Listening to the City

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Original Air Date: 
September 29, 2018

Cities can be cacophonous and loud, a chaos of sonic discord. If, that is, you don't really focus your listening. People who’ve trained their ears to hear urban soundscapes in new ways hear something different.

That’s what David Rothenberg is doing. He’s a composer and an environmental philosopher who’s made a career of listening to and performing music in the wild, with birds, animals and insects. Lately he’s been giving himself a crash course in the art — and science — of urban listening.

His experience made us wonder: what else can you hear from a city when you really listen closely? People's patterns and everyday experiences emerge in detail, along with their struggles against prejudice and abuse. Some people hear pain, others hear art emerging from the chaos of sound.

In this hour, we make the case for exploring your city sonically.


Well, maybe not all of them. But we'd like to get there! In "Listening to the City" we travel from New York to Los Angeles to Jacksonville to Baltimore and beyond, seeking to better understand the urban environment through some seriously close listening. 

headphones in the city

Composer, environmental philosopher and guest producer David Rothenberg teaches us how to deeply listen to urban spaces.

A tree recorded by David Haskell.
Photo Gallery

Biologist David Haskell has been listening to and recording the sounds of urban trees. Haskell can identify leaves by sound, and talks about listening as a way of doing science. He explains why nature/culture is a false dichotomy.

Left to Right: Aaron Henkin, Wendel Patrick (WYPR)

Baltimore-based podcasters Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick are interviewing people and telling their stories, block by block.

gas station

Can you hear racism and intolerance? Jennifer Stoever can when she listens to the “sonic color line” — a way to hear racial division, how it’s reinforced and maintained, by whom and why, and at what cost. 

trains for the train sounds, Paris
Sonic Sidebar

Cities are full of music — but can cities also BE music? David Rothenberg gives us a tiny history of how composers have used cities to make music, beginning with Pierre Schaeffer’s “Musique concrète.”

From Vivienne's Shadow Walk in Venice

Sound artist Vivienne Corringham takes us on one of her "shadow walks," where she records local spaces and how they affect the people who live there, then "sings the walk" through vocal improvisations.


Show Details 📻
September 29, 2018
May 11, 2019
February 01, 2020
November 21, 2020
November 06, 2021
April 01, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. When was the last time you listened, really listened, to your city?

David Rothenberg (00:09):

I think I started exploring the city by sound because it's something that many people talked about for years and I avoided doing it for years.

Anne Strainchamps (00:17):

David Rothenberg is a composer who's famous for recording and playing music with whales, birds, insects, but recent he's turned his attention to a different kind of sound: cities, like his own New York.

David Rothenberg (00:41):

The plan was to get a bunch of people together, give them all audio recorders with headphones and microphones, and crank up the sound. Make the city louder.

David Rothenberg (00:48):

The volume is a little [inaudible 00:00:50].

David Rothenberg (00:54):

I picked something really interesting and compact that I knew would sound interesting: this part of northern Manhattan. There are these big tunnels and elevators in the subway stations and there's like mountains in the city. So you start on the one train, 191st Street, really a quarter mile long graffiti covered tunnel under the bedrock. You have this microphone or this recorder with a built in microphone and you move it around. You're directing what you hear. You hear the echo in different spaces. You hear what it's like to be in a quarter mile long tunnel or confined in an elevator. It is a grungy elevator but there's an elevator operator.

Speaker 3 (01:48):

She goes, "[Shela 00:01:49], you helping me drink this because it's our birthday." So I say, "Nobody [inaudible 00:01:52]."

David Rothenberg (01:51):

And they start talking about some party and you come out of the top and you hear all these birds that are living in the top of the elevator shaft. It was just the first warm day in spring.

David Rothenberg (02:17):

We go under the George Washington Bridge. There's a guy guarding a construction site.

Speaker 4 (02:28):

[inaudible 00:02:28] walking on the bridge yet?

David Rothenberg (02:29):

And he comes out saying, "Hey, put away your cameras. This is a construction site."

Speaker 4 (02:34):

Tear up the walkways.

David Rothenberg (02:36):

I said, "No, we're just recording sounds. Have you heard any interesting sounds here?" "Nah, that's boring." Then he started talking about his fear of hearing the sound of bodies falling off the bridge. People jumping.

Speaker 4 (02:50):

Then you hear a [inaudible 00:02:50] splash.

David Rothenberg (02:50):

He said it's just a sound he doesn't want to hear.

Speaker 4 (02:52):

And the horrifying thing is [crosstalk 00:02:54].

David Rothenberg (02:53):

It's just kind of... Later I looked up in the famous book of 19th century sounds. There's a name for that sound. The [reamish 00:03:02] sound of a body falling from a bridge into the water.

David Rothenberg (03:10):

Usually people are trying to block out the noise of the city but it's actually interesting if you turn it up. The rumble... and people talking: little bits of conversations. With this heightened sensory information it kind of makes you more alive.

