Sound Escapes

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Sound Escapes

Peter Cusack, Simon Elvins, FĂŠdĂŠration Internationale des Chasseurs de Sons, Nikolaus Gansterer, Stephen Gill, Dan Holdsworth, Jacob Kirkegaard, Camille Norment, Dawn Scarfe, Thomson & Craighead

Curated by Angus Carlyle and Irene Revell Produced by Electra

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03 Only the Heard Angus Carlyle

Positive Soundscapes Project (PSP) Research Strands

04 05 06 07 08 09 10

Soundwalking and Soundscape Descriptors Mags Adams Emotional Responses to Sound Ken Hume Inside the Mind of a Listener: An fMRI Study of Urban Soundscapes Deb Hall and Amy Irwin The Art of Soundscape Angus Carlyle and Peter Cusack The Joy of Hearing Chris Plack Valuing Soundscape Perceptions Paul Jennings and Rebecca Cain Speech in the Soundcape Bill Davies


11 PSP Laboratories Documented by Dan Holdsworth 14 Artists’ images


27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

Peter Cusack Simon Elvins Fédération Internationale des Chasseurs de Sons Nikolaus Gansterer Stephen Gill Dan Holdsworth Jacob Kirkegaard Camille Norment Dawn Scarfe Thomson & Craighead


38 ScapeShift Max Dixon

Stephen Gill Michael Jackson — Bad From Audio Portraits 1998

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Angus Carlyle


Only the Heard One day, Malunkyaputta implored the Buddha to show him the path to enlightenment. After several attempts to discourage the impatient seeker of knowledge, the Buddha finally relented. Enlightenment could be found through experience without representation: “In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognised, only the cognised”. For all the allure of the Buddha’s insistence that “in reference to the heard, only the heard” — an unmediated sensory encounter, direct and pure — I have come to think that the auditory world is ultimately enriched rather than impoverished by knowledge. Knowledge of the hearing process, of how our ears relate to the operations of our hearts, our lungs and brains; knowledge of sound, of how it originates and how it travels; knowledge of how language functions to express our understanding and to articulate preference; and knowledge, too, of how reflexive artistic practice can communicate or critique existing awareness and can invoke — collaboratively or on its own — new acoustic perceptions. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) — an agency established by the UK government to promote strategic initiatives within its disciplinary field — coordinated the event “A Noisy Future?” in 2006. This drew in a constituency of individuals representing academic, commercial and policy orientated sectors, individuals with varied perspectives on sound derived from architecture and the built environment, coming from a whole slew of engineering related subjects, from a diverse range of acoustic disciplines and from such social sciences as economics, sociology and psychology as well as the arts, specifically sound art.

on the PSP explain their research in seminar rooms and in conference halls, visiting their laboratories, walking with them through city streets with ears wide open, watching their different approaches to recording the sound in those same streets, attempting to convey the motivations behind my own rather oblique approaches to the emerging research themes, all this conspired to change my mind and to clean my ears. The short articles which follow this introduction summarise, in their own words, the findings of the scientific and social scientific researchers. These findings are further contextualised: firstly by the visual interpretations of research data developed by the design studio Practise, incorporated into the scientific texts; secondly by the photographs of some of the study sites commissioned from Dan Holdsworth. Taken as a whole, the scientific and social scientific research findings can be understood as mapping out a conceptual space, providing an x-axis and y-axis on which to plot out what constitutes a positive soundscape. It was always within the ambition of the artists’ strand of the PSP to present an exhibition which not only sought to make the research public, but also to bring together artists whose practice is in some way a conversation with this conceptual space. Most of the artists included in the exhibition were not directly involved with the PSP itself, but provide new ways of engaging with this research. The second half of this publication presents the artworks that form Sound Escapes, and an afterword, which underlines the importance of such artistic practice within the field of research.

As the event culminated, I found myself part of The Positive Soundscapes Project (PSP) 1. As its name suggests, one of the underlying objectives of the research is to move away from the conventional focus on noise as a negative and to move towards identifying what could viably be meant by a positive soundscape. The research team exhibited an exciting level of inter-disciplinarity, comprising of a number of researchers from different academic institutions, each with their own specialist views on the human relationships that stretch between sound and the environment.

The title of this exhibition derived from a mishearing of the word ‘soundscape’ being shuttled back and forth during a conversation. Sound Escapes insinuates the idea that for all the sophistication of the scientific, social scientific and artistic resources at our disposal, there remains something ultimately elusive about sound, about its complex movements in space and time, about the ways in which our listening and talking bodies perceive it and discuss it. Sound Escapes is not only an attempt to listen out for those whispers, cries, squeaks and rumbles that lie beyond “only the heard,” but also to appreciate sound as meaning: as awareness but also as humour and provocation. Irene Revell and I have worked together to curate an exhibition in which the diverse meanings of sound become not only audible, but also legible, visible and tangible.

Although sound had already established itself as a focus of my own scholarly and creative research, the experience of devoting nearly a day a week for three years to this particular investigation has profoundly altered both my critical appreciation of sound as an academic subject and my personal encounters with the heard world. Listening to my new colleagues




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Mags Adams

PSP Research Strands

Soundwalking and Soundscape Descriptors Acoustics Research Centre University of Salford Soundwalking is a practice as well as a method. Soundwalking as a practice opens the ears to the environment and to the range of sonic experiences available. Soundwalking as a method, includes reflections on those experiences and allows the researcher to compare and contrast different people’s perceptions. For the Positive Soundscapes Project, soundwalks were devised in central Manchester and the Soho/West End area of London. Urban design professionals were taken on a tour of five types of location in each city: urban square, urban green space, pedestrianised area, busy traffic thoroughfare and indoor shopping centre. It was essential we asked what people heard, as opposed to what sounds they heard. Instead of a narrow focus on individual sounds, we wanted to enable the broadest possible interpretation of the sonic environment. This had to be done in a non-directed way so that the descriptors used by participants to express what they heard came from themselves rather than being prompted by the researcher.

Soundscape Descriptors

Cacophony crinkling

throb clacking

knocking whines clicking

hum bangs bipping

Hubbub bashing rattle

barking flat roar delicate sounds


train bell street cleaners sharp noises warble underground hiss   flutter bus natural sounds construction traffic lights echo reviving market sounds air conditioning whirring windchimes bicycles alarm quiet brakes heels voices flapping incidental sounds music water squeaks people bustle movement people selling crunches mechanical noise rumble sirens aircraft drone children fierce sound babble different languages clatter plastic⁄paper bags clunk jingling high pitched buzz clangs whirring bumps crash low frequency screeching bleeding twittering thumps rustle


