If you live in a city, you’ve probably had the unpleasant experience of waking up to the screeching, clanging, revving and drilling soundtrack of a construction site.
While the cacophony of construction is typical of most cities—and Canada’s summers, as the saying goes—they’re certainly not the only noisy places.
Max Stein knows this very well: he’s spent the past three years listening to Montréal.
As a sound artist, Stein is particularly sensitive to the sounds in his environment. While most people walk the streets with earphones plugged into their mp3 players on full blast, their personal soundtrack pounding in their every step, Stein carries a microphone instead.
Stein, who is finishing up his final semester at Concordia University where he studies electronic acoustic music, came across sound maps of New York City and Mississauga three years ago. Inspired, he decided to map Montréal’s sounds.
Sound maps are what their name implies: they are interactive maps that describe the sounds available at various locations. Creating and using them are sound reminders—pun fully intended—that people are only mildly aware of their acoustic environment. We tend to hear things rather than listening to them.
Like most online sound maps, the Montréal Sound Map uses a basic Google Map and icons that point to the sounds that Stein and his friends have recorded over the years. Some of the sounds have accompanying photos and descriptions to place them in context.
Today, services like Google Maps and light, portable recording equipment make small-scale sound maps easy to produce.
That also means it’s difficult to maintain a sound map over a long period of time. It’s tempting to create a sound map for isolated events—like the Berlin Wall Sound Map, which was created 20 years after the wall fell—and use it as a snapshot.
Stein’s goal is different, however; he wants his sound map to act more like a rolling video. In 10 years, he says, Montréal might sound very different, whether it’s because of changes in architecture, demographics or other factors.
In the past three years, Stein has already noticed a difference. The mechanical ring of the punch cards used in Montréal’s metro system, for example, gave way to a beep following a switch to RFID magnetic cards.
Technological leaps might transform sound maps drastically in the coming years, so a sound map 10 years from now will probably look nothing like the two-dimensional models we see today.
But the basic concept of sound maps likely won’t change. A city’s growth and expansion are often clearly visible. Sound maps prove the change is also audible.
Sound maps aren’t new. Artists and scientists have been studying the role of sound in the environment for years. Canadian composer Murray Schafer is credited with coining the term “soundscape” in the 70s to refer to sounds in the environment.
In 1973, Schafer and a troupe of musicians and students launched the World Soundscape Project. In addition to creating a soundscape for Vancouver, they recorded sounds across Canada that then became part of a CBC Ideas radio series.
Their aim, in part, was to draw people’s attention to the noises around them.
Schafer also led a tour through villages in Sweden, Germany, Italy, France and Scotland. His group kept a sound diary in which they sketched the places they visited and noted the kinds of sounds they heard. Their recordings are still available on tape.
Recently, a group of Finnish researchers retraced the steps of the World Soundscape Project to listen to how urbanization changed the villages.
“Important history can be presented through sound, just like photography,” says sound artist Darren Copeland. The head of New Adventures in Sound Art, a non-profit group that creates sound art installations, helped create the Mississauga sound map that inspired Stein.
Copeland’s Toronto-based organization runs three sound art festivals throughout the year. Some festivals feature sound walks, which you can “technically do every day,” he says. Participants actively listen to the sounds around them as they walk, taking note of the sources of each sound and how the noises interact.
Copeland studied at Simon Fraser University, which is also where Schafer launched the World Soundscape Project. Sounds, he says, convey the effect of humans on their landscape.
“Any subset of the population comes with its own sounds,” he says, “whether it’s boom boxes or sounds from religious practices.”
When the sounds people produce mask sounds in the environment, “noise pollution becomes part of the conversation.”
“Loud noises may draw people in, but they don’t necessarily engage them,” he says.
Copeland says that while he often has to record sounds as part of his work, he also likes to put down the recorder occasionally.
“Technology distracts from the pure pleasure of hearing sound,” he says. “Microphones amplify sound, but they distort sounds spatially, because you’re hearing them in two directions through your headphones.”
The audio snapshot that sound maps provide might also be misleading. Parliament Hill, for instance, only gets this noisy when more than 400,000 people celebrate Canada Day there (If an audio player doesn't appear below, click on the "Canada Day 2011" link):
Future sound maps may be more accurate. They might be able to recreate the multidimensional aspect of sound, and they might become more interactive if they are installed in public places. The Montréal Sound Map, for instance, was available to passersby at the Quebec national library in Montréal last fall.
They might also be able to recreate a virtual sound walk.
Like other maps, however, they’re still only a representation. To really appreciate sounds, listening is still the best tool.