Dan St. Clair : Sound Art, Sound Installation, and Birds

Noise Control and Articulated Soundscapes

an MA Thesis submitted to Wesleyan University in May 2010.

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From the introduction:

"What will humanity's urban future sound like? Amidst the tremendous efforts in recent years to re-design and re-imagine the modern city in a future world without oil, very little attention has been paid to sound and acoustics. In sampling the proceedings of a number of recent conferences of architects, designers, and urban planners, I find that sound is rarely, if ever, mentioned. The LEED Standard for Neighborhood Development has sections concerning the visual qualities of a neighborhood, but nothing on acoustics and sound. It is not that sound is an unimportant part of urban experience: noise consistently ranks as one of the top three quality-of-life complaints of residents living in cities around the world 3. Part of the reason for this disconnect is certainly the visual orientation of modern architectural practice - think of Le Corbusier's statement ?I am only eyes." Compared with other sensory issues in the modern city, such as stench, noise has avoided comprehensive control.

This thesis proceeds from the belief that there is tremendous richness in everyday sonic experiences, that these experiences motivate larger patterns of behavior, and that a silent re-imagining of the future is an incomplete one. To that end, it explores moments in the history of ideas of noise and its control in 19th and 20th century North America. The thesis has two main goals. The first is to inform my artistic practice. To an artist working with sound in public spaces, with sound material that might be described culturally as noise, the history of how noise has been conceived, of what makes a sound noise, is extremely interesting. Also, particular ideas of noise are central to Acoustic Ecology, whose practitioners play a significant role in contemporary Sound Art, the genre in which my work is most often exhibited. The second, related, goal is to provide an historical framework from which the future challenges of sound and urbanity may be addressed. Urban noise is a pressure point on which a variety of yet-unresolved and vital issues related to the way we live now converge. A new set of material and intellectual tools are required to meet these future challenges. This thesis provides a stepping-stone towards working out what those tools might be.

Chapter One investigates the public debates about noise and the attempts at noise abatement in response to the 1878 introduction of the first mass transit system in New York City, the Elevated Railroad. Thomas Edison, fresh from his invention of the phonograph the year before, was called in to diagnose sounds of the railway in operation, sounds which incited public uproar and legal action from the track's neighbors. In what may be the first "environmental" recordings of sound, Edison used the phonautograph, a device that rendered soundwaves visible, to aid in his diagnosis. This episode marks the beginning of modern noise control, of the consultant hired to diagnose a problematic source of sound. Chapter Two covers the evolution of the Articulation Index, a way of measuring how well a communications system transmits speech that was originally developed at Bell Labs in the 1920s to evaluate telephone lines and circuits. This index became the main design criteria used in 20th century noise control. Chapter Three outlines the migration of the articulation index from the discipline of noise control to state and federal guidelines for maximum noise levels in the 1970s. Chapter Four provides a critical look at the work of R. Murray Schafer, the World Soundscape Project, and Acoustic Ecology - work that takes the basic principles of noise control and expands them into comprehensive theories on sound in general. Chapter Five connects the ideas of noise that emerge from this history with my own artistic work. An appendix of documentation of some of my pieces created while at Wesleyan is also included."

... for more, please download the above .pdf