From this soundwalking method, we have developed a good understanding of how the urban soundscape is experienced. Moreover, from iterative analysis of the interviews that took place at different locations on the soundwalk, we are beginning to recognise the characteristics that differentiate soundscapes. This components employed to describe the soundscape can be divided into: ‘sound sources’ (usually nouns referring to the physical entity creating the sound); ‘sound descriptors’ (characteristics of sound sometimes expressed onomatopoeically, like ‘rustle’ or ‘hum’); ‘soundscape descriptors’ (the totality of what is heard, addressed in a language of ‘hubbub’, ‘cacophony’, ‘sound soup’, a ‘jumble of sound’, ‘constant’, ‘coming in waves’ and ‘monotonous’). We had to be careful in our analysis since sometimes the same words were used to denote positive and negative preferences. Examples of these included ‘bipping’, ‘bustle’, ‘buzz’ and ‘flapping’ and it was necessary to explore other factors such as context and an individual’s ability to control the sound. The doughnut-shaped diagram opposite illustrates the three broad categories that emerged from the analysis of the soundwalks. A very close reading of the transcripts enabled the last category ‘soundscape descriptors’ to be further delineated into: cacophony, hubbub, constant and temporal. ‘Cacophony’ refers to a soundscape perceived as a negative listening experience. Hubbub refers to a soundscape perceived as a positive listening experience. ‘Constant’ refers to a soundscape which is monotonous and unchanging and where one particular sound drowns out everything else. ‘Temporal’ refers to a soundscape where very short temporal changes can be heard within one listening experience. Distilling these further produces two dimensions: ‘Cacophony’ — ‘Hubbub’ and ‘Constant’ — ‘Temporal’. These dimensions provide us with an innovative approach to soundscape classification, one that has emerged from people’s expressions of their experiences and one that has much potential for further application.



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Ken Hume

PSP Research Strands

Emotional Responses rs to Sound

Estimated Marginal Mean Heart Rate

Division of Health Science, Manchester Metropolitan University

the relevant physiological responses with subjective assessments, does not seem to have been applied before.

Means of Heart Rates before and during Sound Clip Playback

In our most recent experiment, 80 subjects aged between 18 and 25 listened to 18 eight second sound clips from recorded soundscapes that included a football crowd chanting and cheering and the sound of jet plane flying overhead. We recorded the subjects’ Heart Rate, Respiration Rate and forehead muscle activity (EMG). Forehead muscle activity — frowning — is an established way for physiological researchers to determine pleasantness. These sound clips were separated by 20 seconds of silence during which we could obtain a silence value of the physiological measure and a subjective estimate of the pleasantness of the sound-clips, which were recorded on nine point scales. The data was analyzed using a statistical technique called linear mixed-model ANOVA.




Heart Rate Before Sound Clip During Sound Clip

72.00 1









10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Sound Clip Number

The soundscape concept involves the complete sound environment at a given time and location, together with the human response to this aural environment. The human response to the sound environment attracts physiologists, who are interested in how the body “works” and how it reacts internally to various sound environments. I am particularly interested in the relationship between people’s emotional responses to sound and their physiological responses, for example, their heart rate. Soundscapes provide complex auditory experiences and there are limited tools available to investigate their relative benefits. One approach is to investigate the sound elements of a soundscape and to determine the emotional response elicited. Sounds evoke various emotions. We know that listening to music can induce strong emotions and this can be reflected in the way basic physiological functions like heart rate and breathing rate are affected. Combining objective physiological responses with subjective assessments of individual sounds could indicate meaningful patterns of response, and provide a starting point for a more complete objective assessment of soundscapes. This strategy of investigating the values attached to various soundscapes by isolating significant sound components, and then combining

The following patterns and trends were found when the physiological responses were compared with the subjective estimates of pleasantness: —– When a sound clip was played, the heart rate was consistently slowed slightly, compared with the previous rate during silence. —– Male subjects had lower heart rates before and during sound clips than female subjects. —– The more unpleasant the subjects considered the sound clip, the larger were the falls in heart rate, which were greater in males. The results for respiration rate were clear but interestingly different to the heart rate. —– When a sound clip was played, the respiration rate was increased compared with the previous rate during silence. —– The more pleasant the subjects considered the sound clip, the larger were the rises in Respiration Rate, which were greater in males. We observed that forehead muscle tension was increased with sound clips that were rated more unpleasant. These results show that relatively simple physiological measures provide significant changes and distinct patterns in response to soundscape elements that are dependant on the pleasantness of the soundscape. So it seems that a pleasant sound is associated with a slight drop in heart rate and a rise in respiration rate with little change in forehead muscle activity. It may be possible to determine the emotional response to environmental sound by “fingerprinting” the pattern of responses utilizing the simple physiological responses evoked, and this practical data can, perhaps, inspire architects and designers to intervene to improve our soundscape.


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Deb Hall and Amy Irwin

PSP Research Strands

Inside the Mind of a Listener MRC Institute of Hearing Research University of Nottingham An fMRI Study Of Urban Soundscapes How do you feel when you hear the sound of a police siren wailing down the street or the shouts of happy children playing in the park? Soundscapes can evoke a range of different emotions: agitation, stress, calmness, relaxation. The same sound environment can evoke very different reactions depending on how you interact with each context. If you are trying to cross a busy street, then an approaching police siren could be a positive warning not to cross just yet. If you are trying to get to sleep at night, then that same approaching police siren becomes negative and unwelcome. Scientists can investigate your feelings on a number of different levels: by surveying your intuitive thoughts and emotions using interviews and questionnaires, by monitoring the effect on your body’s autonomic nervous system (the ‘stress response’) and by measuring how your brain interprets this information.

16 individuals participated in our experiment. They were asked to lie inside an MR scanner. The MR scanner is a rather cramped listening environment but we were able to play the soundscape recordings through a set of headphones. It has taken us more than four months to analyse the brain imaging data that we collected. The results so far show that when listening to soundscapes, the auditory pathway becomes very responsive. The inferior colliculus (‘an auditory crossroads in the brain’), medial geniculate body and auditory cortex (the powerhouse of the auditory system where the meaning of a sound is determined) all showed a significant response. In some of our participants, soundscapes evoking a strong emotional reaction also produced a lot of activity in the amygdala. Amygdala means ‘almond’ in Greek and it is a small structure located deep in the brain. It plays a crucial role in processing and storing memories of emotional reactions. This result shows that the pleasantness or unpleasantness of a sound can have a strong effect on your brain, shaping and creating your listening experience.

Our research investigates how the brain responds to different urban soundscapes. We chose 150 sound clips recorded from different places in London and Manchester at different times of the day. Some sounds were unpleasant to listen to (vomiting, heavy traffic), others were very pleasant to hear (bird song, children laughing), with a few neutral sounds in between (footsteps on a pavement, wind in the trees). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allowed us to chart individual responses to these soundscapes by recording patterns of blood flow within the brain. When an area of the brain is engaged in listening to a sound, blood flow is diverted to that region to fuel those brain cells with oxygen and glucose energy and these changes are what fMRI measures. By looking at someone’s brain at work when they listen to urban soundscapes, we can find out if their reported emotions (whether they found it pleasant or unpleasant) are reflected in the way their brain reacts to that soundscape.

