Shazam Walks & Voice Notes: Soundscape, Urbanism & Sonic Territories

Jake Williams | Composer, Educator and PhD Researcher, Birmingham University, UK

The global pandemic has temporarily transformed the way music is listened to in East London. In the absence of licensed premises or large corporate music festivals, most of the music that is heard in public spaces is generated by the communities that live there. Using a mobile device, I have been recording the soundscapes of various squares and parks, where bike-speakers and portable sound systems often create ad-hoc, community-generated listening environments. In my music, I use fragments of the recorded audio and the original tracks (identified via the music-recognition app Shazam) as counterpoints for abstract DJ performances. I propose a presentation that reflects on the issues surrounding this recent work.

Much of the existing literature on urban soundscapes tends to de-socialise and de-politicise the concepts of ‘noise’ and ‘silence’ and treat them as largely uncomplicated moral opposites. It is only recently that scholars have begun to think about how constructions of ‘noise’ and ‘silence’ in towns and cities reflect power, privilege and whiteness. For example, noise complaints to the police tend to increase alongside gentrification. This use of the police, I argue, is an aggressively territorial act.

I propose that, rather than branding portable sonic expressions as ‘sodcasting’, we need to learn radical, empathetic listening that transcends taste and the perceived right to silence and develops an expanded sense of community. East London has been experiencing increasing privatisation and homogenisation of space. When venues closed for lockdown, this highlighted what many local residents instinctively know – that the creation of ad-hoc, temporary music spaces is a vital détournement and aestheticisation of the city.