Research for Plush Reverb

The research conducted for the Plush Reverb project began by looking at the phenomenon of sound in city living arrangements. A vast majority of New Yorkers live in apartments where they share walls with each other and I wanted to uncover some of the stories and situations that came out of these architectural environments.

Elements that were created from this research were:

Soundscape Tours
Interviewee Re-enactments
Sound speculation
Sound Fluxkit
The research portion of the project began with a call for participants within my email network. The call asked for volunteers, who experienced sounds from spaces beyond their immediate living environments. Through the call I asked whether participants would be willing to let me visit their homes and give me a soundscape tour. A soundscape tour can be thought of as a sound driven descriptive movement through space that emphasizes the sounds heard in the space and not the physical space, itself.

Five soundscape tours were conducted during the course of this project. For each soundscape tour I asked volunteers to identify sounds from neighboring apartments and describe where on the wall the sounds were most audible and what they, themselves, were doing when they heard these sounds. These tours completely relied on memory and spatial associations. In many cases, a sound would only be remembered when the guide was in the space, as it was an associative aural experience. At the end of each soundscape tour, the volunteer was asked to draw a few images of what they imagined was happening in the neighboring space when they heard the sound. The volunteer was also asked to stage a re-enactment of what they remember they were usually doing when they heard this sound. These explorations turned into re-enactment gifs; which all began with a drawn imagined image and ended with a full frame view of the volunteer posing in the space with their drawing.

Here are some of the stories that emerged as I visited apartments:

1. One middle floor apartment that I visited had a bathroom with no walls to the exterior of the building; but it had an overhead vent that created a type of auditory periscope to the sounds on the rooftop. The volunteer described perfectly hearing pigeons cooing, people chatting and ambulance sirens from the vent.

2. The same apartment had a closet with a ceiling that was shaped as a the negative of the staircase above it. As neighbors walked up and down the stairs, a deep full wooden groan echoed in the room attached to the closet. The closet was a type of hollow speaker that amplified the movements on the staircase above.

3. In a different apartment there was a ringing vibration that could only be heard at night. The sound was described as so omnipresent that is was difficult to discern which portion of the ceiling it was coming from. It still remains a mystery as to whether it is coming from inside the apartment or outside the apartment.

4. Another apartment had such creaky floor boards that the inhabitants tip-toed across them. They were careful to manage how often they walked across them out of respect for their neighbors below. These floor boards have a piano-like quality as each creaky sound was slightly different depending on which floorboard was stepped on.

5. There was one very large building with over 40 floors; where each floor had a trash room. These trash rooms were all connected to a trash chute and as the trash chute doors throughout the building were closed and opened a random choir of slams could be heard coming from each room. The trash chute was a type of hollow architectural instrument; where each floor could play a note. These echoes could be heard in the apartment I visited in that building.

The purpose of this portion of the research was to open up a conversation about neighboring sounds. I wanted to enter the environment without any expectations and try to understand the characteristics of the internal soundscape of the apartments that identified as hearing neighboring sounds. I was also looking for stories that would spur my imagination and help me find a way into this very broad inquiry.

As I visited more spaces, I began to think about the way that human life can play buildings as though they were instruments. I imagined that the creaks in the middle of a floor creaked because many people had walked that same space again and again. In The Soundscape, R. Murray Schafer tells us a building, breathes with a life of its own. Floors creak, timber snaps, radiators crack, furnaces groan. I would add to this by saying that sound in a building compounds over time through habitation. These sounds characteristics become amplified through time with human habitation and physical architectural stress. This acknowledgement of sound compounding over time played a large role in my conceptualization of the Plush Reverb experience.

Guiding Making Questions for Plush Reverb:

How can smart objects in the home also be used for more poetic and artistic means? How can a connected object be used to distort reality? How can a sound experience out of context create a new meaning for the user? Could an aural environment make a person feel like they were their own neighbor?

*Elements of this research are now part of the GIDEST Ethnography Expanded Field Archive.