What does it mean to listen to a city? In order to re-evaluate one’s city for a distant listener’s ears one must remove oneself from any comfortable, lasting perception of a home one feels one knows intimately and set out instead to perceive it anew. A city, more than the spatial sum of its streets and buildings, is the life and the people that shape and impact these spaces. As human constructs cities are not static, they morph with use and bear physical witness to the histories that filled them.
In 2008 we were commissioned to create 13 radio compositions, which we treated as sound works due to our long arts-radio background working with Resonance104.4FM. These audio landscapes of London were for national broadcast in Colombia under themes such as ‘Future Cities’, destined for an unseen audience in an imagined Bogotá, so many hundreds of miles away. We were essentially repositioning the genre of radio as Bertolt Brecht had hoped for,[i] as a means of two-way communication, a portal to travel through in a city to city exchange for which we also broadcast here in London Colombian audio portraits of their own capital.
Intended as lines of transmission, we called the series Vasos Comunicantes (2008); ‘lines of communication’ or ‘veins’, a perfect analogy for the coursing passageways that keep London alive. We over-layered the acoustic properties of the veins of the city, identifying loci that best describe how the past had shaped present architectures.
The one passage that splits London at its core, from where the skyline opens and the usually extremely close city sounds are somewhat removed is the River Thames. We rode a small public transport boat in order to situate the audio recorder in this distinct position of being outside yet immersed in the idea of a place.
The narrative came from a cockney waterman driving a repurposed, wooden-lined police vehicle, taking commuters from London Bridge as far as Battersea. The starting place had to be Southwark because, once a city of its own outside of London, the borough’s pre-industrial and historic reputation for spirit and outsider identity we felt resonated on multiple levels with our corresponding capital: Bogotá; the much-worn architecture of narrow streets and cobbles characterizing both historic centres.
At one time, the Thames was toxic, but is now the cleanest city river in the world. This fact would be of significance to Colombians as the Bogotá River is considered one of the most polluted in the world. This river journey, not on land yet surrounded by London’s most iconic buildings, permits the view of the city from the outside and to see it as an organism that grew and expanded naturally around a body of water often evoked as its lifeblood and at other times its poison.
Much of London’s earliest remaining architecture is defined by the river and wharfs; the direction the buildings face, the flood level windows, the broadness of the windowpanes facing the river. This was in stark contrast with Dubai where we later lived and created architectural sound pieces to reflect its cityscape. Devoid of a natural center, Dubai is partly buildings that face or relate to passages towards the sea, divided instead by a motorway running parallel along the coast. A port from the earlier modern era of colonialism, metropolitan Dubai as we know it is about 50 years old and architecturally reflects the speed and the financial climate it was built in. There is little pedestrian, public or naval travel; it is cars that course through the veins of Dubai, which embodies Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s ‘generic city,’ a metropolis of nondescript buildings centered on an airport and inhabited by a tribe of global nomads with ‘few local loyalties’.[ii]
As a matter of course then, our London audio pieces centered around intersections and pedestrian passages. These configurations of the semantics of “passage” allowed the spaces to become themselves areas of translation of society, much like the radio pieces were.
Compare the broadness of the river with the acoustic richness it affords to the claustrophobic architecture of London’s old residential slums (i.e. Bermondsey, St Katharine Docks, etc.) now gentrified. A city’s architecture is defined by housing, which H. Read defines, in his essay, titled “To Hell With Culture,” as a basic requirement for a democratic society,[iii] and a key area, in which the commercial viability of the ‘art of architecture’ is exposed. Narrow streets and small windows cause the limited sounds to ricochet up the street. To walk these quarters and then reach the river is to experience the relief an open landscape offers Londoners of any background. In Sounds of the Middle Classes, Haytham El-Wardany wrote “Squalid social mores dictate that when two classes meet, the higher retains the right to speak and the lower holds its peace,”[iv] but even if this were true, there exist these loci of shared reverence.
One way to convey the claustrophobic sounds of London’s working class architecture was via the metaphor of the underground tube system. Above air, where the sun shone on the glass of the boat, the passionate narrative of our seasoned waterman contrasted starkly with the emotionless, automated underground service over which we laid his narrative. Robotic voices boomed high above the pattering pedestrians in that warren of tunnels.
The London Transport Museum made their archives available to us; a bicycle bell, morning greetings on the daily commute…the intensely close and personal radio presenter bringing together a radio nation; in stark contrast with ‘broadcasts’ made on the train platforms, where a computer continually relays that they are ‘sorry for the delay’. The realities of these sounds make themselves apparent behind the barrier of language to communicate a sense of time in space, something to which we would later return, in installation works created in Dubai.