Anne Strainchamps (03:31):

We're exploring cities by sound this hour with some expert listeners: people who've trained their ears to hear urban soundscapes in new ways. That's what David Rothenberg is doing. He's a composer, a jazz clarinetist, an environmental philosopher, and he's made a career out of listening to and performing music in the wild. But lately he's been giving himself a crash course in the art and science of urban listening.

David Haskell (04:02):

Check, check, check, check, check, check. That's a good one.

Anne Strainchamps (04:05):

As you can imagine, he's met a lot of interesting people.

David Haskell (04:10):

I am David George Haskell standing here in Inwood Hill Park on a bed of freshly fallen mulberry leaves.

David Rothenberg (04:20):

We can hear it as we walk on top.

Anne Strainchamps (04:25):

David Haskell is a biologist who listens to trees: inside, outside, bark, trunk, leaves, veins, roots. And not just for fun, but as a form of science. He wrote a book about it called The Songs of Trees. It was on a lot of top 10 lists last year. Now, you would think that New York City would be one of the worst places in the world to listen to trees, right? But Haskell says, "Actually, 20% of New York is tree canopy covered, and those trees are deeply connected to the lives of the people in the city."

David Rothenberg (05:03):

Let's just walk up to this park and get a sense of what can be heard.

David Haskell (05:07):

Yes. The sound of rain and wind and leaves or the sounds of insects on or even inside the tree, people's conversations echoing through the tree.

David Rothenberg (05:19):

Is it difficult to listen inside trees?

David Haskell (05:24):

It's not as long as you're willing to look a little foolish, like a tree hugger. If you put your ear up to the base of a tree you can hear the little scratchings of wood peckers in the top. You can hear the creakings of branches transmitted down through the wood. Not through air, through the wood, and then into your ear. There's an immediacy to that experience that you don't get just by standing with your ear away from the tree trunk.

David Rothenberg (05:52):

I hear something. The tree is resonating the sounds of the park and the city.

David Haskell (06:02):

Helicopter in tree. Helicopter in tree. Here we're pressing microphones to the tree's surface.

David Haskell (06:17):

I also used microphones of different kinds: accelerometers that can pick up ultrasonic emissions to try to get at some of the hidden sounds. For example, the sounds of many chewing insects. Others, though, even with a lot of amplification we couldn't detect. Columns of water... the transport system for water... within the tree, when those columns break, when the tree is drought stressed, little ultrasonic clicks emerge. There are thousands of them in any one particular twig.

David Rothenberg (06:56):

Oh yeah. Can you connect your listening to your scientific activities? Is there scientific data that can be found by listening to trees? Or is it more of this kind of aesthetic cultural experience?

David Haskell (07:13):

I don't think there's a clear division between the science and aesthetic connection. In the case of trees, even something simple like walking on their leaves teaches us these leaves are actually radically different, one from another. Oak leaves that are grown in an open sunny area are twice as thick as the ones that are grown on the same tree on the shaded branch. You can look at leaves and see they have different shapes but the ear reveals all sorts of other differences that tell us something: I would argue something a little deeper about the nature of that leaf. Its role to be a little solar panel to gather light and to integrate that light with water coming up from the roots to photosynthesize. Our ears are detecting some of the many variegations of ecology and evolution in the forest.

David Rothenberg (08:05):

All right. Let's keep walking and see what comes up.

David Haskell (08:07):

The trees, in their own way, take on the city within themselves.

Speaker 6 (08:17):

[inaudible 00:08:17].

David Haskell (08:22):

We're making a recording of the trees.

Speaker 6 (08:24):

Oh, what?

David Haskell (08:29):

This is a sound recorder. [crosstalk 00:08:30].

Speaker 6 (08:29):

And for who is this?

David Haskell (08:31):

I'm just doing it for the hell of it.

Speaker 6 (08:33):

Oh, just for the fun.

David Rothenberg (08:33):

He studies the songs of trees we're looking at.

Speaker 6 (08:35):

That's cool. I just wanted to know who...

David Rothenberg (08:38):

[crosstalk 00:08:38] songs of trees.

Speaker 6 (08:39):

That was for one tree? All these guys?

David Rothenberg (08:41):

Yeah. It's beautiful.

Speaker 6 (08:42):

Do they all play the same music?

David Haskell (08:45):

City trees, their wood is actually fundamentally different from trees that grow away from all this vibratory energy. Their roots are stronger. The trunk is more resistant to sway. The city dwells within the wood of city trees.

David Rothenberg (09:05):

So we are in Inwood Hill Park, the northern tip of Manhattan. It's next to the highway. The Henry Hudson Parkway is over year. Is this just people cutting through nature and messing it all up?

David Haskell (09:19):

No. Those people are nature as well. They're evolved beings. What I'm hearing is the sound of the exuberance of a particular species of tropic ape that has made its way here into the northern hemisphere and has figured out how to dig fossil sunlight out of the ground. That sunlight has been buried for 100 million years or more, and so in the roar of a truck engine or the roar of an accelerating car we're hearing that exultant release of sunlight that last was free when dinosaurs were wandering around on the Earth.

