Every time I arrive in a new place, I always get attracted by the sound of it. The more I explore a place, the more I realize that being a tourist/new resident in a city, allows me to hear the unique sounds around me, creating a symphony. While the combination of noise and designed-sound is mostly an unbalanced, potentially annoying noise to people, I always seem to hear a piece of music balanced within it.
On August 18th, 2017, I arrived in the city of Boston. In this historic and slow-paced city, the first thing that makes me excited is not the strange weather, nor is it the duck boats: it is the wait button on the street light poles. There are different kinds of crosswalk signal designs all over the world. For example, the ones in Taipei play two different types of bird chirps for both ways of the crossing. Therefore blind people can follow the sound of the bird and navigate safely across the road. The signals in Tokyo play a sound using directional speakers so people can follow the sound and cross the road. The signals in Boston are also unique. Walking on the streets of Boston, you will see a lot of new versions of the pedestrian cross buttons that give the user haptic as well as audio feedback. When you first press the button when it is red, it says “Wait.” When the light turns green, the button starts vibrating in concert with the voice saying "cross sign is on to walk."
There is an interesting phenomenon that often happens around the buttons. Tourists, kids, or even adults will always push the button no matter if it’s for the function, a playful walk-by press, or pressing it continuously just to make sounds. I found this amazing because it wasn't designed to be an exciting device–it was intended to serve the purpose of letting the signal system know that people are crossing the road. This phenomenon added another layer to the city's soundscape because the way people interact with the button also changes the sound. I also became addicted to using it as an instrument, but I found that the response time of it was too slow. Therefore, I decided to sample it and create the city's music in my head.
To create the “city music” that I heard, I started gathering sounds that belong to the city of Boston. I recorded the sound from the button, the MBTA Train announcements and a sound that belongs to only the area around Massachusetts College of Art and Design — the ice cream truck of the neighborhood. I always bring my sound recorder with me just in case there is something that I find interesting. The sound of the button was pretty straightforward to record. As long as I could avoid traffic, it was easy to obtain a clean sound sample. The sound of the MBTA train was a step harder because not only is the train motor constantly generating sound, but there are also sounds coming from the train's movement. While recording these sounds is hard enough, at the same time I have to hold the microphone as close as possible toward the speaker on the train to lower the signal to noise ratio — which creates a weird and eye-catching scene to see if you happen to be on the same train. I have gone on multiple train recording trips because the volume of the announcement is different on every train, and the loudness of the motor also seems to vary.
The hardest sound to record was the ice cream truck, which happens to play a specially arranged version of “Turkey in the straw.” I tried to search for it on the internet, but all I could find was a regular, non-ice cream truck version. So I gave up and decided to record it by myself. One day I was working on one of my papers in my room, and I suddenly heard it coming. I changed in light-speed and grabbed my recorder and rushed downstairs, but it was gone. I waited for 30 minutes but it never came back; the first attempt failed. I went back to my room and worked for a few hours more. Suddenly, I heard the song again. I rushed out to the same spot, but once again it was gone. I waited and waited, but it didn’t show up; the second attempt also failed. I memorized the times that it came, which were around 12 PM and 3 PM. I got there early the next day trying to catch the truck. I waited an hour, but nothing showed up. The lady at the Massart parking lot approached me and asked me what I was waiting for; she wished me good luck. Fast forward to a few days later; I heard it again at noon. I knew it would come back at 3 PM that day so I decided to go and wait for it before 3 PM. I got it — but with a child screaming in my recording. It was annoying and not processable, which caused me to end up not using the whole clip. After gathering all the sounds, I processed them and composed the first demo of the song. I used a synthesizer as the base, and then I added the samples on top so that when people first started listening, they will not necessarily think that it is a composition of the city's sound.
Me gathering sounds on the train
Prototype & User testing
I played the demo to various people. At first, most of them thought that it was just another piece of music I created. However, as soon as the first sample appeared, they all seemed amazed. After the listening session, most of the people agreed that sometimes they do here a little bit of music in the sounds around us. Many people also said that they often played with the button and tried to make music with it, but it wasn't until they heard my composed music that they felt like it was a real thing. After the first session, people wondered what would happen if I played it on the train. So my friend and I decided to try it. We were simultaneously excited and nervous because we were trying to guess people's reactions. I put a Bluetooth speaker in my friend's bag, and we went onto the train. I played the song, but no one responded. Not even one passenger reacted to it. Everyone was drowned in the world of cellphones. We were disappointed by what happened but also noticed how much we as people living in this world ignore things that are happening around us.
My friend Damon Campagna with the speaker hidden in his bag
This is not only the You Are Here project for DMI, but it is also the project that made me realize how much people ignore their surroundings. I think what makes a place unique is all of the tiny things that differentiate it from other places. Soundscapes are just like landscapes–they change as time goes by. The sound of Boston in 2017 is different from the sound of Boston in 1960. Making a sound piece out of recordings not only creates art; at the same time, it is a process of preserving sounds of the city that are ephemeral, that only exist at that specific moment in time.
In the future, I hope to sample sounds wherever I travel. I’d like to make a series of music pieces that are unique to individual places, so people can listen to these places from a different perspective, and people that have never been to the places can also explore them from sounds, rather than simply from pictures.
Computer, Microphone, Audio Recorder
Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro X, Apple Final Cut Pro X
Elements of Media Semester Show