The New Phonographers

Urban Sound Ecology is mapping the city one digital recording at a time
By Craille Maguire Gillies
Published April 7, 2011 on Toronto Standard

Leaving behind the whir and din of a JJ Bean coffee shop on a desolate, industrial street in East Vancouver, Max Ritts and I walked to the corner of a quiet, nondescript intersection and made a right. He flipped the switch on his palm-sized Edirol R-09 recorder as we turned away from the traffic and pedestrians of Gastown, with its fashion boutiques, tourist shops and restaurants to the west. The homeless, addicted and down on their luck in the Downtown Eastside were to the east.

With Ritts holding the Edirol in front of him like a dowser, we headed down an alleyway. A chain-link fence separated us from the shipyards on our left. On our right was a warehouse. “I like to go off the grid,” he said, before falling silent so that we captured every sound: the quiet lumbering of a train hauling Hanjin Shipping containers, the hiss of a hydro meter, the clack and scrape of our shoes on the gravelly pavement. When a lone gull gave three shrill staccato cries, like a soloist in avant-garde musical number, Ritts raised the recorder up high.

This has become a hobby of his, wandering alleys, parks, industrial sites and grey spaces to capture the sounds of the city. Ritts moved from Toronto last September to start a PhD in geography at the University of British Columbia. He is tall, lean and has the aspect of a flâneur, wearing a black wool coat and a thin striped wool scarf wrapped neatly around his neck. With the curiosity of a newcomer, Ritts has set about exploring all corners of the city. Instead of a camera, he carries a digital recorder. When he gets home, he uploads the WAV or MP3 tracks to Urban Sound Ecology, a website he co-founded back in Toronto with web designer Greg J. Smith. Listening to a recording is like eavesdropping on someone else’s life, as if they unknowingly called you on their cellphone and you are hearing them go about their day.

Each “soundwalk” recording is geo-referenced on an interactive online street map and annotated with details such as the length of the recording, weather, temperature, time, and what device was used. They have perfunctory but revealing titles: “Wreck Beach,” “Along the tracks in Kerrisdale,” “Kits firecrackers by M. Ritts.” Other titles offer commentary, like “Ends with psychedelic birdsong” and “Slush city.”

Mapping sound makes sense. “These recordings have a cartographic element,” Ritts says. “Sound doesn’t just take place in time, it takes place in space.” Using software such as OpenLayers and OpenStreetMap, the online maps of Toronto and Vancouver turn a few audio recordings into an aural collage of each city: you can hear chatter and traffic outside the Broadway SkyTrain in Vancouver or Islamic and Christian preachers at Yonge and Dundas in Toronto. And anyone can go online to browse a map and listen to unedited field recordings. Or to contribute; Ritts and Smith have recruited a handful of followers in Toronto and Vancouver, and Ritts has students in undergrad communications and geography classes at Simon Fraser University and UBC gathering material for a “sonic geography” show at Western Front Gallery in Vancouver on April 24.

Before they created Urban Sound Ecology in early 2009, neither knew they were joining a long tradition of sound collectives, like NY Soundmap, Montréal Sound Map and Open Sound New Orleans. In Britain, the British Library is collaborating with Noise Futures Network on UK Soundmap. But the field of acoustic ecology has its roots here in Vancouver.

In the late 1960s, composer R. Murray Schafer started the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University to study how sound affects our social and psychological relationship to our environs. Schafer is a prolific scholar who coined the term “soundscape” and became known for his writings on noise pollution (one of his early publications was The Book of Noise). His work spawned a generation of researchers, many of them musicians and sound or radio artists. In 1974, the CBC broadcast a 10-episode series on Ideas called Soundscapes of Canada and members went on to compose music using field recordings from around the country.

The best known is perhaps Barry Truax’s “Dominion,” a composition for 12-piece orchestra that incorporates sounds such as the Noon Day Gun in St. John’s, the chime of the Peace Tower bell in Ottawa and the O Canada horn in Vancouver.

Though grounded in academic rigour, acoustic ecology was based on the idea that we’ve lost a connection to how the world around us sounds. It’s a kind of Venn diagram of sound, person and environment, each affecting the other.

Soundwalks, in turn, are considered by many to be a form of active meditation—one that can’t be captured in an audio recording. Acoustic ecologists sometimes speak about “engaging with the soundscape.”