An fMRI scan of the brain listening to soundscapes in the laboratory shows marked activity in the region known as the amygdala —— which has a significant role in relation to emotional responses

Top of skull



Base of spine


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Angus Carlyle and Peter Cusack

PSP Research Strands

The Art of Soundscape Sound Arts and Design University of the Arts London The term soundscape emerged out of the work of R. Murray Schafer, Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Schafer, the soundscape designates “the total acoustic environment, including all noises, natural, human, technological sounds.” The study of the soundscape, these pioneering researchers determined, should be triangulated between science, the humanities and creativity. The concept may have migrated from its early origins to be embraced by cultural studies, anthropology, sociology and, more recently, various branches of the acoustics discipline, but art continues to constitute a key coordinate. Throughout the three years of the Positive Soundscapes Project (PSP), artistic researchers Peter Cusack and Angus Carlyle have adopted a number of strategies to explore the soundscape and the ideas that surround it. Peter Cusack has devoted many months to recording the acoustic environments that characterise the case study sites chosen as the foci for PSP, deploying different microphones and different techniques to capture varying sounds and their dynamic relationships. For one particular location — St Ann’s Square in Manchester — Cusack spent an Autumn week returning again and again until he had built up a 24 hour representation of the soundscape’s movements through day and night.

Cusack collaborated extensively with the science and social science dimensions of PSP, advising on experimental design, providing sounds for the laboratory tests and volunteering as a research subject himself. Angus Carlyle’s approach was more oblique, finding other, often collaborative, ways to burrow into what he perceived as popular and academic assumptions about sound and its appreciation. At the City Sonic Festival in Belgium 2008 and at Brighton Live 2007, he invited passers-by to choose between two badges, one bearing the logo ‘I “heart” Silence’ and the other ‘I “hate” Silence’. With the digital artist Corrado Morgana, he produced a new soundtracks for a violent video game, replacing its foreboding synthetic ambience with real world sounds to evoke the pastoral and the ‘positive’. With Locus Sonus, he hung a microphone from the 13th Floor of a 60s towerblock and streamed the audio live on the internet. With Matthew Hawkins, he spent a winter’s day persuading people to have their ears photographed in all their close-up glory. He placed birdboxes on lamp posts and in little copses, secreted placards with quotations about silence around the country and produced a text piece for the Relay exhibition. He edited the book Autumn Leaves: Sound And Environment In Artistic Practice for Double Entendre and curated an accompanying compilation that went on to win the Qwartz Award.

Cusack also chose to bring the methodology of his Favourite Sounds project to Manchester, using questionnaires and street surveys to gather locals’ impressions of the heard life of their city. Birdsong, football crowds, fountains, people chatting in the streets, footfalls on fresh snow, rain, moments of nocturnal quiet, laughter, the music of church bells, buskers and favourite bands appeared alongside dog barks and rustling leaves. But some of the answers offered were less expected: trains and trams were very popular; other choices included the noise of drunken revelry, police sirens, cash registers, passing jets and helicopters, traffic, fireworks and the rumble of thunder. Later in the summer, Cusack will be releasing a Your Favourite Manchester Sounds CD alongside a sequel to the first Your Favourite London Sounds.


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Chris Plack

PSP Research Strands

The Joy of Hearing Division of Human Communication and Deafness University of Manchester The tuning properties of the basilar membrane, showing the best frequency of various places on the membrane (looking down on the cochlear spiral)

2000 Hz 500 Hz 1500 Hz 375 Hz


3000 Hz

APEX 750 Hz

16000 Hz 250 Hz 1000 Hz

4000 Hz

8000 Hz 6000 Hz

Hearing is the sense that tells us about the vibration of objects, such as musical instruments, car engines or the vocal folds used when we produce speech. When an object vibrates, it produces pressure variations in the air. The ear converts these sound waves into electrical impulses in the auditory nerve, which carries the information to the brain. The brain analyses the sound information, compares it to information from other senses (particularly vision) and information from memory, and works out what the sounds are and what they mean. Of course, the full story is a great deal more complicated than this, and some of the most interesting aspects of hearing occur before the sound is converted into neural impulses. The pinna is the external part of the ear, the flappy bit that you hang your sunglasses on. Despite its visual prominence, the pinna isn’t very important in hearing. It helps us to work out the direction of sounds, but we can hear pretty well without it. Sound waves enter the ear through the ear canal that ends with a thin membrane called the eardrum. Three tiny bones, the malleus, incus, and stapes, carry the vibrations at the eardrum to the cochlea, a narrow fluid-filled tube curled up into a spiral.

The cochlea is where the really clever stuff happens. Running along the length of the cochlea is a thin sheet of tissue called the basilar membrane. Each place on the basilar membrane is tuned to a different frequency, rather like the strings on a piano. Low-frequency sounds (thud of a bass drum) excite the membrane near the top (apex) of the spiral, and high-frequency sounds (crash of a cymbal) excite the membrane near the bottom (base) of the spiral. So the basilar membrane separates out the different frequencies of sounds. We recognise sounds based on the different frequencies present. Furthermore, separating out the different frequencies allows us to isolate sounds from different sources: very important in a busy soundscape. Low-level sounds are amplified on the basilar membrane by the vibration of specialised cells called “outer hair cells”. This massively increases our sensitivity and also sharpens up the frequency tuning of the basilar membrane. Outer hair cells are usually the first to be affected when the ear is damaged by loud noise. Vibrations of the basilar membrane are converted into electrical impulses by the inner hair cells, arranged along the length of the membrane. The inner hair cells are exquisitely sensitive: We can hear vibrations of the eardrum of less than a tenth of the width of a hydrogen atom. The inner hair cells use a chemical signal to excite the nerve cells or “neurons”. Each neuron in the auditory nerve is connected to a hair cell at a single place on the basilar membrane, so that information about different frequencies travels to the brain along different neurons. There are several regions in the brain specialised for processing sounds. Early processing occurs in the brainstem (the “stalk” at the bottom of the brain). Information from the two ears is combined in a part of the brainstem called the superior olivary complex. This part of the brain compares the time of arrival of the sounds at the two ears, and the relative levels of the sound at the two ears, to determine where a sound is coming from. It is thought that information about the pitch of sounds may be determined by structures in the upper brainstem, but there is still some debate about this. The cerebral cortex (the large wrinkly surface of the brain) contains the neurons doing the higher level processing that identifies and contextualises sounds, and gives rise to our conscious sensation of sounds. However, we are usually blissfully unaware of the remarkable physiological mechanisms that underlie these sensations.


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Paul Jennings and Rebecca Cain

PSP Research Strands

Valuing Soundscape Perceptions WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group) University of Warwick Engineers like to work with numbers. They also like to use instruments to take objective measurements. For noise control engineers, who need to check that sounds in cities comply with legislation, numbers and objective measurements are appropriate. However, many people evaluate their environment according to the feelings it evokes in them. These feelings — the positive and negative dimensions of our sense of place — might not be adequately captured by the noise engineers’ numbers but they might well be influenced by the soundscape and this, in turn, could itself be something open to planned, positive interventions. Our first research challenge was to create a framework to understand how a design choice could affect the perception of a place. This framework would have to include all the factors that might affect positive perception such as activity — such as reading, conversation or sightseeing — and the demographics of the listener. We then needed to be able to describe the effect of a design change or intervention on someone’s feelings in a simple but representative manner and in order to achieve this, we used some of the approaches that we previously developed with the car industry for creating optimised interior vehicle sounds. Our starting point was to carry out a pilot study where we recorded a variety of soundscapes using a recorder specially created for the project, the SonoScout. We then played these sounds to a wide range of jurors in the controlled environment of our Listening Room and asked them a variety of questions about how the sounds made them feel about the place where they were recorded. Combining the results of this experiment with conclusions arrived at from the soundwalks conducted by social scientists, Peter Cusack’s Favourite Sounds Of London and by previous literature, we could arrive at a rationalised list of semantic word pairs to describe the feelings of a place that are inspired by its soundscapes, such as exciting-boring, comforting-scary. Our next task was to understand the relationship between these word pairs and to see whether we could reduce all the possible alternatives to just two or three independent dimensions that might be used as a “score chart” for soundscapes. We did this by selecting a variety of recordings and asking people to score them against each of the word pairs. The combined results were then subject to a technique called principal component analysis. We discovered that most of our feelings can be represented by two independent dimensions. One is associated with calmness

