Body Sonic / Coronavirus Surroundsound

[Image: A shot of “Carl Craig: Party/After-Party” (2020), by Don Stahl, via Artforum.]

There’s a great moment in a recent article by Jace Clayton, who reviews an installation by DJ and musician Carl Craig for Artforum, where Clayton talks about music’s relationship to empty space.

There is something of “a sonic axiom,” Clayton writes: “Amplified music sounds terrible in empty rooms. The less stuff there is in any given space, the more sound waves will bounce around the walls and ceiling and glass, losing definition as they both interrupt and double themselves. The resulting audio is smeary, muffled, and diffuse. However, when the same space fills with bodies moving around, those waves are absorbed, dampening those irksome reflections and allowing us to hear the sound more powerfully and in far greater detail.”

The effect is such that “the only thing that could make [music] sound better is people.” Bodies make music better—a second sonic axiom, as well as an optimist’s call for more social listening. In other words, your music will sound better the more people you experience it with. Hang out with others. Be bodies. Share.

In any case, Clayton’s piece went online a couple weeks ago but I find myself thinking about it almost daily, as the acoustic effects of the coronavirus lockdown become clear in cities around the world.

“As the pandemic brought much of the crush of daily life to a halt,” the New York Times reported, “microphones listening to cities around the world have captured human-made environments suddenly stripped of human sounds.” To put this in Clayton’s terms, cities are now spaces without bodies.

Think, for example, of Francesca Marciano describing “the new silences of Rome” in an age of coronavirus, or the New York Times itself pointing out how, in Manhattan, “the usual chaos of sounds—car horns, idle chatter and the rumble of subways passing frequently below—[has] been replaced by the low hum of wind and birds. Sound levels there fell by about five decibels, enough to make daytime sound more like a quiet night.”

There is an interesting paradox at work here, though, in terms of a widely reported belief that birds appear to be singing louder than ever before: birds are actually quieting down now, as they have less competition to out-sing. As the NYT writes, this is “because they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the racket of the city, a behavior, known as the Lombard effect, that has been observed in other animals, too.”

[Image: Gowanus, Brooklyn; photograph by Geoff Manaugh.]

I’ve written at length about sound and the city elsewhere, but one of my favorite pieces on this was a short profile of acoustic engineer Neill Woodger, then-head of Arup’s SoundLab, published in Dwell way back in June 2008.

There, Woodger made the point that, as we transition to electric vehicles, which will remove the sound of the internal combustion engine from our cities, we are being given a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime acoustic opportunity: to redesign urban space for sound, highlighting noises we might want to hear—birdsong, bells, distant train whistles—and helping to excise those we do not.

The coronavirus, it seems, has inadvertently set the stage for another such sonic opportunity. Our global urban lockdowns have all but stripped our cities of “bodies moving around,” in Clayton’s words, such that our streets now sound quite eerie, as if replaced by uncanny muted versions of themselves, or what Marciano calls “an atmosphere of peaceful suspension, as when it snows and everything is wrapped in cotton wool.”

Much has been made of how temporary design interventions in response to COVID-19—things like wider sidewalks, outdoor cafes, streets liberated from cars and opened up to children, families, and the elderly—might become permanent.

In this context, what permanent acoustic shifts might we hear coming from all this, as well?

(Consider picking up a copy of Jace Clayton’s book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.)

Fob Jam

[Image: Unrelated photo of an Ohio suburb, via the Library of Congress, altered by betway必威 ].

When most of the electronic car fobs and garage door openers stopped working in an Ohio suburb, the explanation was found only by systematically mapping the town’s electromagnetic landscape.

This involved tracking down stray power signals, then turning those signals off one by one to determine which of them had been interfering with the frequencies emitted by car electronics. It was like tuning a neighborhood back to radio silence.

I’m reminded of an anecdote about experimental musician Felix Hess, as described in David Toop’s excellent book, Ocean of Sound. Requiring a performance space bothered by no “extraneous sounds,” Hess soon found that total silence was an impossible goal. There were tiny noises everywhere.

“So first we turned off the air conditioner in the room,” Toop writes in his book, “and then we turned off the one on the second floor. Then we turned off the refrigerator and the electric cooking equipment in the adjoining cafe, the power of the multi-vision in the foyer, and the power of the vending machine in a space about ten metres away. One by one we took away these continual noises, which together created a kind of drone… Hess was very interested in this and said things like, ‘From now on maybe I should do a performance of turning off sounds.’”

This town in Ohio was like a Felix Hess performance recast as a police operation.

Eventually, it led to one particular house in the neighborhood where radio signal emissions were “extraordinarily powerful.” They were coming from a kind of amateur burglar alarm, “a homemade battery-operated device designed by a local resident to alert him if someone was upstairs when he was working in his basement,” we read. “The inventor and other residents of his home had no idea that the device was wreaking havoc on the neighborhood, he said, until [local resident] Mr. Glassburn and a volunteer with expertise in radio frequencies knocked on the door.”

In any case, I love the idea of this strange, invisible world of radio signals infesting our quietest, most domestic neighborhoods, of future potential conflicts simmering amongst neighbors with the installation of every new burglar alarm, every car fob, every wireless speaker, even every cutting-edge medical implant, of gathering storms of electromagnetic contamination causing suburban garage doors to freeze in place or shudder open at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Think of the bizarre story of Hulk Hogan’s back implant that allowed him to open garage doors from a distance, but now scale that up to a domestic comedy set in a town of retirees, all of whom are amateur home-electronics tinkerers, where every day is a new electromagnetic misadventure.