The centre of a city oscillates, vibrates, trembles. In a city centre there is nothing stable, nothing solid – everything is in constant motion each cubic centimetre of the air, each stone, brick, concrete slab, pane of glass, pavement, car windscreen, rail; the eardrums of every citizen, their eyeballs, brains, muscles, bones, livers – all the substances of the city are incessantly penetrated by various waves. Matter is in continual movement: acoustic waves make it tremble, gas molecules constantly bounce off each other, electrical charges flow, the electromagnetic field distorts, heat transfer occurs between bodies. Cities are unique – nowhere else could one find such a complicated mixture of different oscillations, waves and flows; nowhere else are these ‘movements’ in such a degree connected to human activity and communication.
The segment of acoustic waves audible to humans – those between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz – is only the tip of the iceberg. These waves are special for us; the overwhelming majority of people are born equipped with biological sound sensors; already in prenatal life we learn to analyse sound and collect information about the world around us on its basis. Despite this, amongst the general public, sound is still considered to be something ephemeral, and in the frames of our critical reflection on the city we are hardly aware of the constant vibration of its substance. Much less we think about electroacoustic waves, which are even farther from what is, in the common sense, considered to be ‘material’. Various technological tools have been invented which enable us to use radio waves in our daily lives; the electromagnetic field around us is in fact an anthropogenic ‘sculpture’ – in every second a plurality of frequency bands are packed with enormous amounts of data. How often are electricity, temperature, electromagnetic waves (perhaps the visible spectrum may be the only exception here) or acoustic waves an object of actual urban studies and urban design?
What is important is that the route that leads to humanistic descriptions of these factors, at least in Western culture, seems to pass through… music. The 19th-century idea of absolute music, or the abstract approaches of the 20th-century avant-garde (from twelve-tone technique, through musique concrète, to noise music), seem to be scarce examples of the non-scientific, artistic and collective contemplation of certain oscillations of matter themselves; focused not on an ‘object’, but on ‘pure’ acoustic waves – separated from what is commonly considered to be ‘material’, and freed from linguistic semantics. This concept of autonomous sound, developed in the field of contemporary music theory, became in the 70s a basis for classic Canadian acoustic ecology, and in this way influenced an interdisciplinary circle of designers, scholars, urban planners, biologists and sound study researchers in the 90s.
Recently, one may notice a larger interest in sound studies, acoustic environments, sound art, and the culture of sound. In the last few years, sound – once a niche discipline – has become a fancy object of scientific grant applications and lucrative artistic subsidies. The postulate of adopting an ‘ear point of view’ is increasingly popular, yet it seems to be something more than just a temporary focal shift from seeing to hearing. It is also, or perhaps in the first place, a gesture of opening to the dynamics of our environment, to movement which is invisible yet audible. One could imagine a radical expansion of the old field of acoustic ecology, by incorporating inaudible sound frequencies and other types of movement, distortion and waves (advanced studies on underwater soundscapes are already undertaken; biologists are also considering sound from an animal perspective, which is often far from the range of acoustic waves audible to us).
I dream about turning urban studies upside-down for a while; about scientific research on the city, adopting a vision of the world developed by modern physics, and at the same time using the tools of the modern humanities and social sciences – the city as an acoustic environment, but also an electrical network, a thermodynamic system, an electromagnetic field. In all of these spheres, human activity has a decisive impact on the environment; they each reflect even the subtlest change in city culture, and some of them are also of crucial importance for the processes of communication and data transfer. The informed, critical and democratic design of these factors could open our eyes to many social divisions, barriers and inequalities which are currently invisible, which are for various reasons hidden, but also to the ones that we don’t want to see at all.
Krzysztof Marciniak, [source:] Caroline Claus, Urban Sound Design Process, A-I-R Laboratory CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warszawa 2015.