Zipp – česko-německé kulturní projekty /


Světy života /

Utopie moderny: Zlín /

Kafka /

1968|1989 /

Iniciativa německé Spolkové
kulturní nadace
Kulturstiftung des Bundes

Transforming City-Sounds
”The Favorite Sounds of Prague“ – a Radio Exploration of Everyday Acoustics

Autor Miloš Vojtěchovský

"For us, all that remained of the city were fleeting hints. Remains of peripheral paving overgrown by grass; corners where the village green infiltrated among the last blocks of the city that engulfed it; forgotten walls and chimneys of factories that had ceased producing anything long ago; overgrown buildings the city had rejected; jungle-like forests that had grown up around them; hedges and fences once delimiting land, but now jutting without reason into space. We didn't need the city itself for our great race – for us it remained as an invisible centre to which we paid homage – but at the same time we carelessly left it to its own devices.” (Jan Štolba, "Absent City")

The above fragment refers to a longer essay, which won the award of the Central European “Essay-It!” Contest in November 2007. The text opens with the “Psychogeographical Event”, we prepared (unaware of the existence of Guy Debord), together with Jan, in the early summer about 25 years ago: “The Cycle Race around Prague”. The event was meant as a gift and challenge for a group of kindred spirits. We hoped then to offer to spend some time together, to be outside, to visit unknown places and to follow a pre-selected route around 60 km in length, connecting the outskirts of the town, but consciously avoiding the center. The center with its guarded Castle, shabby National Museum, ridiculous National Theater, painful Philosophical Faculty, phony Art Academy, church towers, the heavy block of the Central Building of the Communist Government, the awful department stores, and its threatening howl of sirens of the yellow police cars. The unbeloved center was all of a sudden appearing in suprisingly beautiful hazy vistas, small in scale, and perceived from a safe distance. We saw the center from the high hills above the valley of the silver shining Vltava, lurking in between the shabby walls of a monstrous factory complex, looking like a sooty piece of a sentimental old postcard or calendar.

Noise, Round Trip and the Decentralized City

"Der Sang der Sirenen durchdrang alles, und die Leidenschaft der Verführten hätte mehr als Ketten und Mast gesprengt. Daran aber dachte Odysseus nicht, obwohl er davon vielleicht gehört hatte. Er vertraute vollständig der Handvoll Wachs und dem Gebinde Ketten und in unschuldiger Freude über seine Mittelchen fuhr er den Sirenen entgegen." (Franz Kafka, "Das Schweigen der Sirenen", Die Oktavhefte, 1917)

I remember that the marking of the route was more dramatic than the race itself. We spent several adventurous weeks looking in the maps, searching and designing the most unexpected route on the little roads, tracks and paths. The route led through suburban woodlands, fields, fringe areas, remnants of the working-class periphery and even wild ravines that nobody would actually consider to be part of the city. Still, from every point we could “sense” it; hear the spinning of its giant mechanism, the vibrating algorithm of its arduous pulsation.

Recently, when we were preparing, together with Peter Cusack, the ongoing project "The Favorite Sounds of Prague", I visited some of the places the bicycle route, marked by discreet yellow arrows, went. This time I was not paying attention to the visual morphology or fanciful beauty of those half-forgotten locations on the periphery. Many of them had “disappeared” anyway, replaced by awful settlements of “Nouveau riche”, the triumphal land-art of highways, or the ubiquitous shopping malls. While drifting around out there, I was figuring out how to capture the aural quality or specificity of the places that still remain. Is there some kind of “characteristic” soundscape, possible to allocate to certain districts as Libeň, Vysočany, Záběhlice, Smíchov, Radlice, Libuš, Nusle, and Hlubočepy? Is there a proper way to reveal the “real Prague” by means of sound recordings, to discover and transmit an unexpected facet of the Metropolis? The town which has undergone such rapid economic and urban transformation since the political changes in 1989? How to throw down the gauntlet against the banal expectation that Prague actually sounds just like any other town in central Europe, aside from the identity of its spoken language? The model was already there: "The Favorite London Sounds project".

