states and imperialistic ventures. The critique of regimes of vision that began in the 80s and 90s got geographers interested in other senses, and in thinking beyond vision in order to know the world in different terms. Among the senses, touch along with smell, and particularly sound have become the most interesting sensory modes for urban geographers, since sound offers a way to the world that is less concerned with notions of mastery and offers a more embodied experience. Sound makes us —sometimes painfully—aware of our connectedness.

The ongoing critique of vision also focused on ways of representing space as an abstraction, and on representational strategies of commodified space, such as the ‘concept city’. In the 90s there emerged a desire to re-embody experience, to engage in sensual geographies, and to engage other senses in an effort to take what Nigel Thrift referred to as ‘dead dead geographies’, and bring them back to life. This urge to re-engage, re-embody, and to pay attention to performance aimed to capture what has been called the “push of life” and affect emotion. Geography began to rethink what it is to be human, and especially the permeability of the body, and became interested in the Deleuzian idea of focusing on connections rather than boundaries of the body.

The notion of sound, vibrating within the body, connected well with these ideas and notions of the body as molecules and intensities. It also connected to rethinking the agency of objects and to the fascination with liveliness that is captured in the notion of the re-enchantment of the world.

A second strand that pushed geography toward sound and listening arose from the idea that the urban environment is transforming in ways which are articulated through soundscapes, and are related to changes in technology. While there has been a long history of thinking about the modern city as an assault on the senses, which has included the mapping of sound, or more specifically sound classified as ‘noise’, for more than a hundred years, approaches such as the World Soundscape Project began to draw attention to how the sounds of the city was changing, along with concern about a technological flattening of what we hear. At the same time, habituation has dulled sensitivity to some sounds that are so omnipresent in the acoustic environment that they are rarely even mentioned, such as the eternal flattened A that is the sound of 60 Cycle Alternating Current.

Other changes in the urban environment of interest to geographers related to sound included the privatization of soundscapes connected to mobile listening devices and personal audio, and the questions this raises in relation to changes in our engagement with public space, and its consequences for social and political life.

The other relates to the role of technology in creating what has been termed the ‘sentient city’ and the recognition that cities are not just planned according to ways in which we think of them, but that cities think us. This notion connects with geographers’ growing interest in the agency of objects, as well as questions relating to surveillant technologies which are increasingly built into cities and used purposefully while at the same time disappearing from view in the din of a ‘technological hum’.

These developments demand that we learn to listen in new ways, and have created an intense interest among geographers in working with artists in collaborations that open up new avenues of being attentive, of coding urban space in different ways, and finding new forms of approaching intensities and atmospheric undercurrents that engage us beyond the technological smooth space. New forms of mapping like the one in the Acoustic Geography project are therefore generating great interest and excitement among geographers.

A Geography of Sound

As composer and Acoustic Ecology pioneer Barry Truax points out, one of the projects key elements is its interdisciplinary approach to sound. As more and different disciplines become interested in sound, new and integrated models, such as landscape ecology and bioacoustics, begin to emerge, indicating a shift away from the fragmentation that has been typical of the study of sound.

The hope is that collaborations between academics and artists form part of a growing trend to bridge the gap between disciplines, and institutions. Examples of this trend include the attempt by acoustical engineers to standardize the definition of ‘soundscape’ internationally, and the European Union’s decision to adopt the term ‘soundscape’ in its official language, indicating a shift to an understanding that the soundscape is subject of perception, rather than an object. It remains to be seen whether European lawmakers have fully grasped the implications of this shift, and the consequences it may have for a redefinition of human rights as they conflict with the industrial-military complex of noise.

Interdisciplinary academics like Truax may be the bridge that helps connect these diverse approaches. Truax graduated from UBC, he went to Europe to study electronic and computer music, and then came to SFU in 1973 to work with R. Murray Schafer. He joined the World Soundscape Project, which was, at the time, and aside from the project by Tony Schwartz in New York in the 1950s, the first comprehensive, systematic study of a city soundscape, which was published in 1973 and updated in 1996.

From the early earwitness accounts and recordings, Truax began to develop a program in acoustic communication, which has in recent years involved a new generation of students. Several national and international organizations have sprung from the project, including the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, the Soundscape Journal, and a number of other resources that have grown around a community of ‘ear-minded’ people, demonstrating that interdisicplinary contributions are necessary to reintegrate our understanding of the world.

