Tallest Standards

The launch of my installation went well this morning. We had about 100 guests, from government officials to school children and loads of media people, and all seemed to make a connection with the work.

I was happy that many were also inspired enough to want to progress onto some sort of next stage. The local radio station for example want to broadcast the piece and combine it with an interview with myself and others who have experienced the installation; also, one of the directors in the television company wants to introduce the work to his American media contacts, so who knows where this could lead….

There has also been some talk about using the installation as a catalyst for discussions with urban designers with relation to the acoustic design of the city’s future development. And, finally, there is a desire for the installation to take up permanent status in one of the city’s museums as it is felt that the piece speaks so powerfully for Chongqing.

As I said in my pre-launch speech this morning, this city has perhaps the most exciting soundscape of any that I have so far visited. This is not only because of the wide variation of sounds but also because there is still enough space (acoustic and physical) for the sounds to exist and to be heard. However, Chongqing is developing at a rapid pace and so is in a crucial period in relation to the developmental decisions that have to be made and their effect on how the city sounds. It therefore remains to be seen (and heard) what the future Chongqing will sound like. My hope is that my work here will be able to play some part in influencing these right decisions to be made.


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Line Dancing

With my sound installation now complete and waiting for tomorrow’s launch I thought I would relax this evening in the People’s Square. As this is accessed by ascending steps from road level and then descending again the place is one of the few areas in the city relatively free from the sound of traffic.

In early evening the People’s Square lies almost empty, but as darkness descends the place transforms from a place built for the people to a place used by the people. The whole area is about the size of three football pitches and is tiled in marble and granite stone, and so as the place fills up sounds from one end can be heard from the other.

At around seven o’ clock a giant television screen comes to life and plays distorted sounds to its many viewers who sit on the ground to enjoy an evening’s viewing. Elsewhere, children train for Kung Fu and people gradually enter the square and walk around limbering up for the next event….

Slowly the crowds form into groups and at 8pm, dramatically, the space is filled with recorded music piped from giant loudspeakers located around the square. These groups then expand into huge line dancing or Tai Chi classes who either work with the music supplied or use their own which they play through portable PA systems. These all work together to produce a rather bizarre musical backdrop with the western influenced piped dance music mixing with the more traditional choices of the other classes.

As the evening progresses, the various group activities come to a finish and others such as ballroom dancing take their place until at the end of the evening the majority are watching the few left going. Just after 9.30pm the piped music stops with a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and suddenly it’s the sound of goodbyes and crickets whilst the remaining few finish their dancing in ‘silence’.

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Scattered throughout Chongqing are various parks of different shapes and sizes. Although they offer visual solace from the busy city, their design often does not offer the audio equivalent. In my mind this creates an interesting juxtaposition of these two colliding worlds. The parks are, for the most, designed to be picturesque and are quite traditional in their set-out, harkening back to older times. However, at the same time as the eyes take in this old-world view the ears are greeted with the urban noise of modern city life, with vehicles and construction being the loudest culprits.

The best time to visit therefore is when the city is quieter, i.e. at dawn and through the night, and both of these times have their own particular soundscape, such as the chirping crickets and croaking frogs which can be clearly heard when darkness falls.

At the break of day, the park is alive with the sound of birds, of which there seem to be few varieties. Then one-by-one people can be heard shuffling in their sandals as they quietly wander in, find a secluded spot, and do some sort of gentle Tai Chi type exercise. Around the same time the park cleaners arrive to clear the paths and complement the early morning soundtrack with slow regular sweeps. This soothing collection of sounds doesn’t last for long though as before long some sort of industrial machine starts up, and the city’s sounds take over.

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New for Old

A common response to my work is people’s realisation that many of the sounds that they are fond of are in fact dying out. When people think about it they realise that their favourite sounds, for example, because of their musicality or of childhood memories, already have their alternatives and are becoming scarce. It’s not so much then that sounds are disappearing without trace but that they are being replaced.

Over the last few weeks Chongqing has provided many visual metaphors for this phenomenon as the city is undergoing a rapid change programme in preparation for October’s ‘Asian Pacific Cities Summit’. In just one day last week all the street-name signs were replaced by newer bilingual versions, and then within hours the old signs were collected, probably never to be seen again.
One of my favourite hawkers in the city is the recycler. With the aid of a megaphone he wanders the streets calling out for old televisions, computers, air conditioners and loudspeakers; some also collect plastic bottles and cardboard. I feel an affinity with this trade as in a way I see myself as a recycler of sounds: I go out with my recording gear, collect, and then recycIe them into installation form. As a result I have thought about seeing what would happen if I too went out with a looping megaphone requesting people to bring me their old sounds….

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Musical Pathways

Perhaps the quietest place in Chongqing is a place called Ciqikou. This is an ancient town with a history of more than 1,000 years that has kept its traditional feel. The main thoroughfare suffers from being a bit touristy, but as soon as one diverts to the back alleys, the noise level drops considerably, and one is treated to a more gentle soundscape. Here the sounds are of nature, quiet domestic life, the occasional hawker and the shuffling sandals of someone passing on their way. Everything seems more relaxed and, in turn, the sounds seem more musical. The hawkers in the city centre, for example, shout out their wares; here their advertising sounds more like phrases of a song.