David Rothenberg (09:56):

So the traffic is like a dinosaur, you're saying.

David Haskell (09:59):

The traffic is an echo of the energy that was present in the age of dinosaurs.

David Rothenberg (10:06):

Let what happens around the bend, here. Okay, can we hear this is a different kind of leaf we're walking over now?

David Haskell (10:20):

The sounds in a city are just as natural as the sounds of a mountain stream, the sounds of a hummingbird, a katydid singing. City sounds emerge from another part of the tree of life. Humans belong on this planet. We evolved here. It does not then follow, though, that everything that humans do, even though it is natural, is good.

David Rothenberg (10:43):

We don't want to go that way. [inaudible 00:10:44] to go right.

David Haskell (10:48):

Many of the sounds that we produce in the city are, in fact, very challenging for other species and drive those other species out of the city. So soundscapes in the city do present all sorts of ethical questions for us.

David Rothenberg (11:00):

Sounds like we're in the middle of so much activity but it's actually quite quiet.

David Haskell (11:06):

Now, there are other ways in which trees enter our lives and we're neglecting to pay attention but they're very important to us. This you can hear, is a patter of footsteps around the tree. On a city sidewalk you're hearing people walking, usually walking quite fast. The tree interrupts that, causes those footsteps to slow down.

David Rothenberg (11:32):

It's a maple sound. We haven't heard this.

David Haskell (11:35):

The tree that I spent many years sitting with and watching, again and again people would step out of the flow traffic... pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk... into the space of this tree to talk on the phone or have a snack or read the newspaper. The light is different. The taste of the air is different. The sound is different because every leaf is a little sound reflector reflecting sound waves back down to the street, so the sound is brighter under the tree.

David Haskell (12:04):

Now, there are other places where people don't pay so much heed or the tree is in the way. There's a grocery store just down the street where they hose off the sidewalk every morning to clean it up and they have hosed out all of the soil around the trees. Those trees have got naked roots sticking a foot or two down into the ground because they've lost all their soil. Those are some folks for whom the tree is just an inconvenience, or so they think until the tree dies and the temperature on the store front goes up by 20 degrees during a hot summer's day.

David Rothenberg (12:41):

Can you hear a tree that's been neglected? You know, "This tree is lonely. No one's paying attention"?

David Haskell (12:46):

The tree, in neglect, often winds up in death. So one can certainly hear that as a tree is in the final stage of its life. Its leaves crisp up and it has a very different sound than a tree that's thriving. A steady tree that is planted and then ignored has maybe a 50/50 chance of surviving 10 years, but a tree that is planted with the help of people in the community and that people are paying attention to, that tree's probability of survival is nearly 100%. When we invite trees into our circle of awareness, when we give them personhood and membership in the human social network, we're actually giving that tree its life.

Anne Strainchamps (13:35):

Okay, we're going to let those guys continue their walk. David Haskell is a biologist and an award-winning nature writer. He teaches at the University of the South and his book is called The Songs of Trees. And composure David Rothenberg, he'll be back later.

Anne Strainchamps (13:52):

By the way, our digital producer has put together something pretty cool for this hour. He built an interactive sonic map of the world. If you go there you can hear and see some of David Haskell's trees. You can also add sound and photos from your own city. It's all at Coming up, we're going to head down the coast to Baltimore where a doberman teaches us how sound can divide a neighborhood. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.

David Rothenberg (14:27):

A bridge. Escape from New York.

Anne Strainchamps (14:30):

And PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (14:37):

We're listening to cities this hour and we've been to New York. Next, we're heading to Baltimore where two podcasters, Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, are interviewing people and collecting their stories block by block. So it's an experiment in what I guess you could call hyper-local listening. The podcast is called Out of the Blocks.

Speaker 7 (14:58):

What's your excuse today? All the preachers stealing the money? And this preacher's on [inaudible 00:15:04].

Elder Grishom (15:05):

My name is [Elder Grishom 00:15:05] and we're on [Greenmount 00:15:07] and 33rd.

Speaker 7 (15:07):

It's not okay that here our children learn how to use pistols and deadly weaponry before they learn how [inaudible 00:15:14].

Aaron Henkin (15:15):

It's a really deceptively simple concept.

Anne Strainchamps (15:19):

This is Aaron.

Aaron Henkin (15:20):

One block, everybody's story.

Speaker 7 (15:22):

Why would god decide at creation that he does not want to be right with him?

Elder Grishom (15:25):

There is the truth available.

Speaker 7 (15:27):

The devil is a liar.

Elder Grishom (15:27):

And that alone brings me out.

Aaron Henkin (15:29):

We go to one city block and we meet and interview everybody who will talk to us.

Stacy Rose (15:34):

[inaudible 00:15:34] we call it making the gun talk.

Aaron Henkin (15:39):

Make the gun talk, huh?

