Sounds of the city: urban noise hits right note

Irish Times

TWO COMPOSERS have found a way to take the discordant “soundscape” of a city and turn it into a form of music. It transforms the buzz of cars, aircraft and clatter of light railways into tones that have a soothing effect.

Sam Auinger and Bruce Odland have been collaborating on urban sound installations for 20 years. They install equipment of their own design plus sound pickups and speakers in an open space and let people experience the result.

“We changed the noise of the city into harmonic sound and played it back in real time,” Odland explained during a session at the forum in Turin.

He said it was all about letting people regain the experience of sound from an urban environment. People typically give significant sensory preference to vision and filter out unimportant sounds. This sensory element of city life was therefore lost. “When you investigate a city through your hearing it is much different than when you investigate a city visually. The soundscape holds meaningful information.”

Their first installation was in Rome in 1991, Auinger said. They were surrounded by traffic and the movement of people, but these familiar sounds were transformed when they put a microphone into a large pottery amphora.

Like holding a sea shell to your ear to hear the sea, the metre-high amphora took the city sounds and changed them. They then played the sounds back in real time over a speaker.

It was a bustling streetscape but when they relayed the softer sounds resonating in the amphora, those nearby reacted to it, Auinger said. “What we saw at the installation was everybody really calmed down,” he added.

To hear a sample of the installation read this story on