and intrusiveness. The other is associated with vibrancy and sense of life. It is now possible to compare the effect soundscapes have on people’s emotions using a plot of this two dimensional space. It will be possible to compare existing soundscapes or proposed new soundscapes based upon their relative scores in this emotional space. Our current emphasis is on providing further evidence that there is no substitute for listening to a soundscape when considering perception. We are using a room with a 16 speaker system to present real and synthesised soundscapes to people, and to explore how changing aspects of the soundscape can affect its position on the emotional space mapped out by the axes of calmness-intrusiveness and vibrancy-listlessness. In particular it will be shown that perception of soundscapes can be strongly influenced by factors such as an environment’s spatial arrangement or the presence of recognisable sonic content. We believe that this perception cannot wholly be accounted for by either sound level (dB(A)) or the conventional psychoacoustic measurements. Ultimately, then, decision makers need access to a richer picture of the world than that provided by the engineers’ traditional numbers if they are to have a chance of designing more positive soundscapes for us to inhabit. The combined results of the listening room pilot study, the soundwalk interviews and the favourite sounds questionnaires. The larger the text, the more prominent the result

Calmness & Relaxation Memory⁄Nostalgia Calmness & Relaxation Vibrancy Vibrancy Sense of Life

Leave⁄Stay Calmness & Relaxation Comfort⁄Reassurance Uniqueness Vibrancy Culturally Representative

Sense of Life Sense of Life Congruency

Leave⁄Stay Memory⁄Nostalgia Informative Culturally Representative      Informative

Intrusiveness Congruency Uniqueness Informative Congruency Sense of Self Comfort⁄Reassurance Sense of Self Leave ⁄ Stay Comfort⁄Reassurance Memory⁄Nostalgia Leave⁄Stay Intrusiveness


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Bill Davies

PSP Research Strands

Speech in the Soundscape Acoustics, Audio and Video University of Salford

Speech Intelligibility Index

0.2 – 0.3 0.5 – 0.6 0.4 – 0.5 0.6 – 0.7

ia Tr e

Exchange Square


Corporation St




Speech Intelligibility


Speech communication is often thought of as the most important thing we use our ears for. Degradation in the ability to hear speech is usually the first thing noticed when hearing loss develops, and is almost always reported to be the most disabling effect of a significant hearing impairment. How does the everyday soundscape support or impede our conversations?

The Positive Soundscapes Project sought to gain an understanding of the effects of the soundscape on speech in two ways. First, we conducted listening tests of some standard spoken sentences mixed with recordings of the soundscape in St Ann’s Square in Manchester. The recordings featured a fountain, footfalls, traffic and interfering background speech. Listeners had to write down the last word of each test sentence correctly. We turned up the sound level of the soundscape to make this increasingly difficult. This gave us a measure of how a complex soundscape can reduce speech intelligibility, on a percentage scale, from 100 (perfect understanding) to 0 (can’t hear anything, random guessing of words). Second, we looked for an objective way to predict the subjective speech intelligibility from the recordings of the soundscape. In our experiment, we found that an adaption of an existing speech measure, called Speech Intelligibility Index (SII), could predict subjective speech intelligibility. SII works by comparing the acoustic energy in the speech and in the soundscape every few milliseconds, and working out how much spectrum is available at the crucial speech frequencies from one moment to the next. This gives a running account of predicted speech intelligibility which we can summarise as a single number to compare with the subjective intelligibility results. For St Ann’s Square, the objective SII matched well (typical correlation 0.989) with the subjective percentage of words understood, across a range of conditions from low noise to very noisy. This result is useful for three reasons. If we can establish a reliable way of automatically predicting speech intelligibility from a soundscape recording, then this would be much quicker than doing subjective listening tests every time. Also, an objective speech measurement could be used to help design new spaces for good speech. And thirdly, we could map speech intelligibility in existing spaces. This would help us progress from the simple noise maps we have now to more nuanced and relevant sound quality maps. By using computer models of hearing impairment, we could even predict and map intelligibility for people with different levels of hearing loss. Included in Practise’s graphic interpretation of the research strands is a map showing Speech Intelligibility Index averaged over 15 minutes at each point across a grid in another Manchester location, Exchange Square. The lowest intelligibility (represented by the dotted square) is found close to a large scale BBC screen transmitting news updates — because the signal which most interferes with speech turns out to be another speech signal.


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Dan Holdsworth PSP Laboratories Documentation 2009


fMRI Scanner at Nottingham University


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Dan Holdsworth PSP Laboratories Documentation 2009


The Listening Room at Warwick University WMG


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Dan Holdsworth PSP Laboratories Documentation 2009


The anechoic chamber at Salford University


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Angus Carlyle and Matthew Hawkins You Are Ear



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Peter Cusack Soundscape Sequencer Favourite Sounds Map



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Simon Elvins Silent London



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FĂŠdĂŠration Internationale des Chasseur de Sons Flag



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Nikolaus Gansterer The Eden Experiment



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Nikolaus Gansterer The Eden Experiment



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Stephen Gill Audio Portraits


Verdi — Hebrew Slave Song

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits

Elvis Presley — Love Me Tender

The Beatles — Revolver


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Stephen Gill Audio Portraits


Radiohead — Paranoid Android


DMX — Rough Riders Anthem



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Dan Holdsworth No Echo



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Jacob Kirkegaard Labyrinthitis



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Camille Norment Driveby



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Dawn Scarfe Listening Glasses



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Thomson & Craighead A universal machine for testing everything.



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Peter Cusack (UK)


Soundscape Sequencer Favourite Sounds Map

2007–2009 Interactive sound installation and web-based map

Sound is as spatial a medium as much as it is a temporal one. Sound is spatial in the sense Marshall McLuhan and Edward Carpenter identified, where “auditory space has no point of favoured focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing.” During their journey from source to the fleshy pinnas of our ears, soundwaves accrue physical traces from the places they pass through: transformed by their interaction with other soundwaves, buffeted by wind, reflected by expanses of glass, absorbed by bark and leaf, softened and sharpened by the effects on the air of temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity. When we perceive those soundwaves we might interpret the traces that modulate the original sound as environmental evidence, but we are more likely to focus on information about direction and distance: left or right, above or below, in front or behind, near or far. Sound is spatial in another way than that identified by McLuhan and Carpenter: sound provides us with a sense of place. Peter Cusack has engaged in a sustained exploration of sound’s sense of place. His CD, The Horse Was Alive The Cow Was Dead, to take just one example, narrates the place of the Lower Lea Valley in London’s East End through oral testimony and evocative environmental recordings. For Sound Escapes, Cusack is presenting two works, Soundscape Sequencer and a web-based Favourite Sounds portal.

