VA: The Noise and the City
Autres directions in music
label de moulins et de moulinettes

In the 'psychogeographical' spirit of fällt's Invisible Cities and Sub Rosa's The Hidden City: Sound Portraits from Göteborg comes The Noise And The City, an over two-hour collection of thirty geo-sonic portraits released by internet label Autres directions in music. Not only is the collection (like fällt's) free to download, but each artist's piece is accompanied by a photo reference and, even better, a brief textual account of the piece's genesis and source materials. As the title indicates, most are rooted in the urban landscape and sounds of vehicles, conversation, and sirens often surface. The tracks teem with life—industrial life admittedly—and bucolic moments suggesting countryside idylls are rare. But, as R. Murray Schafer declared in 1979, “For a growing number of people, the major sound landscape is the sound of the city,” so an urban approach is hardly inappropriate. Consider Depth Affect who, in describing their approach to Lorient, France, report that their piece is a subjective portrait of a city where “concrete prevails since it was destroyed during World War II” (still, glistening melodies in “Vulcanor” manage to seep through the fissures of squabbling noise).

What adds to the project's appeal is that musicians were asked to record the sounds of their cities and then process the materials to create personal works that might complement their own discographies. The entire set constitutes a global journey too, as it begins in Nantes, France (the label's base), and then travels through England, Germany, Russia, the Far East, Australia, South America, the USA, and Canada, before finally returning to France. In some cases, source materials aren't greatly transformed, enabling the presence of the original city to audibly remain and for the listener to draw connections between an artist's work and the geographical context. On the down side, at times an artist's signature is barely present and field clichés (like bird and water sounds) gradually form; furthermore, the industrial noise that surfaces repeatedly doesn't typically evidence a unique sense of place (though perhaps the point here concerns its global ubiquity).

A particularly beautiful piece is The Remote Viewer's Manchester evocation “Be Honest...” which almost drowns in oceanic ambience; its vinyl crackle forms a persistent downbeat around which mass clouds of huge reverberance and muffled flute-like tones. Also strong, Robokoneko's melodic “Brume” (Sydney) appeals with its glistening melancholy keyboard lines and clicking beats, while Sogar's “Bau2-” (Paris) is an expertly modulated, 12k-styled piece featuring a deep building drone. Some are more extreme in their portraiture, like Wang Changcun's “Refrigeration Pot” which evokes Daqing, China via Merzbow-flavoured noisecore, and aMute's “Cyclic Brussels Give Up!,” an abrasive collage of storm noises, loud creakings, and industrial clankings partially based on sounds of a supermarket elevator. Novel 23's “Try To Be In Time” (Moscow) is also noisy (in keeping with a city population that exceeds 16 million), an abrasive industrial vignette of machine noises and hammering beats, though its sounds of birds and child's squeals help make it more inviting. Using about ninety minutes of street noises and voices recorded near the tube station, EU created the St. Petersburg portrait “Pionerskaya” (the station name), alien clicks'n'cuts with eviscerated electronics and voice distortions stretched over top. Wavering tonal ambience and faint industrial hums in Colophon's “Uji” (San Francisco) make for a gentler episode, in keeping with the sounds' Zen Center origins. In a similarly quiet vein, textured crackle and bell clanging sounds for Pan American's “Outside” come from his garden. Other contributors include Stendec (London), Joseph Suchy (Cologne), Tim Koch (Adelaide), E*rock (Portland), Mitchell Akiyama (Montreal), Joshua Treble (Cincinnati), Greg Davis (Chicago), and Melodium (Nantes).

Projects like The Noise And The City are not just fascinating to listen to but valuable as they provoke a re-calibration of one's listening habits and induce one to become more attuned to the wealth of omnipresent sound. Certainly there's nothing ironic in Akiyama's comment about “a sublime hum” he heard outside his window one morning. His further statement “I have no idea what made the sound but it was utterly beautiful and I chose to listen to it as though it were a piece of music that I had commissioned” captures the essence of this recording in the simplest and most direct manner possible.

November 2004