Out there, three pieces for headphones and real places by Martin Parker, commissioned by the East Neuk Festival 2009.
Writing for headphones
Aside from the obvious risks you face when crossing roads or riding a bike whilst listening to music, portable mp3 players pose a threat to the health of your ears. Consider that the ambient noise level by a city road is around 83dB . Don’t worry about this number but do remember that in order to hear music over this level, you may well be playing 85-90dB (double the volume) next to your ear . Then consider that the UK Health and Safety Executive recommends employers actively protect workers exposed to levels of 85dB for long periods . So, in order to hear your music, you walk around the city with an in-ear headphone pumping industrial-strength loudness right at your ear-drum. Obviously, there is something wrong here but few of us seem to mind, why?
In 1977 Murray Schafer, composer, sound theorist and pedagogue warned that city dwellers faced a ‘universal deafness’ unless the noise floor of modern cities could be reduced . It has not reduced, only increased in the last 30 years. Perhaps the popularity of portable music players can be put down to a kind of ‘personal-choic’ deafness; city sound being so stressful, irritating and sonically aggressive that we prefer to block it out with our own private soundscape. This makes sense musically too. The speed of traffic, bustle of shoppers and commuters achieve a poetic flow and grace when decoupled from their sound sources and viewed through the strains of Aphex Twin, Piazzola or Mahler.
Filmmakers well know how music interprets image and have trained us to respond to this device, it may explain why we carry around these sounds as they help us to re-interpret our environment as a cinematic and visual experience. Portable music players offer a personal, private space for individuals to re-see their world but we now also behave with music in a way that is perhaps different to modes of listening and access we’ve had up until recently. ‘Flash mobs’  (where groups of people gather to perform acts of guerrilla resistance or individuality) are also associated with portable music players. ‘Silent Disco’  and ‘Mobile Clubbing’  are events where people dance together whilst listening to their own choice of music through headphones .
A particularly famous silent disco was staged at Victoria Station in London in 2007. One suggestion on the youtube video comments below is that activists should use this action as a form of protest. Perhaps the next iPod flashmob in London will stop traffic, grinding the city to a silent halt. These events/protests/actions are organized online and link with another feature of portable music devices and the internet, namely social networking, torrent sharing, blogging and podcasting. Whilst we may not be experiencing the same music together at the same time as in the days of the public concert or even radio broadcast, we do share playlists, creating intimacy by publishing our taste, choices and opinions freely. The isolation of a headphone music experience does not mean we are not made aware of something larger than ourselves.
I’ve often thought that my music belonged in the city where contemporary culture thrives but this commission has offered me an escape from this way of thinking. By using another trick from film , I’ve mixed environmental sound from the places themselves under and around the music. This has helped to create a plausible cushion for the electronic musical language I usually work with. There is no need to listen to this music at loud levels. Let the sound of the environment in.
Headphones are not a new vehicle for sound, music and art, Janet Cardiff, Christina Kubisch (to name couple of famous examples) and many theatre projects have made use of headphones in innovative and interesting ways but it is still comparatively rare to find music specially authored for portable playback. We have poetry on the underground, why not music for the underground too; pieces of music commissioned especially for playback between certain points on the Circle line? I’m not describing historical narratives or museum guides but actual music, crafted with the noise floor of the environment in mind and designed to expand one’s commute in a sonic direction usually obliterated by the noise of your ride.
A version of this note appeared MUSO magazine in July 2009.
1. Tested midday, Edinburgh, EH8 9DF, 29th using a B&K SPL meter â†©
2. More information about the dB scale is available here: www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/dB.html
4. The Soundscape, Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.(1977, Destiny Books, Vermont)
5. Initiated by Bill Wasik in 2003.
8. At commerical parties this is not the case, a DJ or live performer will play the same music to everyone at the same time. See www.silentdisco.com
9. Room tone
Please make sure that you are familiar with the operation of your MP3 player before playing these tracks. If at any time, the music seems too loud, please adjust the volume of your headset to a comfortable level. A good way to check that you are not playing the music too loudly is that you should still be able to hear wind, rain and nearby traffic above the sound of the music. In a quiet place, half volume level on an Apple iPhone should be plenty of level. If you find you have your mp3 player at full volume, this is almost certainly too loud. Please note these mp3s have been optimized to play-back on headphones and to be listened to outdoors. These mixes are not for listening to on home stereo systems although they won’t do any harm to your equipment, you the music is designed to be heard outdoors.
Notes on the places these pieces were originally written for
01 – St Fillan’s Cave – http://www.tinpark.com/2011/01/out-there-st-fillans-cave/
02 – Crail Harbor – http://www.tinpark.com/2011/01/out-there-crail-harbour/
03 – Dunino Den Dunino – http://www.tinpark.com/2011/01/out-there-dunino-den/