Aurality and the modern urban landscape

01/12/2014 - Aurality
Aurality and the modern urban landscape

An exploration of the city as a prime motivator for intermedia analysis


My research explores the notion of place, identity and the sonic representation of urban

spaces. It is differentiated from acoustic ecology (R. Murry Schaefer, Barry Truax,

Hildegard Westerkamp) and musique anecdotique (Luc Ferrari) in that the sound of the

environment itself is not the primary concern within the composition. What is

foregrounded is the psychological impression of the built, urban space on the individual.

Any sense of what an urban environment is emerges impressionistically through

associative and cognitive processes. Architecture and urban landscapes provide visual and

aural stimuli that can be discussed through an engagement with aesthetics and an

appreciation of the notion of symbolism with particular reference to the semantic

understanding of poietics and esthesics. As Nattiez suggests:

…a symbolic form… is not some ‘intermediary’ in a process of ‘communication’ that transmits the meaning intended by the author to the audience; it is instead the result of a complex process of creation (the poietic process) that has to do with the form as well as the content of the work; it is also the point of departure for a complex process of reception (the esthesic process) that reconstructs a ‘message.'” (Nattiez 1990 – Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, p.17)

Coupled with any philosophical contextual analysis of the urban landscape, an

investigation into the ‘concrete’ sonic and visual worlds and the way that sound

interpolates with our perception of the city, is pertinent to understanding any study of

the urban auralscape.

Research Questions

I will draw on the aesthetics of Gernot Böhme and his notion of architecture and

atmosphere, the writings of Guy Debord, Iain Sinclair, Charles Jencks, Marshall

Berman, Reyner Banham, Henri Levebvre, Walter Benjamin, Le Corbusier and (among

others) Iannis Xenakis. To contextualize my work within a musical frame I will discuss

the sense of place and identity apparent in specific compositions and more broadly those

composers whose work is associated with a sense of actual place. Elgar’s Cockaigne

(Edwardian London) Burial (21st Century London) Richard Skelton and his evocative

musical imaginings made and based on the landscape of the West Pennine Moors. Dusk

and Blackdown’s portrait/travelogue of another, darker London which began with their

debut album Margins Music or John Surman’s Cornish travelogue Road to St. Ives. These

works epitomise a range of approaches to the descriptive representation of place in

music; I envisage an open and experimental response to urban architecture and space,

evoking the form and structure of the environment through a psychological and

philosophical encounter.

It is the urban explorer, or more specifically Charles Beaudelaire’s ‘la flaneur’, that

Walter Benjamin adopts to describe the concept of the urban observer both as an

exploratory analytical tool and an emblematic figure of urban, modern experience.

Similarly, Guy Debord describes the city traveller as one who explores the urban

environment through the ‘drift’ or ‘dérive’ (any unplanned journey through an urban

landscape) where the contours of the surroundings direct the participant with the

intention of encountering authenticity and unique experiences.

“a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” (Guy Debord)

Research Methodology

Though specific engagement with architectural studies, urban environmental studies and

city planning I will investigate how the language and methodology of the urbanscape has

a parallel on electronic musical composition.

I will apply the concept of psychogeography to explore the cognitive, emotional and

physical impact that architecture and the constructed urban environment has on both

the integrated inhabitant and the casual wanderer. An urban environmental experience

offers a panoply of contrasting and conflicting forms, visual anomalies and audible

detail; superficially perceived as towering, brutal, sensitive, open, historical, landscaped,

modern, minimal, ornate, bland and engrossing. Interestingly, each individual perceives

this assessment, derived as it is from cumulative experience, through the filter of personal

identity and the direction and focus of the ‘gaze’.

In my music landscape is a determining presence. …there is a moment when I suddenly become aware of “where I am,” of the physical place, its light, its climate. It’s a kind of epiphany, after which everything flows and expands more easily. (Brian Eno – I DORMIENTI – Brian Eno and Mimmo Paladino 2000 ACSEditore Milan)

Through a philosophical and physical engagement with the urbanscape I will explore,

empirically and theoretically, the relationship between the urban protagonist and the

built environment. I believe there can be a sonic representation of the urbanscape

through abstract form and metaphor and I aim to provide a body of work that

provides evidence of such an association.

Through my practice as a live improvising performer and composer of electronic

music, I will apply the guitar, mixer, electronics and MAX processing abilities, which is

fundamental to my current process, within a practical framework of experimentation

for the production of unique sonic material.

I envisage a portfolio of works encompassing, electronic composition, site specific and

live performance video records, video as artefact and still photography. This may take

the presentational form of an interactive publication such as an iBook or web site. The

emphasis on the urban environment and my interdisciplinary practice would provide a

rich seam of critical possibilities for my PhD research.