Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 32: Listening to the World Around Us - with Milena Droumeva and Brett Ashleigh

Speakers: Rachel Wong, Am Johal,  Milena Droumeva, Brett Ashleigh

Rachel Wong  0:06  
Hi, listeners. My name is Rachel Wong, and I'm with SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement.  Thanks so much for tuning in to this week's episode of Below The Radar. We would like to acknowledge that Below the Radar is recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. This week, we dive into the world of soundscapes and how we listen to the environments around us. Our host Am Johal is joined by Milena Droumeva, an assistant professor of sound studies at SFU's School of Communication, and Brett Ashleigh, a PhD student also at SFU's School of Communication. Together, they talk about the different ways we can view the city, particularly from a sound perspective, and how we can learn so much more about the places around us if we just stop and listen. 

Am Johal  1:02  
Hi, welcome to Below the Radar. We're delighted to be joined by Milena Droumeva, who is an assistant professor in the School of Communication, and Brett Ashleigh, who is a grad student working with her. Welcome, both of you.

Brett Ashleigh  1:14  
Thank you. 

Milena Droumeva  1:14  
Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Am Johal  1:16  
Both of you work in sound, which for a number of our listeners might be a new area to think about--sound in the city, and in different ways that you look at it. But SFU and the School of Communication has a long history of looking at sound and sound in the city, and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that, Milena, because you're kind of walking into a context where there's been a kind of history to it, but as a new professor, you're kind of going to be taking this in various new ways over the next few years.

Milena Droumeva  1:44  
Yeah, exactly. But few people know that not just SFU, but the School of Communication in particular is kind of world-famous for starting acoustic ecology, the acoustic ecology movement, with Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer and longtime faculty member of professor Barry Truax, as well as acoustic ecology intellectual and pioneer Hildegard Westerkamp. Those are some of the core people that started sound studies, and  it started right here in Canada.

Brett Ashleigh  2:16  
That's how I found SFU. I'm originally from the United States, and I was doing my MFA in sound design and read The Soundscape for class - Murray Schafer's book - and was like, I have to go there. I'm doing my PhD there.

Am Johal  2:32  
Interesting. I was in Switzerland about eight years ago and ran into a grad student, and then when I told him I live in Vancouver, and he started talking about Simon Fraser University and R. Murray Schafer,  it's interesting how this thing travels and that kind of historical legacy of it in a particular type of way. But in terms of how you think about your own work or your own area of study, how do you sort of slot into it or in relation to it?

Milena Droumeva  2:59  
Right, I've had a long history with it too. I studied with Barry Truax for many years, and over the years, my interests ranged from sound design for interactive systems, to sound and gender in video games, and of course, an overarching interest in soundscape studies and soundscape of actual environments, such as a complex environment like the city. And so when this job came up, and I had the opportunity to continue this legacy and take it in new directions, the way that I am thinking of it now is to use a lot of this foundation, but bring it into really contemporary concerns of accessibility and inclusivity, and subjective interpretation to try and think of changing soundscapes and shifting soundscapes in terms that are, they're explicitly political. Not to say that at the time when Schafer came up with acoustic ecology things weren't political. They were very political, on the heels of the civil rights movement. But things are differently political now in the era of identity politics and diversity and inclusivity and accessibility, and really an attempt to involve all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds, even if you will, "non-humans" into collective community design.

Am Johal  4:26  
Now, for the past few years, you've been working on the Livable Cities Project with various partners and those kinds of things. Can you talk a little bit how the project sort of came to be and the kinds of things that you're exploring with it?

Milena Droumeva  4:38  
Yeah, thank you, exactly. I've been organizing the Livable City Symposium for four years now, and the idea for that was for me to move a little bit away from just sound and focusing on just a modality of sound. And what I wanted to do is open up the idea of livability, this very, very fashionable term, and think about what other ways we could think of livability other than just housing prices, accessibility of healthcare, you know, these really infrastructural things. And I wanted to get a collection of people that ideally will talk about different kinds of methods. And I've had people in some in the symposiums in the past, talking about urban food production and the anthropologies  of nightlife as something interesting and constructive of community life, as well as sound methods, smell methods, all kinds of fun sensory things. And then a big part of Livable Cities, as an event, was to try and bring in city planning professionals. One of my partners for a couple of years for Livable Cities was the Anvil Center in New Westminster and I want to give them a shoutout, because City of New West has really interesting cultural programming and they're kind of a micro-scale so they can have a lot of initiatives that they can take off in short periods of time because they don't have the giant infrastructure and bureaucracy of probably the City of Vancouver. So they were very interested in Livable Cities, they hosted a panel on public art, and they invited a bunch of city professionals and artists-in-residence and we had a really interesting discussion about the role of public arts and the experience of city life.

Am Johal  6:23  
Years ago, I had a chance to interview a climate change scientist who follows the Mauna Loa record, and his father had started - so they've been doing this since the late 50s - and one of the things he said is, you know, in doing these measurements, it's as if you can see the whole hemisphere breathing, you know, and he was talking about data sets and things like that, and oftentimes noise and ambient sounds in the city we kind of take for granted, as part of day to day life, and in listening empathetically to the city, how can we be better listeners to the city? Or, what is it that sound can offer in kind of documenting and listening and talking to it in terms of the types of research that you're embarking on?