Peter Cusack is a London based sound artist, musician and environmental recordist with a special interest in acoustic ecology. Projects range from community arts to research into the role sound plays in our sense of place. Cusack participated in Sound And The City, a major British Council sound art initiative in China (2005). His project Sounds From Dangerous Places examines the soundscapes of sites of major environmental damage, including Chernobyl and the Caspian oil fields in Azerbaijan. He produced Vermilion Sounds — the environmental sound program on Resonance FM, lectures on Sound Arts at the London College of Communication and is a Research Fellow on the multidisciplinary multi-university Positive Soundscapes Project. Recent CDs include Your Favourite London Sounds (Resonance), Baikal Ice (ReR), Favourite Sounds Of Beijing (Subjam).

The Soundscape Sequencer — programmed to Cusack’s specifications by new media artist Nicolas Maréchal — relies for its acoustic resources on a reservoir of precisely recorded events from St Ann’s Square, Manchester, some providing broad atmospheres (the reports of high-heels on paving stones mingled with hurried conversations), others narrowly focused specific sources (a fountain, a bell). The innovative interface allows the user to mix these events into an immersive representation of a real environment. The Favourite Sounds portal, programmed by Alcwyn Parker, widens the field, enabling a grand audio tour of the preferred sounds that city dwellers have chosen.


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Simon Elvins (UK)


Silent London

2006 Blind embossed etching, Edition of 10

By inverting noise level data gathered by DEFRA — the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — Elvins’s Silent London maps the quietest areas of London, showing another side of the city and revealing a hidden landscape of silent spaces. Silent London exists as a blind embossed etching, where no ink has been used to create the image, only a series of protrusions in the paper that recall the impressions of the Braille alphabet. In Silent London, it is the most tranquil areas which are displayed with the greatest prominence, a raising-up that is literal, tangible and metaphorical but is neither shrill nor brash.

Simon Elvins (1981) is a designer and artist based in London. With a background in graphic design and print, his interest in the wider impact of communication design and how this is changing has led him to incorporate the use of sound and interaction design into his work, whilst exploring both traditional and emerging technologies. This has formed the basis for an ongoing body of work that aims to create a better understanding of sound in our everyday environment and how this can be incorporated into communication design as opposed to just being represented visually. Included in this series, as well as Silent London, is an interactive silkscreen map of London’s radio stations, a fully working record player made only of paper, and a series of audible notation scores using graphite. Elvins has exhibited recently at the Royal Festival Hall and Gasworks, London and Permanent Gallery, Brighton.

At the very centre of the engagement between scientific research, governmental planning and our everyday experience of city life, is the existence of just this kind of data that Elvins deploys in this work. This particular information is freely available from, where you can enter any UK postcode and admire the relevant noise map, an invariably extraordinary-looking image of almost psychedelic hues that indicate projected decibel levels throughout the surrounding area. Yet, even the official website itself concedes that the information ‘should not be used to attempt to determine, represent or imply noise values at individual locations (eg individual houses)’: it is only a projection of predicted averages based on a set of known parameters such as traffic flow and building density. In a sense, the very limitations of the noise maps that are the UK Government’s response to the European Noise Directive motivate the search for other ways to map the city in sound; Cusack’s web-based cartography of Favourite Sounds from around the world presents itself as one alternative. Researchers at the Universities of Manchester and Salford have themselves experimented with maps that represent different levels of ‘speech intelligibility’, an obviously human application (‘Where can I have a decent conversation without being interrupted by that racket?’). Elvins’s intervention turns the existing noise map on its head, flattening the loudest areas until they have no presence and throwing the quieter regions into sharper relief. The question is less ‘Where is it too noisy?’ and rather more ‘Where is it actually quiet?’.


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Fédération Internationale des Chasseur de Sons (CH ⁄ CZ ⁄ DE ⁄ GB ⁄ NL ⁄ SK)



2009 Appliquéd flag and flag pole

The colours and composition of the emblem of The Fédération Internationale des Chasseurs de Sons (FICS) echo that of the United Nations. Where the Donald McLaughlin UN emblem has the world cradled by the olive branches of classical allusion, the FICS logo narrates a different story. Although both insignia share a representation of lines of longitude, the UN’s projection of land masses around the North Pole is replaced in The FICS’ emblem with a graphic representation of a reel-to-reel spool, from which the magnetic tape snakes along the equator before forming the beginnings of an oscilloscope’s soundwave. It seems appropriate that there are faint resonances between the symbols of the two institutions, since The International Federation of Soundhunters does embody — albeit more modestly — global and utopian aspirations. It is appropriate too, of course, that the graphic identity of The FICS is one that draws out the connection between sound and recording technology. Since Walter Ruttmann’s repurposing of the optical head of a film camera to produce the audio montage Weekend in 1929, Halim El-Dabh’s pioneering Wire Recorder Piece in 1944 and Pierre Schaeffer’s work a few years later in Paris’ Studio D’Essai, sonic creativity has often had recourse to imagining that “everything audible in the world becomes material” (as Ruttmann put it). But while Ruttmann, El-Dabh and Schaeffer nourished the fertile ground from which the electro-acoustic and phonographic traditions grew, this imagining has gone on in other, more vernacular locations.

The Fédération Internationale des Chasseurs de Sons (FICS) was founded in 1956 as an amalgamation of various national associations (such as the British Sound Recording Association) that each brought together the local amateur recording clubs in their respective countries. In the 53 years since the International Federation of Soundhunters was founded by Jean Thévenot, René Monnat and Fredy Weber, its members’ activities have shadowed the shifts in audio recording technologies as wire was replaced by tape, tape by cassette and cassette by DAT, a change that marked the transition into the digital realm, first with optical media (CDs and DVDs) and mini-discs and now with hard-drives and solid-state drives. The International Amateur Recording Contest, an annual event organised by FICS, now has a multimedia category where once there was Diaporama (for tape-slide-voice presentations — the other main categories being Audio and Video). The Soundhunters remain committed to capturing the sounds that surround us.

The FICS flag flutters for the centrality of the microphone in many strands of The Positive Soundscapes Project. But it also flutters for those for whom an accidental encounter with their older sister’s abandoned tape recorder was the start of unexpected journey. The results of these tape experiments perhaps finding their way into the local tape club and maybe from there to one of the International Amateur Recording Contests organised by The FICS or to the net art parallels of this event that find diverse shape through projects such as SoundTransit, Locus Sonus, Radio Aporee or SoundSeeker.


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Nikolaus Gansterer (AT)


The Eden Experiment

Mixed media installation 2007

In The Eden Experiment, Gansterer adopts a quasi-scientific language as he investigates the correlation between plant growth and music. In the project he transforms the exhibition space into a laboratory with two identical self-contained growing domes housing mouse ear cress (arabidopsis thaliana). This experimental subject is a small flowering plant widely used in botanical and genetic experimentation due to fact that its DNA sequence is known to scientists in its entirety. For the duration of the exhibition, the artist exposes one growing dome to Bach, the other to heavy metal music. With a series of drawings and graphs in place, the piece investigates which music provides a good sonic environment for the plants to grow in.