“It has the strange effect of making the normal seem exotic,” said Ritts. “It spectacularizes the city.”

Not long after we started up the alley, the train with the Hanjin Shipping containers had disappeared and we were out of hearing range of the hydro meter. The sun broke through as we skirted the warehouse and headed toward Gastown. Briefly, the soundscape was quiet. In fact, many recordings – even the ones Smith made last year during the G20 protests in Toronto, with rallying cries, the rumble of water cannons and police advancing in riot gear – have expansive moments of silence, as if the city was enveloped by a calming white noise before the cacophony returned. This is the meditative aspect of such walks, even as the beeping of a crosswalk or the puff of exhaust from a bus or the orchestral blast of birds chirping in a tree intrudes.

When I mentioned that the process feels not just audible, but tactile, Ritts said, “That happens when you record, almost like you’re listening to a composition.” Something else strikes you about listening to recordings of Vancouver: the entire city – whether you’re at Wreck Beach with the ominous sound of an airplane mixed with the cheerful chatter of a couple playing Frisbee, or in Kitsilano, with the rhythmic slosh of feet landing in puddles in 4/4 time – sounds like it is under water. (Ritts notes the location, weather and temperature for each soundwalk. For “Slush City,” the weather is simply listed as “damp.”)

At one point we pass a mysterious sign plastered on a concrete wall that says, “You can’t test the sound.” It’s not a detail Ritts would voice over during a walk. In a manifesto posted on their website, Ritts and Smith discourage people from commenting while recording, which gives the audio a ghostly aspect. “If you leave narration out,” Ritts explained, “you leave more room for interpretation.” Smith, who has D.J.’d for almost a decade and runs the design studio Mission Specialist, put it differently: “Narrative is really boring. A good field recording is kind of like an ephemeral diary entry – it doesn’t have an explicit narrative, but it captures the essence of a particular moment.” Smith recorded the Molson Indy Grand Prix in Toronto. “It was amazing how the massive engines from the race reverberated and bounced around. I felt it in my gut,” he said. “What could I possibly have added to such a visceral, almost otherworldly experience?”

During the G20 meetings, he led soundwalks during a Justice for Our Communities march and the repatriation ceremony of Sergeant James MacNeil, who was killed in Afghanistan. Riot police lined the street as a motorcade arrived at the coroner’s office. “Once the ceremony was over,” Smith recalled, “the officers assembled into a phalanx and marched to intercept the demonstration, rapping their batons on their shields. This was really eerie to hear, and everybody there who was not a law enforcement officer just stood frozen in dumb silence.”

One of his most memorable walks, however, was a stroll west along St. Clair toward Lansdowne. Speakers mounted on lampposts broadcast Muzak outside a string of shops. “This song was playing over the duration of several blocks,” Smith said, “and when the song came to an end I knew my walk had as well.” Recording the walk, he said, only half joking, let him discover the joys of Muzak.

By the time Ritts and I got near Gastown’s famous steam clock in Vancouver, the bleak industrial soundscape had faded, the landscape gentrified. Our voices rose to compete with the traffic until we were almost shouting. (On recordings, Ritts pointed out, cars sound even louder, overpowering the low-fi patter of pedestrians and birds with a hi-fi roar.)

We circled back to Oppenheimer Park and its gulls lounging on the grass. A few minutes later when we parted, Ritts headed toward the terminal to catch a bus home while I walked to the intersection. When the light changed and the crosswalk lets out its measured bleep, I, too, was on my way.
The Roots of Sound Ecology

1961: Experimental composer John Cage publishes Silence: Lectures and Writings.

Late 1960s: R. Murray Schafer founds the World Soundscape Project and coins the term soundscape, setting off four decades of geeky portmanteaus, from soundmark to schizophonia.

1973: WSP members haul briefcase-sized recording devices around Vancouver for its first study. Culminates in a recording, the Vancouver Soundscape Project, featuring water, water and… water.

1974: The CBC Radio program Ideas broadcasts the landmark 10-part series Soundscapes of Canada.

1975: The Vancouver gang heads on a European Tour to document six communities.

1978: Original WSP member, musician and physicist Barry Truax publishes The Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, goes on to create avant-garde compositions using field recordings. Juno winner for best-selling album: Dan Hill for Longer Fuse.