VirtuaReal SoundScapes - for a city and a film

Hans Ulrich Werner


1996, while working at IRCAM in Paris, the Austrian Composer 'Sha' alias Andreas Rodler sent out his ideas and concepts of 'virtureal ton'. He notes that the new freedom of virtual creation is focused on the visual, while the other senses are like filmmusic, companions supporting the act. So digital simulation seems close to the real world and its stereotypical hierarchy of eyes and ear. We read a myriad of new words in the cyberspace discussion, but rarely they point to promising sonic niches. Virtual Spaces and Cyberworlds, picturemakers, technologists and philosophers still extend the 'optical age'.

With new, phantastic pictures, still clumpsy, sometimes with content, sometimes pure studies with perfectly rendered shadows of live, we dive into fleeting worlds and bodies. Mutant headsets suggest the future is a screen with 3-D, morphing forms and associative content and design. Digital parametrics is far upon social content.

But virtual information as a roller coaster is not automatically communication, emotion, content, meaning.

In 'Acoustic Communication' (1984) Barry Truax described how the digital world overlays everyday listening with floods of unwanted artificial sound, we cannot escape. On the other hand as a composer, he emphasizes the productive use of new technology on many levels, up to his personal method of composing, teaching, distribution of creative art. Barry Truax produces 'Digital Soundscapes', and says that creating in and with sound is a model for Acoustic Design.

A rehearsal room for future worlds:
Sounddesign and signals in everyday life
Toys and electronic devices for entertainment
New musical instruments
Sonification, where audio icons turn the screen into a Digital City,
The Tonhaus, Sonic Layout and Architecture,
Klangkunst - Sound Installations and Audio Environments,
Electronic Media, Blade Runner and Multichannel audio,
Technologies from the mindmachine to sound therapy,
and 'Inter-Nada-Brahma', the Net itself as a big virtual environment and ressource.

There maybe more examples, but still Virtuality is mostly still understood as a visual and a technological medium. Again the situation is classical: the eye is demanding, the ear is diversifying the world. But the bareer between the senses is a mental one and socially determined. The producers of image and sound have a hierarchy, not the perception and the senses themselves. They are complimentary and have to prove this relationship new in every encounter.


Soundscape projects did have mostly a monographic or monomedia approach. One listener, one's home city or traveling experiences, a personal inspiration. The original World Soundscape Project cross-checked their research: they worked as a group, compared villages, drew a line along Canada's areas and re-visited the Vancouver Soundscape many times since the 70s. In 1996 four invited sound composers worked with recordings of the city (along with the history of the project). What resulted from their sharing the same material revealed that the acoustic identity of a given space is a very personal construction. Hildegard Westerkamp exported the collective soundscape workshop to Brasilia and she describes a holistic process with many layers: from awareness to production of sound pieces, moments of introspection, critical urban discourse, thoughts of music and architecture, myth and identity, presence and sound memory.

First, she states, you mostly come as a foreigner, as a stranger in town and culture. You also bring own sounds with you; your acoustic history, your song, your recordings from somewhere else. The image of the new place is from the first moment an inner image as well; the outside sounds resonate with the sounds in you. Soundscapes are relationships, perceived and interpreted environments, both inside and outside. Both with an open ear for 'all sounds' and the desire for silent phases.

Soundscape projects are virtual rooms for 'aquiring the environment'. As an inhabitant or a flaneur you will discover a lot of interesting moments, sound polaroids with a strong local character.

You find micro soundscapes in each and every life. Space of birth and death, education and marketing, eating and communication, ritual, music, public passages and sacral rooms. Inevitably the inner microphones, our sound biography and the listening culture we represent get in a flow, from 'real audio' to sonic phantasy.


The idea of Virtuality as being perceptional instead of technological space is not as new as it wants to be. Music and the cinema have married eyes and ears long before the digital Workstation came into our mind. Although the visual bias of a society is valid for its films as well, there is a subversive tradition of an autonomous soundtrack, not mechanically synchronized, conterpunctual, with a big space and a floating time. Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece 'Apocalypse Now' - which are virtual pictures produced from inside the listener - is a both a summarizing highlight of the metaphorical sound tradition in film and a starting point for the new soundthinking.

The film is unique, classical, open for re-interpretation. It worked well with schizophonic gestures. The pictures are following the audiostream of consciousness, the songs and soundscapes call for strong images and circular motion.

The helicopter is the sound of the American Dream of Power and Victory.
The face is upside down.
The human soul is inside out.
The sense of place is oscillating between jungle and city.
Memory is fleeting from past to present.
The mirror breaks.
Pictures and sound are isolated and not in sync.
Music, Sound, Voice, Silence sing an inner song, a human tragedy acted in simple words.

In Robert Cahens videos and in the first long format of his collaborator Ermeline Le Mezo, we see audiovisual worlds in slow motion, returned upside down, running backwards and with inverted colours. We hear rich soundscapes and gestures of communication, although we don't understand them. Composition for them both is working with all senses (synesthetically) and from neither sound or image alone.

Composition is the blurred, unsharp process in between. Free combinations of sound and picture, of eye and ear, of sound time and space, image flow and color.

You might call it schizophonic sound in critical language or metaphorical use of media in positive thinking. This happens by recording and building image and sound partially independant from each other, starting the audiovisual composition with mutual knowledge of the other medium.