Today has been a very un-Ciqikou experience for me as I have been working hectically all day in the installation space dealing with one event after another. Still, in the end I did manage to set out all that I aimed to achieve, even though it took a good few hours extra. Tomorrow’s an early start again. My aim is to finish installing a day early and then it will be time for me to visit those musical pathways again.

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There’s always the sound of some work being done in this city. In the centre it’s the far reaching sounds of construction; in the lanes it’s the smaller sounds of domestic industry: the most common being various forms of haberdashery, cobbling, shoe cleaning, butchery and key cutting.

With the exception of key cutting, all these sounds are human generated and as such have their own rhythms and play against each other – from the ‘tap-tap’ of the cobbler to the soft whirr of the treadle sewing machine. All these smaller sounds dissolve into the soundscape as they sporadically start and stop and travel no further to round the next corner. It’s the same for the market traders – although they continually shout out their wares, their voices do not actually carry too far. As one climbs the steps, however, from the harbour area to the commercial centre it is the metallic clang and grind of the building industry that gradually impose their presence. Although not always visible, these sounds travel to places where they don’t physically belong.

There is also something else with these sounds. Some have the feeling of ‘permanence’, like they have always been there, in some form or other; whilst others sound much more of-the-moment, and soon-to-be-passing. Thankfully it is the louder sounds whose urgency implies that they will soon be moving on….

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Perhaps my favourite place for sitting down and listening is on the steps of Chaotianmen harbour of an evening. At that time it is bustling with life and, in fact, it can be difficult to find somewhere to sit. Amongst the crowds are families, friends young and old, business colleagues fresh from work, and so on – all there to simply soak up the atmosphere.

My preference is to sit on the bottom steps next to the water, listening to the occasional lap of the Yangtze in balance with the evening’s busy ambience. Further up the steps is full of conversation and the sound of children playing interspersed with the occasional passing hawker selling everything from cigarettes to boat trips along the river. Closer to the top there’s more movement with people walking from one end to the other. This is also where temporary fairground type games are set up – the most popular being to shoot at a big piece of board covered with inflated balloons. Again, sounds of hawkers, laughter (and popping).

By the end of this week the museum should be completed and so the sounds of building will leave the harbour area, at least for the time being. They are already much less intense than when I first visited. The end of the week also sees the opening of my installation, and so on Monday I will move into the gallery space to set the work up. If all goes well I hope to take advantage of its proximity to the harbour steps and return to soak up some more of this wonderful atmosphere!

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In Search of Silence

The city never turns off. There is always the continual whirr of what I guess are extractor fans. Their flat-line broadband noise is almost indiscernible during the day what with the traffic noise and general hubbub of city life; however, at night and especially early morning, they can be easily heard acting as a sort of acoustic blanket covering up the detail of the quietest sounds.

For rest from this continual noise one has to escape to the lanes as even the ‘natural’ world offered by the parks suffers from our modern day infatuation with noise producing technology: mainly traffic or the hum from buildings close by. In the lanes, the best bet is to find a courtyard, however whilst they might be free from air-conditioning humming, these places, of course, are not silent – they have their own sound worlds….

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The girls employed to stand on either side of the entrance of the various fashion boutiques simply shout. Most other shops make use of loudspeakers to either pump music onto the streets or announce what they are selling. It is the megaphone, however, which for me makes the most significant contribution. It is used by a wide variation of people – from the elderly blind couple who busk in Jiao Chang Kou to almost all the smaller shops as well as many market traders.

In most cases the megaphone’s internal memory chip is employed to record a short message which is then looped when playback is operated, each loop being separated by a quick double click. This repetition of the recorded announcement highlights the musicality of the Mandarin accent and so a walk down a street filled with small shops, with all the loops gradually going in and out of phase, is like walking through an early Steve Reich composition.

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Stick Men

All around Chongqing, but especially in the area incorporating the city centre and harbour, are Chongqing’s famous porters. For 2 Yuan they will carry whatever needs to be transported and deliver it using only their bamboo carrying pole and some rope. Sometimes the variation of what they’re carrying, as well as what the weight must be, almost beggars belief. Even all my installation audio equipment arrived this way this afternoon: hanging from rope attached to either end of a bamboo pole.

Apparently, Chongqing is alone in having its own culture of stick carrying porters, and therefore their sonic contribution is important in terms of any understanding of the city’s soundscape. My experience is that this contribution is threefold. First, is the calling for a porter, and this is the phrase “bang bang”, so if there’s something to be carried then all one has to do is call. Second, is a sound that has been frequently mentioned in the project’s sound description submissions, and that is the rhythmic chants uttered by the porters to help with and co-ordinate their carrying, especially if the job in hand requires a group of them. And, finally, my favourite is the sound produced in between jobs when they sometimes drag their pole behind them. On this occasion one can hear the hollowness of the bamboo, whether it is cracked or not, and also the make-up of the surface it is in contact with.

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