[Essay] Sound and the City: Sonic Technologies and Urban Subjectivity – Jamie Bulman

When was the last time you had a conversation with a complete stranger on a lonely journey to the library on a Tuesday morning? Or unplugged yourself from the driving um-chi um-chi um-chi pumping through your headphones in order to say more than a mumbled ‘howzit’ to a vague acquaintance in the street? By plugging ourselves into an iPod we nestle ourselves in a cosy auditory bubble, and reclaim a sonic autonomy from the constant claims for attention in our environment; space to gather our thoughts and watch the world go by as if through a double glazed window. By filtering out the polyrhythmic, multi-tonal sonic orgy, we attempt to project cold rationality onto the chaos of the street, with ‘it’s standing invitation to meaningful encounter, dialogue and interaction.’ (Zygmunt Bauman 2003: 105).

Historically, the ears have been both passive and democratic. Passive, as they can exert no control over the sounds which they detect, and therefore democratic as all sounds are given equal import, unfiltered by external devices. With the advent of the automobile at the end of the last century, humankind not only acquired a faster means of transportation but a means of escaping the street, along with the sounds and interactions which permeated it, allowing us peaceful respite and quiet conversation as we traveled from A to B. As popular music boomed alongside recording technologies in the swinging sixties, so too did mobile listening devices such as car radios and vinyl, placing music at the top of the sonic ‘pecking order’ in our everyday soundworld. Mobile technologies opened up new possibilities for the control over our ears, helping us to simultaneously connect and disconnect, both sonically and socially: by connecting to music and friends remotely, that is, outside of our proximity, we are increasingly disconnected from the people and sounds in our immediate physical environment.

Michael Bull (2007) uses a warm/cold analogy to describe this relationship, ascribing warmth to communication and interaction, and cold to alienation. The warm space claimed by our headphones and phones is occupied at the cost of a resulting urban ‘chill’ and an increasingly fragmented communal soundscape. But this allows the iPod wielder to stroll around as if in a dream, superimposing an interior narrative onto a cold external world. City spaces become enacted, to be enjoyed and modified (Michel DeCerteau 1988), and the iPhone and iPod become tools for enactment, fetishized commodities which create and, through social media, share a projection of identity based on musical taste. This projection of a ‘sense of self’ is simultaneously pointed inwards, affording the listener the power of ‘introjection’: of knowing who they are.  (Tia DeNora 2000: 141)

We paradoxically seek this sense of autonomy and individuality in reaction to the bland aesthetics of urban transport and the hegemony of that most nefarious of mass-produced and consumed technologies: the iPhone. However, while these sociological symptoms may be ascribed to our increasingly intimate relationships with our Spotify playlists, our iTunes library and our sounds on Soundcloud, these technologies also allow us to engage with music on our own terms. Ultimately, despite the consequences which this kind of ‘introjection’ can be said to have on the collective experience in the modern city, the individual now has control. Free of the outdated confines of the LP, the tape and the CD, we can order and collect music in new ways, to be deployed on the home stretch of that rainy 4-mile run or as the soundtrack to that picture-perfect sunset. These personal moments give new meanings to the music we listen to, re-contextualising them within our personalised canon of musical experience.


Jamie Bulman is a musician based in Berlin.

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