Nikolaus Gansterer (1974) uses sound as a primary material, and through performance, installation and drawing, works in the border territory between art and science. More interested in the process of research than in final result, Gansterer often investigates the connections between language and visual representation, between acoustics and image, between memory and communication. Gansterer studied Intermedia Art at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. He has since founded the Institute for Transacoustic Research and co-founded the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra. His work has been shown at the Kunsthalle, Vienna; Sonar Festival, CCCB, Barcelona; ACF, New York; Trichtlinnburg, Salzburger Kunstverein ⁄ JVE Maastricht ⁄ CCA Tallinn; Chisenhale Gallery, London; Villa Manin, Udine; RCM Art Museum, Nanjing; Tent, Rotterdam; KHEX, Vienna; Argos, Brussels and Bethanien, Berlin.

The Eden Experiment confronts us with an opportunity for an intellectual and imaginative encounter with theories about the influences of sound on living organisms, theories which have currency both in advanced scientific discourse and in more colloquial locations (a Brighton butcher, for example, celebrates the fact that the eggs it sells are “laid to the sounds of Classic FM”). Gansterer pushes his conceptual horizons further into the distance, however, addressing debates on genetic manipulation and reproductive technologies, probing the borders between nature and nurture, cultivation and wilderness and placing modes of artistic process in conversation with the established protocols of scientific inquiry. In its structural constitution, The Eden Experiment distils research’s ubiquitous stimulus-response model to a playful, paradigmatic form. In its framing devices, it reminds us of the persistence of interpretation, something as amenable to science as it is to art.


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Stephen Gill (UK)


Audio Portraits

C-type prints 1998

The personal stereo was an instant success when it first appeared in Britain in 1980. Especially welcomed by joggers and those who regularly spend long hours in transit, it allowed the user to customise their environment by adding their own soundtrack, and to enhance their experience of the world around them. Although originally fitted with two headphone sockets to encourage shared listening, now headphones are a badge of solitude, ostensibly intensifying the wearers’ disengagement from their surroundings. Listeners can seem drawn into a bubble, and sometimes half-close their eyes as if sight is redundant. They can become disoriented when interrupted, and may not readily re-enter their former state of detachment. Sociologist Michael Bull conducted a series of interviews to explore the motivations and perceptions of personal stereo users, concluding his analysis with the observation that in the mediation between self, technology and environment, “sometimes, the physical scene is endowed with new meaning, a background to their imaginary drama; at other times, the drama is redrawn as an interior recollection or mental orientation or mood where the external world isn’t really attended to at all”.

Stephen Gill (1971) is a London based photographer, working between conceptual and documentary practices. He focuses on familiar images that, like field studies, seem to be set on methodically mapping a place. Yet the method that instructs his practice is everything but linear, instead based on a sensitivity towards the theme he is exploring. Since 1996 Gill has been making serial studies of mundane British scenes and objects, including cash points; lost people; the back of advertising billboards; people travelling on the London to Southend train. His work has been shown extensively both in the UK and abroad, including The National Portrait Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Photographers’ Gallery, Victoria Miro Gallery, London; Galerie Zur Stockeregg, Zurich; Gun Gallery, Sweden; Palais des Beaux Arts, Paris; Haus Der Kunst, Munich and has had solo shows in festivals including Recontres d’Arles, The Toronto Photography Festival and PHotoEspaña.

Stephen Gill has been developing the Audio Portraits series for a number of years, each portrait named after the piece of music that the subject is listening to at the decisive moment of photographic capture. Presented unframed and carefully composed to address a persuasively human scale, these intimate representations of acts of mediated listening invite us to consider a number of questions: questions about the assumed associations of musical taste, about the clothed body as marker of micro-historical change, about active and passive relationships to technology and about the thresholds where changes in the character of consumer devices can be registered as significant (where on the continuum from portable radio to cassette to CD to hard-drive file storage, for example, do we locate the fundamental shifts?). Shadowing all of these questions is, perhaps, something more fundamental, something evoked in Bull’s observations and in Gill’s own preamble to Audio Portraits, and something that cautions The Positive Soundscapes Project. We may be able to map the perceptions of environmental sound in the brain, in the heart and lungs, in the language we use to make preferences and in our reports of soundwalking experiences; we may make art that projects its own cartographies of the acoustic. But what if people secede from the soundscape, abstain from the heard life and all its riches?


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Dan Holdsworth (UK)


No Echo

C-type print 2003

The imagery of No Echo comes from within an anechoic chamber, a laboratory designed to extinguish all sound and electromagnetic emissions. These chambers were first built in the 1940s to enable the development of the military radar. Products of every type built are now tested and evaluated for the slightest vibration or rattle and to make sure that each one has its identifying frequency that does not interfere with the next product. In addition to their significance for military and consumer R&D, anechoic chambers — often located in the Ballardian topography of new campuses, science parks and research institutes — have exerted an influence on the discourse surrounding sound as an artistic practice. The origins of this influence lie with composer John Cage’s experiences in Harvard University’s anechoic chamber, experiences that have burrowed their way into several of sound art’s canonical texts and have formed a kind of thought-experiment — a cousin to John Searle’s Chinese Room, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s building site and Flood and Dresher’s Prisoner’s Dilemma — that compels us to think through presence-absence, sound and silence.

Dan Holdsworth (1974) is a London based photographer whose work investigates hybrid spaces and borderline states. The vast landscapes and overpowering natural phenomena he captures seem to literally be on the ‘edge’ of the world. Over the last ten years, Holdsworth has developed his characteristic practice, with long exposure times and surreal light conditions in locations ranging from Iceland to the American National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre in Puerto Rico. Recent exhibitions include Ultravisitor at Patricia Low Contemporary, Gstaad; Peintres de la vie Moderne, at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Photography 2005, Victoria Miro Gallery, London

In the No Echo photographs, the chambers’ abstract grids offer no immediate access to the eye — no obvious figure, no sign, no graspable connotation — revealing Holdsworth’s preference for subject matter that refuses to invite specific interpretation. With the oppressive regularity only rarely interrupted, the eye is propelled left, right, up and down on a labyrinthine search for a bearing as if in a Pac Man level designed by MC Escher, creating sensations of profound disquiet and disorientation. The anechoic engineer’s pursuit of pure silence in the eradication of all irregular interference here becomes a metaphor for reason scrupulously excluding the other.


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Jacob Kirkegaard (DK)



Sound installation 2007

In his immersive sound installation, Labyrinthitis, Kirkegaard has turned the human ear inside out. This sound sculpture relies upon recordings made using specialist equipment at the Centre for Applied Hearing Research in Copenhagen of otherwise inaudible operations occurring within the artist’s own cochlea. Research has shown that when two frequencies are played into the human ear, vibrations in the inner ear will produce a third frequency, sounds known as ‘otoacoustic emissions’. The recordings heard in Kirkegaard’s piece — sounds from his own ear — will by the same method cause individual audible responses perceived inside the head of each listener. Roland Barthes once invited us to imagine the strange parallels between the light waves that ran from the photographic subject to the chemical film exposed in the camera and the light waves that run from the same subject on the printed photograph to the viewer’s eyes. Labyrinthitis establishes a similarly vertiginous symmetry. In engaging with the work, the listener is automatically processing the soundwaves emanating from the speakers through the same physiological procedures that provide the compositional raw material. Delicate but insistent, for all its conceptual freight, Kirkegaard’s work carries with it reverberations of the joy of hearing.

