Keynotes, Signals and Soundmarks

Today (Sunday 18th July) has been designated the first World Listening Day. An initiative of the World Listening Project it aims to ‘to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology.’

The date was chosen because it is the birthday of R Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer who founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in the late 1960s. His book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977) was a path-breaking attempt to create a vocabulary and analytical framework for thinking about – and listening to – the everyday sounds around us. He defined features of the soundscape such as the keynote (background sound, often emerging from the natural environment), the signal (foregound sound, designed to attract attention), and the soundmark (unique and of special significance to the community).

I found some fascinating observations here. I was particularly taken by the idea that the tonal centre of soundscapes dominated by the buzz and hum of electrical equipment varies according to the frequency adopted by the country in question (eg 60 Hz in North America, 50 Hz in Europe, ie. B natural or G sharp).

But his argument is so closely tied to a narrative of disappointment and decline (from rural idyll to urban alienation), Schafer comes across as a bit of a prematurely grumpy old man (the book was first published in his 40s) who is not prepared to appreciate the rich complexity of the sounds of the city.

There are some exceptions. For instance, he does seem to have succumbed to the romance of railroads. And he can’t quite bring himself to condemn the drone – a keynote of industrial soundscapes and yet valued by ancient musics and religions. But when he asks: ‘If we must be distracted ten or twenty times each day, why not by pleasant sounds? Why could not everyone choose his or her own telephone signal?’ – you doubt that he welcomed the ringtone revolution when it eventually came.

The project’s study of Vancouver was documented on a double LP released in 1973, and subsquently re-issued on CD entitled Soundscape Vancouver with addtional recordings made in the 1990s, allowing listeners to register changes in the city’s soundcape over the intervening twenty years.

While a concern to salvage sounds which are disappearing no doubt continues to motivate those engaged in soundscape research, many of them also have an ear for emergent sounds. Not just new sounds or new combinations of sounds that transform the soundscapes we inhabit but sounds which only become clearly audible through the use of new recording techniques. The Interpreting the Soundscape CD curated by Peter Cusack (and included in a special issue of Leonardo Music Journal) – which may serve as a useful introduction to more recent work – includes underwater recordings of the North Atlantic, amplfied insect sounds, and the electromagnetic signals emitted by security gates.

User-Generated Content

Such field recordings remain the province of specialists. But with the wider availability of portable recording equipment (built in to laptops and smartphones) and means of distribution (via email, phone messaging and online public repositories), people are capturing the sounds they hear around them more than ever before. Including myself, though I am fairly new to the game. Three online repositories I have used include:

  • The Freesound Project: field recordings make up a large part of this vast repository of user-contributed sounds. The recordings are often high-quality, you can add geo-tags, and with many uploads furnished with detailed descriptions and useful keywords it is easy – and fun – to search. If you want to listen to station announcements or an indoor badminton court or a hospital trolley or someone passing through immigration at O’Hare airport or (hell, why not) next-door neighbours having sex, this is the place to go. But the interface is forbidding and uploading files is not for the faint-hearted. Those who take online social networking for granted may find it annoying that you can’t flag recordings as ‘favourites’ or ‘share’ them with a single click, and there is no embedded player.
  • SoundCloud: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material uploaded to this site which is dominated by music, but try browsing (moderated) groups such as Binaural Recording or Field Recordings. The quality of recordings is high, you can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ tracks easily, and a mobile app allows you to listen (but not upload files) away from your computer.
  • Audioboo: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material submitted here and searches for those tagged ‘fieldrecording’ yield only a handful. You can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ and geo-tag boos easily. With its mobile app you can upload recordings made on smartphones, which seem to form the vast majority and are consequently of low sound quality, and most of them resemble voicemail messages left by mistake. But I do like this bumble-bee and this sumptuous aural panorama from a Tokyo rooftop.

If Freesound is the best place to search for recordings, SoundCloud is probably the best way to share them, and if you have an iPhone (preferably with a third-party attachment that will allow you to use a decent microphone) and want to share some audio immediately, then Audioboo is essential. I have not used SoundTransit or ipadio. The London Sound Survey has made a useful comparison of all these services.

While these repositories are not much more than searchable databases, they do offer ways of easily finding sounds related to a common location or theme, through the use of tags and keywords or (more formally) by creating ‘sample packs’ (Freesound) or user groups (SoundCloud).

But field recordings are often made for (or made use of by) specific projects, which give rise to a more systematic presentation of material. For example, they might be a contribution to a sound map, or document a soundwalk, or form part of a series of sonic postcards.

Sound Maps

A sound map may be something you draw yourself, as a way of focusing your attention on what you can hear around you, following these guidelines, for example.