Stacy Rose (15:40):


Aaron Henkin (15:40):

Certain places on the block will just have beautiful signature sounds.

Stacy Rose (15:44):

Talk to me, baby. Talk to me, baby.

Wendel Patrick (15:53):

I compose and record a soundtrack for each episode.

Anne Strainchamps (15:59):

And this is Wendel.

Wendel Patrick (16:01):

Often using sounds from the blocks and environments themselves as instruments.

Stacy Rose (16:06):

My name's [Stacy 00:16:07] Rose. Got a tire shop. 2119 Anderson Avenue. What's my nickname? Shorty! Shorty. They call me Shorty. Tie you back on, now. She came for one tire. She going out with two good tire.

Anne Strainchamps (16:29):

Wendel, the score under this is so propulsive and dynamic. What kind of building blocks did you use to create that?

Wendel Patrick (16:38):

Well, I was really excited when I was there with Aaron when he pulled out this airgun because I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to do. Really, sort of in everyday life everything, whether it's a voice or an airgun or birds, has pitch and rhythm.

Anne Strainchamps (16:55):

Wait, does an airgun have a pitch?

Wendel Patrick (16:57):

It does. It actually has multiple pitches playing at the same time. Basically, in the score I wrote an orchestral accompaniment that matched the pitches and the harmonies and the rhythm, actually, of the tire gun.

Stacy Rose (17:10):

[inaudible 00:17:10]. That's what they do, the in-and-out. The 500, baby.

Aaron Henkin (17:18):

On this block you'll also find a corner diner called Soul Source, which is run by a Trinidadian woman. There is a Pentecostal storefront church on that block. There's a homeless man who lives in a van in the parking lot of the auto shop.

Anne Strainchamps (17:37):

Why do people want to be part of this?

Aaron Henkin (17:41):

It never ceases to amaze me what people are willing, able, and eager to share with us about their lives. I think it was Terry Gross who said this beautifully. She said, "It's the secret wish of the soul to be interviewed."

Wendel Patrick (17:57):

Yeah. I think the fact that you hear all the residents themselves not only telling the stories but introducing the show, closing out the show, doing all the transitions, it really does sound like you're hearing a block speaking.

Speaker 12 (18:10):

We're standing on the legendary, most notorious, Emerson Avenue, [Blasky 00:18:14] Street, 2100 block.

Speaker 13 (18:16):

Soul Source Restaurant.

Speaker 14 (18:19):

[inaudible 00:18:19].

Speaker 15 (18:19):

Emmy's Food Palace.

Speaker 16 (18:20):

Refuge Way of the Cross Church of Deliverance.

Speaker 17 (18:23):

[Camelot 00:18:23] Restaurant.

Stacy Rose (18:24):

Got a tire shop.

Speaker 18 (18:25):

Best used appliances.

Speaker 19 (18:26):

Best appliances in town. 2121 Anderson Avenue.

All (18:36):

[crosstalk 00:18:36].

Speaker 21 (18:36):

2111 [Edmenston 00:18:36] Avenue.

Aaron Henkin (18:37):

As much as you get out of one person's story or the sound of one person's environment, it's that collage effect, the way each one of those stories bumps into the one after it or blends with the one after it, that really... It's a mosaic. It's the amalgam of all of them together that give you that bigger picture.

Wendel Patrick (18:58):

It's almost like the city itself is playing music or singing.

Anne Strainchamps (19:03):

One of the most elaborate versions of this that you did, I think, is the... Is it King's Fried Chicken?

Wendel Patrick (19:10):

Yeah. That place is on the corner of 33rd and Greenmount.

Speaker 22 (19:16):

Brother, you said everything, right?

Wendel Patrick (19:18):

This place was a musical treasure trove: spatulas chopping up cheese steaks, deep fryers sizzling.

Anne Strainchamps (19:28):

This is your orchestra. You're composing with it.

Wendel Patrick (19:32):

I think when one is cooking or chopping things up there's always a... We all sort of develop a natural rhythm to whatever it is that we're doing.

Zeshaun Casme (19:45):

We Muslims, we have a greeting. It's called as-salamu alaykum. I like it a lot because before you even shake the person's hand you invite peace to you and that person and we should all be about peace. A lot of [crosstalk 00:20:00].

Anne Strainchamps (20:00):

And tell me about the guy you interviewed, the guy behind the counter.

Aaron Henkin (20:02):

[Zeshaun Casme 00:20:02] is from Afghanistan. He's Muslim, but he's also like a young guy who's just kind of connected socially and culturally to the neighborhood around him.

Zeshaun Casme (20:15):

Discrimination is everywhere, brother. That was my problem, too. I said, "Man, these people over here. Crazy. Yelling over the time." I live over here too, so it's never quiet. But after a year or two living here I realized that everybody's got good and everybody's got bad and if we all come to a better understanding of what people go through we might take away some of our ignorance.

Anne Strainchamps (20:40):

Do you ever feel like you can hear segregation?

