Acoustic ecology of great places

Following up this summer’s assessment visits by the Academicians, Prof. John Levack Drever AoU returned to the three finalists of the 2015 Great Place Award – Bishops Square in London, Christmas Steps in Bristol and St Pancras International in London – to record and explore their acoustic ecology.

What is the role of acoustic ecology and its relation to urbanism and place? Rather than getting fixated on noise mitigation, the field of acoustic ecology has developed the perspicacity for the soundscape, with an ear towards it as a positive resource, something to be interpreted, studied, creatively designed and cherished.

The soundscape is a complex dimension of the urban environment that is both culturally and socially determined and in return helps to determine culture and society, and in its own way through the auditory modality impacts on a sense of place.

As well as the psychological, physiological, even pathological ramifications that the soundscape may have to bear on us, of which we are seldom conscious, acoustic ecology cares very much for our everyday practice of the urban soundscape; the values, associations, memories and projections that we imbue the sounds around us with.

The soundscape is a work-in-progress, as the physical environment is always in flux, and our perception of our surroundings is constantly being formed, rendering it ephemeral. Through careful field recording and editing we can endeavour to fix and frame some moments of the flowing soundscape, allowing for a chance of focused listening again.

Through these soundscape collages of Bishops Square, Christmas Steps and St Pancras Station we can hear the range of acoustic architecture on offer, and how these unique acoustics mediate the sound signals within these environments.

Sound signals to listen out for: ping pong and the water feature in Bishops Square; amateur piano impromptus and the arrival of a Eurostar in St Pancras International; the contrasting footsteps on Christmas Steps punctuated by the traditional school bell summoning the school kids in from their break.

Prof John Drever is Professor of Acoustic Ecology and Sound Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he leads the Unit for Sound Practice Research.