Tag Archives: music

City as Museum / City as Instrument: new possibilities for sound and the city

Image from Manchester's Sonic Meta-Ontology Project

Image from ‘Manchester’s Sonic Meta-Ontology’ Project


See end of article for details of Locative Audio event on 29th June.

It’s an exciting time to be a composer or sound artist. Innovations in and new connections between methodology, technology and creative practice are creating a host of new possibilities for the sonic exploration of experience. NOVARS, the Research Centre for Electro Acoustic Composition and Sound Art at the University of Manchester work at the cutting edge of this new territory. So what are these developments? To keep it simple here we will talk about two, both of which relate to space.

The first concerns the composition and performance of sound in relation to space. Composition tools and performance environments are becoming increasingly sophisticated through collaboration and feedback between composers, musicians, researchers and engineers. For example, virtual 3-dimensional environments and multi-speaker matrix diffusion sound systems mean that composers and sound artists are increasingly able to realise complex and immersive sound environments in concert halls, performance spaces and headphones.

A second key development, also space-related, arises from mobile phone technology and virtual geotagging.  Groups like Escoitar, who work at the fluid edge between art and technology – are developing mobile applications which can add a virtual and interactive layer of sound – a sonic annotation – to places and spaces. Escoitar’s NoTours application detects location (via GPS), which triggers the playing of audio files as the individual listener moves through space and enters specific location points.

Augmented Aurality Tour Map

Augmented Aurality Tour Map

cities@manchester have supported NOVARS’ work in the urban environment, which is brought together under the banner Locative Audio.  Last year NOVARS worked with Escoitar/NoTours on the experimental Manchester’s Sonic Meta-Ontology project. This research and composition project culminated in an augmented aurality tour of the city, open to the public. The project had a number of stages. The initial part was the composition of five sonic pieces in response to specific sites in the city, for example around China Town and a bus journey. These were then ‘tagged’ on to specific geo-locations in the city using the software. The outcome was a tour of Manchester along specific routes; participants were given a prepared smartphone and headphones and taken along these predefined routes.  As they moved through the city with the device in their pockets their GPS-tracked location automatically triggered the playing of sonic pieces in specific sites. It can be highly interactive as the audio files play in particular formulations depending on how the listener moves through space.

This mapping of sonic materials on to spatial environments has huge practical and creative potential. Ricardo Climent, project director and NOVARS co-director, explains:

“by ‘Augmenting the Aurality’ of a specific every-day location, composers can recover memories of a particular place, can produce sonic alternatives to repositories of visual information; and even attempt to forecast desired futures through sound”.

This short video featuring Ricardo and others involved in the project explains more.

This year Locative Audio focuses on the concept of ‘City as Museum/City as Instrument’. Culminating in an interactive audiogame showcase event on 29th June, researchers, composers, artists and practitioners have been invited to respond to:

  •  “The study of Cities from a sonic perspective” (e.g. using mobile technology and physical tours around the city), with
  • “The concert hall’, as an immersive interactive environment (often using physics-graphics-audio-game engines and virtual worlds) which can potentially connect with the former.

So if last year’s project brought composers and audiences out into the city, this year sees an attempt to link the city back to the concert hall.

Ricardo explains:

“with renewed support from cities@manchester the 2012 Locative Audio Project takes our exploration a step further by connecting the ‘Augmented Aurality City Tours’ with ‘The Concert Hall’. We are inviting a number of participants from the UK and abroad to share their creative thinking with us, combining Location-based Audio and Media with game-physics-audio engine technologies often found in the production of virtual environments and games”.

The profusion and diversity of these interactions between sound and technology can obscure a quite simple understanding, shared by many of the practitioners involved, of the value and potential of sound and sonic experience. One of the speakers at the upcoming Locative Audio event on 29th June, Roddy Hawkins, tells us why he thinks it is so important for understanding and experiencing cities:

“One way or another sound affects us all in the city. And yet we know remarkably little about how people engage with the sensory overload that is presented by the urban landscape. When you consider that over 50% of the world’s population now live in urban areas you very quickly begin to appreciate the enormity of the topic and the relevance of a critical and creative approach to the study of sound in that context. From product design to acoustic cocooning, sonic branding to noise pollution, the city is a complex space that both constructs and reflects the fragmented experience of the modern day city-dweller.

