Back into the Ether

Sound composition with moving images,

08’58 stereo, new edit 2011

Among the various ways to study a sonorous environment, an ethnographical approach allows to focus on the way habitat and urbanism is being re-appropriated by individuals or communities. As Michel De Certeau exposed in The Practice of Everyday Life1 , structures of power (political or economical) create space through urban planning for instance, in within inhabitants create space for themselves through their practices, and “tactics”. Urbanism and social practices interact in order to define a new territory, a new area of life, centered on its inhabitants. This sound work deals with the aural spatial practice of culture in a context or massive urban renewal projects in Hong Kong. The sounds recorded in Hong Kong’s Central Wet Market, reflect the everyday practices of a community, its own social ties, and cultural codes, and its particular production of space in Lefebvre’s terms2 . In this context, voices are primary formal elements: People yelling in the street trying to attract attention of the crowd, trying to make themselves heard, negotiating with each others, and so on. Other manifestations of human activities can be heard through other sort of noises of these busy streets. Participants are not only creating the soundscape, but they are interacting with it through their listening acts, with most certainly a communication purpose; merchants’ yells echo each others, creating “a feedback loop between human activity and our material surroundings” (p.29).3 This sound composition can be taken as a metaphor for the risk of dislocation of the social fabric and micro-level cultural codes through the idea of disappearing sound. Urban renewal projects do not only affect the architectural physical space, but also the sounds themselves that used to resonate through the space. This work takes roots in the soundscape from the outdoor market in Central Hong Kong, and the listener embarks into the noisy streets among stalls of fishes and vegetables. The sounds are moved around the listener’s head thus defining a constantly evolving and unstable space for the listener. The recorded sounds evolve from anecdotal sounds to more and more transformed sounds. The processes involved in their transformations are real–time spectral effects. They imply is a shift from the common time domain representation of sound, where amplitudes of sound are counted over time to a frequency domain, where the different frequencies are evaluated over time. The way the sonorous data is processed in the frequency domain is ruled by a particular algorithm referred to as the Fast Fourier transform. It is an equation that allows spectral conversion of the raw sound then temporal reconversion for its normal playback. The first step deals with calculations of the numbers series of numbers representing the strength of the frequency component at a variety of points. Diverse processes can then be operated at this stage upon the frequency constituent of the sound, such as selection of particular frequencies or range of frequencies, ‘freezing’ the sound on particular frequencies, etc. In order to be heard back, these numbers have to be reconverted into the temporal scale. In this work, voices become blurry, frozen-like, thanks to these spectral processes. Their original richness and variety are reduced to drones, as being the mere traces of the initial sounds. However, all the sound frequencies present throughout the piece are constituted by the original sounds from the market. Hence these sounds are slowly thinning, freezing into this disappearing process of voices.

Hong Kong, August 04th 2009.

(1) The Practice of Everyday Life. Steven Rendall trans. University of California Press. 1984 (2) The Production of Space, D. Nicholson-Smith trans., Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Originally published in1974 (3) “Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space”, Paglen Trevor. Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism, Nato Thompson and Independent Curators International. Melville House, 2009