LA Listens: Field Recording—Boyle Heights, LA

In the late 1960s, composer and researcher R. Murray Schafer founded the World Soundscape Project (WSP) in Vancouver, Canada, drawing attention to the role of sound in urban environments. WSP developed as a way to document natural soundscapes and the encroachment of noise pollution from urban environments. Through location recordings and soundscape compositions, WSP promoted the conservation of natural sounds that are at risk, and distinct, from post-industrial, human-made sounds. Hildegard Westerkamp, an integral member of WSP, prescribed the role that composers and musicians should play in evaluating sound in urban environments from an ecological perspective. She writes, provokingly,

‘We are the ones that make listening and working with sound and music our profession. It is therefore a logical extension that we would also be concerned about the ecological health of our acoustic environment and all living beings within…Why then should composers and musicians not make it their calling to use their special knowledge and education to listen to the world from the ecological perspective?’

In the past decade, researchers have begun to take a quantitative approach, incorporating data into their understandings of urban soundscapes. Applying Music information retrieval (MIR) techniques to location recordings, researchers combined the results with big data and open data from city governments and other civic organisations to create maps of city sounds at the street level.

The Citygram project, based at New York University, installs a network of sensors around New York City to make sense of sonic patterns through a real-time dynamic sound map. How Loud’s Soundscore uses physical modelling of GIS data to calculate local noise levels across the country.

Using location recordings and big data to understand the dynamic nature of urban sound represents a top-down mode of listening. The problem with both of these approaches is that they exclude community participation in selecting and making sense of sounds and data. The World Soundscape Project’s approach of cataloguing endangered sounds and highlighting them through soundscape composition reflects the aesthetic values of the WSP members, including Schafer, Westerkamp, and their collaborators. The anti-industrialist nostalgia that underpins WSP prioritises natural sounds over those that are human-made. WSP members’ preference for pre-industrial sounds over post-industrial sounds ultimately drives decisions about what is included in the project, without input from members of impacted communities. In the case of big data analysis, using data without social context ignores social and political concerns critical to community life.

Recognising the benefits and limitations of previous approaches to urban sound, LA Listens was formed to explore the sound of vibrancy in Los Angeles’ neighbourhoods. LA Listens is a collaboration between sound ethnographer Wendy Hsu, acoustic ecologist Jessica Blickley, and composer/music technologist Steven Kemper. This project wrestles with how our disciplinary backgrounds approach the concept of sound, and how we can cross these boundaries to create a critical study of urban soundscapes. Together we ask: How do we grapple with the fact that sonic experience differs so much between social, ecological, and policy contexts? Foregrounding these questions that challenge disciplinary thinking enabled us to generate a multimodal listening practice informed by community participation, location recordings, and sonic data. With a participatory methodology, we document, analyse, and re-sonify as a way to re-listen to city streets.

Theory of Re-Listening

Listening is a shared practice. LA Listens’ approach is based in co-listening: an inclusive activity that responds to the dynamically changing environment and to the perspectives of the people who live and work there. This co-listening approach resonates with Henri Lefebvre’s notion of Rhythmanalysis as a way to understand the repetitive patterns in the urban environment. Lefebvre states,

‘In order to analyze rhythms, it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely…it is therefore necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside.’

Lefebvre wants us to experience the space and its social dynamics first hand, in addition to armchair analysis. Co-listening values the perspectives of individuals and communities inhabiting and working in our space of inquiry.

Listening is repetitive and recursive. It is an iterative process based on previous experiences of listening to a place and the meanings established from each listening. This recursive view of listening draws on Richard Schechner’s idea of performance as ‘twice-behaved behaviour.’ Listening, like performance, is never based on some ‘authentic’ original experience, but rather on previous listenings. Because listening is recursive, sounds accrue meanings as they travel across multiple contexts and modalities, through the course of its journey in time and space. Listening repetitively and recursively across contexts, or re-listening, can generate an enriched web of semantics. Allowing the analyses of location recordings to interact with a community ethnography can create interpretations of the soundscape that are bottom-up and lateral, not just top-down.

The privileging of a single listening mode over another is a socio-political process. Our research has uncovered power dynamics across different modes of listening. Some modes are private, personal, and disempowered, and others are public, shared, and empowered. Contradictions between how and what we listen to are shaped by social relations and power difference. The mixed community responses to helicopter sounds in Boyle Heights in eastside Los Angeles as an example is illustrious the competing readings of urban sounds. Many residents of Boyle Heights refer to helicopters as ‘ghetto birds.’ Some residents, mostly mothers, consider these helicopters as a bad omen. Others, young men mostly, experience feelings of comfort and nostalgia because they associate helicopter sounds with home. City officials have talked about helicopter noises as a public promise for safety and security. These competing modes of listening occur across social differences: men versus women, and citizens versus government officials. A paradigm that allows a multiplicity of listening modes to coexist is the start of an open and public conversation about whose mode of listening should be considered. Re-listening to the same sounds with thoughtfulness to how a multitude of meanings morph across the social and political boundaries, we believe, is the core of a sound-based civic participation.

Finally, re-listening can be fuelled by creative responses. The recursive experience of listening to something over and over again can engage with the imaginative and speculative mind. In particular, re-sonification—the process of reinterpreting urban sounds through the medium of sound—can provide opportunities for participants to derive new meanings from a familiar set of sonic materials. After analysing and extracting data from our location recordings, we experiment with re-sonifying data from the neighbourhood streets, for example, the timing, length, and loudness of passing vehicles. As a result of re-sonification, underlying patterns of the periodicity of traffic flow can emerge as an evocative sensory and temporal experience, like a song. Furthermore, we convert data extracted for analysis into musical data (e.g. MIDI rhythms), encouraging the creative possibilities of meaningful reinterpretations of the neighbourhood’s sound. Creative re-compositions of urban sounds through editing and processing our recordings can offer imaginary models of neighbourhood soundscapes that are charged by social values or personal ideals. By removing the sounds of vehicular traffic, we model the soundscape of a vehicle-free street. This provokes the community to imagine how civic policy changes can impact the sound of a particular neighbourhood.

Speculating a collective future begins with a series of re-listenings embedded in and with communities. Our re-listening initiated broader civic discussions about neighbourhood changes and urban planning policy, amplifying previously unheard voices particularly concerning gentrification and related issues including transportation, street vending, and police surveillance. Further, by documenting and sharing our methodology as a blueprint, our re-listening efforts have contributed to the re-imagining of the acoustic public of other locales. Collaborating with MIT’s Community Innovators’ Lab, we created a call for urban planners and organisers to participate in a sound walk of a street in their neighbourhood and to share it in the form of a blog post. The sharings forged nexuses of local and global communities—a meta-listening.


Wendy Hsu is a researcher, strategist, and educator. Hsu currently works as the digital strategist / Senior Project Coordinator of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. 

Steven Kemper is a composer and music technologist. He is currently Assistant Professor of Music Technology and Composition at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Cover image © ATOMIC Hot Links Flickr 

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