The architecture of the soundscape

In January, we had a preliminary workshop in York where we announced the formation of a new research network on soundscapes in the early world. In preparation for the soundscapes workshops we will run as part of the network, we asked deceptively simple questions about how we define soundscapes and how we engage with historic soundscapes. These questions will be revisited as we focus on particular aspects of the soundscape in the network workshops. What became apparent was the rich and diverse work being undertaken in early modern sound studies and the stimulating lack of consensus over how we conceptualise the soundscape. You can read a report of this meeting here. This workshop ended with a call from architectural historians for us to pay more attention to architectural space.

As if pre-empting this call, our first network workshop met from 22nd-23rd March in Vancouver to discuss the architecture of the soundscape. The night before the workshop, Bruce Smith gave a lecture entitled ‘What is (Are?) Sound Studies and What Shape is it (Are They?) in Now?’. Smith’s rich lecture covered an array of topics, including the differences between replicating and reproducing sounds, the interrelation of sensory experience and the distinctions between sounds we can imagine and sounds we can hear. One of the things it highlighted was the way in which we listen through rather than listen to sounds and how sound affects agency.

Smith’s lecture proved a stimulating precursor to the workshop and many of his insights underpinned discussions. The workshop comprised several case studies for thinking about the relationship between sound and architectural space. The first panel, on the English Renaissance, comprised papers by Jennifer Linhart-Wood and John Craig and a response by Bruce Smith. Linhart-Wood’s paper, ‘Vibratory Resonances in Topkapi Palace and the English Renaissance Theatre’ drew from considering how sound began to be conceptualised as an auditory wave in the late sixteenth century and addressed how this informs our understanding of bodies and matter. Soundwaves mean that we need to consider what happens when an audience can palpably hear and absorb the sounds in their bodies. Linhart-Wood’s intriguing case study was an automated organ sent by Queen Elizabeth I in 1599 to Sultan Mehmed III, which was constructed by Thomas Dellam who also travelled with it to Topkapi Palace in the Ottoman Empire. Dellam and the organ experienced the travails of travel, which ranged from sea sickness to the humidity affecting how the organ operated. Linhart-Wood’s paper was a fascinating exploration of how location and dislocation affect listening through sounds, soundwaves and sensory experience.

Whereas Linhart-Wood explored the auditory meeting between east and west, John Craig revisited the soundscapes of English parish worship to illustrate how it fundamentally changed in the reigns of Edward VI & Elizabeth I. The Reformation not only marked a shift in devotional practice, it also heralded the negotiation of sociability alongside musical expression. Reformists had a tangled relationship with the sounds of worship, where metrical psalms co-existed with the persistence of organs. Sounding boards on the ‘roof’ of the pulpit ensured the audibility of the preacher and the maintenance and persistence of male choirs and of organs in some parishes (compared to the disbanding of choirs and dismantling of organs in other parish churches) highlights how there was more diversity in local devotional practice than might be apparent. Perhaps this came to a head in the 1630s and 1640s, when Archbishop William Laud’s attempts to institute uniformity in church worship led to the Bishops Wars and was a factor in tensions between king and parliament before the outbreak of civil war in 1642. Craig concluded that we need to widen our understanding of the infinite variety of these spaces and the orderly/disorderly sounds of the laity.

In his response, Bruce Smith noted that the pursuit of Craig’s ‘lost sounds’ and Linhart-Wood’s attempt to recreate sound waves are related projects. Both focus upon group listening rather than individual listening and what somebody hears, but the sonic uncanny/listeners from different cultures can be immersed in shared sounds. Smith questioned how people become immersed in sound records such as printed books, the ‘stuff’ of organ building and repairing, and the sound-making properties of theatrical practice, before noting that there is also the acoustic environment (the church/theatre) and the politics of sound (Reformation soundscapes and Dellman’s organ as a token of diplomacy) to take into account: in each instance, we can consider the organ as a site of physical wonder. Smith also noted differences in degrees of attention paid to acoustic spaces in both papers; he asked Craig what difference the location made visually, acoustically and devotionally in terms of the sound space that everyone occupies. Smith also asked whether we need to think about the relationship between words and music in the liturgy and the connection between ‘getting the words out there’ by a single projecting voice and ‘getting the words in here’ (in the body) psycho-acoustically. One is about music and the other is about noise. Smith was interested in how this functions, especially in relation to the communal experience of hearing and the individual experience of listening. While these listening experiences may have different textures and meanings in different spaces, Smith concluded by noting the differences between individual listening and communal listenings, and asking where we locate individuals in our historiography.