Brett Ashleigh  7:08  
I can speak to this. I am really interested in the sounds of inequity or sounds that point to an equity in the city. So whereas former soundscape studies focused a lot on noise abatement and like noise versus quiet and drawing that kind of moralistic binary, with soundscape studies today, we're getting really granular with it. One of the projects that I'm fleshing out now is spaces where sex work happens in the city. I am doing sonic postcards, or aural postcards, of strip clubs. So I picked the No. 5 Orange, which is in the Downtown Eastside for those listeners who don't know Vancouver. And then The Penthouse, which is in Yaletown, a very upscale neighborhood. And then I went to New West and on their riverfront, they have The Paramount, which is in their Riverfront, trendy district. It's in a re-done movie theater. So my field recordings there really showed how diverse the soundscape was of the Downtown Eastside, but also how sonically obvious a strip club was able to make itself. So, for example, in the Downtown Eastside for people who don't know, that's the most economically disadvantaged part of Vancouver, as far as I know. And you can hear the music coming from the No. 5 Orange from across the street, whereas, in Yaletown, I could be standing directly beside the door of The Penthouse and not hear a thing unless the door swings open. What those neighborhoods have allowed to be their standard of sonic acceptability of sex work, or of these people who are doing jobs that aren't socially "okay," is really interesting to me, because everyone thinks of jobs and marginality and moral quandries on a pretty visual level, or action-based level. I think there's something to be discovered in addressing them from an aural perspective. Yaletown and the Downtown Eastside are subject to the same noise by-laws, but as far as I know, I don't know how they're enforced, but the decibel reading is vastly different in those two places.

Milena Droumeva  9:36  
And that's exactly, honestly, the kind of empathetic listening that we're trying to do, and it's a great case study or example that exemplifies the new wave of soundscape studies at SFU, if you will. Because while the concerns of the original soundscape studies tradition at SFU was this more... it was an attempt to capture and describe just the ecological relationships between different sounds and an environment without particular attention to how they portray these other, more subtle themes of power dynamics, gender dynamics, inequality, economics, politics, et cetera. This is exactly what we're trying to do. This is exactly how we're trying to bring soundscape studies in the 21st century and particularly, yes, empathetic listening, listening for nuance, listening under the sound.

Am Johal  10:35  
And I think about, like, some of the groups that work out or 312 Main here like the Binners' Project, you know, people who are collecting cans and bottles, and the sounds that they make when you actually go to the recycling depot, for example, but the street life here is very different than other parts of the city in the sense of the volume of people out on the street as well. And you go to other parts when you have the housing racket that we do have in Vancouver, you have really accelerated development trajectories happening. So in neighborhoods close to here, like Northeast False Creek, which is under development, and I know you're you're looking at doing some some research there, when you go out to do a sort of soundscape projects there, what are the kinds of things you're looking to do, particularly in places where development is kind of underway or about to be underway in a fairly aggressive way?

Milena Droumeva  11:29  
It might sound a bit odd, but I do have some very specific ideas about what I want to find out. And one of the things that I'm really really interested in, as I said, listening under the soundscape and listening for older soundscapes, or remnants of older soundscapes that may be there. So if we have a an environment that is rapidly changing, particularly large property developments that these days have become community builders, I mean, they build community infrastructure as well as just dwellings, and suddenly you have a very different soundscape than you had before. We think of Olympic Village, for example, Athletes' Village. I mean, that was a wasteland where Cirque du Soleil to pitch their giant tents and nothing much else. And now it's this vibrant, close, very dense community. I have the same interest in North False Creek, which is the kind of new brand name of this area, which will coincide with the demolition of the Georgia Viaduct into creating this real community. But what I want to find when I go there is remnants of what used to be, remnants of maybe what community or street life sounded like sonically, remnants of different kinds of inhabitants, communities, processes, routines that people might be involved in, and trace how that is being, in real time, overtaken by the sounds of these new developments in this new community life that's going to be moving in, literally.

Am Johal  13:01  
And in some sense Athletes' Village, let's say as an example, the original plans from community groups was about a sustainable neighborhood, and as it went through the pinball machine of city politics and money being withdrawn and put on the table, you end up with a neighborhood that kind of lost the social pieces quite a bit. And one could argue as though it's densified, it's a sterile neighborhood in a bunch of other ways, because of the franchise businesses that are they're the only ones that can kind of afford to be there. So you have a kind of a cookie-cutter kind of approach, and in some way, the fears around Northeast False Creek are very similar. So in some sense, in as much as there might be an emancipatory quality to listening to the city, what I'm hearing into what you're saying is that in a way, it's a kind of like, an archive of the kind of neoliberal machine of the city in a kind of way. 

Milena Droumeva  13:53  
Yeah, precisely. And actually, archiving sounds was part of the project of the World Soundscape Project, which is based at SFU. In Vancouver, we have recordings from the 70s, and then from the 90s, and then from 2000, 2010s of the same locations, and we can kind of trace the neolberal machine, the developments that have happened. Yeah.

