Reflections of Duke Through Soundscape Composition

A month ago, I read an article by Peter Cusack entitled “Interpreting the Soundscape” that offers a critical review and track by track analysis of the compilation album Noises Off: Sound Beyond Music. The album itself contains a diverse set of soundscape compositions, while the article aims to discern societal clues from the sounds (2006, 69). My research, inspired by the model laid out by Noises Off: Sound Beyond Music and “Interpreting the Soundscape,” analyzes the soundscapes present on Duke’s campus through the lens of soundscape composition; I created four original soundscape compositions, molded from the distinct sounds of twenty-seven locations across Duke, that each highlight different elements of the Duke experience. Of course, these soundscape compositions, which constantly rearrange and juxtapose Duke’s soundscapes, alter sonic reality to enhance certain qualities. The sections below outline the creative processes for each track and explore the specific ways in which their sounds reflect Duke.

“We Get Around (Part 1: Pedestrians)”

When I first arrived at Duke three months ago, the amount that I walked on a daily basis increased significantly. My senior year, I had a car — I regularly drove to school, the houses of my friends, and a slew of stores and restaurants in my area. Back then, cars were integrated into my life. Now, I walk; I’ve been in a car once in my entire time at Duke. I bet that many Duke freshman have experienced similar transformations in the way they get around. Academics such as Chandola Tripta and Freek Colombijn have used soundscapes to further develop the idea that modes of transportation can shape the experience of a place. Tripta’s article “Listening into Water Routes: Soundscapes as Cultural Systems” discusses the sounds of impoverished women in Delhi as they walk to collect their daily supply of water (2011, 61); Colombijn’s article“Toooot! Vroooom! The Urban Soundscape in Indonesia” points out how Indonesian drivers use their car horns to navigate crowded streets (2007, 260). And so the sounds of walking act as a key component of the soundscapes that define the Duke experience for me and presumably for others.

“We Get Around (Part 1: Pedestrians)” contains the sounds of two walks from my room to Marketplace that I took on separate occasions. The first walk, I took alone in the midst of a small rainstorm. I had finished my coursework for the night and wanted to grab a late night snack, so I set off to Trinity Cafe. As I walked, I noticed a few other students on missions like my own — together we experienced the rhythmic sounds of our sloshy footsteps and the percussive rain on our umbrellas. The second walk, I took with friends in weather conditions that only affected the soundscape via a light breeze. Almost every day a group of friends from my hall walks together to Marketplace for dinner, and more often than not other clusters follow the same trajectory as ours. Even more so than my first walk, my second walk includes a set of sounds integrated into the lives of most Duke freshman.

The track “We Get Around (Part 1: Pedestrians)” adopts my first walk as its primary narrative. Due to the sounds of a lone walker’s footsteps and lack of voices (voices imply interaction), the sounds of my first walk conjure up an atmosphere of contemplative isolation. To supplement that atmosphere, I layered in the sounds of my guitar playing. I had the idea to employ this technique after I read in the article “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology” that soundscape compositions often “take on the challenge of representing sound in a social or environmental context” by “blending music into environmental recordings” (2010, 335). The guitar notes come in quick succession and layer over one another in a way that mimics the rain. Simultaneously the process of tension and resolution heard in the chord changes resembles the process of thoughts. While the guitar sounds enhance the first walk rather directly, the second walk enhances it through contrast. This contrast, which I achieved by embedding a few bursts of sound from the second walk into the first walk, that hints at the broad range of sounds connected to walking at Duke and in turn gives “We Get Around (Part 1: Pedestrians)” a more expansive, inclusive feel.