The second panel, on early modern Germany, comprised provocative papers by Alex Fisher on confessional space, Duane Corpis on how the laity appropriated bells and disrupted Catholic and Lutheran communities, and Tanya Kevorkian on timekeeping and towers. As Niall Atkinson summed up in his response, Kevorkian challenged us to consider the tower as a point where sound radiates out (and is drawn in) and the communities they tower over. Advances in mechanical clocks in the Baroque meant people internalised regular hours in more precise ways; sound functions as an acoustic regime comprising clocks, horns and trumpets. Sounds are time markers, but also become melodies and words and are coordinated with the temporality of the watchmen who send out sounds and relay sounds to the communities. What emerges is a complex acoustic rhythm. In this context, towers are mainly bi-confessional: civic towers ring out and catholic and protestant towers also ring out. In some cities, towers are playing in sequence with each other and time thus becomes a conversation between towers that crosses confessional divides. The multi-tower configuration of some cities means there is a conversation between Catholic and Protestant towers, which we could consider in terms of what it signifies and tells us about the politics of sonic experience. This raises questions about what these towers mean in the communities to which they are speaking, the nature of time and clocks in the soundscape in which they are situated, and how we understand this configuration between time and space. Whereas Kevorkian focused upon the authoritative soundscape of the town, Corpis illustrated how the laity subverted these soundscapes by articulating how Catholics worked in tandem with authority. Bells have a long history that is simultaneously sacred and secular. The soundscape can be conceived as a series of gestures and resounding vibrations. In summarising his points, Atkinson considered how architectural design becomes codified in the Renaissance. Architectural historians look at designs to understand how space was understood and the music score might be codified in similar ways in an attempt to understand the ‘acoustic crime’ of the Protestant chorale being performed in a Catholic city or how Catholic sound occupies Protestant space.

In the final session of the day on the ‘Global Soundscape’, Linda Sturtz gave a fascinating paper on ‘African-Jamaican Soundscapes of Death’. Drawing from the relationship between material culture, sound and space, and the ways in which bodies and objects are repurposed in African-Jamaican funeral processions, Sturtz took us through the rich tapestry and canivalesque quality of these ceremonies. Originally performed by women’s groups, men in women’s clothing continued the tradition when the women’s groups died out. Both Sturtz and Olivia Bloechl illustrated their points with maps, which brought us back to questions about the relationship between space, place, mapped space, the landscape and the soundscape. In her paper, Bloechl spoke sensitively and eruditely on ‘Listening as an Innu-French Contact Zone in the Jesuit Relations’. Acknowledging that we were meeting on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam people, Bloechl detailed how, when Jesuits decided to issue reports from the French mission outside of Quebec, the enthnographic material that they reported was rich in song, sound dance and listening. Two forms of sonic knowledge and habitual experience overlap when we are reading Jesuit accounts of Native American space and Bloechl explored how Jesuit missionaries occupy this sonic space (are the observers or disruptors?), listen to people listening and the meanings they make when they listen. Taking the Shaking Tent – a rite practiced by the Ojibwa, Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), Cree, Penobscot and Abenaki where a tent was constructed and entered by the shaman after dark to summon spirit helpers through singing and drumming – and how access to this rite was restricted, Bloechl examined how the soundscape accommodates the human and the non-human and how we can develop an approach to hearing that takes into account the politics of the soundscape and which sounds are authorised to be heard.

Emilie Murphy responded to these two excellent papers by identifying three key themes. The first theme centred on how we approach architecture in these discussions; whether we need to de-centre human agency and whether this is possible when we only have subjective human records through which to piece together the soundscape, or whether the body that inhabits the soundscape is an important factor when we consider the Otherness of the body. The second key theme was connected to the architecture of the page and how past soundscapes and the people who experienced them are narrated in the sources. The third element that each paper addressed was how we analyse the architecture of the body and the page. These themes formed the basis of a detailed discussion about the relationship between space and place, which touched upon some of the key concerns of the day. Alex Fisher asked how we bring musical sources back into a discussion on soundscape. If we problematise the soundscape as something that is objectively definable, based on empirical evidence, and then move beyond this to think about how sound is imagined, we can establish a sonic imaginary; we can think of these sources as cues for sonic events. Mute musical sources studied in counterpoint with documented archival evidence might offer a broader sense of soundscape. This account of the soundscape places context and perceiver at the centre, which connects to the definition Fisher gave in his book; the soundscape is not something that exists in the world, but is something that we each imagine in the world. Whether an objective description of a soundscape possible or desirable is open to debate, but what emerged from these discussions was the need to consider our method and what we do when we describe historic sonic environments, how hearing produces a distinct sense of space and the relationship between space and different sensory experiences. All the papers presented in this workshop not only illustrated how sound was heard, they also highlighted how location, space, material culture and visual culture are all elements of the experience of sound.

On the second day of the workshop, we were treated to a rich demonstration by Barry Truax that introduced us to the resources available via the World Soundscape Project and the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology as he explored concepts regarding how (or if) we can reach a social consensus in the soundscape.

During the roundtable discussion, observations were made about the relationship between architectural space and the body. Buildings are not ‘fixed’ in time and space but are organic and are modified to accommodate the bodies that inhabit them as much as people adjust their behaviour to suit particular spaces. What emerged from this workshop was that early modern people are sophisticated readers and listeners of their own spaces and understanding historic sounds enables us to comprehend the experience of architecture and space in a way that focusing solely upon the visual does not. These observations will be useful to bring into our future workshops, where we will examine how sound is archived and the body’s phenomenological relationship with the sounds of the past.


Feature image: ‘Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft’, 1660 by Hendrick van Vliet


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