Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

walk now

Sound is the beginning for me, the first thing, the primary way I experience and judge my environment. For years I’ve been a control freak about the music playing in whatever room I’m in. Eventually I’ve learned to approach every sound I hear as an extension of music and rhythm, part of a gigantic ambient collage. Thus I’m very sensitive to my audio surroundings, and that means I can be made very unhappy by thoughtless noise. Mechanical pop radio, babbling television, and aggressive urban cacophany really bother me. But a good sonic palette has a very positive effect.

As I adjust to being in Sydney, I key into the sounds that are the fabric of life here. First of all, of course, are the sounds of nature. I’ve already mentioned the amazing continuous soundtrack provided by the birds. It’s not all pleasant. There is a bird heard every afternoon that sounds like a child’s toy squeaking incessantly; it’s really annoying and I’d like to throw rocks at it. Most Australian birdsong, lovely or not, is just loud.

Similarly the sounds made by insects are ever-present: the angry buzzing and gentle, percussive clicking; the vast shrill thunder of cicadas in the trees on hot afternoons — an astonishing sound that seems to come from everywhere, or inside my mind. A couple of times Amo and I have been lulled to sleep by the delightfully creepy chirping and squeaking of bats in the big tree across the street. Once by the shore, as a buttery full moon rose over the Pacific, we heard frogs in the distance making an unreal noise that sounded like banging on a log.

There is the sound of the southerly wind in the evening. The sound of rain falling on trees. There are those moments by the ocean when primal sound takes over the senses completely.

Because this is a city I also consider the sonic environment created by people and their things. I don’t make a sharp distinction between “natural” and “artificial” sound; it is all part of nature, as are we. How artificial sound (and noise) interacts with nature is a crucial aspect of our lives.

Even as I type I hear cars going past on the tree-lined road right outside, late on a Sunday evening. It’s not ideal; in general there is just too much traffic everywhere in Sydney. But this road is a pretty benign bit of noise pollution, and can even be pleasant, especially in the evenings when the traffic is a lot less. The way cars go back and forth from time to time in their own complicated rhythm, with the sound reflecting off the trees and punctuated by the music of crickets, is almost, well, oceanic.

The less-frequent sound of trains going past on the embankment above the road provides a counterpoint. It’s a much bigger sound, a kind of profound grinding wail, the eerie and thrilling sound of a massive metal object gliding.

The sounds of summer. The happy suburban sound of lawnmowers in the distance. Water running in the taps. The liquid sound of the fan running at night. The sound of rain falling on city streets.

If you are from Sydney, or even if you’ve only visited, there is a particular sound of the city and suburbs that is probably imprinted deeply on your memory. This piece of video art captures it very well.

This, of course, is the sound of the pedestrian traffic signals. They are formally known as APS (accessible pedestrian signals) and have been in use in metropolitan areas all over Australia since the 1980s. If you haven’t experienced them they are simple and intuitive and fun: an aural enhancement, at each street crossing, of the visual walk/don’t walk signal. They were designed to assist the disabled in crossing, but also to give every pedestrian an additional set of stimuli for safely navigating the very busy roads here.

The initial pinging sound, a blip heard every two seconds, is the don’t walk signifier. It brings to mind sonar, or a heart monitor. It may go on for some time, depending on the traffic, with each ping building suspense.

When the light changes a single, piercing, high-pitched squawk is heard indicating walk, then immediately transitioning to a loud percussive rattling tone that urges (and also subtly illustrates) movement. Ingeniously the system has a tactile feature to help the hearing-impaired (just as the element of sound helps the blind). The round fixture featuring the directional arrow symbol, located above the button for crossing, vibrates according to the tempo of the signal, like a metal drum being struck from inside. The vibrations can even be felt in the air close to the pole. The system also has a sensor to calculate the volume level based on ambient sound, becoming louder if there is more noise and traffic, and quieter at other times.

I have certain misgivings about the APS system. It’s Pavlovian in a kind of silly way, makes me wonder a little if it discourages analytical thinking. A larger concern is the way it justifies the traffic problems of Sydney. For instance, as Jan Gehl points out in his critiques of modern urban planning, to place a button on the street for pedestrians to push before crossing is subtly alienating. It tends to make people unconsciously feel that they have to apply to go on their way, that the streets do not belong to them. Another dreary reminder that the world is a dangerous place for those on foot. And the car is certainly king in suburban Sydney.

But that said, I mostly love the system, mostly because I love these sounds. The fact is that the sequence of signals is not noise, it’s music. Or at least it’s musical, a simple but powerful electronic sound installation. Whoever designed it, and whatever bureaucracy approved it, was thoughtful enough to make sure this frequently heard sound would sound good, and function so that people would pay attention to it all the time but not get sick of hearing it. It’s rhythmic, symmetrical, pure in tone. It’s suggestive, and interactive, it communicates on many levels for all kinds of people. Some of the most brilliant design is that which is done for everyone.

And the APS is high-tech but paradoxically also sounds strangely natural. The various tones could be made by birds or insects (or frogs), for all the difference it makes — especially in context with the crazy noises animals make here anyway.

I first heard these signals not here in Australia, but long before I ever visited, sampled and interpolated on this Orbital tune from 1993.

“Walk Now” is not Orbital at their most melodic and transcendant. (If you are unfamiliar and at all intrigued, please do check out the marvellous “Lush 3” and “Halcyon + On + On” from the same album.) But over the years I would often come back to it for its especially fascinating layers and unusual, insistent electro groove. And probably also because I was unwittingly hypnotized by the sound of the APS. As an Orbital fan I can’t tell you how amused I was to hear it in action on crossing the street in Sydney for the first time.

Not long after migrating to Oz, and hearing the traffic signals all over for days, I was inspired to listen to “Walk Now” for the first time in ages. I was really struck by its suddenly obvious Australiana. (Orbital are from London as it happens.) Not only does it make use of the APS signal, but it begins with the sound of a digeridoo. Talk about an artifact that sounds natural and high-tech at the same time. I’ve always shied away from overweening (and often cheesy) “tribal” sounds in dance music, but Orbital at their peak were too smart and just too good to let such distractions unravel their clean, dynamic sound. Anyway I dig the digeridoo loop here; it’s a subtle but strong and absurdly deep foundation, musical sandstone bedrock. Hearing the pulsating traffic signal bounce off it is uniquely thrilling. Something about the pinging, rattling APS signal is weirdly tribal-sounding in the first place, so it’s perfect. “Walk Now” wonderfully fuses 40,000 years of Australian sonic innovation.

I can guess why the guys in Orbital, two brothers named Phil and Paul, were so charmed by the sounds of the APS. I met them and toured with them briefly at the time this album came out, and they gave me the impression of very civil and polite guys from South London who actually cared about the world; they were vegetarians, sci-fi geeks, and environmentalists before it was standard. I remember them lighting up cigarettes and having an entirely earnest exchange about which are worse for the ozone layer, matches or butane lighters. (Apparently it’s a draw.) They were as far as can be from selfish or nihilistic; and, of course, very passionate about music and its evolution. For them to incorporate such a utilitarian sonic achievement into their music fits perfectly.

The best electronic music has always pointed the way forward to a better society — better living through sound. Classic case: Eno’s Music For Airports. The sound of the APS signal is very interesting from a musical standpoint, but it’s also something that has a function, makes life better in a day-to-day way, while being pleasant to hear. It’s the sound of a progressive society. It’s a sound that works for people, a sound that moves people. I can imagine Phil and Paul standing on a street corner here in Oz — not crossing — delightedly listening to it, sensing a kindred spirit at work. “Jolly good, the chap who thought of this, well done.”