Tess Knighton – Acoustic communities in early modern Barcelona

14 May 2019
Universitat de Barcelona (Spain)

WHO: Tess Knighton, ICREA Research Professor, Institució Milà i Fontanals–CSIC

The concept of the acoustic community was developed by the Canadian composer Barry Truax in his Acoustic Communication (1984/2001), a work that is itself much influenced by the writings of R. Murray Schafer on the soundscape. Truax’s study and analysis of the characteristics of acoustic communities is essentially based on modern soundscapes, and, although reference is made to the inherent acoustic differences of pre-industrial societies, he does not pretend or attempt to develop a historical perspective. His work nevertheless offers an interesting starting-point for the historian attempting to analyse the soundscapes of the past, and many aspects of his approach can be adopted or adapted to uncovering, recognising and studying historical acoustic communities, even though the kind of fieldwork he and others have undertaken based on sound measurement and interviews is not directly applicable. (Even so, modern digital technologies can, at least to some extent, offer useful data and visualization analytical tools that are increasingly used to complement historical methodologies based on archival research and close reading.) Consideration of urban environments and how these relate to the sonic identity of communities – how the listener is (or was) involved in an interactive relationship with his or her acoustic environment – underpins Truax’s idea of the formation of the acoustic community which he defines as ‘any soundscape in which acoustic information plays a pervasive role in the lives of the inhabitants’. The significant role of sound lies in the perception that ‘acoustic cues and signals constantly keep the community in touch with what is going on from day to day within it’. Recent studies by music and art historians, such as Christopher Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010) and Niall Atkinson’s The Noisy Renaissance: Sound, Architecture, and Florentine Urban Life (2016) afford examples of how attempts to ‘hear’ and understand sound environments of the past can reveal much about acoustic communities, whether within a contained internal space in the domestic or institutional context, or in spatially more open, outdoor locations with very different acoustic boundaries. I will attempt to present my recent research into the daily musical life of early modern Barcelona through the prism of Truax’s acoustic communities, looking at the ways in which sound signals, sonic markers, sound symbolism, acoustic profiles, boundaries and horizons might be discerned in that specific urban context, and how they are linked spatially to the topography and environment of the city as well as temporally to the cycles, rhythms and activities of everyday urban life.

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