But sound maps may also be collaborative projects in which users are invited to submit recordings tagged with the location in which they were made, and which are then linked to an online map. Typically, these projects are city-focused, such as those for Barcelona (uses Freesound), the Basque CountryLondonMadridMontrealSeoul (uses Audioboo) and Vienna (uses Audioboo). Soundcities is wider-ranging, as the name suggests, but many clips are very short.

More ambitious and systematic is the British Library’s UK Sound Map(uses Audioboo), currently restricted to the Sheffield area, but with plans to extend across the whole country later this year. Dizzying in its global scope (and randomness) is the Radio Aporee: Maps project, which has made a special appealfor contributions of recordings made today so as to create a mosaic of audio snapshots for World Listening Day.

There are other location-based showcases of field recordings that (so far) have not linked them to online maps, although this would seem to be an obvious development. For example the various ‘favourite sounds’ projects in LondonChicagoBeijing and elsewhere. Or the fascinating collection in Mexico’s Archivo Sonoro (like this recording made in Viveros metro station, Mexico City).


What is a soundwalk?

The soundwalk is a practice of focused listening in which one moves through an environment with complete attention to sound. Any environment, at any time of day or night, can provide space for soundwalking. Sometimes the walks are guided by a written or verbal instruction (a “score”) and sometimes not. The participants may walk blindfolded, or stand still, or move in response to the soundfield. Sometimes the walker activates the soundscape – “playing along” with the sounds – using the voice, musical instruments or objects encountered along the way. On occasion the walks are recorded and other times they are simply free form ambles through sound filled places. The walks are usually followed by an informal conversation about the experience.

This definition is provided by City in a Soundwalk which invites people to follow its suggestions for soundwalks in New York City or offer proposals for more.

There are useful guidelines for undertaking a sound walk on the Urban Sound Ecology website which hosts recordings of such walks in Toronto and plots them on city maps, as part of its ‘research initiative dedicated to exploring, examining, and understanding the sonic spaces of Canadian cities.’ They are now also working on a Vancouver map.

For more general reflections on the subject, the new Soundwalking Interactionswebsite may be worth keeping an eye on.

Soundwalks are usually local initiatives that are not widely publicized, but many are being organized for World Listening Day (follow this comment thread for more details).

And I’m not sure they need to be always on foot. A simlar spirit informs the annual invitation to complete a circuit of Birmingham (England)’s circular No 11 bus route and document the experience.

Sonic Postcards

Sonic Postcards is the name of an education project in the UK pioneered by Sonic Arts Network (now part of Sound and Music). Its aim is ‘to encourage pupils to engage with their sound environment and be creative with ICT.’ The website showcases the results of each school project (usually with several postcards from different pupils) and includes the results of exchanges with schools in China, Switzerland and Catalonia.

But sonic postcards would be a good name for any short recordings, often produced in a series over a period, but not tied (as most contributions to sound maps or documentations of soundwalks are) to capturing the sounds of public places. They might be more interested in sounds of more personal significance – to the individual or community who heard or made them – and exhibit a kind of intimacy that the other forms of presentation lack. Freed from what can sometimes be a curse of trying to be ‘representative’ of a place, they are more likely to give us sounds which are interesting for their own sake.

For this reason, I enjoy Headphone Commute’s sound postcards, which often have tiny stories attached to them, such as the one featuring a busking violinist at Grand Central Station or the close-up of a dog… drinking.

And while these postcards are issued on a seemingly ad hoc basis, there are other similar series which gain impetus from self-imposed rules, such as Taylor Deupree’s 2009 project, One Sound Each Day (with recordings, for example, of him making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in July or misting the houseplants in December).

Or the One-Minute Vacations created by the quiet american. Try out some ‘voodoo ice cream’ in Benin and then join the football crowd in the San Siro stadium in Milan (from Year Five).

Happy World Listening Day!

Retweeting Retrouvé

estragon: What did we do yesterday?

vladimir RT @estragon: What did we do yesterday?

Evan Williams has posted this response to criticisms of the experimental retweeting feature on the Twitter website.

Citing other people’s tweets is as old as Twitter itself and takes many different forms. The new feature is an attempt to provide an alternative to this well-established ‘organic retweeting’ that is easier to use and and that avoids some of the problems associated with it. These include attribution confusion, noisiness, untrackability, redundancy, and the fact that the results are often ‘mangled and messy.’

To me, this doesn’t sound like a case for an optional alternative to organic retweeting but a rather nervous moral condemnation of it. Of all the problems, it seems as if those relating to attribution are fundamental. The post seems particularly concerned that people can be made to say things they didn’t and that things they do say can easily be misread as someone else’s. In other words, the ‘mentions’ in retweeting – the references to the original author’s username (or authors’ usernames if one is retweeting a retweet) – are often inaccurate or misleading.