As a sound-recordist and theorist with specific interest in the effect of voice, sound and music in public space, Peter Cusack started the "Favourite Sounds Project" in London in 1998. He collected the acoustic favourites of hundreds of Londoners (from Members of Parliament to students) and discovered very quickly that the perception of city-sounds goes much deeper, involves people’s memory and emotions to a great extent, and appears to be much more differentiated than one would expect, given the ubiquitous fog of globalized noise. The amazing variety of sounds that were suggested showed that the tiniest sound differences can become significant if they are within the pattern of someone’s daily life. And it was striking to find out, that, even with the ever increasing level of background noise in urban areas, we can still be sensitive to the smallest and most local sounds of everyday life. In a follow-up project, set in Beijing in 2005, Cusack was excited to find that fundamental changes of the city’s traffic, housing, population and economy, which are still taking place at phenomenal speed, were reflected in ambient sounds and the way people commented on them. Older unique sounds were about to disappear as newer, more globally familiar ones took their place. But at the moment the old and new co-existed. The project raised questions of a city’s sound identity, rapid changes in its soundscape, disappearing and new sounds, noise pollution problems and how they can be tackled, and creative approaches to the sound environment, have all been raised.

The Silence of the Sirens Revisited

So, when Peter Cusack and I set up "The Favorite Sounds of Prague," our starting point was to find out which sounds are considered “friendly” and “positive”, which places “sound good” to different people, either living in Prague or visiting. These statements on the aural environment should indicate the outlines of a reflection of an imaginary sounding Prague of 2008. Many of the answers to the questionnaire neglect noise and all sorts of sonic pollution. On the contrary, most of the respondents mention quiet, soft, intimate sounds (birds singing in the park, Sunday morning voices from a suburban yard, church bells, blowing of horns of the steam boats on the river and even rural sounds, such as horses trotting on the street at night). Those responses indicate that the preference of most people is going clearly to sounds which are easy to recognize, as if a person is paying attention to the aural space and is able to "turn down" the prevailing noise pollution of the city environment to perceive the softer sounds around them.

We presume that we are living in a perceptually complex environment “constructed” of a synesthesia of visual, aural, tactile, olfactory space. If we want to question the difference between aural and other sensual “channels”, focusing on sound, it turns out that sound is, in a way, rather “ethereal”, “virtual”, or “disembodied”, compared to the information of the other senses. Sounds penetrate space freely, sounds surround us like an aural cloud, lacking shape and bounds. And we are convicted to be under the influence of sound, as Kafka puts it metaphorically: "because the song of the Sirens was so persuasive, that those tempted by it "would have burst far stronger bonds than chains and masts." Sounds are at the same time highly socially determined, deeply rooted in subjectivity and individuality.

Coming back to the difference between noise, sound and field recording, it seems that noise or loud music can “transport” listeners into another aural space, ejecting them from social space into an imaginary, “musical space”. Barry Blesser notes that “loud music also suppresses the internal space of daydreams, overpowering the inner space of self-generated sounds and pictures. Loudness is a space transporter because you become functionally deaf to the immediate environment”. Most people living in the busy aural environment of the contemporary post-industrial city develop a psychological defense system that prevents disturbing and loud sonic attacks. Sometimes we try to switch off the ambient perceptual hearing system simply by listening continuously to loud music, or we wear headphones and other kinds of mobile sound reproduction devices. Loud sound is considered by some as one of the stimulants for the rapid tempo of living, a trigger for consumption of different kinds of drugs, alongside alcohol, fast food, or the abuse of image-flow leading to a feeling of sensual anesthesia.

The project "The Favorite Sounds of Prague" would like to challenge this indifference or aquired deafness towards the authentic natural sonic environment, so as to reclaim public attention for the aural “body” of Prague, simply by getting a group of people to walk open-eared through the city, capturing the sounds they consider worth documenting. In this way it is possible to increase our involvement in the cultural discourse and possibly even to develop a method for influencing the quality of public space.