Although not as pedestrian as London (the city had no money for public transport infrastructure), Bogotá’s downtown street activity is focused around the distinctive architecture of public squares, a remnant of Spanish colonialism. Recording within the spatial geometry of a square one becomes aware of traffic’s absence, in contrast to the London’s street-side conversations, momentarily halted by bus breaks or alarm sirens. The acoustics of the square centralize the sounds, which return from the buildings at its periphery. These activities are a means for the public to hear themselves, the aural reflection a function of audibility and therefore self-awareness, echoed in London’s street carnivals and the way they reflect from residential buildings on either side of the procession.
A discussion on a future London and Bogotá with project members formed the narrative for one of the pieces (Future Cities) and was a premonition for both the London and Dubai of today. An early concern[v]
was voiced during these for the loss of open sky and the hemming in of the acoustics of daily life. The worry was that public space would give over to privately owned and managed spaces, and city living become would increasingly gated. Fencing themselves from the reality of the streets they live in, gated communities were generally agreed on as detrimental to society and the motives of town planning were questioned.
The Spanish programs created by the National University in Bogotá were broadcast back to back with our own on UN Radio 98.5 FM. The 26 shows were first in Spanish and then English (translated, although oftentimes we would not use language at all). This amount of translation meant for a great deal of intense listening and exchanging hands. This way the English programs became echoes, affirmations, much like voices bouncing back from interior architectures in Variations, a later performance of ours that we will discuss herewith.
Feedback from Bogotá after the broadcasts revealed how our Colombian counterparts had received our creative differences: “We learned from the London programs: we thought each was unique, did not follow a format (unlike ours) and explored not only sound but also different languages. I feel that they really let you catch a glimpse of the flesh and blood of London. We also learned from production techniques and teaching processes, observing your way of assuming the project, […] a different way of producing radio.” [vi]
Variations for a Space and its History (2015) was an extension of these and other works such as Variations for Rooms and a Tone (2010 – ongoing), which explored the material impact of architecture on sound. The blueprint for these different iterations of Variations was always the drawing out of architecturally defined tones, specific to each venue, just as Vasos was a way of drawing out of the sonic narratives of a city.
For an Art Dubai 2015 commission, entitled Variations for a Space and its History, we extended our investigation into materially altered sound as a means of pointing to a pre and post architectural presence and intersecting them, like a moiré pattern. The piece, a mixture of installation and performance, featured a synthesized acoustic space as imagined by us, of possible past for that locale. This construct in sound, a synthesized spatial history, spoke of a presence that would outlast any current delineation of that spot by existing buildings. Born from a discussion around how the sonic footprint of a mosque is much larger than its physical one and how lasting that would be as a memory for the local community, sound became a way of inserting a distant time or place into the present, as it had with Vasos Comunicantes. Instead of imagining a city, the work described a fictional past. Sound and radio are to us both mediums prone to error and distortion, just as historical accounts betray the bias and prejudices of their authors or patrons.
In Variations, we began to apply the voice as tool for investigating the social dynamics of an enclosed space. For early performances a choir of mostly untrained singers who were architects and engineers began, over months, to collaborate with our sound installation as it rung out the resonant frequencies of the building in rolling, changing tones. The architects used body and voice to ‘collaborate’ with the architecture as a means to investigate the physical properties of the environment, a symbol for buildings they had designed and built but never actually ‘experienced’. This phenomenological approach also enquired whether it was possible to adequately describe a space using sound. The performance breached the distance between creator and end user, in this way, foreshortening the architectural theory and experience of the building.
Variations for a Space and its History began with a number of prompts, ideas that connected sound and the past. One of these was the contested and idealized area of archeo-acoustics which locates the physical reality of the past in the present. Archeo-acoustics posits sound works as a metaphor for a recollection of that past, albeit at an infinitely subtle energy level. Imagine for example, acoustic vibrations inscribed into ancient pottery by a potter, singing as he worked, his tools engraving the sound into the clay much like the scoring of a vinyl record’s surface. Variations extended the idea of the medium of clay out into the air itself; do spaces record sounds that predate their currently defined architectural spaces? Variations suggests a poetical inversion of the architectural norm: architecture does not produce spaces, they pre-exist and had simply been enclosed by the architecture that Guy Debord’s “varied ambiences” [vii] made solid.
The air, as the only constant historical point, we considered playable like the air columns in a pipe organ, actively resonating a fixed pitch. Our approach was to imagine a past for the location of the performance, much like we had conjured Bogotá, and create a sound that evoked the past by interfering with the present; the acoustics of one space, audibly and constructively interfering with another. This resulting third wave form, resulting from the two sounds and representing the result of the past meeting present, is as real and at the same time as fictional as the London we had described to the radio listeners of Bogotá.