Report on Acoustic Cities Study Day


report by Ruth Bernatek

2nd March 2018 | Faculty of Music, University of Oxford

The Acoustic Cities Study Day, hosted by the Faculty of Music, University of Oxford, and co-organised by Recomposing the City, Urban Rhythm Network, and Theatrum Mundi, brought together a diverse group of researchers, practitioners and artists, to critically explore relationships of sound to urban space, and the culture of cities.  Contributors and attendees alike battled through driving snow to engage with an ambitious programme that picked out four key themes: the city symphony; sound mapping and acoustic planning; urban rhythms; and situated sonic practice.  Our day concluded with an intimate roundtable titled ‘unresolved acoustics’.

Presentations, screenings and discussions departed from the premise that we should be more attentive, both in research and practice, to the acoustic legibility of our cities.  Architects, designers, urban planners and policymakers take great pains to construct both memorable and readable images of the cityscape, visually ordering our surroundings at the urban scale.  Yet, unless it is a noise we dislike, there is a tendency to neglect sound, despite even the most untrained ear being able to distinguish between spaces according to the sounds they produce.  Situated within a broader field of music and urban inquiry, in which sound is not assigned to only one discipline, Acoustic Cities thus set out to examine some of the discourses emerging from this very current topic. 

Lizzie Thynne and Laura Marcus 

Lizzie Thynne and Laura Marcus 


After a warm welcome, we began in earnest with a brief introduction to the cinematic city symphonies of the 20th Century, given by Professor Laura Marcus, New College, Oxford.  Within this genre of avant-garde urban film, the modern city is rendered as protagonist; its architecture, activity and commerce witnessed and described through the pulsating rhythms and movement of metropolitan existence.  The skyscraper, lone pedestrian, motor car, arterial highway, pouring rain, surging crowd, shaped though experimental editorial treatment and organised, written and scored like a symphony.

A screening of the 5th and 6th ‘movements’ of Lizzie Thynne and Ed Hughes’ Brighton: Symphony of a City (2016) followed.  Commissioned for the 50th Brighton Festival, Thynne and Hughes’ original film and accompanying orchestral score is a rare example of a contemporary city symphony that echoes the documentary aesthetic and typical ‘day in the life’ structure of its earlier counterparts, specifically Ruttman and Meisel’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1926). 

In their presentations, Thynne and Hughes explained how they created tension between musical and visual textures, adopting non-narrative juxtaposition, mimicry and montage, whilst resisting simplistic associations between sound and image. Their portrait of Brighton in film tackled issues such as the privatisation of space, urban erasure, and difficult social commentary. I was particularly moved by the sustained shot of a rough sleeper, his flattened palm tenderly gesturing for small change, hand conducting an anonymous and unrelenting footfall of polished black shoes.  The splicing together of archival and contemporary footage of Brighton Rock Pool and Brighton Marina further critiqued the cyclical nature of planning in the city, and the needs of the commission to appeal to both local and wider audiences.  Amongst study day attendees, their approach raised questions about the role of sound and nostalgia, how the ‘symphony’ is understood as a unifying model, and inevitable frictions between the old and new ‘score’ for Brighton. 


The second session took up the subject of sound mapping and acoustic planning.  Focusing on the lineage of two distinct models of mapping - noise mapping and sound mapping – Professor Gascia Ouzounian unpacked some of the reasons why sounds heard within the city are so strongly associated with the idea of impairment, and less so with meaningful and positive experiences. 

Though records exist as far back as Pliny, who commented on the negative impact of noise generated by cataracts of the Nile, it was the industrialisation of cities during the early 20th century, coupled with the professionalization of acoustics that most effectively ‘built sound out’ of the urban realm.  In practice today, the emphasis remains fixed on measurable, quantifiable aspects of sound, and urban informatics legislate increasingly ‘sense-less’ environments.  Yet the relegation of sound to regulation risks limiting beneficial experiences for the citizen of the acoustic city. 

Against a trajectory of sonic sanitisation in the professional sphere, both Ouzounian and Dr Lola San Martin’s presentations highlighted a willingness amongst citizens to engage with sound in the built environment as more than a merely unwanted element or bi-product.  Strong evidence is provided by online participatory sound mapping projects, which have experienced something of a boom lately; Mapa Sonoru, London Sound Survey and the Montréal Sound Map were all mentioned.  Pinpointing individual audible landmarks that collectively (re)compose the complex acoustic profiles of different communities can reveal what we want to listen to, and how we identify with sounds - explored through multilingualism, geography, the landscape or our sonic imagination - that we consider to be of value.  Might there also be a genuine fear of losing certain sounds from our everyday soundscapes? Vitally necessary questions must be asked:  who is the acoustic city for?  Whose environment are we protecting?  

Connor McCafferty interrogated the techniques of sound mapping further, concentrating on how interdisciplinary, participatory methods go beyond normative urban analysis, and feed into pedagogy and design practices.  However, he also drew our attention to some of the problems of web-based sound mapping, including issues of access, authorship, failures of responsibility to participants (for example from loss of data) and lack of critical rubrics for interpretation.