Aaron Henkin (20:54):

That's a really good question. I guess what I hear in stories are differences in your sphere of options as a person. I guess that's the sound of segregation. I met a guy who, on the 4700 block of Liberty Heights Avenue, just got out of jail from doing a drug charge and had to go back to dealing drugs because he had to pay court fees upon his release and he couldn't a job because he has a multiple record and couldn't get hired at a legit place of employment, so he had to go back to selling drugs. He said there's nothing glamorous about it. He said, "If you give me 50 dollars to cut your grass I'll come cut your grass." Those were his options.

Wendel Patrick (21:36):

What I would say is... I'll put it this way. We do shows in different parts of town. Sometimes it's in an urban environment.

Speaker 24 (21:45):

My lord Nat, 4600 to 2800 [inaudible 00:21:49]. You feel me? It's not like I (beep) want to do this stuff. It's how sometimes it got to be, you feel me? Everybody can't be the good person and go to school. Everybody can't be the president. Everybody can't be a lawyer. Your generation was raised to sell drugs, you going to wind up selling drugs. It's a possibility you might to go to school, but you going to wind up selling drugs. You going to wind up doing something because it's always in that person, you feel me?

Wendel Patrick (22:09):

Sometimes it's in an urban environment. Sometimes it's in a residential one: sort of a lot quieter and a lot of birds. Maybe you listen to who's on those blocks. The listener could perhaps draw their own conclusions.

Lynn Corgord (22:24):

Lynn [Corgord 00:22:25]. I live at 613 [Beteen 00:22:27] Road with Cricket. Cricket is a three year old doberman. She is my companion, my bedmate, my protector.

Lynn Corgord (22:36):

Sits. [Plats 00:22:38]. Good girl. Wait.

Lynn Corgord (22:41):

She is an athlete, so it's a lot of work on their bodies. They have to be in shape but they can injure themselves. It can be expensive. Cricket right now is in rehab for a swollen patella tendon, which is a tendon that goes from the knee.

Lynn Corgord (22:54):

Go, go, go, go out! There you go.

Anne Strainchamps (22:57):

This hour that we're doing is really about how to listen outside your comfort zone, how to extend your ears and your sensibility into cities and neighborhoods. I'm just wondering what advice you would have... Have you ever taught people how to listen? And if not, what would you say?

Aaron Henkin (23:21):

I love what David Isay from StoryCorps says, which is, "Listening is an act of love and it takes work." It takes work to be an active listener. We all hear every day but listening is something entirely different and it takes emotional energy. It takes patience. It takes trust. And it takes a desire to commune with other people, which you may or may not have on any given day, but when you do have those moments where you give yourself over to listening a conversation that you'll have with a complete stranger will undoubtedly be the best conversation you've had all day.

Anne Strainchamps (23:59):

Do you feel that way too, Wendel?

Wendel Patrick (24:01):

I do. I find myself often listening to the interviews, once I've written the score, on repeat. I've had some very emotional moments. I've come to tears listening to some of our episodes and I've had my own driveway moments months after when episodes re-air just sitting and listening to people's stories. I've really made a living out of listening and yet this has taught me how to listen in a whole new way.

Anne Strainchamps (24:38):

The podcast is Out of the Blocks. The producers are Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick and you can see photos and hear more sounds from their work on our interactive sonic map of the world. You'll find it at

Anne Strainchamps (25:00):

We're talking about listening to cities, listening in cities, and learning how to open our ears. So I asked if you can hear segregation. The answer is yes. You can hear racism, too: sonic intolerance which can be deadly. In 2012, 17 year old Jordan Davis and some friends pulled up at a Florida gas station. There was another guy there, also getting gas. A white man.

Jennifer Stoever (25:29):

We're at a gas station an average of three to five minutes. We're used to hearing sounds coming and going and blaring at us.

Anne Strainchamps (25:38):

Sound historian Jennifer Stoever.

Jennifer Stoever (25:43):

The white man, Michael Dunn, had stopped at a Florida gas station and decided that he would go over to a jeep of young black teenagers and tell them that they absolutely had to turn their music down. They said no. This is a shared space. This need to silence that sound led to him decided to shoot into the jeep, killing Jordan Davis who's only 17. It was called the Loud Music Trial in the press, as if this were just a case about loud music. The young men were listening to hiphop: a song by Lil Reese. He described it later as rap crap and there was something about the way that those young men were taking up space at the gas station and using sound to take up space that really called attention to Michael Dunn's feelings about race and who belonged where, how people should sound, how people should listen to music, and what kind of music is acceptable in public space. He murdered someone over that.

Anne Strainchamps (27:14):

Jennifer Stoever is a sound studies scholar. She teaches at Binghamton University and she grew up in southern California, one of the most diverse regions in America. She was an early hiphop fan and it was when she was going out to concerts and clubs that she first started noticing what she calls the sonic color line.

