Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The soundscape of Columbia’s Butler Library

Silence is the ultimate weapon of power

Charles de Gaulle

There is no such thing as silence

John Cage

Every place in the world has a specific ambient noise that creates a uniform sound. The notion of soundscape, first introduced by the composer R. Murray Schafer in 1977, has proven a useful and powerful tool in understanding the everyday life coming out of that sound.

In this post I seek to explore one commonly omitted aspect in landscape analysis: the encultured nature of the sound that is present in a particular space. Or, in other words, the relationship between sounds, environments and culture.

A soundscape can be considered as “a total appreciation of the acoustic environment” (Ref, p. 4). Based on this, the notion of soundscape considers not only the physical characteristics of the sounds present in an specific acoustic environment, but the cultural context in which these are heard. That is to say, sounds acquire particular social significance.

The composer John Cage (1961) considered that our listening experience was shaped, principally, by our exposure to noise. In this sense, Cage was convinced that “wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise" (Cage 1961) and so silence, at least when understood as an “absolute absence of sound”, does not exist. However, silence is often framed as positive and creating a sense of safety and serenity (Carlyle 2007).

Inspired by this powerful idea of Cage, I decided to explore the soundscapes of an area explicitly devoted to silence at Columbia University: the Butler library the main library in the Morningside campus. It is my intention here to expose the reader to an intense experience of the sound sphere of these areas through recordings made in the Butler library on a rainy Monday afternoon

Butler lounge (link to recording)

This room is located on the western side of the ground floor of Butler Library. It has a high ceiling, marble floor and concrete walls that are covered with wood on their lower section. The room is furnished with armchairs and coffee tables

This first soundscape manifests an impressive acoustic richness. This area is “the only place you can eat and talk” in Butler Library, so voices are one of the central elements we perceive in this soundscape. However, if we listen carefully, we can identify closing doors, footsteps, a chair scraping the floor, opening food packets, pens falling onto the floor… all of them causing reverberations through the acoustic structure of the building.

Milstein 211 reading room (link to recording)

This is a relatively small reading room located at the western wing of the Butler Library. The room has a marble floor and high ceilings. There are six tables in the center of room surrounded by bookshelves.

After listening to this soundscape carefully, we rapidly notice the presence of a prolonged and unchanging sound that comes from the heating system. This rhythmic sound, or more precisely, a low “flat-line pitched noise” (Schafer 1977), emerges from the recording and can be considered one of central components of all of the “silent” environments in the Butler Library.

Additionally, other irregular sounds are present in this environment: the sound of someone getting up, someone coughing, footsteps over the marble floor, zippers, and the click of an opening door. Focusing our attention further other subtle sounds appear in our recording: the sound of turning pages and of fingers typing a computer keyboard.

Ancient & Medieval Studies 603 Reading Room (link to recording)

This room is located in the sixth floor of the Butler Library. It has very strict noise regulation standards and it is, definitely, one of quietest areas in the Butler Library and in the Columbia campus in general.

The room has a marble floor and its ceilings are lower than the reading rooms located in the first floor which has the effect of dampening the acoustics. As in the case of the Milstein 211 reading room, this space is composed of wooden tables surrounded by bookshelves.

Silence as an absence of sound does not exist here either. First of all, the heating system can be clearly noticed, but it does not resonate with the same intensity as in the other rooms. This allows the more subtle sounds, almost imperceptible in the other rooms, to play to a greater role in the soundscape, with scratching, breathing and sighs clearly audible.


In summary, the sounds present in these recordings might be normally dismissed by someone who is familiar with these spaces. However, once we listen to them carefully, these sounds become more than just everyday noise and provide us with a more vibrant view of these spaces and their dynamics. These soundscapes provide an intimate portrayal of the ways in which material spaces are being used at a particular moment in Columbia´s history.


Sara Ray said...

I thought this was a very insightful piece. It made me think of the inherent narrowness in how I (and I imagine others) conceive of landscape. What about someone who is blind or visually impaired? To them, the soundscape WOULD be the landscape, or at least would be to a far higher degree than seeing people. This blog post was very in nice in forcing me to broaden my mental definition of what landscape is and how others might be predisposed to experiencing it.

Clayton Campbell said...

The presence (or absence) of sound, or particular types of sound, can have a profound impact on a landscape - just watch people's reactions to a loud cellphone going off versus a quiet cough inside a library study room. What your post makes me wonder about, specifically, is how the boundaries of a soundscape (like a library) are defined, consciously/intentionally and otherwise. I wonder if the fact that Butler Library (and Low Library, for that matter) was put in the middle of campus, not bordering either Broadway or Amsterdam, was a conscious decision by the planners to reduce noise inside it.