Megaphones, Parabolic Concrete, and WaterfallsS

We were confronted on the street corner by an evangelical wielding a large, battery-powered megaphone. This being a soundwalk, the appearance on this very cold day of the screaming man in the t-shirt was something akin to an act of serendipity. As he burdened us with the fear of eternal damnation, all I could think was: “My, what a perfect specimen of the urban soundscape.”

A soundwalk is a docent tour of everyday reality. A docent in a museum walks a group of visitors through the galleries and discusses the art: drawing connections, recounting history, responding to and posing questions. The leader of a soundwalk describes the sounds that are encountered en route — how they function as part of the overall soundscape, what they mean culturally, what their origin is, how they set context and are shaped by context.

The “we” on this cold winter Wednesday in San Francisco was myself along with students (a mix of BAs and MFAs) from the course that I teach on sound at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The course’s subject is the role of sound in the media landscape. It is divided into three sections: how to listen; how objects, services, and organizations employ sound to express themselves (industrial design, jingles, etc.); and how music-related products (bands, stereo equipment, social networks) express themselves in non-sonic ways.

I had mapped out the soundwalk agenda in advance, but the world has a way of intervening, and not just in the form of an angry man hellbent on, well, talking about hell. Which is fine — in fact, interruptions are part of the plan. An itinerary, as they say, is the map, not the territory.

What follows are some key moments along the walk, some planned, some chance:

Simulated Activity: The tour started early on Wednesday morning at the entrance to the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street, near the corner of Fifth. Inside the mall, if you closed your eyes, you might have thought it was as busy as holiday shopping could get. In fact, the only business with customers was a coffee shop on the basement level, where office workers and mall staff were lined up for post-dawn caffeine. The mall, however, seemed to brim with activity because the house music — that is, the music played on the speakers from the ceilings — was loud, upbeat pop. It was downright noisy, in pop-punk sort of way. The noise provided a simulacrum of activity. Without it, the mall would have felt like an airport at 3am: ghostly, void. The noise was a form of wishful, self-fulfilling prophecy. It set the pace for commerce, and in time consumers would arrive and adhere to that pace.

Score-by-Accrual: While still in the mall, we discussed how the structure had its own score-by-accrual, a score in addition to the “official” music. The majority of the individual stores had their own interior musical playlists, and these sounds leaked out and merged in the atrium and walkways. These individual playlists served as cues to potential shoppers, and as such were distant descendents of the barkers at stalls at the bazaars of yore. They also served, once one was inside a specific shop, to block out the sounds of the rest of the mall. The result is a music arms race.

Horns and Chatter: We walked back out to Market Street and headed east, toward 4th Street. The noises of the street provided a clear contrast to the music of the mall. There was no single overarching sound. There was instead a mid-level cacophony of horns and chatter, street cars and shuffling. Each time, though, that I attempted to suggest this contrast between mall and street to my students, the siren of an emergency vehicle managed to muffle my voice.

Different Kinds of Quiet: When we reached 4th Street, we turned south and immediately experienced just how quiet a simple change in direction could be. The bustle of Market subsided. The mall had presented itself as an interior city, but in fact the rules of the mall city differ from those of the actual city. In particular, stores on the street were not each blaring their own scores. Noise ordinances take care of that, as do the closed doors of cold winter days. Of course, the city doesn’t need music to suggest activity. It simply is active. And when it isn’t active, that quietude is generally welcome — unlike in the mall, where it suggests economic downfall.

A Private Silence: On the way down 4th Street we passed the entrance to a building with a large, artfully barren lobby, and discussed how the lobby provided, with its visual and literal quiet, a salve for those who entered. In a city, money buys many things, key among those things a relief from the pressures of the city.

Reel Life: At the corner of 4th and Mission we stopped — briefly, because soon the angry man with the megaphone appeared — to look up at the logos emblazoned on the exterior wall of a newly refurbished shopping mall. The ones high above the adjacent corner emphasized the movie theater situated on the upper floors of the mall. It was noted that these signs announced the presence of an Imax screen, but not of the sound systems. The heralding of high-quality sound comes and goes just as hemlines rise and fall. There are periods when THX and Dolby logos are everywhere. This is, at least in downtown San Francisco, not one of those times, even though this theater features screens with Dolby Atmos, which is barely a year old. Even on the website of the theater, the Atmos brand is subsumed as part of the ETX (“enhanced theatre experience”) brand.

Megaphones, Parabolic Concrete, and WaterfallsS

Holy Noise: We paused in front of the lovely St. Patrick Church, whose congregation dates back to the mid-1800s, and talked about the role that church bells play in a city, about the unique nature of that accommodation. It is difficult to imagine a new kind of business or organization appearing in a city and being allowed to make such a regular contribution to — or intrusion in, depending on your point of view — the city’s soundscape. And yet around the city, around the world, church bells ring out repeatedly, marking not just the hour, but regular times of prayer. (Photo of St. Patrick Church by Andrew Crump.)

Water Wall: Mission Street is fairly narrow between St. Patrick and the Yerba Buena Gardens, divided by a midsection, and the park area feels quite remote from the city. Part of that sense of ease in the park is owed to the constant waterfalls of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial that lines the rear of the space. In addition to being lovely, and filling the urban valley with a light mist, it also provides a subtle white noise that blocks out much of the city’s intruding sounds.

Unscheduled Playtime: Among the many chance incidents that informed our walk, a favorite of mine was the oversize poster for the Jacques Tati film Playtime that we saw on the inside wall of a French-themed cafe at one corner of Yerba Buena. Playtime was one of two films I had the students watch as part of their homework this semester, the other being The Conversation (our classroom is just blocks from where the openning of The Conversation was filmed, which makes the surveillance theme all the more eerie). Next semester I may swap out one of those films for Diva.

Ambisonic Planning: We crossed back over Mission Street and made our way up the alley alongside St. Patrick and the Jewish Contemporary Museum. Just two steps from the sidewalk, and the noise of the street, in particular the idling of a delivery van, largely disappeared, the result of trajectory, but also of some sizable concrete structures. I talked a bit about the work of Arup, the architectural and engineering consultancy with offices a few blocks away, and how it employs ambisonic technology to allow architects and urban planners to test in a virtual space how structures will influence sound in real space, how materials, forms, and other variables shape not only the physical but sonic space in which people interact.

Megaphones, Parabolic Concrete, and WaterfallsS

Parabolic Fun: The soundwalk concluded back on the sidewalk on the south side of Market Street. Here an installation by the Exploratorium as part of the city’s Living Innovation Zone program had two oversized concrete hemispheres situated in such a way that anyone sitting in one could converse with the person sitting opposite them. (There is, apparently, also an “singing bench” that involves a completed electric current, but we didn’t see or hear it on this walk.)

And, this being an academic soundwalk, there was homework.

Students are to map three sounds in a two-block radius of the building at the corner of Bush and Kearny that houses our classroom:

Megaphones, Parabolic Concrete, and WaterfallsS

The assignment is: "Pin the spots where those sounds originate. Then write up for each spot a sentence or two in which you (1) describe the sound and (2) note the sound's meaning, utility, function, or some other aspect."

If you live in the area and want to upload your own map here, or a map of your neighborhood, that would be excellent.