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‘The sound of the city became the score for a musical instrument’

Do the sounds that surround you as you cycle through the city sometimes annoy you? Don’t worry, because we can actively change the situation, says sound expert Edwin van der Heide. Students in his Honours Class are actively shaping the sound of the city.

It was uncertain whether this Bachelor’s Honours Class – The Sounding City is its full title – would actually go ahead this year. The course started in April, just after the lockdown began, so it suddenly had to be delivered online. ‘Will I be able to do that? And if so, how?’ wondered the lecturer, Edwin van der Heide. He quickly designed an online programme, which turned out to be successful: ‘Some really interesting things have come out of it,’ he says via video link, looking back at the end of the academic year.

Academic and artist
Honours Class teacher Edwin van der Heide studied Sonology at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He works for computer science institute LIACS and the Royal Academy of Arts of Leiden University, and runs his own art business. Sound in public spaces is a reoccuring theme in his works. For Leiden University, he produced the work Whispering Wind.

Van der Heide designed the class together with Marcel Cobussen, Professor of Auditory Culture and Music Philosophy at Leiden University.

The influence of acoustics

The Sounding City gives students the opportunity to engage with sound in a different way. ‘What sound does the city make, to what extent can it be “engineered”, what interventions are possible?’ Van der Heide thinks we don’t ask these questions often enough. ‘A lot of thought is given to urban planning and architecture, but sound is regarded as a by-product, something we don’t need to actively think about.’

This is, in fact, what the Honours students have been doing in their weekly webinars: actively thinking about sound, from the perspective of both the arts and the sciences. For instance, they ask themselves how acoustics influence people’s behaviour, or whether  appropriating public space should be permittable. ‘This interdisciplinary approach is an excellent aspect of the Honours Academy's education,’ Van der Heide explains. ‘It allows students from different backgrounds to meet one another.’

Musical angle

As well as thinking about sound, the course particularly emphasises active doing. Van der Heide: ‘The focus at the University is often on studying art – but here, we also create it. This is what makes the course so special.’ He sets his students several creative assignments, in which they record the city’s sounds and edit them by adding or subtracting elements.

This culminates in the final assignment: transforming a specific sound situation in the city. It can involve the transformation of a specific place, but also a journey from A to B. ‘Many of the students this year chose places with a lot of activity – busy traffic, Metro stations – but not all of them.’

One participant tried to make street noise less annoying by adding background sounds, while others chose a more musical angle: ‘A student in Toronto recorded resonances of a viaduct and combined them with playing his viola, so that the sound of the city became the score for a musical instrument.’

No single answer

Van der Heide feels that the Honours Class was a great success this year, despite coronavirus. ‘I’m very pleased that doing it online worked out so well: at first, it seemed like a big challenge.’ But it wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of his students, he says: ‘I’m so proud of their tremendous commitment to the course. It gave me a lot of energy too.’

What key takeaway does the sound specialist hope to have imparted? ‘That there’s more than one answer to the question of how we should design sound in the city. For me, just thinking about the role you play is very important. Sometimes you can achieve a lot with very few resources.’ That’s a message we can all take to heart, when we start moving around the city again.

Text: Michiel Knoester
Translation: Academic Language Centre
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Curious about the students' compositions? Listen to a number of them below. Please beware: click on the 'go back' arrow at the top left corner of your browser to get back to the article. Enjoy listening!

Demonstration on the Dam

“I recorded De Dam on two afternoons: firstly, during a protest about Black Lives Matter and racism. Secondly, two days after. In this composition, I try to captivate the difference between listening to 'unheard' and everyday sounds, endemic to De Dam. By captivating these differences, I engage people in anti-racist protests and demonstrate their sonic powerfulness.” – Luca Bruls

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Homecoming in Hong Kong

“I returned to Hong Kong two-and-a-half months ago. At first, the acoustic quality of Hong Kong evoked sensation and emotion in me. But as time passed by, with all the political and social events going on, the sounds of the metro station made me feel anxious. I recorded a bagpipe sound that breaks the dull, repetitive sound from the metro station. It is an active engagement to change a restricted, cruel reality into an ideal one.” – So Ho-Chi

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An imaginary journey

“My final composition takes you on a journey through an imagined space, where one is enveloped and released from overbearing sounds. The sounds that are experienced are both familiar and alienating in their quality, making the piece dynamic and engaging.” – Klimova Elizaveta

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War against the car

“For this final assignment, I wanted to mask the traffic noise coming from my street. Continuous traffic noise and rain turned out to do a sufficient job. I also tried to match the pitch produced by motorcycles by playing piano tones, but that did not work out so well. I do believe, however, that the tones ‘mask’ the sound by other means: they stand out and captivate listeners, distracting them from noise.” – Jetse van Os

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Viola and viaduct

“I recorded my audio underneath the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, where it passes the Humber River. I wanted to find the ‘true’ sound of this crossing. The final product is ten recordings played simultaneously, consisting of an interplay between my viola and the sounds of the crossing. Each recording emphasizes a different aspect of the underpass’s resonance.” – Arie Verheul van de Ven

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