This panel showed, amongst other things, that educators, architectural practitioners, policy and planning professionals, share an element of uncertainty about how to deal with the acoustics of the city.  Promisingly, a growing number of artistic projects and initiatives across different cities are deliberately building sound back into urban and architectural spaces.  These projects, Dr Sarah Lappin insisted, reframe sound as an essential element of place-making, mobility, creativity and connectivity.  SAFARI 7 (2009) by SCAPE studio, was just one example given, that demonstrated how acoustic biodiversity fostered creative, positive interactions between people, built environment, flora and fauna of the city in ways useful both to practitioners, but also inhabitants.

Sarah Lappin, Lola San Martin, Gascia Ouzounian and Ruth Bernatek

Sarah Lappin, Lola San Martin, Gascia Ouzounian and Ruth Bernatek

Dr Matilde Meireles and Conor McCafferty 

Dr Matilde Meireles and Conor McCafferty 


The urban rhythms of a discordant and avant-garde 20th century Paris, operatic production in post-WWII Venice, and the sonic publics of twenty-first century London were all put under scrutiny by Dr Lola San Martin, Dr Harriet Boyd-Bennett, and Chrissy Stirling respectively.  Each of the papers challenged accepted methods adopted by scholars to investigate the complex musical networks of particular cities, at particular historical moments. However, it was the final paper, ‘Voice Memos from the Dance Floor’ that confrontationally and persuasively argued for sound itself to be recognised as a valid research output.  If we want to enhance our understanding of the city, its sonic texture and our urban soundscapes this is both crucial and urgent.  The ‘voice memos’ played back to us during the session raised numerous questions, such as where and how do we locate practice-led research within current discourse?  What is the artistic as well as scholarly potential for this kind of research? How can we effectively mobilise platforms that foreground sound as a rigorous research output?  In my opinion, sound as output in musicological, architectural and urban research is absolutely necessary.

Christabel Stirling

Christabel Stirling


Positioning the work of sound artists in direct dialogue with architects and planners is one prospective method for generating fresh perspectives on the acoustic city, as well as developing new criteria for the sound of a place. 

Dr Katarzyna Krakowiak, sound artist, architecture researcher and current artist in residence at St John’s College Oxford, joined Professor Keith Obadike, sound artist & researcher in new media in conversation with Professor Jason Stanyek.  We weaved through a number of works by both artists, notably Krakowiak’s architectural ‘listening system’ for the 13th Venice Biennale’s Polish Pavilion, Making the Walls Quake (2013) and the Obadikes’ app-based sound work Compass Song (ongoing and based in New York’s Times Square district).  Stanyek’s novel one-word prompts such as ‘skin’, ‘sound’, ‘art’, ‘structure’ and ‘politics’, encouraged a more poetic discussion.

Sound is already a space, it is texture, it is also density.

Art will make you cry and break your heart.

A state of alarm can be caused by silence.

Structure provides layers, syntax.

Overload the system,

Exceed the limits.

Keith Obadike, Katarzyna Krakowiak, and Jason Stanyek

Keith Obadike, Katarzyna Krakowiak, and Jason Stanyek


The final, perhaps most intimate session of the day began with a conversation between Richard Sennett and John Bingham-Hall, that focused on two ideas within their current research at Theatrum Mundi: the notion of adjacency, and cultural infrastructure in an urban setting.

Adjacency was discussed in terms of the unresolved aspects of spaces, which, in turn relate to particular, dynamic urban forms.  Within the context of sound (as with dance) a condition of adjacency is akin to an ‘open relationship’, between non-integrated sonic, kinetic and spatial aspects.  Adjacency can be considered to underpin a certain ‘authentic’ characteristic acoustic of a place.  At the same time, adjacency suggests a malleable transgressive quality, or openness to change.

Cultural infrastructure was more speculatively propositioned as a potential means to move past a simply visual reading of value in a place, as a framework that embraces other material qualities, such as sound, or a good acoustic.  Specifically, cultural infrastructure provides the means for certain forms of action to occur.  In theory, it is the ability to learn from one another in a way that takes difference into account.  For example, in an urban context, a thriving community in one city might work ‘because people don’t mind sitting outside, and in another it works because people like to sit on street corners.’  Moving the centre of attention away from the end product (desired acoustic) to its means of action (cultural infrastructure) opens up the possibility for a sonic urbanism developed around a language of value based on the acoustic qualities of space, beyond a noise issue.

In relation to both adjacency and cultural infrastructure, we debated the idea that any given place might possess an acoustic ‘authenticity’ that is connected to a particular fixed ‘original’ story of a place.  An authentic (rooted) ‘sense of place’ is problematic.  How does it allow, for example, new waves of immigration? How does it account for the potential for mobility?  On the flip side, great swathes of our cities are packaged up and sold as silent movies, in all their exquisite, noiseless, architectural detail.  However, both Sennett and Bingham-Hall were clear in their stance that what we need is to open a city up, open it up sonically to complexity – which means that things are contradictory – that they don’t fit. 

So, we moved from authenticity to honesty, to the relationship between the score and architecture, and finally out of Denis Arnold Hall - some for a glass of wine, others to face the blizzard outside and journey home, but all left with much to think about.

John Bingham-Hall and Richard Sennett

John Bingham-Hall and Richard Sennett