Thoughts on listening to spaces

I have been doing a bit of research and memory-drawing.

These quotes could be useful to bear in mind on future field trips. They are from Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? (B Blesser and L R Salter, MIT Press 2009).

“Aural architecture refers to the properties of a space that can be experienced (authors own emphasis) by listening.” From page 5

“The native ability of human beings to sense space by listening is rarely recognise; indeed some people think such an ability is unique to batd and dolphins […] The echo is the aural means by which we become aware of the wall and its properties, such as size, location and surface materials. The wall becomes audible, or rather, the wall has an audible manifestation even though it is not itself the the original source of sound energy. When our ability to decode spatial attributes is sufficiently developed using a wide range of acoustic cues, we can readily visualise objects and spatial geometry: we can “see” with our ears.” From pages 1 – 2

Since reading this, in every day life, I have sometimes closed my eyes when stationary, and used my ears to ‘see’ around me. Listening this way, it is actually amazing how much spatial information comes across. And how through the movement and activity around me, I can hear what is to come by what is approaching, and what has happened, by what is fading. I was sitting in an empty gallery, invigilating with my eyes closed. I heard footsteps approach me from afar, coming up a resonant staircase, for quite a long time, and could perfectly time when to open my eyes, when they walked round the corner and into the room I was in. that simple thing just felt really amazing in that moment.

Speaking of which, as a note to self: maybe it’s worth me also researching archaeo-acoustics? This seems to mainly refer to prehistoric acoustic phenomena – how ancient people may have used sound in spaces to induce trance or amplify and make ritual more dramatic. This could relate to natural spaces such as caves, around waterfalls etc, but apparently it has been found that a number of ancient built structures in different places have a resonant frequency 110 hz, which sits in the baritone vocal range. (Maybe the principle can be considered in more recent historical spaces too?)

Equal temperament, the standard Western harmonic system which was mainly developed so that different instruments, particularly the piano, can play together, has ‘vibrational limits’ to it (as one archaeo-acoustic website put it). That’s the price paid for convenience I suppose. So exploring sound and harmony outside of this, particularly with the voice where frequency is so felt in the body, offers the chance to connect the body to harmonics which may in turn effect experience and perception.

Memory Sound Drawings

I have been doing some drawings though which I am trying to show how using my voice at the sites I have visited may look like if visualised. Also, how I can make visual the process of overlaying and creating the sound sketches from several tracks made in the field.

I have come up with this idea – using tracing paper and pencil to try and represent these processes. Tracing paper implies reproductions, multiples, copies etc. , which relates to audio tracks and layering, and the idea of ‘traces’ of presence though the voice worked in my mind.


Bradford On Avon Tithe Barn: I remembered how it is to stand in one end of the Tithe Barn and make a staccato sound. It seems to richochet through the sections of the barn, multiplying itself until it reaches the far end. The drawing highlights this idea of the voice hitting the sections of the barn, the edges, and rounding itself in the open space.


Over Bridge, outside Gloucester: I then thought of Over Bridge, and remembered how I had waded though many weeds to stand under the huge stone arch by the water and called up and across to the curve opposite side. My voice echoed back to me, faintly – it is quite far and maybe the water absorbs some sound – I had to use a lot of support to get the yell across and ringing back. Then I crossed over the bridge and did the same on the other side. When I overlaid the two recordings, a strange kind of call and response emerged. When listening its interesting to remember, the voices couldn’t actually hear each other at the time – but by combining the recordings, its as if they kind of do…odd (in a good way!). So I drew each half of the bridge on its own sheet of tracing paper, with the densest pencil being the epicentre, the loudest part, of the projected yell, spreading out in the shape of the curve of the underside of the bridge.


The Long Barrows: Lastly, I thought of the barrows, and how when entering on my knees or in a squat, they are so dark inside and I started using my voice sonar-like to feel out the sizes and shapes of the chambers. I drew what I remembered doing – making a vocal sound on one side to see where the walls were, then projecting the voice upwards, to feel the height, and then the same to find the other wall. Sound comes back quite jaggedy – the walls are not smooth and bits of stones catch and reflect fragments of voice. More exciting than a torch – using the voice to see with! So in the drawing, the three layers again combine to make a whole, and as with the others, each being on the tracing paper, distances, or different time periods, are implied.

Next post: a return to Stoney Littleton Long Barrow.

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