Audio Architecture

[Note: This post was originally written for Blend – so it reads a bit like an article – though it was not actually published].

The company known as Muzak claims to provide "audio architecture" for its clients.
Audio architecture may sound wonderful; the phrase may conjure up images of cathedrals made from noise – whole buildings connected by bridges of music – but, in the world of Muzak, it means something less exciting. Audio architecture, Muzak writes, is "the integration of music, voice and sound to create experiences designed specifically for your business."
In other words, audio architecture is about making you feel comfortable – so that someone else can sell you things.
The "power" of audio architecture, Muzak's website continues, "lies in its subtlety." These subtle sounds, played incessantly in the background, can "bypass the resistance of the mind and target the receptiveness of the heart." It is thus almost literally subliminal. "When people are made to feel good in, say, a store, they feel good about that store. They like it," Muzak claims. "Audio architecture builds a bridge to loyalty. And loyalty is what keeps brands alive."
If there is a connection between background sounds and customer loyalty, perhaps sound could also inspire a kind of urban loyalty, where the sound of a certain city plays its own subtle role in making that place more inhabitable.
Like Muzak, the city’s sound makes residents "feel good" – which "builds a bridge to [urban] loyalty."

Of course, this would not be the first time someone has suggested that cities have a certain sound, unique to them, or that cities should learn to cultivate their unique sonic qualities.
More than thirty years ago, the World Soundscape Project called for the "tuning" of the world. Cities would be treated as vast musical instruments: certain sounds would be eliminated altogether; others would be promoted or even subtly redesigned. The World Soundscape Project was about sonic improvement, making the world sound better, one city – one building – at a time.
Where the Project went wrong, however, and where it began to act a bit like Muzak, was when it thought it had a kind of sonic monopoly over what sounded good. Industrial noises would be scrubbed from the city, for instance, and a nostalgic calm would be infused in its place. Think church bells, not automobiles.
But where would such sensory cleansing leave those of us who enjoy the sounds of factories...?
In any case, we could still have fun with the World Soundscape Project, designing alternative sonic futures for the cities of the world, by turning, ironically, to the techniques of Muzak itself: Muzak imitates. Rock, jazz, blues, Mozart – even Muzak: anything at all can be absorbed, and replaced, and reproduced, by Muzak.
There could be a Muzak version of the street sounds of Amsterdam – played on a continuous loop in the supermarkets of London. The sounds of yesterday could be replayed today, transformed into Muzak – and Muzak versions of your old phone conversations could be broadcast over the radio... where laughter is replaced with synthesizer trills.
University lectures and Books on Tape could be replaced with Muzak, pushing us toward a post-verbal society.
Or we forget Muzak altogether and we simply swap urban soundtracks, cities imitating cities to sound entirely unlike themselves.
In the elevators of the Empire State Building, you hear the elevators of the Eiffel Tower. The sounds of the Paris Metro are replaced with the sounds of the Beijing subway, complete with squeals from overworked brakes and the metallic thud of sliding doors.
If you don’t like Rome, you can make it sound like Dubai.

In his 1964 novel Nova Express, William Burroughs described a series of elaborate, even hallucinatory, assemblages of tape recorders and microphones that could be carried from city to city.
Borderless, these roving sound installations, with their capacity for instant playback, would blur the line between your own thought processes and the sounds of the city around you. Like Muzak, Burroughs's legion of rogue microphonists could thus "bypass the resistance of the mind," installing a soundtrack where there once had been thought.
A few years ago I read about a sound artist who had been reproducing the exact placement of microphones used to record the live performances of orchestras around the world, only he did so in unexpected places: in the middle of rain forests, or on top of sand dunes, or in towns on the English coast and inside empty warehouses.
Whether or not the story’s even true, recording the everyday noises of, say, Oslo as if Oslo is an ongoing symphony – and then re-playing that symphony through hidden speakers in San Francisco – perhaps even transforming it into Muzak – should certainly be the next artistic step.
It would be a question of acoustic urban design – of true audio architecture.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Cover Bands of Space and Amplifier House: Original Domestic Soundscapes. See also AUDC's The Stimulus Progression).

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Blogger Jimmy Stamp said...

If there's not already, there should be a downloadable program that turns anything into muzak. Muzaking speech patterns is an amazing idea.

Changing or switching the sound of a city, however, is a pretty terrifying concept to me. It's subtleties like this (even when i don't realize it) that make a city a place I become comfortable in. A place I recognize and want to remain. When these subtleties shift, it becomes a disorienting and dizzifying (dizzifying?) dreamscape.

On second thought, that sounds awesome.