While these developments are encouraging, they are also likely to encounter inherent dichotomies. Truax points out, for example that acoustic cartography constitutes an impossibility — if one examined the underlying assumption that one could apply visual mapping to sounds, which is temporal and never fixed. It is possible to map ‘soundmarks’, i.e. sonic events marked by certain regularities (such as the 1967 BC Hydro horn, the 9pm gun, or constants such as air traffic, which appear fixed), but generally sounds cannot be ‘mapped’ as if they were fixed objects. It would be more accurate, in fact, to say sound itself maps the environment, since it is affected by any physical or social activity in the environment, thus creating an instantaneous map, which reflects and combines all aspects of environment. In other words, mapping sound is a form of mapping the process of mapping itself, both physically, and conceptually, in the process of selecting, recording and editing. Depending on the position of an observer, an acoustic map may not contain information about all the visual and tactile aspects, but will, ideally, provide an instantaneous impression of every audible activity, in all directions, at once.

As a map, sound always represents a specific moment in time, unless it is used to ‘surveil’ over time, for example in the work of Leonard Ericson in Chicago, who uses an array of live microphones which can be accessed online, to represent his neighbourhood in real time, or in the work of Bruce Davis who suggests that remote microphones function as the ‘reverse of radio’, allow sounds to come to the listener.

Sound mapping as practiced in the context of the project involves three main techniques. Truax describes them as follows:

1. Soundwalking
This involves the creation of ones own map, or even a composition, by intensively orienting oneself to listening to a space, either sitting quietly or moving. The latter creates a dynamic experience, in which the listener creates the map, becoming composer, performer and audience, all at once, in a process which is completely subjective and different from the way we normally listen in order to cope with the environment.

2. Recording
Referring to it as a “wonderful gift of the last 100 years”, Truax pointed to the a history of forty years of ‘longitudinal’ recording of Vancouver and its physical and acoustic transformation. Recording, like soundwalking, is highly subjective, requiring us to learn how to listen with a microphone, including the difference between recording with or without headphones. Recording is not an objective process, but highly interpretive, like photography, and less familiar compared to its visual counterpart, where techniques such as framing, depth of field and focus are well established. Recording also presents pitfalls related to attention span and listening habits influenced by media. Ambient recording is relatively lacking in excitement, and doesn’t convey how we normally listen in the context of a visual environment. Since we lack the ability to focus as much in listening as in visual perception, recording has to be more dynamic in order to communicate the qualities of a space, a part from the difficulties related to distortion, dynamic range, wind noise and other factors.

3. Soundscape Composition
A third technique is soundscape composition, which, asTruax commented, is what the works presented in the context of the project represented. They also represented instances of contesting approaches to soundscape composition:

The UBC project “Security and Comfort” constituted a good example of the moving microphone approach, which creates narrative, in this case one that shifted between corporate and public space, in the form of an archive of walks. Traversing a mostly urban soundscape, the piece communicated aspects of the locations it visited in a manner that conveyed a range of information about an urban, controlled space. Other examples of this approach, including the World Soundscape Project itself, involve mapping an entire day, using excerpts of each hour of a 24 hour period, to create a frame of ‘mapped’ time. The question of what constitutes ‘mapping’ — in other words whether a selection represents typical, or signature sounds, or whether such a map merely represents one specific day, remains open.

UBC’s second work, “Consumption Cultures”, on the Geography of Coffee Culture, was an example of a thematically driven work, in which language that reflected on the soundscape itself was disrupted by the actual sound of the space which included considerable background noise, acting as a distancing device as well as a record  of the environment’s acoustic signature. The work both recorded, represented and reflected on an acoustic environment, and on its creators’ concern with development and gentrification, even if one ‘subject’ remarked: “It’s all white noise to me”.

The third example from SFU, “Urban Water” was an abstract soundscape created from sources in Port Coquitlam, Burnaby Mountain, and East Vancouver, and was created by recording, processing and composing with the recorded sound material. It involved multiple layers of processed sound, scripted language, and a number of techniques commonly found in radio plays, or in acousmatic composition. While the students in this case did not use abstract sound per se, the theme itself created an abstract frame for the listener and presented the mapped space in a frame that included reflection on the experience of listening and the process of recording itself.

The final part of the event was a panel discussion with Barry Traux, Gerry Pratt, Greg J. Smith, Hannah Epperson, Natalie Corbo, and Jakob Lilljenwall. There was agreement among the participants that the project had been extremely productive and exciting, and constituted a key moment for the creation of a network of activities.