The everyday noise of three cities is captured for a fascinating Aberdeen-led investigation of sonic identity. Think of the sounds you hear every day without even realising they’re there.
Not music… just sounds: maybe the hum of a fridge or the clunk of a front door; the whirr of a bicycle wheel, the drone of a motorway, the polyrhythmic tapping of an office full of keyboards. If you live in a city, think of the noises particular to its streets — the ones you’d recognise as home if you moved away. Sounds so familiar you’d only really notice them if they went silent.
In the 1960s the Canadian composer and environmentalist R Murray Schafer coined the notion of sound studies, waking us up to the effects — good and bad — of sound in our environment. Schafer mapped the aural contours of inner-city Vancouver, pinpointing hotspots of noise pollution and the capacity for architecture to shape an urban acoustic. He urged his students and the public at large to adopt a more active kind of listening through a process he called “ear cleaning”. Next time you go for a walk, leave your iPod at home and really listen to what’s going on around you. Make a mental note of the sounds you like best and the ones that irritate you the most. The more you do it, the more you’ll start to hear.
Pete Stollery is an electroacoustic composer and professor of music at the University of Aberdeen, and has some of the cleanest ears in the business. Like Schafer’s, his is no highfalutin preoccupation; he’s a burly Yorkshireman with a sharp wit and zero pretensions who will just as soon tell you where to find the best pork pie in the Dales (Hawes) and what to do when the beef dripping in your chip pan needs replaced (spread the old lot on a slice of white bread) as wax theoretical about soundscapes and urban acoustics. Like Schafer, Stollery is interested in the sonic identity of places. When he travels, he carries a microphone instead of a camera; it’s soundmarks he’s after, not landmarks. When he gets home, he patches his field recordings into the fabric of his compositions so that they’re part recognisable, part abstract.
A few years ago Stollery wrote a piece called Still Voices using sounds he recorded at the Glendronach distillery in Aberdeenshire. The distillery was planning to replace its traditional coal-fired method of heating, and would in the process lose its traditional soundscape: kiln doors opening and closing, ashes being raked, coal pouring from the back of delivery lorries. The new machinery was near silent. Once it was in place, Stollery installed speakers where the old kilns had been and played his recordings on loop. “You should have seen their faces,” he says of the distillery’s workers who heard the installation. “Very, very moved, they were. Sound can do that. It’s such a potent force for nostalgia.”
Now, as part of a major University of Aberdeen cross-departmental research focus on The North, Stollery is spearheading an investigation into the sonic identity of northern cityscapes. The Three Cities Project is a collaborative venture between Aberdeen, Bergen and St Petersburg, where composers and musicologists have been roaming the streets to track down particular sounds that make each city tick. Their findings will be integrated into a series of electroacoustic compositions and an audiovisual installation to be premiered at Aberdeen’s Sound Festival in November.
Recordings from Aberdeen and Bergen are already in the can. The teams honed in on the put-put of motor boats crossing the fjord in Bergen and discovered that seagulls sing at different pitches in the two cities. Pedestrian crossing signals, reversing lorries, wind and rain, and lapping waves all provide counterpoint in these two urban soundscapes. Next, Stollery and his PhD student Ross Whyte are off to hunt down St Petersburg’s soundmarks, and I tag along to trail the process.
We arrive in late February and it’s snowing heavily. Stollery presses his nose to the airport window and says he hopes it lies; cities sound bizarre and wonderful under a coat of snow. We’re met at the arrivals gate by Alexander, a composer and professor at St Petersburg’s famous Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory and the project’s chief local collaborator. He’s small and earnest and looks the part: long sheepskin coat, flat cap, round steel-rimmed glasses, a goatee like Lenin’s and a cigarette between his lips.
Alexander is what Stollery refers to as a “paper composer”, meaning that he writes conventional scores using dots on a manuscript rather than Stollery’s studio electroacoustic work. He nods vigorously at the talk of sonic identity and place, but the practicalities of investigating urban soundscapes get a bit lost in translation. Stollery wants to walk from the centre of St Petersburg to the sea, filming and spot recording along the way. His colleagues have done so in Bergen and Aberdeen, and the plan is to replay the footage in a three-part audiovisual installation that will compare each city’s relationship to its coastline. Alexander seems slightly miffed. He says the seafront is awkward to reach in St Petersburg and besides, it’s ugly, lined with tower blocks and factories. Why document the suburbs when the city’s picturesque centre is inland?
We set out into cold, clear skies to find the sea without his full approval. The wander is long and fascinating, across bridges and over frozen rivers and through noisy intersections and quiet neighbourhoods and crisp snowy cemeteries and, eventually, vast swathes of soviet-era apartment blocks. Alexander was right: this is not a leisure destination. Facing west across the Gulf of Finland, the seafront is heavily fortified, designed to turn you back inland.
It’s getting cold and we’re getting hungry, so we catch a bus back into town. Stollery records the chatter of passengers over the wheeze and splutter of the engine. Next morning the blue skies are gone and a grey wintry pall has set in. This time we follow the canals through the heart of the old town, crossing the Nevsky Prospect, skirting the Church of Spilt Blood with its fairy-tale onion domes, passing the apartments of Pushkin and Dostoevsky. It’s just as Stollery predicted: the snow creates a fascinating soundscape. Boots in crunchy snow, cars in slush, piles of snow being shovelled off roofs and hitting the ground with dull, heavy thuds. I’ve got my camera in hand but the longer I trail Stollery and Whyte as they stoop to capture the sounds of ice dripping down drain pipes and sparrows nesting in old church walls, the more I find I’m listening rather than looking.
At the end of the canal we come within a few hundred metres of the sea, but again we’re blocked, this time by barbed-wired walls and looming, smoking factory chimneys. We traipse back to Alexander’s favourite restaurant — Cafe Idiot on the banks of the Moyki Canal, heart of Dostoevsky territory — and as Stollery and Whyte compare their findings, a waitress brings them each a plate of pickled fish and vodka. “Happy Man’s Day!” she announces, with some pride. It turns out that February 23 is Defender of the Fatherland Day, a Russian national holiday since 1918, and outside the Winter Palace there’s a parade to celebrate.
A parade! Stollery and Whyte go giddy at the sounds: crowds, artillery, bellowing police officers, blaring loudspeakers. On a bandstand a fierce woman in a minidress hosts what looks like a strongman talent show. Her barking orders and microphone feedback echo off the Winter Palace walls along with gunfire from a nearby military display. Later, I wander the Hermitage’s floors of Monets and Gauguins and Picassos and Pissarros with this soundtrack of Man’s Day filtering through the windows. It’s daftly incongruent, yet exactly right. No doubt Schafer would have been tickled.
The Three Cities Project: Live Event showcases audiovisual work by Pete Stollery, Ross Whyte, Trond Lossius and Suk Jun-Kim at 7.30pm on April 22 at Musa, 33 Exchange Street, Aberdeen. The final Three Cities installation will be premiered at Aberdeen’s Sound Festival in November.