Jacob Kirkegaard (1975) is a Danish artist who focuses on the scientific and aesthetic aspects of resonance, time, sound and hearing. His installations, compositions and performances deal with acoustic spaces and phenomena that usually remain imperceptible. Using unorthodox recording tools, including accelerometers, hydrophones and home-built electromagnetic receivers, Kirkegaard captures and contextualises hitherto unheard sounds from within a variety of environments. Based in Berlin, Kirkegaard is a graduate of the Academy for Media Arts in Cologne and has given lectures and workshops in institutions such as the Royal Academy of Architecture in Copenhagen and the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the last 14 years, Kirkegaard has presented his works globally. He has released five albums (mostly on the British record label Touch). Among his collaborators are JG Thirlwell, Ann Lislegaard, CM von Hausswolff and Lydia Lunch.


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Camille Norment (NO ⁄ US)


Driveby Sound installation, transducers, sub-woofer, audio signal 2007– 2009 The premise for this work — one of a series of site specific installations developed by the artist — derives from the illusion that a car is driving past outside, pulsing with the heavy bass of an exaggerated on-board speaker system. The listener comes face to face (or ear to speaker) with a vicarious version of that heartbeat rhythm — heard by pedestrians, drivers and passengers alike — that is typically filtered through the shaking metal of the car chassis and the glass of its windows. The phantom car approaches and traverses the windows and walls of the gallery, leaving behind a tactile trail of vibrations that fades away to silence. Appearing unexpectedly, the rhythm is experienced by the ears and by the listening body as something which teases or tickles, raising individual and collective associations only to let them slip away. Connotations bubble up into our consciousness, the notion of ‘drive-by’ bringing to the same mind the comfortable pleasures of cruising with a car full of friends at the very same time as the shimmering media panics of ‘drive-by’ shootings in urban spaces and military tactics during war.

Camille Norment (1970) Norment makes cross-media work which is occupied with the way the body is inscribed and reinscribed with meaning through its use of, and its negotiation with its surroundings. Norment’s work engages the viewer through architectural, optical illusory, sonic, and technically interactive environments and objects. With emphasis on manipulating the visual and sonic perceptual realms, she often evokes the uncanny through her manipulation of common experiences, such as looking in the mirror and not seeing a reflection, or presents sensual experiences that seek to treat the entire body as a sensory organ, such as sound that can be felt by the body rather than heard by the ears. Recent exhibitions of Norment’s work include the Thessaloniki Biennial, Greece; Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland; National Museum of Contemporary Art, UKS Gallery, Oslo; the Charlottenborg Fonden, Copenhagen; The Santa Monica Museum of Art, Los Angeles; the Studio Museum of Harlem, New York; Bildmuseet, Umeå; and radio broadcast in the Venice Biennial, Venice. Norment will exhibit at the Henie-Onstad Museum, Norway, in Autumn 2009.

Norment presents sonic experience as a dynamic encounter. This encounter is at once enriched by the immediate physiological perception of frequencies and textures, but also alert to the more diffuse operations of association, where that experience becomes something like a memory, connected to collective connotations and to individual internalisations. And yet apparently individual associations are rarely purely personal, moulded as they are through the mass mediations of the more paranoid end of popular culture and by the scurrilous folk panics put about by tabloid newspapers. Driveby insinuates that our preferences — about the positive soundscape or about anything else — only arrive after a long journey through mental space where, like sound itself, they are vulnerable to being reflected and deflected and to absorbing other energies along the way.


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Dawn Scarfe (UK)


Listening Glasses Glass sculptures and pamphlet 2009 Scarfe’s contribution to the exhibition took as its starting point her established interest in the status of acoustics within the history of science, and in particular, her interest in Hermann Von Helmholtz (1821–1894), a German acoustician who developed resonators from glass or brass. At a glance, the resonators are reminiscent in shape and surface of Christmas tree baubles and are characterised by the presence of a small and large hole at opposite ends of their spheres. Each resonator is produced so that it possesses its own individual frequency and by gently inserting the smaller, teat-like end of the resonator into the ear, the user is able to search out that frequency, success being announced when the glass surface vibrates in sympathy. An everyday example of this physical phenomenon is demonstrated when a bottle’s resonant frequency sounds when we blow over the top of its opening.

Dawn Scarfe (1980) is an artist concerned with sound as a vibration of matter: a wave transmitted through fluid and solid forms. She explores how material properties of objects such as their shape, size, smoothness and density can be audible. Her works are often site-specific: she has performed musical glasses with Jem Finer and Dominic Lash in an observatory and a lighthouse, and made installations for a medieval crypt in Oxford and a tree in New Cross, London. She has a BA in Fine Art, an MMus in Composition and is currently a PhD candidate in Music at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Scarfe’s research involved tracking down original Helmholtz resonators — stored in places like the Whipple Museum at the University of Cambridge — and returning to Helmholtz’ 1863 presentation of his findings where he declared that the “proper tone of the resonator may even sometimes be heard cropping up in the howling and whistling of the wind, the rattling of carriage wheels over granite paving stones, the rustling of leaves in a wood, and the splashing or seething of water”. Working with scientific glass blower John Cowley, they produced new resonators, calibrated to distinct frequencies. The visitor is invited to listen to the gallery’s soundscape, and indeed other works in the exhibition, through these new resonators. These resonators make ‘simple tones’, and render tangible — visibly as well as audibly — our sensory system’s own ability to isolate individual sounds. More than this, the resonators speak to Scarfe’s interest in resonance as a cybernetic phenomenon where a body picks up vibrations and resounds them, a system of feedback made more compelling when we recall that it is often described as ‘sympathetic’.


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Thomson & Craighead (UK)


A universal machine for testing everything. Interactive mixed media installation 2009 A universal machine for testing everything. is an invitation to consider the truth. The work consists of an interactive installation where visitors to the gallery are given the opportunity to make outgoing calls using a telephone line connected to a commercially available lie detector. Alongside the telephone and pinned to the wall are test reports documenting previous calls the artists made to a series of speaking clocks while travelling in the UK and abroad. The reports show us how these two ‘truth-giving’ technologies end up undermining each other; a poetic reminder of how ‘truth’ in our spin-doctored world is as much a matter for invention as it is an indication of an ‘honest’ indexical relationship.

Jon Thomson (1969) and Alison Craighead (1971) share a fascination in how global communications networks are transforming the way we all perceive and understand the world around us. They live and work in London and Kingussie in the highlands of Scotland. Their practice spans online and public art commissions, as well as gallery based work. Recent exhibitions include: Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Tang Contemporary, Beijing; Dundee Contemporary Arts; Artists Space, New York and BFI Southbank, London.

