It isn’t to privilege the visual to say that listening to field recordings is like opening a window. This isn’t about looking through glass, real or metaphorical; it’s about opening a window, and letting the sounds and their myriad associations flow in.
The Canada-based urbansoundecology.org seeks to open just such windows on Toronto and Vancouver, where people are taking recording devices with them to sound-map concisely defined physical areas. These sound maps take the form of brief audio recordings, about the length of a long pop song, annotated with information like location, weather, device, and a brief list of recognizable sonic elements (“crow, gravel, industry, road”; “crowd, march, traffic”). Here are four recent recordings, each track associated with one of the maps up above (clockwise from upper left) :
The geolocative essence of the Urban Sound Ecology project is emphasized by those rarefied maps, which look less like real life and more like the view from an early flight-control video game. They suggest the recordings as pure document, pure data, when in fact the recordings are just as messy as real life. There’s child’s adorable gibberish in “Renfrew Ravine,” followed by thunder (MP3); the ever so still white noise of “Crows on Still Creek Drive,” occasionally interrupted by the title subject, and the honking of human horns (MP3); the surf (and, late in the piece, conversation) of “Jericho Beach” (MP3); the school cheers of “Frosh march,” swallowed by traffic (MP3).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Urban Sound Ecology interface is that tiny orange line that appears in each of the visual interfaces. That is the path walked by the recorder: a sudden reverse in the first and fourth pieces, an extended but truncated journey on the second, and what looks like a brief jaunt straight into the water in the third.
The strict orange line serves as a kind of emblem of composition; it’s the graphic marker of the human element, the decision-making that went into what is, otherwise, a matter of geography and chance encounters.
Visit the service at urbansoundecology.org.