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Sonic Architectures: Investigating the Spatiality of Sound.

Part 1 Dissertation 2010
Sam Levine
London Metropolitan University, UK
Towards the end of the 19th century Thomas Edison introduced to the world the phonograph and people instantly saw the magic in making a recording. Before this point, everything people could hear was connected directly to a ‘live’ sound source and, all of a sudden, there was a new condition where sound could exist after the event that caused it.

The way we listen to a recording is fundamentally different to listening to a live sound event. We can listen far more closely, playing back sections of interest. We can speed up or slow down the event and analyse it in minute detail. We can displace the event spatially to another setting. Lacking the visual clues as to the source of the sound, sonic representation in the form of recordings stimulates our imagination in a very different way to visual representation. As a spatial and temporal event it can also teach us much about the ephemeral nature of architecture and reveal the inadequacy of traditional architectural representation. It is a hugely under-researched area within our discipline, with so many possibilities.

The aim of this essay is as a starting point for people wishing to address the lack of current research in this field. It unfolds into three parts each contemplating a particular facet of the early technological origins of recording. ‘Descriptive records’ were common in the early modern period and were advertised as sonic windows to other places and spaces, where you could listen to a recording of a coastal or farmyard scene and be transported there with a slight stretch of the imagination. Meanwhile, people would frequently go to a screening of a ‘silent’ film and then come home to listen to the same story on the radio in the form of an audio drama. Each tells the story in a different way and through looking at these early examples and their influence on contemporary art practice the investigation considers what we can learn from all this as architects.

Sam Levine

There has been extensive research in the field of acoustics and on the interdisciplinary and poetic relationship of music and architecture. More recently, the capacity of sound and music to act as a catalyst in making social and political structures more concrete and tangible can be seen in commissions such as a major new research project on sound and the city that will be launched by SAM (Sound and Music, the UK’s landmark organisation for new music and sound) later in the year.

On the other hand, the hidden workings and psychology of the ‘modernist soundscape’ itself – the way we hear and have learned to listen to a whole parallel world of recorded sound – has its own making and history which has been largely ignored, particularly in relation to architecture. This dissertation investigates how the notion of space entered into and transformed the nature of recorded sound, broadcast media and the cinema, and illustrates the profound effects this had on the way we perceive the world.

One of the most fascinating implications of Sonic architectures, though, is practical, and groundbreaking. If taken seriously, recorded sound – like drawings or photography – offers enormous creative opportunities for architects. Although this dissertation sometimes lacks transparency and clarity in the way it is written and structured, its outstanding achievement lies in providing the foundations for a new understanding of the role sound could play not just in the representation, but also the making of architecture.

Joseph Kohlmaier
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