Deep listening, sonic photography and the tale of the singing fridge
UAlberta sound junkie finds the beauty in all sorts of noises.
By GEOFF McMASTER
You might call Scott Smallwood a sound junky, or perhaps a phonophiliac. He rarely passes by any kind of noise—whether construction site, birdsong or ice machine—without feeling the need to record it. Most of the time he does.
Once in a Seattle hotel room he couldn’t sleep for the loud hum of a refrigerator. So instead of succumbing to frustration and swearing a blue streak, he decided to record the fridge while he went for a walk.
“I came back, listened and thought, ‘this is beautiful!’” said the professor of music composition and sonic arts. “I don't know why—maybe it's a psychological thing. Maybe it sounds to me like the womb. There's certainly a comfort level in the technology we find in our houses."
Inspired by that singing fridge, he later composed music for acoustic instruments intended to interpret its voice. In fact, Smallwood has a whole catalogue of compositions that convey everything from pump jacks to Australian bell miner birds.
Some of his work has even been performed live by musicians in concert halls. His latest piece is based on the sounds of nature captured in Wood Buffalo National Park last summer.
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It all started when his father gave him a tape recorder at eight years old. He took piano lessons throughout his childhood and eventually trained as a composer, but he still refers to that tape machine as his “first instrument.
"I would write puppet shows and force my sisters to watch them” along with soundtracks recorded on his tape recorder, he said.
“After I'd been trained as a composer, I came back to recording as a primary way I derive inspiration from the world. Many of my compositions come from that process."
Now, Smallwood almost always has a recorder in his pocket, just in case he comes across something worth capturing, which is pretty much everything. And now that recorders have become so small—most of us carry cell phones with some recording capacity—he sees no reason why we shouldn’t all start becoming more sonically aware.
"I think we've reached a time with audio—especially within the last five or 10 years—that we reached maybe 15 years ago with photography,” he said. “Everyone has a camera in their pocket, and a pretty good one and people are taking pictures all the time. So why not sound?"
To that end, Smallwood recently offered a free “sonic photography” workshop on campus through the Sound Studies Initiative to teach the art of capturing field sound. It’s part of the initiative’s new focus on providing an interdisciplinary research hub to explore sound from every possible angle and discipline.
In addition to learning a few technical details, the art of field sound comes down to paying attention to sounds the ear normally tunes out. It could be the squeak of tennis shoes on a staircase, the hiss of a coffee machine or voices echoing in a cavernous atrium.
There is a growing movement to share all of these impressions online through sonic postcards or sound mapping, said Smallwood. More and more, phonophiliacs are capturing the distinct sounds of a given landmark or GPS location—city streets, train stations, stores, pathways, factories and oil pumps—and uploading them to an online database.
"It's important to realize just how we do respond to things we hear when we're not noticing,” said Smallwood.
“We do block things out, and I'm sure many sounds don't even register. But there are things that do register—they register on an unconscious level, or a level we're not immediately aware of, and so part of it is learning to be really sensitive to that."