Jennifer Stoever (27:34):

This was about, I would say, 2007, maybe, 2006, and it was at the moment when LA's downtown was changing from the site were brown and poor people lived in the city to its current gentrified state. All of these old factories and empty office buildings were being transformed into lofts and condominiums and folks on Skid Row were being pushed out.

Jennifer Stoever (28:00):

I had gone to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I had actually gone to see Isaac Hayes at the Hollywood Bowl. As often happens in LA I got stranded downtown in the middle of the night waiting for the bus and what I heard coming from the doorways at 2:00 AM was classical music: really high volume classical music. I was standing there by myself going, "What is happening here." Then I realized that music was being played to keep people from sleeping in the doorway. It's kind of like a hostile architecture: sound being used a deterrent. But then because it's, quote unquote, classical music it can't possibly be noise no matter how loud you have it. This actually ups the class feeling of people in the building while really being this kind of hostile keep out sound.

Anne Strainchamps (28:58):

This is basically sonic gentrification. Affluent white people have moved in and feel like, "Now we get to decide what's noise and what isn't."

Jennifer Stoever (29:08):

Exactly. Also, just the idea that when you buy into a place, when you move into a neighborhood, the neighborhood has to conform to your ideas about what a neighborhood sounds like rather than an adjustment to the sounds that are around you.

Anne Strainchamps (29:26):

What's an example of, say, a public debate around noise that you think actually was a racial debate?

Jennifer Stoever (29:33):

Another example of racial politics operating through sound occurred in New York City in Harlem and it involved a drum circle taking place outside at Marcus Garden Park on Sunday afternoons. This drum circle had been there since the late '60s and came out of the black power movement and black arts movement, and in 2007 a condo building that had sold and been refurbished, rents raised, and white middle class people moving into a neighborhood that has historically been black and Puerto Rican. There began to be increasing noise complaints by the residents to their condo board and to the police. This sound became something that the white condo residents really fixated on and that is actually probably occurring in many forms in cities across the country.

Anne Strainchamps (30:31):

So I was thinking, the history of big cities like New York is, in a lot of ways, a history of displacement as populations shift and move from one neighborhood to another. Sounds like you could almost write the history of cities in sound.

Jennifer Stoever (30:54):

Absolutely. It's one of the things that I study quite intensely. I've actually looked at New York in the '40s when there was another moment of upheaval after the war when Puerto Ricans were moving from Puerto Rico to the States. You find in the newspapers at the time, like the New York Times, letters from white people talking about their Puerto Rican neighbors but saying things like, "The city's become an audio slum." I study a sound artist named Tony Schwartz who, in the 1940s, lived in Hell's Kitchen right near where Lincoln Center was about to be developed. He lived through the displacement and the destruction of San Juan Hill, which was a largely black and Latino neighborhood that was razed completely to make Lincoln Center.

Speaker 27 (31:42):

They come by and they watch us dancing out on the streets and they think it's terrible and disgusting, but they do the same, too, only they do it in the night clubs.

Jennifer Stoever (31:50):

He has recordings from that era of that neighborhood and actually made the arguments, through a radio show, that here we are destroying thousands of musical performances taking place every night to create a space for one very elite performance happening every night. Who has the power to control the kind of sounds that are made in the city? And also, who has to live with all the noise of all of this construction being built, whether it's the Lincoln Center or the Cross Bronx Expressway. Certain sounds, very loud sounds, we're supposed to be to tolerate because they're sold as being good for everybody when they're serving only a certain population.

Anne Strainchamps (32:44):

We've been talking about sonic prejudice, but I wonder if there are ways in which communities of color or disenfranchised neighborhoods have also used sound to define and carve out a space. I guess I was thinking that isn't that part of the story of the rise of hiphop and the Bronx in the '70s?

Jennifer Stoever (33:04):

Very much so. I've also researched Harlem in the 1940s and the way that black and brown people, black people and Puerto Ricans, had conversations about noise in the newspaper and conversations about how do we share space. Everybody celebrates sometimes. It's not that certain people are noise makers and certain people aren't. You'll see from that period the Amsterdam News urging black readers to be more tolerant, say, of Spanish accents in their community: that, "When we moved out from the south we were discriminated against for our southern speech so we don't want to think of Spanish as something that doesn't belong or is noisy."

Jennifer Stoever (33:47):

Hiphop is another place where sound brought black and Puerto Rican people together. DJs like Afrika Bambaataa used sounds from wherever... the television, from Europe, and things like craft work and his mom's record collection... bringing all those things and creating these new sounds to create a space of togetherness and a way to actually envision a new community versus what was called the burned-out Bronx by many people in New York City at the time.

Anne Strainchamps (34:27):

You must hear and read about examples of this all the time. What's the most recent example where you thought, "Yep, there it is again."

