geografies of sound

Interview  with Kathrin Wildner on sound as a method in urban anthropology by Hendrikje Alpermann and Simone Ranocchiari  for ASG   – Verband Geographie Schweiz 2022/1.

„The city is diverse and diversity is loud“. 


HA: What is your approach to urban sound?

KW: To make a long story short, for me sound is one of multiple research methods. As an urban anthropologist I am very interested in qualitative methods, in multicentred approaches. Sound is for me is a very good instrument to learn about the city. I very often start with a very broad question, like „What is the sound of the city?“ or „What is the sound of a certain place?“, as we did in Lausanne around Le Flon. There are different tools to do research with sound, there are soundwalks – you just walk and listen, use your ears. Then there is the possibility to talk about sound, ask people to talk about their sonic associations with certain urban environments, their acoustic memories. Another possibility would be to work with urban sound archives. And sometimes it can be very interesting to extend the research beyond soundscapes, and to think about produced music, maybe like songs about a certain neighbourhood or certain places. Finally, it can be really exciting to discuss sound which is produced in order to create certain urban atmospheres. Sometimes, it is a way to ‘label’ certain places with symbolic sounds. In Lausanne for example, there are different sounds for different metro stops. One has the sounds of horses, if I remember correctly. Beyond labelling, sounds could also be an inclusive tool to make the city more accessible, maybe for people who can’t see. These are different approaches to be used in urban sound research.

How did you start using sound as an entrance to explore the city?

I was always very interested in challenging qualitative methodologies as well as in interdisciplinary and artistic approaches. A friend of mine, Jens Röhm, a musician, composer, and sound engineer for films, was working a lot with soundscapes. Through him, I learnt about the Vancouver World Soundscape Project from the 1970s which worked on urban soundscapes. Walking through the city with Jens, he would make me listen to the sound of the urban. Quite some years ago we were invited to an artistic project in Lüneburg, to be part of an interdisciplinary project on the perception of space and urban interventions. I used mental maps to collect drawings of how people perceive the space and orientate in the city.  Jens, on his side, was listening to the city and did sound recordings.  We combined our material in a lecture performance and from there, we started working together. A bit later, I was invited to do research on public places in Cologne. The question was about the everyday situation of urban places and the role of public art in public space. I invited Jens to join me, so we could work with sound to understand the architectural and material conditions of these spaces, by whom they are used and what kind of conflicts might be there. I did soundwalks and he did recordings using different microphones and devices to map the places. From this point, I started to include sound in a portfolio of research methods. 

Do you also take sound back to the city?

No, not in the sense like Dragos or maybe sound engineers would work. For me sound is primarily a research tool. It’s about listening to the soundscape of the city and talking about acoustic perception. But sometimes, like two years ago in a project in Marseille, I did some recordings of soundscapes. As I don’t have a professional equipment, it’s more like taking notes, recording sound fragments, as sketchy recordings. And I did use these recordings in interviews. Maybe you know this qualitative method of photo-interviews, you make people talk about photos as part of an interview. I would play certain sounds and ask: ‚What do you hear? What is your idea about this sound?‘. I did use listening as a tool in the research process.

As the project in Marseille was a research and an art project, I was working with the sound artist Katharina Pelosi. Together we listened to my recordings of interviews, soundscapes and fragments and she composed an audio-piece with this material. This composition was presented in an art exhibition. So, in a way it was taken back to the city in an art context and as part of a public radio show. Another example might be a project I did with some students. We did an audio guide about gentrification processes in a certain neighbourhood of Hamburg, combining interview fragments, descriptions of certain architectures and sounds of the environment. This again happened in the context of an exhibition; people could borrow headphones and MP3 player and walk to the city listening to this audio guide. This might be a way to take the sound back to the city.

What do you think about the future of urban sound? How will it change, or how much has it already changed?

The future of urban sound or what might be the sound of the future city? Thinking about sound and time, it is also very interesting looking back to historic sounds. I think cities at the beginning of the 20th century were much louder than today. Nowadays, it’s this kind of random noise; the static noise of traffic is intense. But in former times, cities were a lot denser, more crowded, more mechanical devices like horns, steam engines, more rattling and clanking. You can imagine urban areas with cobblestone for example, wooden wheels of horse buggies and carriages passing by. I think at that time cities were very intense. Today, cities are quieter but still people complain a lot about loudness; there are complaints about trolley suitcases because they are so loud. I think we got very sensitive concerning loudness even without addressing urban sound issues very much. People in the city want calmness: it should be calm, silent, and quiet. Sound leads to urban segregation. The poor neighbourhoods are the loudest. Sometimes they are close to highways or industries. And people who can afford it, live in more quiet neighbourhoods. Nobody wants to live close to a factory, to a noisy place. Sound is a topic of social segregation and environmental racism. The idea of making cities calmer, less noisy, I think it is a kind of anti-urban idea. Urbanity consists of diversity; a city is many people and activities. It is dense. To silence a city is a way of controlling it, and to segregate it.

Well, you asked about the future of urban sound. When I think of future cities, I think in a way they will be quieter, more controlled. Certainly, it is a good thing to remove all the noise of traffic. But electric cars are a danger too; we can’t hear them. Sound designers have to invent new sounds for electric cars. There will be new soundscapes of electronic and technical sounds, more beeping and buzzing. Like every mobile phone and every door of a car has its own invented sound. Theses sounds are designed with a purpose, a certain idea of the object and its use. To design sounds for consumer goods is a profession, so there might be sound designers for the city.

But there is another scenario for the sound of the future city as well: it might be very loud. Two weeks ago, I was in a symposium on the future city called ‘The Decolonised City‘. I started to think about the sound of a decolonised city. I think there would be a lot of very diverse languages. Nowadays, where do you hear a lot of different languages? At the symposium people would talk about their urban experiences. For example, in Istanbul if you talk Kurdish in the streets, you might have a problem; you may not talk in your language. Another person remembered that she was harassed because she was talking Polish to her son in the streets of Berlin and was asked why she would not talk German to the boy. In the future (decolonized) city, I think it would be a cacophony of a lot of languages. And I think it might be very loud and noisy, the opposite of quite and controlled. Maybe it’s not so comfortable; we will need to focus and to be curious at the same time. I think life in the future city (in a multiple, diverse, post migratory sense) will need a lot of attention and openness to respect a diversity of sounds, languages, habits, people and so on. The future city might be a spatial texture of multiple sounds, silences, and rhythms. I am very curious to do research on the sound of the future city.

How could sound practitioners and sound researchers collaborate? 

I think it would be interesting to think about a sound design for a certain space. A first question would be: What is the purpose of the sound? Would it help people to orientate? Could we make the city more accessible or make people listen to each other? What kind of sound would that be? In a way like ‘muzak’, the music composed for airports, warehouses, and consumer areas, to make you feel easy and happy to consume. But we might imagine and design sounds that do not animate people to consume, to be calmed or silenced, but to make places more inclusive, make people listen to each other and to the environment. I would like to work on these questions with a sound designer.