“We Get Around (Part 2: The Bus)”

“We Get Around (Part 2: The Bus)” continues the conversation started by “We Get Around (Part 1: Pedestrians)” as it contains a collection of sounds linked to the other prominent mode of transportation for Duke Students: the bus. These two tracks also connect due to their parallel creative processes. I recorded my first bus ride twenty minutes after my first walk, so the rain that dominated the soundscape of the walk still lingered throughout the bus ride. It was 8:40PM on  a Monday. No more than fifteen people were on the bus. A few of them engaged in sparse conversations that hovered over the rumble and spray from tires on a wet road. The rest of us didn’t say a word. Perhaps the sounds of the motor and the traffic and the rain filled up enough empty sonic space that people didn’t have the urge to fill it themselves. For instance, imagine if the interior of the bus were silent. How uncomfortable would it be to sit with strangers in silence? Would more people make small talk in that scenario? The soundscapes for such bus rides as the first one I recorded don’t hold the answers, but they do spark these questions, albeit in an implicit way. I recorded my second bus ride at 4:00PM on a Tuesday. This time around, the bus was at maximum capacity, so the conversations of Duke students played a more central role in the soundscape— more people means more voices.

A noteworthy aspect of these bus rides comes from the sound of the bus’s engine, which serves as the foundation of both soundscapes and contributes to the aura of purposefulness around the bus. In general, Duke freshmen walk to dinner, but they take the bus to class. This observation alone strengthens the association of walks with leisure and bus rides with purpose, while the hum of the bus’ engine, a machine designed to take people places, shows that this purpose extends into the realm of sound. As I did on “We Get Around (Part 1: Pedestrians)” to reinforce the sense of contemplative isolation, I layer my guitar playing over the sounds of my first bus ride to add to the sense of purposefulness. The chords, while somewhat ethereal, rise and fall with a rhythmic pulse that complements the engine, whose pitch rises and falls as it revs up and winds down. I also used my second bus ride in the same way that I used my second walk — the frantic flashes of sound from my second bus ride expand the sonic template laid out by the more subdued sounds of my first ride. This helps listeners discover that bus rides at Duke, like walks at Duke, are unpredictable endeavors.

“Study Session Dynamics”

I don’t know much about the study habits of even my best friend from high school, but my roommate? I know that he does his linear algebra problem sets in Lilly, but he prefers to watch his economics videos in the common room; I know that he starts to prepare for a test two nights before; I know that he listens to 90s pop hits while he studies — I could continue. When I arrived at Duke, the only study habits I knew were my own. As a high schooler, I did my work mostly at home, and my classmates did the same, which explains why we referred to it as homework. I would occasionally study with friends at the library or work on a group project, but my exposure to the variety of study habits possessed by students was limited. Now “homework” has simply become “work.”

Every Duke student has preferred study spaces as well as a personal study schedule, and all of us study at Duke — where else? The combination of these facts designates Duke as the site for an extensive, interactive, and dynamic network of its students’ study spaces and study schedules. The word “dynamic” has multiple definitions courtesy of Wikipedia, two of which add a valuable dimension to the discussion of this network: “characterized by constant change, activity, or progress” and “relating to the volume of sound produced by an instrument, voice, or recording.” The sounds heard on the track “Study Session Dynamics” reflect both of the definitions above. I collected the ingredients for the track by identifying and recording some of the Duke study network’s hotspots: my room, representative of a typical room at Duke, with and without my roommate present; my dorm’s common room, representative of a typical common room at Duke; and the designated “quiet” and “loud” sections of Lilly and Perkins Libraries. (On a side note, the development of “quiet” and “loud” sections comes not only as a result of the different sound levels that individuals prefer while they study, but also due to the interactive nature of the Duke study network — “loud” sections often become loud with the sounds of collaboration.) Then, I arranged these hotspots from least to most sonically active and faded them in and out of each other. As a final touch, I added the sounds of some ancient instrument, courtesy of the soundtrack for a historical display near the entrance of Perkins, to the transitions between soundscapes. This music, which reoccurs throughout “Study Session Dynamics,” imbues the soundscape composition with a scholarly vibe.