Am Johal  14:17  
If you were to archive a kind of more emancipatory approach, what might that look like? Because I imagine, like, underneath what would be the kind of machine of development there are these other soundscapes, or are these other things that are fighting those approaches, or presenting a different way of being underneath that. And what might that look like? Because I guess the sounds live alongside each other and in a complex soundscape.

Brett Ashleigh  14:43  
One thing we have kind of instituted or involved in our practice is where soundscape study is, and the World Soundscape Project was very concerned with fidelity - or, not fidelity of sound - but capturing real soundscapes as they pertain to documenting what exists. We're really looking at creating subjective soundscapes, so finding people who have certain experiences of community and having them tell us, "Oh, this is an indicator of community," and reconstructing soundscapes based on interviews with people who actually live these experiences, or having them take us through a tour of their community, be like "I live in East Van. Here's my really quiet, boring neighborhood. Oh, you can hear the baby crying, which happens around this time every single night." And in that way, we can access and amplify, pardon the pun, the voices of people who may not get paid attention to with just a standard, like, 'said it and forget it', that's being ungenerous. We're very humanist in our approach, I guess, as opposed to, like strict documentarians.

Milena Droumeva  16:12  
Yeah, basically, we're interested in listening subjectivities, in understanding what does it mean to listen from a particular body, from a particular subjectivity in your life, from a particular identity position? Which does actually throw into question, as Brett was saying, the documentary approach as a foundational or right, or even factually possible approach. I mean, there is no "soundscape of Vancouver", there is the soundscape that each one of us experiences. And so the questions that we're grappling with and trying to develop really innovative approaches to is, how do we understand and how do we represent the soundscape from a particular listening position?

Am Johal  16:53  
Now Milena, you've done some research and work around gender and gaming as well. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit about that.

Milena Droumeva  17:00  
Yeah, absolutely. I actually did a TED talk on that - a TEDX talk, TEDxSFU - which was a lot of fun and a lot of work too. But it had a really great reception, so I'm really, really grateful for it. It came out really of not only my experience, but conversations with other female gamers that women in game sound A) very pornographic, and also very, very kind of weak and fragile. Compared to male characters there does tend to be an extra just breathiness, and struggle, and frailty in women's voices and video games. And so I started with that simple idea in mind and started collecting some video game footage and playing some games myself trying to chart certain typologies of female voice. And they line up really well with certain kind of stereotypical representations in film and other media. I guess in the end of the day, I'm just calling for attention to that, and change because voice is something that makes us - this is a line for my TED talk, I'm sorry -  "Voice makes us human, amd women's voices in games don't represent them as human, they come across as the stereotypes that they are." So I just think that the new working representation in media representation that we need to do is have everyone be fully human, as human as possible, as unique and full and not just a stereotype.

Am Johal  18:33  
Both of you, in researching sound and the city, what's at stake for you and the soundscape of the city?

Milena Droumeva  18:41  
Very good question.

Brett Ashleigh  18:43  
I was actually just talking about this with my mom this morning. My personal philosophy is very much I want to be a support system and I want to be a helper as opposed to a star - just in the general like roles we play in the world - and I find that being a sound researcher allows me to literally be behind the field recorder and help support certain initiatives and certain stories that I see either going unrecognized, or if I see potential in something, I want to help lift that up. So, it was kind of a merging of my desire to involve myself, but not in a front-facing way, with activities and places that are doing good in the world. And also it helps me get to know Vancouver because I just moved here last year.

Milena Droumeva  19:42  
Yeah, that's a really great question. For me, I've been doing sound for so long, and it becomes one of those things I just don't think about anymore. But when I think about why am I still interested in listening and sound as opposed to any other things that I could be doing - I also love technology. I love gaming. I love, you know, media. But I think what I find is really unique with sound and with listening, is it's so simple. It gets us out of our honestly device-addicted states of mind, and things happen so quickly, like literally the passage of time is much quicker on our devices and in our media landscapes, and I'm always humbled by how sound demands to be listened in real time, you can't speed it up, you can press a button and just like grasp the whole thing instantly. You have to sit there, and you have to listen, and you don't exactly know what's going to happen and what you're going to hear. So for me, it's a really different meditative exercise that is a bit of an antidote to the media and device-saturated generation.

Am Johal  20:49  
Great, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Brett Ashleigh  20:52  
Yeah, thanks for having us

Milena Droumeva  20:53  
Thank you for having us.

Rachel Wong  21:01  
Thank you again to Milena Droumeva and Brett Ashleigh for joining us on this episode of Below the Radar. You can learn more about the Sonic Research Studio by checking out their website on SFU's School of Communication website, which we've linked to in the episode description. As always, thank you to the team that puts this podcast together, including myself, Rachel Wong, Paige Smith, and Fiorella Pinillos. Davis Steele is the composer for our theme music, and thank you for listening. Next week we'll be talking with Jarrett Martineau, who hosts CBC's Reclaimed, and is the music planner for the City of Vancouver. Join us then on Below the Radar.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 26, 2019

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