Review | Ricciarda Belgiojoso – Constructing Urban Space with Sounds and Music

Constructing Urban Space with Sounds and Music. By Ricciarda Belgiojoso. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2014. [vii, 126 p. ISBN 1472424646. Hardcover, $153.00; ebook, $52.20.] Figures, bibliography, discography, index. 

How often do you pay attention to the sounds of your environment when walking down the street or commuting to work? As Jacques Attali reminds us in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, our everyday lives are full of sounds; should we choose to listen to them, these noises can reveal how our society lives. This is precisely what is at stake for Ricciarda Belgiojoso in writing her book Constructing Urban Space with Sounds and Music: we all live in a noisy world, but we aren’t accustomed to listening to our surroundings outside of traditional musical contexts. Architects need to be especially mindful of sounds, as they have traditionally created public spaces with the goal to mitigate noise pollution via noise abatement. In her book, Belgiojoso argues instead for a “positive” approach to architecture—that is, an approach that implores architects to use their ears as well as their eyes so they can preserve and multiply beneficial sounds (34). Drawing on pertinent case studies from multiple disciplines, Belgiojoso gives practical examples of how sustainable public spaces can be (and have been) built and enriched with sound. The monograph is divided into three parts, each corresponding to one of the following disciplines: music, sound art, and architecture. Combining these three fields of study into one book allows Belgiojoso to “integrate issues that are generally dispersed in separate worlds” (7); one primary issue examines how sounds from urban environments have migrated outside of their original context, first being used in music and then in public sound art. 

Part I is focused on music. In this section Belgiojoso offers a chronology of significant composers in the twentieth century that have appropriated non-musical sounds (“noises”) from urban environments to use in their music. Belgiojoso’s first case study is Luigi Russolo and the Italian futurists who brought the new sounds of modernity into the concert hall using original instruments that created sounds that departed from traditional equal temperament.1 She then examines John Cage who urged people to actually listen to their surrounding environments as music through compositions such as 4’33’’. After a brief discussion of Schaeffer’s musique concrete, the section ends with a lengthier exploration of R. Murray Schafer’s soundscapes. This chapter is especially significant because Schafer was one of the first people to systematically study urban sound environments; to do this, he made recordings of certain environments (such as Vancouver’s harbor) and experimented with ways to notate them.

Part II illustrates how sounds and art in the second half of the twentieth century (typically confined to cultural institutions like the museum and concert hall) were taken outside of these contexts by sound artists and placed into public spaces. Bill Fontana has spent decades re-designing the sounds of cities in order to improve them. For instance, his Sound Island disperses the noise of the sea of Normandy into the cacophonous urban environment surrounding Paris’s Arc de Triomphe using loudspeakers hidden in the monument (75). Sound artist Max Neuhaus, on the other hand, placed a large speaker under Times Square that produces a constant drone that “acquires meaning when it interacts with the environment and with people passing by, altering their perception of the surroundings” (82). Overall, the examples in this section demonstrate specific procedures for working on urban acoustics and how artificial environments can be improved with sound.

Part III is a short section on architecture that examines how urban planners can design public spaces by employing noises as “useful and necessary signals of life” (94). This section is more practical in nature and offers guidelines for how architects can be aurally aware of the space that they are designing. Some suggestions include the perception of the space (how it sounds to the people living there) and sonic interaction (the degree to which people are meant to socialize with each other). The last chapter of the book gives specific examples that illustrate how architects have dealt with music performance in public locations, such as Silent Disco.

The narrative threaded through these three different sections is thus primarily chronological, moving from the Italian futurists in the first decades of the twentieth century to studies on acoustic environments in the twenty-first century. However, this narrative also mirrors broader philosophical trends that are latent in Belgiojoso’s text, but never specified. For instance, Arthur Danto (whilst also drawing on John Cage) posits that we are now in the time of “art after the end of art,” citing that today one is frequently in the position where it is not possible to differentiate between what is and is not art.2 This is doubly true with public sound art installations that one hears outside of art’s traditional, museum-centered context, as the frame traditionally drawn to separate “art” from “non-art” has been taken away. By drawing on this theory and associated literature, Belgiojoso could fit her varied case studies into a broader conceptual framework. This is merely one way in which the cogency of her narrative could be strengthened— other possibilities also exist.3