“Community Through Routine”

While “Study Session Dynamics” captures the sounds of a network that connects Duke students’ study habits, “Community Through Routine” hints at similar networks that apply to the other routines shared by Duke students. Earlier I discussed how my study routine came into contact with those of others as I transitioned from high school to college. What about my bathroom-related routines? As a high school student, I shared two bathrooms with three other people; in college, I share one bathroom with twenty-one other people. Given this situation, the bathroom on my hall has become a place where people, and by extension their routines, interact. When I walk into our bathroom, I often come across my hallmates showering, shaving, or brushing their teeth. As trivial as they may seem, such occurrences cause our daily tasks to become less personal and more communal, which contributes to the sense of camaraderie in my hall and other halls at Duke. The same logic applies to my food-related routines. As a high school student, I typically ate breakfast at my house, lunch at my high school, and dinner at my house — only one of those meals happened in a communal environment (i.e. my high school’s cafeteria). Now, I usually have breakfast at Marketplace, lunch somewhere in the Bryan Center, and dinner again at Marketplace — I eat the majority of my meals in places shared and experienced by other Duke freshman on a regular basis. This shift in food-related routines, like the shift in bathroom-related routines, further distinguishes the Duke community from a high school community with respect to its expansiveness.

The interwoven nature of Duke students’ daily tasks culminates in a powerful sense of community at Duke — “Community Through Routine” seeks to express that point through soundscapes. The track starts with a recording of me eating lunch in the Bryan Center and transitions into me eating dinner at Marketplace. When Duke students eat at those places, not only do they taste the same foods, but they experience the same sounds. In turn, the sounds of Bryan Center and Marketplace effectively serve as the sounds of community. From there, “Community Through Routine” morphs into the soundscape of Shooters. Though gathering at Shooters isn’t a routine as widely shared across Duke’s student body as eating in the Bryan Center or Marketplace, Shooters’ atmosphere particularly heightens the importance of sound to its sense of community. When packed with Duke students on a Saturday night, Shooters is a loud place, partially due to the students’ chatter but mainly due to the music that blasts through its speaker system. While the soundscapes of Bryan Center of Marketplace foster community indirectly, the music at Shooters has a more direct impact. Matt Sakakeeny’s article “Under the Bridge: An Orientation to Soundscapes in New Orleans” identifies the sound of a brass band as a “soundmark” or a “community sound” to the city of New Orleans (2010, p. 3). Furthermore, Johnny Milner’s article “Australian Gothic Soundscapes: The Proposition” notes how the “unfamiliar sounds” of the Australian outback, such as “laughing kookaburras,” “whipping whip-birds,” “mimicking lyre birds,” and “howling dingoes” give it a distinct ability to unsettle people, while commonly heard sounds have the opposite effect (2013, 97). Like New Orleans, Shooters has a few “soundmarks,” certain pop songs that have become the staples of its nightly playlists (the first that comes to mind is the Killers’ song “Mr. Brightside”), and unlike the outback, these familiar sounds prompt the students at Shooters to unleash a collective scream of joy that elevates the sense of togetherness. After the sounds of Shooters, “Community Through Routine” shifts to the sounds of me showering, then brushing my teeth, and finally flicking off the lights and hopping into bed. Of course, countless people throughout the world hear those same sounds at the end of the day, but those sounds only connect them on a subconscious level — places like Duke intertwine people’s routines and ultimately bring such connections to their consciousnesses.

Works Cited

Chandola, Tripta. 2012. “Listening into Water Routes: Soundscapes as Cultural Systems.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 16 (1): 55-69.

Colombijn, Freek. 2007. “Toooot! Vroooom! The Urban Soundscape in Indonesia.” Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 22 (2): 255-73.

Cusack, Peter. 2006. “Interpreting the Soundscape.” Leonardo Music Journal 16: 68-70.

Milner, Johnny. 2013. “Australian Gothic Soundscapes: The Proposition.” Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture & Policy 148: 94-106.

Sakakeeny, Matt. 2010. “Under the Bridge: An Orientation to Soundscapes in New Orleans.” Ethnomusicology 54 (1): 1-27.

Samuels, David W., Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello. 2010. “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (1): 329-345

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