And while on the topic of sensory design, let's not forget olfactory architecture. A couple years ago, Herzog & de Mueuron created a line of unisex perfumes based on world cities. How they selected their scents is a mystery, but Rotterdam, for instance, contained smells of patchouli, cinnamon, Rhine water, dog, and shit. Shit! So now potentially you could be in the Paris Metro listening to the noises of Beijing, smelling like Rotterdam. Add jet lag to the equation and you'll never find your way out. Morlock situationists will take you under their wing and teach you how to live a sub-urban life of perpetual detournement.

August 10, 2007 7:02 PM  
Blogger Steve Silberman said...

Fascinating, Geoff.

For over 40 years, my family vacationed in the same beach house (or the one next to it) in Provincetown. Every summer, when we had to leave, it felt like dying. Sometime in junior high school, I recorded the sounds on that beach -- the water washing up, the gulls, the foghorns -- and would listen to it in my room in New York City while I did my homework.

I may have been influenced by the Environments LPs from Syntonic Research, which started coming out then.

August 10, 2007 8:38 PM  
Blogger Steve Silberman said...

a better Syntonics link, sorry to go on about this -- your post was much more interesting.

August 10, 2007 8:54 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

wow, this is creepy. the flipside to losing those subliminal sounds that make you comfortable in a place is gaining new sounds that, well, make you more comfortable in a place. its no coincidence that muzak is the soundtrack of shopping malls. now it can be the soundtrack of the "Metropolis" remake as all your engineered desires are fulfilled by the dystopia you've grown to love. pornocity. creepy.
on the other hand, Walter Benjamin's ideas about the political potential of film for the masses are relevant here. Someone could make mix tapes that disrupts the spatial order-- jackhammer and cash register sounds over an atonal background, maybe some haunted house sounds, and the video could star Guy Debord's ghost doing the running man in a donkey suit on the Time Square bigscreen. now that's creepy.

August 11, 2007 1:32 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The idea of intentionally modifying the soundscape of a city (making it quieter, forbidding certain sounds) is quite normal... we've been doing that for centuries. This results in a slow change over time allowing the city to evolve at the behest of its ctizens.

Where things get weird, to me, is the idea of replacing the current soundscape with an alternate one... inserting the sound of the Eiffel elevators into the Empire State building. At first thought, it seems kind of cool, a "look what I can do" moment. If it sounds like a mind blowing experience, that's because it is: something about the sound will disconnect with the rest of your experience.

Sound is one of the main ways we experience a sense of "place". Having lived in both New York & Chicago, I can confirm that the two places simply sound different. And there are reasons for it! The width of the streets, the elevated trains, the height of the buildings, the proximity to the river or lake... these make the two cities sound as different as they look. Personnally, I prefer the sound of New York, but dropping that into Chicago would be disorienting.

Steve's comment about recording the sounds of the beach house are very insightful. Sound creates a powerful memory of a place. Hearing it in another location helps you remember the overall experience, almost in 3D. Recreating a soundscape is very valuable for evoking memory.

I don't think, however, that it will offer an "improvement" on existing cities or places to simply drop the sound of a "preferred" place into an existing area.

Champions of Sound Blog

August 11, 2007 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a really great discussion of the Muzak Corporation and its relation to architecture, horizontality, and the birth of network culture you should check out AUDC's Blue Monday. Actually, I am surprised that it isn't mentioned in your piece. Kazys and Robert unearthed some amazing lineages.

August 11, 2007 1:33 PM  
Blogger Steve Silberman said...

Geoff, I assume you already know about (and probably have written about) this project by a John Cage scholar, current status unknown:

"This site is part of a project to gather ambient sounds (sounds that happen to be in an environment) from locations mentioned in Kerouac's 'On the Road' in order to create a sonic portrait of the big cities, small towns, backwoods, deserts and mountains that Kerouac visited and wrote about.

The project invites you to represent a location in the US, Mexico, or elsewhere by uploading a sound file for the mix of recordings that will be played during the performance."

August 11, 2007 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool. Geoff, thanks for amending your post to include the Stimulus Progression footnote. It is a good read.

August 11, 2007 2:14 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

mimiz, that link was there the whole time! But thanks for the tip. If you haven't seen it, meanwhile, I interviewed Kazys Varnelis last summer for BLDGBLOG: The Logistics of Distance. Unfortunately, we don't talk about Muzak - but it's still a good read.

Steve, nice project! Now let's see how it actually sounds (the Kerouac thing, I mean).

And, Jimmy, I love your mash-up of sounds and smells. Dizzying, indeed. You could sell that as a package tour: visit Paris - without ever realizing where you are...