Jennifer Stoever (34:35):

Actually, there was a story of a woman in the summer in North Carolina, a doctor. This was covered by The Washington Post in May. She was at home celebrating good news. She had just heard she was pregnant. She had just received a prestigious cardiology fellowship. She turned on her Spotify playlist on a Saturday afternoon, 3:00 PM. Turned on her playlist of '90s hiphop: things like Juvenile and Notorious BIG, Puff Daddy. She said she listened to it for an hour and was feeling joyful and dancing. Turned it off. Sat down to watch the news and then there's a knock at her door. Her neighbors had called the police on her for playing loud music.

Jennifer Stoever (35:28):

Instead of ignoring it and saying, "Hey, it's Saturday. Someone's in a good mood downstairs," or knocking on her door, again, creating community relationships, having a conversation about it, they just went straight to the police and the police abruptly knocked on the door, scared her in her own home, made her feel like even though she has the right to be there, the class status to be in this particular place, she didn't belong in this neighborhood: that her white neighbors don't tolerate her ways of being and are consciously listening for it. We can also amplify sounds we hear. The more we fixate on certain sounds the more we begin to notice and attune to them.

Anne Strainchamps (36:07):

Right. So it's a store over and over again of people being silenced, literally.

Jennifer Stoever (36:13):


Anne Strainchamps (36:14):

Wow. You're opening up this whole kind of language that, to me, seems to be about the ethics of listening or the ethics of hearing moving from sonic prejudice to a model of sonic inclusiveness.

Jennifer Stoever (36:28):

If that is a legacy that I can leave I would be honored an appreciative. I really encourage people to stop and observe reactions that we've come to understand as natural or immediate to sound. "Why am I upset at this particular moment that my neighbor is playing a certain kind of music? Why am I upset that my neighbors are using their front yard to have a party versus their back yard?" Sound triggers a lot of these deeply held feelings about race and class and the way we think about race and class influences what we hear, and if we can really begin to break that automatic assumption a lot of things can change.

Anne Strainchamps (37:18):

Jennifer Lynn Stoever teaches at Binghamton University. She's the author of The Sonic Color Line and also editor-in-chief of the sound studies blog Sounding Out.

Anne Strainchamps (37:33):

So time to rethink what you consider noise. Remember our guide, David Rothenberg? He's been thinking about that, too.

David Rothenberg (37:42):

Noise traditionally is a sound we don't like. It could easily be a sound someone else likes. Electric guitar makes a really pure sound but we want to plug it into distortion and feedback and fuzz boxes. We like this noisiness. We like this buzzyness. The same thing you find in urban noise. People go out and seek the loudest possible places to dance and try and talk in loud bars. People actually like that. Sometimes we like loud sounds. Sometimes we think it's noise or too much noise but other times we actually enjoy it. A lot of it's our attitude toward what's around us.

Anne Strainchamps (38:33):

So what happens if you lean into the noise? We'll find out next. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (38:57):

Cities are full of music, but can cities also be music? Composer and philosopher David Rothenberg would say, "Yes, absolutely."

David Rothenberg (39:13):

When you think about the history of noise used as music, Pierre Schaeffer in Paris right after World War II came up with the idea of music [concrete 00:39:27]: music made out of actual concrete sounds in the real world. Back then he was just playing records he had made, actual vinyl records of train sounds, and he said, "Listen to this train whistle. Let's change the speed. Let's repeat it." It becomes like a musical moment. People were quite skeptical. Towards the end of his life... he lived a very long time... he sort of thought that it was a complete failure. Now you can do this on your phone.

David Rothenberg (40:07):

Friend of mine was recording sounds of buses pulling out using this microphone designed to record bats, very high frequency sounds, and it turns out that buses are making all these super high frequency sounds we can't hear. You lower the pitch, it really sounds incredibly beautiful like a sort of choir singing.

David Rothenberg (40:35):

One particular way of describing sounds... it actually comes out of a Pierre Schaeffer tradition... is the notion of the [Sharowagy 00:40:42] Effect, an idea from garden design in the 18th century: perfect beauty, that it was planned and unplanned. It was accidental but exact, like when you're making music and the subway doors are in the same key as the music you're making, or maybe you hear the mixture of noises that somehow is beautiful. Any of these recordings, or the moment it seems to make sense... I feel like I'm going for this mystery effect. When you come to a place, the mixture of sounds is so perfect, you go like, "Ah, this is it. Can't describe what it is but we've got it here."

Anne Strainchamps (41:40):

I wish I could hear the world the way David Rothenberg does, and his sound addict friends, like Matthew [Adikman 00:41:47]. He was our source for those high frequency bus sounds.

Anne Strainchamps (41:50):

As you can tell, David travels a lot. Everywhere he goes he gets people to take him on sound walks. He was in London recently walking with singer and sound artist Vivienne Corringham. She's famous for what she calls shadow walks. Steve Paulson put on his headphones.

Steve Paulson (42:16):

Viv, can you explain what you do in your shadow walks?

Vivienne Corringham (42:20):

Yes. In shadow walks I go to a place, usually that I've not been to before, and I ask people who actually live there to take me on a walk that means something for them. It might be just a walk to the shop or a walk to take the child to school or something like that. Often a walk that relates to their past.