At just over 100 pages, the book’s brevity can be both an asset and liability. For readers looking for a brief examination of key moments in sonic arts over the past century, such succinct studies are clear and easy to read; most case studies are covered in less than ten pages. Some discussions are unnecessarily brief. For instance, in exploring how sound and art have moved outside their original cultural institutions into the urban environments of everyday life, Belgiojoso very briefly mentions Dadaism and the Situationists that proposed “the Derive theory” as a form of anti-art in the 1950s (90). There is no definition of this theory, nor a follow-up discussion or citations. This truncated treatment of Dadaism could benefit from increased dialogue on the trans-historical subjects covered in disparate parts of the book. For instance, if “Dada excursions wanted art to approach everyday life” (Chapter 9) then there is a logical connection back to John Cage’s philosophy (Chapter 2), especially in regards to his composition 4’33”.4 Similarly, there are other case studies in Part I and II that could use additional, topic-specific, scholarly grounding. In fact, the majority of sources employed by Belgiojoso are primary source documents written by the artists or composers themselves. Part III, however, does include additional citations, including French and Italian scholarship, much of which is likely to be unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. Dialoguing with supplemental secondary source material in Part I and II would allow readers to see that general concepts and specific cases that Belgiojoso writes about have been an important part of interdisciplinary scholarship both before and after the English edition of this book was published in 2014.5

In sum, Constructing Urban Space with Sounds and Music offers a unique collection of materials drawn from multiple disciplines. As an Italian scholar, Belgiojoso has added some European-centric case studies that are infrequently mentioned in American musicology, such as works by sound artists O+A who use tuning tubes to filter and resound urban noises (Chapter 6). Belgiojoso uses figures reproduced from many of these European artists’ writings (such as François-Bernard Mâche’s Une ville sonore); such figures are in their original language, which might prove difficult for some English readers. Although additional scholarly and conceptual grounding would be welcome, this is a unique addition to interdisciplinary research on sound art for both interested readers and architects who wish to follow Belgiojoso’s lead in reconsidering public spaces as aural spaces (112).

By Alexander Hallenbeck

  1. Equal temperament is the standard Western tuning system that splits the octave into twelve equal parts, each pitch separated by a half-step (e.g. C, C#, D, etc.).
  2. Specifically, Danto makes the argument that with Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) “art”—traditionally associated with mimesis and representation—has ended. See Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Joanna Demers has demonstrated that such an idea also readily applies to contemporary electronic music and sound art; see Joanna Demers, Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 16 and 157-61.
  3. One such example would be to examine the ontological changes that occurred in music due to technological inventions, especially tape recording. Some of these changes are explained in Brian Eno, “The Studio as a Compositional Tool,” in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), 127-30. Indeed, Audio Culture is one example of an excellent anthology that I recommend to readers interested in the musical issues brought up in Constructing Urban Space with Sounds and Music. Emily Thompson has also looked at how emerging acoustic technologies in the early twentieth century allowed architects newfound control of sounds, especially in designing concert halls. See Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
  4. Indeed, 4’33’’ is a key example of art approaching everyday life, as it explores the acoustic properties of the environment it is performed in. For more information see Kyle Gann, No Such Thing as Silence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
  5. One clear example of this concerns musical performances in new contexts, such as Silent Disco and, similarly, operas that are designed to be performed in public spaces. Belgiojoso writes in Chapter 12 that Silent Disco “suggests an ideal solution to the problem of limiting the sound level that is often exceeded in discos and musical events” (108); this discussion is followed by an example of how the Yo!Opera festival brings opera out of the conventional performance space of the opera house and into public spaces (109). Both of these new musical practices are written about more recently in Nina Sun Eidsheim, Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 80-90. In fact, Eidsheim even writes about Invisible Cities, an opera for headphones, which was set in a public place precisely to “‘blur’ the line ‘between everyday life and art’” (Eidsheim 81). Although Eidsheim is not drawing this idea from Belgiojoso’s work, both authors are looking at a similar phenomenon that clearly has caught the attention of scholars in multiple disciplines
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