I think this misses some important aspects of how retweeting actually works. What if we thought of retweeting not as a threat to the integrity of a tweet but rather a creative practice that adds value to it? Consider this fictional example:

hamish Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

A straight retweet, we might say. But, as the patron saint of retweeters would no doubt remind us, there is no such thing. Tyrone takes this joke from Hamish’s timeline and copies it into his own, giving it a different meaning in a new context. And a meaning that will change as Tyrone follows it with more tweets – or retweets – of his own. Tyrone may be inserting the joke in a series of tweets on a related topic (say, the trials and tribulations of hiring an outfit for a friend’s wedding or amusing photos of his recent Scottish holiday). Perhaps Hamish is one of Tyrone’s followers, and offered the joke as an implicit invitation to retweet it, given its relevance to the subject currently absorbing him. Alternatively, it may serve to purposely lower the tone after a number of what Tyrone fears might have been overly serious or pretentious updates. Or mark the end of a light-hearted sequence before turning to weightier matters. Or Tyrone might be one of those who fires off seemingly random tweets on a wide range of subjects at regular intervals without rhyme or reason.

Furthermore, retweeting is not always an endorsement or appreciation of the original. In this case, Tyrone may be prompted by a desire to share a good joke. But he may wish to remind us of a particularly bad one. In other words, one can retweet ironically – though the irony may be lost on those who don’t follow Tyrone closely. So the retweeter is always – intentionally or not – always adding something even when quoting verbatim. And for that, the ‘original’ author cannot take all the credit. Even when they are the ‘original’ author – which, in this case, Hamish certainly isn’t. Indeed the joke is an old one, and frequently attributed to Spike Milligan.

So when Tyrone credits Hamish, is this confusing? No, because the mentions in retweets are acknowledgements rather than attributions. The difference is important. For something is worth retweeting regardless of who wrote it first. Retweets are not usually intended as (or taken to be) representations of the retweeted, who are often not known to those reading the timeline in which they occur – although they may lead the reader to check out their profile and even follow them. Tyrone makes Hamish’s tweet – however briefly – his own. And immediately makes it available for retweeting again. For this creative quoting and requoting, the @hamish is a nod recommended by etiquette. It should not be expected to meet the standards of a citation required in a research paper.

I would emphasize this is true even when the retweet is verbatim. But, of course, a retweeter may abridge, annotate, paraphrase, tag or otherwise transform the original:

tyrone I’d forgotten this – RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! LOL

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? No, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? No, your holiness, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! #worldsworstjokes

Abridgements and minor corrections are usually made silently, but annotations and interpolations and additions are more likely to be clearly identified. So the last one might be more fairly retweeted as follows:

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! >> #worldsworstjokes

tyrone Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! #worldsworstjokes (sorry @hamish!)

These often add value to the ‘original’ even if not always appreciated by the first author. And this is complicated by the fact that tweets are themselves compounds and which part of the tweet is supposed to bear the weight of the retweet is significant. For instance, imagine the first tweet came with a link, thus:

hamish Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order:

Now this link is to a video clip. One would not be surprised to find it to be a clip in which the joke appears or (as here) in the brief description provided by the person who uploaded it. It could be that the body-text of the tweet serves here as a caption for the clip, encouraging more to click on it (than would if the tweet had consisted only of the link). But equally the clip may have been added almost as an afterthought, as a kind of illustration of the joke.

Tyrone may retweet primarily in order to draw attention to the clip and, not impressed with the joke, may share only the link:

tyrone: RT @hamish:

Or supply new accompanying text of his own:

tyrone: RT @hamish: The Tartan Terrors are amazing:

Alternatively, not impressed by the clip, he may choose to share only the joke:

tyrone: RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

Or add a different link:

tyrone: RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order:

Sometimes the changes may warrant a more relaxed via @hamish rather than the more formal RT @hamish. But it is not often clear when to prefer one over the other. There is no obvious marker on what is a continuum of creative borrowing. The finely-tuned aphorism or critical judgement must often be extracted from a longer or less elegant tweet before it is retweeted.

Williams speaks up for those who struggle with what he calls the extra ‘mental parsing’ that is needed to compensate for the scandalous reappropriation of a tweet by a retweeter. The same people, perhaps, who are disturbed when their carefully-chosen friends pervert their own timelines by quoting the words of others. ‘The perfect Twitter would show you only the stuff you care about,’ he writes.

Even if the idea of the ‘perfect Twitter’ weren’t highly dubious, I would hope it would also show me stuff that I didn’t know I cared about, stuff that I never thought I would care about, stuff that I don’t care about but which, unexpectedly, against all odds, move or intrigue me. And what’s why I prefer my Twitter noisy, mangled and messy.