Speaker 30 (42:48):

I believe that here, by and by, I got used to this place.

Vivienne Corringham (42:54):

Then later I go back and I do the identical route, only this time I sing.

Steve Paulson (43:10):

What are you singing? Are you remember what the person has told you about this particular walk?

Vivienne Corringham (43:17):

Usually I'm just making sounds, actually. I've always been a singer who likes to improvise and who likes to explore different sounds: trying to sound maybe like a sounds of nature or machines or city or those kind of things. That is quite an interesting challenge.

Steve Paulson (43:44):

What do you want from these walks? Particularly those first walks when you're walking with someone else on a walk that matter to them: what you call a special walk. Why do you want to go on that walk with them?

Vivienne Corringham (43:57):

I'm very interesting in people's sense of place and how they relate to their own home. I've always felt a bit rootless, actually. As you hear, I'm British. I'm living in New York. I travel pretty well all the time for work. I'm not really very much based anywhere and I'm very interested by people who are. I suppose I want a bit of it.

Steve Paulson (44:22):

It sounds like sort of a combination of place and memory: people's memories of that place.

Vivienne Corringham (44:44):

Very much so, yes. They're very much memory walks. Really, I often only have to say, "What is special about this walk for you? Why did you choose it?" And that's it. People will talk for hours about that.

Vivienne Corringham (44:57):

This is a good workout.

Speaker 31 (44:59):

Yeah. It's all kind of very hilly. Uptown is very flat. This is something I guess I'm not very used to [crosstalk 00:45:12].

Steve Paulson (45:13):

There's an old quote from James Joyce: "Places remember events." Do you think that's true?

Vivienne Corringham (45:20):

I love that quote. I would love to think it was true. The Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea have what they call song paths. Somebody would be sitting, singing, usually outdoors I think, often a woman, and they would singing, really, lists of place names and they would take you on this inner walk, which I like to try to do: to take people on a kind of inner journey as well as a literal journey.

Vivienne Corringham (46:07):

There's often a strong mood in people's walks. Their memory walks often... So, a memory tends to be tied up with nostalgia and maybe melancholy. Several took me on walks that maybe went to their grandmother's house what they used to go when they were little and the grandmother is long gone. It's all about their traces, really.

Steve Paulson (46:34):

I know one of your inspirations has been the experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, who developed this idea of deep listening. Can you explain what deep listening is?

Vivienne Corringham (46:45):

Well, I can give one of her definitions, which is listening at all times to everything possible that you can hear. Oh, and the other thing she used to say which I like was, "Reminding myself when I forget to listen," because she would always, "Listening is actually very easy. What's hard is to remember to listen."

Steve Paulson (47:09):

I'm trying to imagine what it means to listen to literally everything. That sounds overwhelming.

Vivienne Corringham (47:17):

Yes, and I think a lot of people do find that. One of the aspects of deep listening that I like so much is that idea that let's just stand and listen to a noisy construction site. Just pay attention to it. All sounds are equally important. No sound is better than another or more important than another. Give all equal value. So many layers of different kind of sounds: odd little beeping high sounds and there's maybe a few roars, slightly different pitch. They begin to sound like an orchestra, actually, if that's not too fanciful. As soon as you start listening to a sound instead of trying to block it out or deciding you hate it, it becomes more interesting. Just playing around like children do.

Vivienne Corringham (48:20):

Children really kind of like sound. They like making sounds. It sort of gets limited. As you get older mostly what happens is you get quieter yourself. You kind of don't make those sounds, so I think a bit of your enjoyment of sound can go.

Steve Paulson (48:43):

It sounds like what you're really talking about is discovery. You're sort of realizing, "There's all this kind of fascinating stuff out there if we just listen to it." Normally we just don't pay attention.

Vivienne Corringham (48:53):

I think if we're actually in sounds it's, yes, much more interesting to discover them. I think it makes you feel more open and more nonjudgmental in general, and I think that is such a good attitude to promote in general in this world, in this time we live in. That's it, really.

Anne Strainchamps (49:19):

Vivienne Corringham is a singer and sound artist. She's recorded shadow walks all over the world and she was talking with Steve Paulson. Thanks also to David Rothenberg for sharing all of his sound walks with us. Check out his podcast, New Sound Walk City. There's a link on our website. Also, while you're there don't forget to check out our interactive map of all the sounds heard in today's show. It's at And please, add your own sounds to it.

Anne Strainchamps (50:01):

To The Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin, where on game days you can hear the UW Marching Band playing the fifth quarter from a mile away. Sound designer and technical director Joe Hardtke had his hands all over this hour. We had help from producers Charles Monroe-Kane and Shannon Henry Kleiber and digital producer Mark Riechers. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson. I'm your host, Anne Strainchamps. Happy listening.

Speaker 32 (50:28):


Last modified: 
March 31, 2023