“What is particularly exciting about the topic is its relevance and impact beyond academia: in my experience, given the opportunity, most people have something to say on the way they experience sound in the city — as pleasure, escape, noise, information, warning. Understanding this experience is fundamental to the way we engage with the city as an idea. But there is something about the experience of the city which isn’t captured by academic discourse. It’s crucial, therefore, that its complexity is captured in as many ways as possible.

“‘City as Museum/City as Instrument’ is especially important because it reaches out through the medium we are exploring: sound. It brings together academics, sound artists, new technologies and listeners in a model of exchange that we need to build and sustain in the future. I’m really looking forward to the sonic journey promised by the forthcoming Locative Audio event; with GPS and game audio technologies, we’re going to explore the city and its complex sound in an interactive, engaging way. We need to open our ears to open our eyes.”

This ambition for the possibilities of sound both as a medium and as a creative tool is echoed by Ricardo:

“As composers, we want to take a step forward in the way we interact with cities and people and learn from other agents who do so; e.g.  historians, social enterprise leaders, developers, policy makers, archaeologists, urban planners, heritage officials, to mention a few. By combining creative forces to collage narratives and sound via soundwalks, composers and sound aggregators can also interact with other disciplines to project a new understanding of a specific place and time. Such audio-guided geo-walks may convert the city into a new ‘open hall’ to experience sound.”

Locative Audio are holding a big open event on Friday 29th June from 12:00 to 17:00 at the John Thaw Studio Theatre, Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, University of Manchester. The event aims to brings together the range of potential applications and possibilities opened up by digital technologies and methodologies. It will include talk, media and virtual installations, live music events and audio guide tours of areas in the city. Full details including the programme can be found on the website: http://locativeaudio.org/.

Text by Caitriona Devery.

Soundscapes in the City: forthcoming research

Rajinder Dudrah, Drama/Screen Studies. This blog post highlights new research that is currently being completed for a special issue of the journal Midland History. The article in question contends how understandings of cities and their cultural histories might be articulated through the notion of the ‘soundscape’ via a case study of British Bhangra music in the post-war East and West Midland city regions of the UK (1).

A familiar point in contemporary urban and cultural studies is that cosmopolitan cities are not just experienced through sight but through the other senses as well: sound, touch, taste and smell. Nonetheless , there is a need to explore more fully, not only the experience of a city through the senses as they happen in the contemporary moment, but also how we might be able to think about the formation of cities and regions as developing from a historical understanding of the formation of those senses too. A cultural history of the senses in a given time and place might illuminate for us the possible connections between different people and their inhabiting of place and space through sense formation. In my current research I have been particularly drawn to the investigation of how a sense of place and space might be considered through the sounds of popular music that circulate through the city – sound as heard and seen in the cityscapes as people use and move through the city; and as these sounds are created out of particular cultural histories in cosmopolitan settings. The case of the popular music genre of British Bhangra is an interesting one: it is a soundscape in and of multicultural British cities.


The idea of the soundscape is developed as articulating at least two of the senses simultaneously: sound and sight; and is developed inter-disciplinarily from work undertaken in cultural anthropology, popular music studies and cultural geography. Soundscapes allows us to think about the movement of people from different places of origin in new places of settlement, and how they not only produce popular music anew (i.e. music that is inflected through their routes of journeying), but also how they make this music through instances of their arrival and contemplated futures. Popular music is a distinctive type of sound that has socio-cultural meaning and position, and the study of diasporic music such as Bhangra can assist in understanding how social landscapes are formed over time and in places where the music has been produced locally and disseminated internationally. To this end, the forthcoming article offers an analysis of how a Punjabi folk music becomes a genre of popular music, particularly in the post-war British Midlands. It draws attention to key cities and regions namely Birmingham, Walsall and the Black Country, Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester, in terms of how they have sustained the cultural production of this music and its industry. The article offers a cultural historical account of how and why different musical genres are fused together in Bhangra (Punjabi Folk, RnB, Soul, Reggae, Grime, UK Pop, amongst others); provides a historical overview of some of the places, spaces and people key to the evolution of the music; and presents a textual analysis of some song lyrics and album cover artwork to elaborate this soundscape of the British Midlands.

1- Malcolm Dick and Rajinder Dudrah eds. (forthcoming September 2011) ‘Ethnic Community Histories in the Midlands’, Midland History, vol. 36, no.2. Article in this peer reviewed special issue: Rajinder Dudrah, ‘British Bhangra Music as Soundscapes of the Midlands’.

References and further reading: email cities [@] manchester.ac.uk