Ricciarda Belgiojoso about Urban Soundscapes
In the context of the URBACT Capitalisation process 2012 last November I organised a two days seminar in Milan in which the manifold aspects of urban policies to improve energy efficiency in the built environment were presented and discussed. Experts with technical background (engineers, architects, planners), from the public administration, university, research, finance and economy were involved and last, but not least Ricciarda Belgiojoso brought a very interesting contribution about art practices creating urban soundscapes, something I was absolutely not aware of. Here is the abstract of her presentation with some pictures, references and links where you can even listen to the soundscapes.
This paper would like to draw your attention to a matter that regards us all, every day: the sound of the urban environment. We are used to looking around us, we are less used to listening to what happens around us. And yet, the noises we produce reveal our way of life, and learning to master them is a necessity.
Noise policies in the European Union generally ask for protective actions and noise reduction measures, indicating the levels of the maximum possible intensity of noises produced by road-traffic and airplanes, and asking for silent areas. But in the last years a new and more complex approach to the matter has been devepoled: we consider the quality of noises more than their quantity in decibels. We evaluate the effects of noises on our life and we prefer thinking about managing noises instead of simply reducing them. Noise may be useful and necessary, it may qualify, as well as disqualify, a built environment.
The first researches about this topic were made in the 70s by R. Murray Schafer, composer who started a series of studies on the acoustics of the environment formulating the concept of soundscape and defining a Sound Design procedure for correcting, improving and tuning the environment . A soundscape (from sound and landscape) is an acoustic field of study, such as a music work, a radio program or an acoustic environment.
The final question will be: is the soundscape of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control, or are we its composers and performers, responsible for giving it form and beauty?
Murray Schafer created an interdisciplinary research field focused on the effects of soundscape on people. This was the first step in an intriguing investigation, open to extra-musical contributions, on the relationship between us and our aural environment. Schafer’s studies regarded physical and medico-social analysis of acoustic phenomena in post-industrial society, and considerations about the impact of these phenomena on man’s physiology. There are now various centers of research all over the world dedicated to this topic. Common aim is to respect and improve the relation between man and the built environment.
Architects should be able to master the fundamentals of acoustics and psycho-acoustics, such as the propagation of sound waves and their reaction depending on the shape and materials of the obstacles they encounter. If a room where speech must be clearly heard is required, the architect will proceed in a certain fashion; if, on the contrary, the requirement is for a dull or richly resonant room, the architect will proceed in a different fashion.
Reasoning about mastering noise, instead of reducing it, is necessary to conceive buildings in function of their aural properties. To obtain the necessary acoustic conditions for an appropriate usage of space, the fundaments of acoustics, such as propagation, reflection, diffraction, absorption and reverberation of sound, must be applied consciously in designing the dimension, the shape and the materials of buildings. Regular forms for example reinforce sound reflection, while indented forms accentuate the phenomenon of diffraction and diffuse sound in different directions. Stone, metal, wood, etc. must be chosen on the basis of the desired phonic consequences. Tall and thick trees over 7 meters wide may reduce sounds up to 4 dB, while groups of trees between 15 and 40 meters deep may reduce them up to 12 dB.
While in noise control sound is seen as a cause of human discomfort, the soundscape approach considers the acoustic environment as a resource. Rather than focusing on unwanted sounds, it concerns sounds people desire. The fact a sound is desired or not largely depends on the context, but generally people prefer sounds such as moving water, sounds of nature like birds, animals, wind blowing in the trees, and sounds of people like voices singing and laughing and footsteps.
Acoustic environments in outdoor places consist of sounds produced by different sources. In a pleasant acoustic environment preferred sound will be dominant. In acoustic design terms, instead of specifying the level of dB sounds should not overcome, we should rather be sure that wanted sounds are not masked by unwanted sounds. Acoustic objectives should consider accepted sounds in a specific place (e.g., moving water, nature, speech, music, church bells), unwanted sounds (e.g., not be able to hear the traffic noise), and the extent of masking required (e.g., complete or partial masking).
For designing soundscapes, we may find interesting ideas in experimentations made by artists and musicians, that in the last decades have been interested in interpreting urban spaces.
For example Times Square by Max Neuhaus (1939-2009), a representative example of his Place Works, emerges from a pedestrian isle in New York in the middle of Times Square, between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. This is probably the most public space worldwide, accessible twenty-four hours a day. A large speaker is placed below the tube’s grids, and sounds pass through. Neuhaus inserts in the crossroad a mass of sound, invisible and intangible, and radically transforms the environment. The installation is not simply reproducing sounds, it consists in a process generating sound and producing events. It dialogues with people passing by, altering their perception of the surroundings.
Sound Island, by Bill Fontana (1947), installed in 1994 in Paris, connected the sounds of the sea in Normandy to the Arc de Triomphe, broadcasting them live through forty-eight loudspeakers hidden in the façade of the monument. The sound of the ocean waves breaking against the coast was heard in one of the most noisy and visited sites in the world, constantly surrounded by an abundant traffic flux. The breaking of the ocean waves provoked a particular acoustic effect, masking the traffic noise and estranging people from the real context. Cars circling around seemed silent. A strong tension between the urban real context and the new soundscape was created.
Since 1990 sound artists O+A (Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger) have been working on sounds of the urban environment altering them with mechanical devices and making music out of them. In 1991 they conceived Traffic Mantra, at the Fori Traianei in Rome. Impressed by the resonance effect of roman amphoras, they decided to work on the antique vases found on place to create their installation. The traffic noise resounded in the amphoras and was filtered, amplified and re-diffused on place, superposing to the existing soundscape an intoned version of it. Low and high frequencies of busses, cars and motorbike engines activated the amphoras, creating a weird atmosphere made of harmonic sounds changing continuously.
In 2005 in Zara (Croazia) Nikola Basic created a sea organ along a promenade 70 m long, on a staircase facing the sea. The moving water inside the tubes presses the air columns in 35 pipes emanating sounds through a series of holes along the scalinade. The pipes are tuned to chord tones according to the local musical tradition. The result is a very pleasant urban musical attraction for people walking on the pier.
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Zhang and Kang, Jian, “Towards the evaluation, description, and creation of soundscapes in urban open spaces”, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 34, 6886. 2007.
 R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the world. New York: Knopf, 1977.
 Ibid., p.5
 Cfr. Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
 Cfr. Jan Kang, Urban sound environment (Taylor & Francis: London, 2007)
 Zhang & Kang, 2007 Towards the evaluation, description, and creation of soundscapes in urban open spaces. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 34, 6886