As Christian Metz said for the Cinema, there is no off-sound, there is always an aural object. The same is valid for the pictorial process. Sometimes in between there is a third space, a virtual gesture is sensible, fleetings audiovisions and texts.


In 1931 German journalist Heinrich Hauser drives up the Mississippi to go to Chicago by boat. He carries a silent camera with him and wants to show the impressive industrial progress of this 'City at Work' to his Berlin and German audience.

He filmed outside, very interested in people but to be seen out of a ...... distance. He showed the front and the backside of urban life: work, workless, Architecture and Ghettos, growth and human wracks. Thiefs market and leisure life at the accessible beaches. The archaic EL-Train - Chicago's key-sound and landmark - and segretation. A city in transition, during the depression and with pictures that are not far from today. Themes and Sequences are loosely connected and the film is silent. As a kind of narration Heinrich Hauser published a book, mixing his documentary mode with fascination for the city as big machine. The film disappeared for a long time and was re-discovered in the 90ies. Hauser has died in the 50ies after a restless wandering life in Germany, Australia and North America. For German Television the film was complimented with contemporary audio: not reconstructive but interpretative and beyond the obvious. Less a soundtrack but an acoustic landscape to link the past with patterns of modernisation and social change valid now. The sound-image-relation could be done in various forms: music from the time, a programmatic new music piece, where drums are the trains, a radiophonic version with a mix of concrete and abstract sounds and narrative voice in between.

So we liberated sound from sync and used a surround mode, listenting behind the visible instead of the the mickey-mousing of historic action sound.

Monochrome pictures with a colorful stereo space.
Digital production versus the old way of filmediting
Everyday people and stilized, associative sounds.
Monomedia and multimedia.
Presentation of the film and recording the reactions.

We brought the film back to Chicago to present it to artists Lou and Dawn Mallozzi, the historian Russel Lewis from the Chicago Historic Society, the journalist Studs Terkel, director and writer Warren Lemming, the Filmmaker Dave Carson and the poets around George Drury. Their associations were documented in an introducing reportage preceding Hausers pictures.

This work with sounds, pictures, associations and texts of Chicago is based on many layers. Some time ago we had explored the city and the biography of 85 years old oral historian and journalist Studs Terkel. He has interviewed many people of Chicago and you could experience lives in the ghetto, the slaughterhouses, the south side.

Later we took part in the Chicago soundscape Project of Experimental Sound Studio by Dawn and Lou Mallozzi. Groups of artists took a look into micro soundscapes within the city. In a detention center, in city hall, in music life, underneath the airport and in a steel plant. Dawn Mallozzi developped an sound-biographical approach out of this - 'steel memories'. Within both projects many sounds of today were gathered, quoted and processed, complimented by the Westend Blues from Louis Armstrong, historic sounds, calls and speeches, public Blues in Chicago today, atmospheric backgrounds from the city, beach and river, rhythmical sequences, articifial sounds, collages and as Leitmotiv the singing sound from the audiovisual icon of Chicago, the Elevated train.

Some of those constellations did encounter Hausers pictures later and produced a space ´between' ears and eyes and a link between time. We see and hear a social drive and skyline, understood from our today point view. The sound and icon of the Elevated train is the key for me. The EL is a transitional space. A moving house, a frozen metal sound of the American Dream. An Audio Icon of the restless growth. Forward Motion. The power of the pioneers, the workers, the capitalists, the unions in the 'City of Hands'.

Urban Grooves. Mobility is the Motif of the City. Dynamic flow. Hectic socializing. Soundscapes in Chicago generate rhythms. Urban Grooves. Codes, sequences, that are available in every city, but never appear identical. They are genetic patterns for their environment and change their 'gestalt' permanently.

The soundscape is in a steady process of erosion and renewal. Chicago lives in and out of time. Now. Then. Soon. This relation of sound and ear is in a flow, a vertical and horizontal soundlayer, whose change is its constancy. The film sound project has motifs of an auditive Rorschach Test and asks for audience participation rather than the listener as target.


As Sound Designer and Klang-Author for Radio and Television I am interested in sounds processed as pictures, pictures as sounds. Exploring a third space between the two media, seeking a pattern of radiophonic sound for moving images. Imagery slowed towards a common KLANGUAGE, a text between eyes and ears.

Juxtaposing picture and sound as half-ready gestures, playing with nonlinear movements, chance and synesthesia - ideally. Pictures as rhythmical waves. We see like we hear.
Understanding one media - Sound - tentatively as subttext to the other - Television and Film. And vice versa. And in between.

Virtuareality in that sense is different from a location of technology, where you find new games and machines.

Virtuareal Soundscapes are subjective areas, sound biographies an ensemble of interfaces between them. A soundworld in the inner ear, instead of the outside cultural noise alone.

Audio under the reign of Digital Image is mickeymousing.
VirtuaReal Soundscapes as unsharp zone between the senses are an enhancement of perception and even existence.

Jean-Paul Fargier
"Elsewhere: in time as well as in space. In that gap where a face from yesterday equals a face from tomorrow, a winter landscape is in effect a summer landscape .... and travel is the true season of existence."


Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication 1984
Gilles Deleuze, Das Bewegungsbild, Kino 1, 1989
Sandra Lischi, Le souffle du temps, 1992
Michel Chion, Audiovision 1995
Hans U Werner, SoundscapeDesign 1997