Especially for ‘City Life’ the monthly talkshow of journalist Tracy Metz in The Balie Amsterdam I wrote this column for her website about listening to the city and the secrets it yields to you.
The sounds of Amsterdam The Netherlands 2016, Chengdu China 1986 and 2016 will reveal the sound of globalization.
For earbuds only!!
Film Academy Amsterdam, sound lesson (2010) | Photo: Bob Bronshoff | Concept and sound: Cilia Erens
Every year since 2003 first-year students at the Dutch Film Academy listen to the Mr. Visser Square next door, as part of my lecture ‘Audible Space’. For ten minutes they sit there, blindfolded, in their folding chairs. When the ten minutes are up they take off their blindfolds and return to the classroom. They count the number of audible spaces they pass through on the way, both outside and inside, spaces that can only be counted once they are heard.
Standing in a silent huddle we listen to the lift ascending in the lift shaft, the sounds of our coats touching, suppressed laughter, the creaking floor boards beneath our feet, a collective silence. Once inside the classroom in an explosion of chatter, students tell of their initial fears that motor cycles might drive over their toes, about the rattle of rickety bikes and ticking traffic lights, about how hitherto hidden aspects of life are revealing themselves by means of sound. For most of the 1000 students who have gone through the folding-chair-and-blindfold experience those ten minutes have been a true ‘ear opener’.
My background is in city planning and I like to listen to cities.
I listen to the human city when I listen to the small-scale sounds of the Nieuwmarkt area, to the musical city when I cycle across the Weesperplein amid the car tyres rumbling over the tram tracks. I have started to call these sound patterns Random Rythms’. These urban noises sometimes make me fall silent. They are always there but go unnoticed by many.
Globalization in China caught in sound
In China too I came across aspects of ‘hidden city’. For my sound research project ‘Time Lapse China 1986-2015, I went back to the places I recorded during my first visit some 29 years earlier.
I used a special, three-dimensional recording technique to capture the sounds of these Chinese cities which have experienced massive and exponential growth in record time.
Again I found myself standing on a curb in Chengdu, a city with a population of 100,000 in 1986, now a megalopolis and home to millions.
I returned to the same main street, close to Central Square, with its towering statue of Mao. I could hear the immense white noise of the city produced by low-frequency combustion motors in the massive flow of traffic, the uniform sound of globalisation.
Gone completely is the massive high frequency jangle of the bike bells, lost in time, tucked away in the subconscious memories of millions of Chinese over 30. That is how fast things have changed. Listening to Chengdu in 1986 now is like stepping into a time machine.
At the same time I discovered something else, another hidden aspect of urban China. The fact that many cars were electric, just like most of the mopeds and scooters, only became evident in the silent side-streets of the city. There I could hear tyres traversing asphalt, conversations between drivers and his pillion passengers, the screeching of brakes. Suddenly, street life in all its variations sounded clear, as if ‘holes’ were appearing in the traffic noise.
So what will lie hidden in the sound of urban China in the near future? A busy zooming of drones and helicopters over streets crowded with e-traffic? I can’t wait to go back and listen to the changes and record them in 3D sound.
On May 30 ‘Stadsleven’(City life) in De Balie include Bianca Stigter, Dagan Cohen, Saskia Hoogendoorn and myself.