Soundscapes in Maastricht

Maastricht provided a suitably quiet setting for an international workshop on ‘Soundscapes of the urban past’, which covered the behaviour of audition across different forms — radio, film, theatre, plus new audio phenomena like car stereos and audio museum guides — from a range of perspectives, including social history, history of technology, sociology, music, media and cultural studies, etc. The idea, with Karin Bijsterveld at the helm, was to bring together a group of about a dozen people to discuss the drafts for a volume of essays to be published next year. The result was a stimulating and congenial two days of focussed discussion, dialogue, conversation, and concentrated listening. (My own contribution, in the section on ‘Sonic Artefacts’, looks at the BBC Radio Ballads of 1957-1964, and the subsequent film versions by Philip Donnellan.) 

Getting to Maastricht, on the other hand, was an aural assault course. Coming from London, you have to change trains twice, transferring from the relatively quiet Eurostar to a rather noisier intercity express on a weekday afternoon with all its multilingual chatter, mobile phones and children’s squeaky hand-held games, ending up on a small local train just as the schoolkids are going home from school, equipped with mp3 players with miniature speakers, sharing a moment of audition (and doubtless later to file-share their favourites), expressing their fragile right to be themselves, like similar youth everywhere, by filling this little bit of public space with their own sounds regardless of everyone else. 

Participants mostly came from Holland, Germany and the UK, but there were also two Skype contributions from across the Atlantic. These worked pretty well, but it was completely in the spirit of the event that some slightly bizarre moments immediately became the subject of comment. Jonathan Sterne, joining us from McGill, remarked on the weird effect of the placement of the camera in our seminar room, which made the person speaking to him into a small figure at the bottom of a screen which was dominated by himself talking to us. Instead he asked for his interlocutor to move their seat so he could see them close-up and not himself — and then, not to look not off camera at the screen projecting his image, which was equally disconcerting. (His contribution to the proceedings was predictably thoughtful and lucid, a reflection on the key term, soundscape, which took us from R. Murray Schaeffer’s The Soundscape to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space.) 

The dislocation accidentally demonstrated here between point of view and point of audition was only one instance of many examples that came under interrogation of the instability involved in audition, and the uncertain ontological status of sound reproduction. Other cases depend not on disruption of the visual field but what happens in its absence, in the radio documentary, where the historical subject matter is particularly elusive because when discussing, for example, German radio documentary of the early period, from the 1920s and early 30s, or prewar radio documentary on the BBC, the artefact has to be imagined because no recordings of these programmes have survived. 

One way of doing this is to consider not only descriptions, reviews and reports, but also the construction of film soundtracks (always paying due attention to the characteristics of the technologies employed). Jasper Aalbers, for example, used film extracts to consider the portrayal of the soundscapes of Berlin and London, and it was a brilliant stroke to be presented with three different versions of Berlin Alexanderplatz (the 1931 film version by Phil Jutzi, the 1980 television serial version by Fassbinder, and a 2007 production of the radio play adaptation which Döblin himself made in 1930, soon after publication of the original novel, but which had not been made at the time). 

Andreas Fickers presented a particularly entertaining example: a ten-minute prewar American sponsored documentary about making radio plays, in which we saw a boy lying on his bed listening to a radio Western, which is first visualised for us in the form of a movie, but then cuts to the radio studio where it’s being performed, showing us both the actors at the microphones and the team of special effects people using all sorts of bizarre devices to make the gamut of sounds and noises which belong on the soundtrack of the western, from horses to gunshots. Impossible not to see this as a kind of episode of Monty Python avant la lettre, producing many guffaws, but also afterwards, more reflections on the role of imagination in radio. The question this left in my mind is about the source of these imaginings in our visually dominated culture, since the scenario of this little film invites the viewer to conjure up an imagined vision not of a known reality but its stereotypical movie visualisation.     

Karin had so arranged things that we watched this after dinner in the private dining room of a rather nice French restaurant. You might at this point, dear reader, be having certain thoughts about the lifestyle funded by European research grants, and while we were all duly appreciative, it was also highly appropriate to the hyper-modern world in which the playback of audio soundscapes migrates so easily into different kinds of environment than those for which they were originally designed (as Walter Benjamin had already noted back in the 1930s). So here, seated round a long table in the simulation of a nineteenth century dining room, we watched by means of DVD projection, a film intended for 16mm projection in American school classrooms of the time of the Great Depression. Which is also to say that if the American radio Western wasn’t an urban landscape as such, it nonetheless belongs the soundscape of the modern city in another sense of the word soundscape — the changing and mobile envelope of sound to which the modern city dweller is nowadays subject pretty much everywhere in the world.

In this perspective, the quietness of the well-appointed Maastricht streets reminded me of Garret Keizer’s argument, in his recent book  The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, that exposure to unwanted noise is inversely proportional to social privilege. Money buys you the means to travel in quiet (or choose your own ambient music). Elites can buy themselves (relative) silence in the shape of double-glazed apartments or country homes, and they work in quiet offices. The less priveleged are exposed to higher (and more physically damaging) noise levels in both the places where they work and where they live. The living soundscape, in other words, and the spatial distribution of noise, inscribes the structure of power and riches across society, and helps to explain the aesthetics of the mobile audio forms through which the kids in the train into Maastricht assert themselves. The problem, in short, is not only that noise annihilates silence, but that it also begets more noise.

My apologies to those not mentioned by name — all the contributions were stimulating and I learned a lot.















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