Places, Spaces, and Soundscapes

By: Charles Carson (The University of Texas at Austin) //

Like any good farce, the 1983 comedy Trading Places opens with an overture.

In this case, it is the overture to Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro—slightly amended, yet still recognizable. Mozart’s overture accompanies the opening credits of the film, which feature an extended montage of a waking city. Commuters board busses and trains on their way to work, traffic flows into the city along busy freeways, shopkeepers restock shelves and unlock doors, and butchers, grocers, and fishmongers prepare their wares for the day ahead. All of this activity dances to the strains of one of Mozart’s most popular orchestral works.

But this is not just any city. The filmmakers go to great lengths to situate us in a specific geographic location; namely, Philadelphia. The scene opens on the city’s historic Boathouse Row, then moves on to shots of the Liberty Bell, South Philly’s Italian Market, a sculpture of Ben Franklin, Philadelphia City Hall, Independence Hall, and—less subtly—a storekeeper stacking ridiculous amounts of Philadelphia Cream Cheese in a cooler (never mind the fact that the cheese is made in New York). Later, the film cuts between contrasting images of the city’s underclass and a butler preparing an elaborate breakfast setting for his decidedly upper-class employer—yet the music never wavers. The scoring is particularly effective because the images do not seem to go with the music; Philadelphia does not sound like Mozart. So: Then what does it sound like?

Places have a sound. They are comprised of sounds, they make sounds, sounds are associated with them, whether intentionally or not. Some examples are obvious. New York, well, sounds like the city. New Orleans is bursting with jazz, from street musicians, to clubs, to its now-ubiquitous second line brass bands. And, as anyone who has ever stood next to Niagara Falls can tell you, it certainly has its own sonic fingerprint. Even video game designers understand these connections: music is vital in setting the scene for EA Sports’ World Cup soccer game, which is set in Brazil.

Often, the relationship between sound and place is more complex. In his 2006 book, ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin explores how throat singers in the Central Asian country of Tuva mimic the sounds of their environment—the ringing echoes of cliff faces, the silvery howl of the wind across the steppes—as a means of retaining meaningful connections to nature and their own geographically-specific spiritual traditions.

The Canadian teacher, musician, composer, and scholar R. Murray Schafer coined the term soundscape to describe the sonic elements of our surroundings. In Schafer’s thinking, the whole world is an enormous musical composition, one that is both independent of, and a product of, human action. As a text, we can “read” the many layers of the soundscape and derive from it sounds that “matter” (his words) amid those that don’t. Ultimately, our relationship to the sounds around us can, from Schafer’s point of view, tell us much about our societies and ourselves.

From the field of geography we get ideas about space and place, ideas which can further help us understand the sounds that surround us and the meanings they suggest. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan differentiates between space (as open and abstract—like the idea of a city) and place (as specific and “meaningful”—like my city) by highlighting the role of humans in generating associations with particular spaces, thereby transforming them into places. For me, it is the combination of Schafer and Tuan that I find most useful: the all-encompassing openness of Schafer’s soundscape—full of nearly infinite phenomena and their countless potential meanings—blended with the Tuan’s concern for seeing the humanistic implications of geography. Our experiences of a place are informed by the naturally occurring sounds surrounding us, and the sounds we make or associate with that place.

Which brings us back to Philadelphia. What sounds make up the soundscape of Philadelphia? What do these sounds tell us about this place, its past, present, or even future? When we see something like the opening credits of Trading Places, the joke works because we expect to hear something else, something that fits in with how post-industrial Philadelphia has been sonically constructed within our popular imagination–perhaps the “Rocky” theme?

I have lost count of how many times have I seen people (ok, tourists) run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and turn back to drink in the wide vista of the city below. And what do you suppose they are singing as they plunge their fists into the air triumphantly? These kinds of associations are learned; we “rehearse” the connection between these sounds and the city through countless encounters with the music and images placed side-by-side. Often, these connections become so ingrained that these sounds become musical tropes or topics themselves—a sort of sonic symbol for the city.

But what of “natural” sounds of the city? Can we think about the relationships between place/space and music in this context the same way we can in contexts like the wide-open spaces of Arctic Finland or rural America? Absolutely—though “natural” becomes a relative term. Like in other metropolitan settings, the sounds of the city echo off of concrete, steel, and glass, amplifying everything and creating the swirling din that we accept as the “backing track” to urban life. This infrastructure is the result of human action, but it also shapes it.

In Philadelphia, the building of Interstate 676 through the center of the city along Vine Street around the middle of the last century helped to further isolate North Philadelphia from the rest of the downtown area. As it became a less desirable location, middle-class white residents relocated to the suburbs, housing prices dropped, and red-lining occurred, and Black residents from elsewhere in the city (and from the south, too) moved into the area, helping to move the center of Philadelphia’s black population from South Philadelphia (where it has been based since at least the 19th century), to North Philly. As a result, Columbia Avenue (renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue in the 1980s after one of the city’s most prominent Black civil rights activists), became a hub of the Black community’s nightlife, incubating the city’s jazz scene, and helping to make Philadelphia a “cradle of jazz” during the 1960s.

So, the physical and geographic characteristics of a place can shape the development of musical genres, but the opposite is also true: musical genres can shape our understanding of places. Philadelphia has long been associated with particular musical styles, from the street-corner doo-wop groups of the 1950s, to the 1970s soul sounds of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records—aptly called “The Sound of Philadelphia.” These musics evolved out of the socio-cultural contexts of the city. The popularity of Philly Soul, for example, represented a mix of elements and factors: the southern soul traditions favored by the city’s large population of recent arrivals from the Black South due to the Great Migration, and its legacy as a popular music center (for example, American Bandstand), just to name a few. Musically, the brass+strings sound that became the sonic marker of the style resulted from the long tradition of jazz players “moonlighting” with pop groups. Philadelphia resident John Coltrane played in rhythm and blues groups in the 40s and 50s; and, later, Sam Reed—himself a jazz saxophonist—was hired as the musical director of the Uptown Theatre—Philadelphia’s version of the Apollo—where he hired his jazz colleagues to play for touring pop acts. The strings were a by-product of the city’s century-old legacy of producing high-caliber orchestral players, particularly among the Italian American community centered in South Philadelphia who brought their European conservatory training with them when they immigrated. Just look at the photo for MFSB—Philadelphia International’s house band—and you get a sense of how diverse this group of musicians were. The number of hits that came from Gamble & Huff, Thom Bell, and Sigma Sound Studios during this era helped to make Philadelphia an important center for popular music, and these sounds became closely associated with the city.

Philadelphia is but one of any number of such cases. The relationship between music (or sound, in general) is a complex one, but we should still make a point to stop and listen critically to our surroundings, and to reflect on the implications of those sounds that fill the places and spaces we inhabit.

For Discussion 

  1. What sounds make up your soundscape? Which of these are unique to your environment? Which of these help to connect your spaces/places to similar ones elsewhere?
  2. How do you determine which sounds are important in your soundscape, and which are not?
  3. Which musical styles or genres do you feel reflect your town/city/neighborhood? How were these connections forged?

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