Kafka’s Eavesdropping and Manifesto of Noise

The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination. (Luigi Russolo, "The Art of Noises", 1913)

If we browse history we see that noise pollution is not an entirely recent phenomenon. The texts of Franz Kafka, who lived in old Prague with its (from the point of view of today) likely nostalgic silence, bear witness to his almost neurotic sensitivity to his aural environment. When he was working Kafka seems to have been tortured even by very quiet noises, which penetratied the walls of his room from the street, or which came through the walls from his neighbors` lodgings. At the same time the Italian Futurists proclaimed in “Manifesto of Noise” the ambient sounds of machines and loud military music as a true expression of a modern technical and progressive society. According to French theoretician Jacques Attali, the art of noise is “only a spectacle of noise”. Attali’s criticism towards ambient music (and industrial genres of soundscapes) poses a fundamental challenge for contemporary sound art. Perhaps that is the reason that many artists who contextualize and interpret ambient sounds have abandoned urban space as a source of artistic material, and have turned to the “natural” landscape, or possibly shifted to abstract electronic ambient music styles.

Recordings of a “natural” wilderness environment could sometimes be appreciated as a higher style of a musical expression, in contradiction to the sound pollution of any industrial or postindustrial city of the 21st century. The sonic atmosphere of contemporary cities seems to the majority of its citizens rather diffuse, boring, standardized, and taken over by the ambience of machinery or commerce, traffic, and the mishmash or curtain of reproduced music. The tendency towards the “regression” of a sonic identity of a 21st century town, evolving towards the globalized urban sound of a metropolis, is considered by many as a real problem. Still, this symptom can perhaps be taken as an inspiring starting point for further reworking, appreciation and artistic apprehension.

Ambiences and Situations

On closer observation, urban soundscapes seems to be negative and disturbing only if we observe or listen to it from the point of a “universal surveillance ear”. Prague, like any other big city, offers - besides the “global hum” - a rich variety of different ambiences and locations, each specific to the exact place you stand and how are you able to hear it. The city appears then as a complex living organism, driven by changing scores of multiple sonic lines and niches. If listener is able to navigate or “browse” through them, they can select and perceive them carefully.

If a pedestrian moves out from a busy business street or a underground stairway to the river bank, entering the passages and parks, climbing up to the attics, roofs, and towers, and descending into the “guts” of the town, the musical cacophony of the city dissolves gradually into fine and evolving textures of sonic micro-narratives, images and compound interacting motifs. At night, when the traffic fades out, it is suddenly easy to detect the fabric of almost subliminal noises, hidden by day in the noise of airplanes, cars, trains, the honking of vehicles, etc.

When Peter Cusack came to Prague he was surprised by the sound of air-raid sirens which are taking place every month. This is rather unusual for someone coming from English and most European towns. Peter was very interested and surprised by the fact that you can approach the Railway so easily to listen to it. He noticed that trains are to be found more or less everywhere in Prague. He also noticed that there are many natural sounds in Prague which you wouldn’t guess existet if you didn’t pay attention to it. In fact, there may be more sounds of nature in Prague than in London. It seems that parks in Prague are wilder than London parks, and that the variety of different species could be higher. What about the other European towns? There is still not much comparative research on the phenomenology of the Everyday Acoustics available.

The further development of the "Prague Sounds" project depends on the dynamics of the team of participants, which has formed gradually. Each of them is going to scrutinize and document a specific “tuning” of the aural Prague: telling of the water and wind, the resonance of Prague bridges, the compression of sound walks, songs of the train and traffic system, the eavesdropping of soundscapes from the windows, the translating of the experience of a visually impaired person, and so forth.

We believe that sound artists are not the only ones competent to reconsider the city’s ambience as a tool and medium to describe, understand, change or improve the conditions of everyday life. We hope by means of the "Prague Sounds project" to foster the broader civic discussion about these issues and to encourage musicians, sociologists, politics, architects, or psychologists and laics to contribute.

"The Prague Sounds project" is set up as a project of artistic and interdisciplinary research: an attempt to assist to an outline of contemporary topology of the quickly transforming urban soundscape of one of the Central European city.

Peter Cusack works as a sound artist/recordist and musician with a special interest in environmental sound and acoustic ecology. As a senior lecturer in sound arts & design he teaches at the London College of Communication at the University of the Arts London. He initiated the "Your Favourite London Sound" project which aims at finding out what Londoners think of their city's soundscape.

Miloš Vojtĕchovský, born in 1955 in Prague, works as freelance writer and radio producer, curator, media theorist and lecturer for audiovisual studies at the Faculty of Film and Television at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). Co-founder of the free media art projects (2000-2003) and (since 2004).

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Tento text je k disposici pouze v angličtině.
Vyšel v sešitu transforming 68/89 v listopadu 2008.

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