As a side-note, it's interesting to put things like iPods and their ilk into this discussion, as a way to look at how the natural soundscape of a city can be screened from hearing. You could go on a family trip to Beijing with your iPod playing the whole time, sneering at your parents, and come home never knowing what the city even sounded like. Of course, you could also do that without the iPod, by simply not paying attention; but there's something about the technological screen that an iPod provides which seems interesting here - how you could use that as a kind of surrogate city-soundtrack, a prosthetic soundscape for a given city.

Maybe you could make an MP3 that people download; you convince millions of people to listen only to this MP3 while they're visiting Chicago - so that, for millions of visitors, Chicago has a very particular, and entirely artificial, even portable, soundscape.

Again, though, that's just an elaborate way of doing something that you could also achieve through, say, local radio...

Anyway, just rambling. Thanks for the comments!

August 11, 2007 3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For airborne, ephemeral city sounds created for artistic purposes, check out Sky Orchestra. They provide music for sleeping people which is delivered out of the sky. Seven hot air balloons with speakers attached take off at dawn to fly across a city. "Each balloon plays a different element of the musical score creating a massive audio landscape." They've played for sleeping citizens of Sydney, Australia and Stratford, Ontario, and in September they will treat the residents of Birmingham, England to one of their sonic performances, this time with live musicians in the balloons:

August 12, 2007 1:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of John Cage, some years ago his piece 4'33" was performed on a traffic island in Manhattan, thus effecting a live performance of ambient city sounds. For a few minutes passersby who cared to listen were given an opportunity to pull those subliminal sounds into consciousness.
One problem with attempting to represent a particular city through sound is that every neighborhood, or for that matter every block, has its own characteristics.

August 12, 2007 7:00 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Marilyn, that's amazing. I love it!

August 13, 2007 1:58 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Just posted it: The Sky Orchestra.

Thanks again.

August 13, 2007 2:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hello all,
following these posts I can also just mention the work of the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster who did such an installation for her last show in Paris called " Expodrome": she delocalized the spatialized sound of a tropical rain (possibly in a small city in Brasil) to her exposition in the very minimalistic interior of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Patrick Keller

August 13, 2007 4:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

1. I have collected several of the Environments LPs that Steve mentioned. None of mine have any urban sounds, but my favorite side is a recording of wind in the trees. On a hot day, putting this record on makes my house feel several degrees cooler -- audio air conditioning.

2. Once I had to take an early morning flight on Christmas day. I walked downtown to catch my bus to the airport, and in the complete absence of traffic it was quiet enough for me to notice that each office building had its own distinct HVAC hum -- an architectural choir.

August 13, 2007 3:10 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

I am reminded of the scene in midnight in the garden of good and evil where John Cusack has to play the tape of new york to sleep....

August 14, 2007 5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, let's not forget another really important purpose for Muzak. In addition to making shoppers feel more comfortable, muzak is frequently played outdoors near malls, parking lots, outside banks and other places where young folks may conjure to loiter. The muzak in this case is meant to discourage loafing, skateboarding, et c. as people generally dislike having to listen to Muzak for prolonged periods (ask anybody who has worked in a department store). I'd guess the muzak also promotes impulse buys as people want to get what they think they need/want and then get out of the soundscape.

August 15, 2007 8:04 AM  
Blogger Simon Fagéus said...

This project ( was done in the trams of Gotheburg, Sweden a couple of years ago.

Triggered by a switch installed by the doors, sounds were played back in a pair of speakers in the tram ceiling — one directed outwards and the other inwards. The sounds played back were chosen from archives of recordings of speaker broadcasts in the Tokyo subway.

August 21, 2007 4:31 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Très cool to read of you covering the issue of urban sound design; May I humbly recommend for reading pleasure an insightful interview into the matters, which I recently conducted with architect, writer and urban space doctor OLAF SCHÄFER for the periodical WALL OF TIME. It will be online next week, available in both German and English. Cheers, and keep up the good work.

March 31, 2008 5:07 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Jonas, there are a lot of sound-based posts here on the blog, if they interest you - including an interview with Walter Murch, this look at the so-called Mix House, this look at reef instruments – and so on. In fact, there's a whole chapter in my forthcoming book about sound and urban environments.

Looking forward to your interview.

March 31, 2008 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Charles said...

Somewhat absent from this whole conversation, is the ubiquitous element of headphones as mobile sound architecture and probably the strongest form of sonically manipulating the urban experience of moving through architecture. As William Gibson once said: "The Sony Walkman has done more to change human perception than any virtual reality gadget. I can’t remember any technological experience since that was quite so wonderful as being able to take music and move it through landscapes and architecture.” A body of research that starts with 19C stethoscope technology and ends with contemporary sound art after the invention of Koss Stereo Headphones (1958) and the Sony Walkman (1978) can be found in MIT's Leonardo Music Journal:

contact me offlist if you would like to read the essay and don't have journal access.

December 13, 2009 9:22 PM  

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