Thomson & Craighead’s work makes an oblique interrogation of the notion of speech intelligibility that was developed in one of the research strands of the Positive Soundscapes Project. The investigation of the potential benefits of incorporating speech intelligibility was motivated by a sense that existing models of noise mapping — perhaps, indeed, the existing metric of dB (A) itself — may be too coarse to capture the fine-grained intricacies of human experience. Perhaps, rather than measuring loudness, we could measure the fate of human speech in a specific acoustic environment. How easy would it be to have a conversation? Would I have to shout? Would it be too quiet and our speech carry dangerously far? Thomson & Craighead’s response to this research brought them back to their existing interest in another measurement system, the lie detector, that also attempts to go beyond simple measurement of sound, and in this case attempts with ‘scientific’ (numerical, algorithmic) means to measure not just the truthfulness of human speech, but the emotional state of the speaker: excited, stressed, uncertain and so on. The work is not just a playful engagement with the notion of speech intelligibility but also a statement of the ultimate futility of any mathematical algorithm to read the emotional affect of sound, and throws up the inevitable questions around the value placed on scientific research as an absolute ‘truth’.


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Max Dixon


ScapeShift ‘De   Chirico is the first painter to have thought of making a painting speak about something other than painting itself.’ —— Magritte Evolved without earlids, hearing hardwired for fight or flight, we now live our lives largely in a learned unlistening. Where once the world spoke to us in a thousand voices full of meaning, our global megamachine now drones with scant regard for us and without purpose. We have tuned out from nature and into culture, but we don’t quite have the right hardware and software for coping with what is now waste, but could be resource. For decades scientists have sought universal relationships between what can be measured, and human response. This is, of course, not to deny unique experiences of place and time that have more often been the domain of the artist, but to inform prediction and response to rapid and multi-dimensional change where noise has typically been the forgotten pollutant. However, even looking at basic examples of ‘dose-response’ relationships — where reactions to exposure to a particular stimulus, like traffic noise or ‘noisy neighbours’, are meas­ured — typically yields ‘measles plot’ rather than a clean data curve. Humans do not all respond to increasing noise to the same degree. However, this does not necessarily mean that response is purely subjective. We may have been measuring the wrong things. For example, humans are not good at judging comparative loudness, but are better at pattern recognition — what is it, and what does it mean, if anything? The universal dose-response relationship eludes capture. Context and meaning, it seems, are nearly everything. There is still, however, a need for forms of soundscape description that allow the public, policymakers and designers to construct better mental images for when and where they cannot be present, such as in prediction. For example, indicators of ‘music-likeness’ may hold for how people respond to several different mixes of sounds in open spaces. Cardiovascular risk may be predictable by night noise events. However, leading scientists increasingly recognise the need to move beyond measures of sound energy, loudness, even quality. Human ‘listening state’ or attentiveness, activity, knowledge, and cross-modality with other senses are important. Listeners bring their own emotions and experiences; they have expectations; they seek meanings. Psychologists, neurologists and many other social and scientific disciplines are working to improve understanding of listeners as active participants. More sophisticated analysis of the language people use about sound will be needed, but we will also need more sensitive studies of behaviour in real world situations, as well as more sophisticated measurement of our bodies and brains in the laboratory.

But if our sound worlds have become essentially problematic, in terms of dissonance between environments in which we evolved, and those we have created, is it only scientists who can help us find new ways to listen or cope? If we wish for a shift in cultures of listening, what is the role of those who claim a licence from society to play with perception? Artists can, of course, explore new dimensions of being human, and demonstrate new possibilities in ways not open to scientists, urban managers or others. Artists have been challenging us to rethink listening throughout modernity. The insights of artists do not necessarily themselves change consciousness, but they can be lightening rods revealing shifts in the social and cultural tectonic plates. Not many would want to literally embrace Luigi Russolo’s intoxification with the noises of machines, particularly if the Futurists’ fascist sympathies were symptoms of societies drunk on the violence of mass industrialisation and colonialism, and sliding into war. But how society thought about sound did shift. Two examples of ‘scapeshift’ might be Erik Satie rushing around the salon inciting the public not to listen to his ‘furniture music’, and, of course, John Cage’s 4'33" . So it is not just brave of the EPSRC to support the artists’ strand of the Positive Soundscapes Project. It recognises that there are major shifts underway both in how scientists analyse human perceptions of sound, and in how people interact with their sound worlds in their daily lives. One role of the Positive Soundscape Projects has been to redress imbalance, to nudge the pendulum away from an exclusive focus on the negative effects of particular noises. However, unlike De Chirico’s painting, soundscape is nearly always about something other than itself. We will also need to avoid any suggestion of a new Pollyanna principle prejudging meanings. For example, we may be able to improve the sound quality of new generations of vehicles and other machines. However, as the evidence of climate change bears in on us, the ‘social meanings’ of such machines could change more rapidly — they may not actually sound better, because we know with more conviction how they are trashing the planet. Changing patterns of human activity also pose challenges. For example, a rich soundscape full of meanings may well encourage us to spend more time outside, walking in our cities. The same kind of soundscape, however, might be the last thing we desire in and around our workplace, where we may be spending an increasing amount of our time in abstract brainwork, where sounds with meaning compete for scarce space in the part of the brain handling short-term memory. Planning and urban design may need to retreat from too fine a grain of land use mixing, as understanding grows on how our needs vary according to our activity.


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Mobile phones may increasingly converge with iPods and worn or semi-implanted personal computing to offer us more choice over how we experience incoming sounds. Perhaps we will choose to augment certain sound signals, such as the higher pitches of birds. Perhaps ambient-responsive generative compositions, perhaps just an intelligent earplug, will learn our soundscape preferences. Perhaps we will choose to monitor our personal exposure, not just to reduce the risks of ‘losing the music’ through over-exposure, but to devise coping strategies. Most of all, just as survival demands new ways of managing climate change and has made thinking in terms of an ecological ‘commons’ of vital urgency, maybe we will evolve new ways of negotiating the acoustic commons?

Max Dixon is an urbanist specialising in noise and soundscapes, who advised on London’s ‘Sounder City’ strategy


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Published by Electra Ltd 40 Rosebery Avenue London EC1R 4RX ISBN 978-0-9560180-1-4 © Electra 2009 Editors: Angus Carlyle and Irene Revell Text Editor: Anne Hilde Neset All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, including photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing by the publishers. Design Practise, London James Goggin with Régis Tosetti & Annett Höland Print Beacon Press, East Sussex Printed with vegetable-based inks on 100% recycled post-consumer waste (text) and FSC-certified card (cover) Thank You Peter Cusack, Max Dixon, Lina Dzuverovic, Sinead McCarthy, Fatima Hellberg, Dave Hunt, Anna Harding, Jim Prevett, Paul Pieroni, Corinne Bannister, Hoagy Dunnell, SPACE, John Cowley, Eve Waring, John Willett, Joanne Leach, Victoria Hume, Royal Brompton and Harefield Arts, Astrid Wingler, Bart Feys, Vitra The Positive Soundscapes Project and Sound Escapes exhibition is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Additional funding for Sound Escapes comes from OCA (Office For Contemporary Art Norway),and support in kind from University College London, Imperial College and Vitra. Electra is regularly funded by Arts Council England.


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