He calls it “sonic journalism.” From the Chernobyl site to inside London, Peter Cusack has been turning his ear to the world’s most interesting places. A leading practitioner of sound art at the intersection of ecology and music, Peter Cusack is a uniquely inspiring voice in music making. So we’re keen to welcome Czech-born writer Zuzana Friday Prikrylova to bring her conversation with the artist, for the first time in English here on CDM. We bring with that exclusive sounds for you to hear from the artist. -Ed.
Peter Cusack is a musician and a sound artist with a long music history behind him. He belongs to the English musical avant garde, played improvised music with the Alterations quartet for many years, and collaborated with flutist and journalist Clive Bell, composer Nicolas Collins, and musician and writer David Toop, just to name a few. He also started music label Bead Records in the early 70s, focusing mostly on improvised avantgarde music. He’s a member of CRiSAP (Creative Research in Sound Arts Practice), and was involved in founding the London College of Arts at the London University of Arts, where he teaches Sound Arts & Design.
His sound art works are often focused on ecology, environment, and the relations between the people, places, and sounds. One of his most popular projects is Favourite Sounds of London, which started in 1998 and has since spread worldwide. In his ongoing project Sounds From Dangerous Places, Cusack focused on the impacts of Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and Wales, oil fields in Azerbaijan, and inflows of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where controversial dam construction is planned. He moved to Berlin in 2012 to work on his project Berlin Sonic Places, so we interviewed him at the end of May 2012, slightly updated in April 2013 by Peter himself. The Czech version was published in HIS Voice magazine.
Friday: Since your projects collected in the book Sounds From Dangerous Places, you’ve been making something you call “sonic journalism.” Can you clarify and describe this term?
Cusack: It’s the sound equivalent of photo journalism. In other words: getting information from sound recordings of an event or place without too much speech.
Some people call what you do acoustic ecology; your main the range of interest is always connected to the environment and some of the effects and impacts of human activity on nature. Why? Is it just something you personally feel you need to do, or do you hope that with your works coming public, you can help to raise people’s consciousness about what’s going on?
I don’t think that any one person’s work has a major impact, but obviously there’s a lot of attention given to environmental issues and questions now. So I just feel part of that movement. And that’s interesting for me and I find it important. I like my work to have some kind of point. And for me, I’ve always been interested in environment and issues and the politics and the ecology and the economy of the environment, so that’s what I continue to do.
You started Favourite Sounds of London. Now there are many similar sites from all different cities and countries, as well as some other sound maps. Did any similar site already existed, when you started the project in 1998? How do you feel about how widely it spread around the world?
The Favourite Sounds project is slightly different from Sound From Dangerous Places in that I’m interested in the urban soundscaping, in which we, as Western people, live. And I’m also interested in how we interact with our everyday environment. So I started that in London, which is my home city, and to try and find out what other people thought of the soundscape in London or the sounds of London, I asked them what their favourite sound was, but also why.
And that was to just to find out what the favourite Londoner’s sound was; it was actually to try to get people talking about the way they hear everyday sounds and how they react to them, or what they think and feel about them, and how important (or not important) they are. And to a certain extent, that project has been successful in that. Because when you ask questions, then people will always talk about other things.
— what part of their life that sound plays, and what part of town they live in, and what they do during the day, and how they travel around the city. Because people’s favourite sounds are often to do with public transport systems. So you learn a lot about the city by asking about its sound. And you learn different things about it than if you’re asking questions about how it looks, its visual impact. So for me, that’s been very interesting. I was sent to new parts of London that I’ve never heard of before – even though it’s my hometown and I know it very well.
And since starting the project in London, it’s been done in Beijing, Chicago, Prague, other cities in the UK like Manchester and Birmingham, and now in Berlin. Other people have asked if they can do the project in New York, for example, and I don’t know who they are, but I am very happy if that happens. So there is the New York Favourite Sounds project. And when you do the same projects in very different cities, then it makes it possible to compare how people listen in each city and how they think about the sounds of those cities, and also how the cities differ in the way they sound. Berlin is a much quieter city than London, even though it’s Western culture, still. So in Berlin you hear far more people sounds or you hear it more clearly; you hear more distance.
In London, there’s a lot more traffic noise and it feels more closed. But in Beijing, it’s much louder than either London or Berlin. Plus it’s a totally different culture. Chinese culture is obviously quite different from Western culture. And people there had kind of a different philosophy in the sounds that they hear — rather more poetic, I would say. And when you ask them why they like the particular sound, often it had to do with particular sound of their life, so you would find out about their whole life story. Many people are not born in Beijing; many people migrate there from other parts of China. And when they do that, their first days and weeks in Beijing are often quite scary times and quite traumatic times.
Several people mentioned that hearing the national anthem played in the morning in Tiananmen Square was something that they can relate to in Beijing, and that became a very important sound to them. And so the Chinese national anthem was mentioned quite often as a favourite sound by Chinese people. I don’t think that anyone in the UK has ever mentioned the national anthem as a favourite sound, and certainly nobody in Berlin and nobody in Prague. So it’s a very interesting way of finding out different things about different countries and also quite personal things, personal stories.
So let’s talk about your recent projects, for example the projects about the harbour in England…
That’s part of the Sounds From Dangerous Places. When I talk about dangerous places, I mean places with environmental damage; I don’t mean places where I might get hurt. Some of them are big, some of them are small.
And I was asked to do a project in a place called Southend-on-Sea, which is the mouth of the river Thames, where it goes into the North Sea. At that point, the river is quite wide and also ships pass by, even though the docks in London are now closed, there are other ports up the river, which ships still use.
Quite a lot of ships pass by South End and if you listen there, you hear a droning sound often — a very low-pitched, often quite beautiful drone. And that’s the sound of shipping. Unless you live in a place next to the sea, or next to a port area, you would not hear this sound, you would not know what it is. But for the people in South End, it’s a part of their local soundscape; everybody knows what it is.
For me, it was something new. I later discovered that they’re building a new port area very close to South End to take the biggest container ships. These are very big; they have a draft of maybe 14 or 15 meters. But the river Thames at a low tide is only 11 meters deep, which is obviously a problem for the port [chuckles]. So they have to dig out [dredge] a deeper channel. And otherwise, they have to dredge sand and mud from the bottom of the river Thames to make it deep enough for the new big ships to get to the port.
And 4 meters of mud and sand is a lot; this has to go all way out to the sea. That’s a very big environmental engineering task, and it creates a lot of damage to the environment underwater. But of course, because it’s underwater, we don’t see it. The people in South End know that it’s happening, but they can’t see anything, because it’s invisible to humans. But it creates damage to the fishing, it stirs up mud, which has been lying there for centuries and contains a thousand years of pollution coming down from London, so it causes great damage underwater. So the fishing grounds are destroyed, the local fishing industry have their livelihoods badly affected. Everybody knows this; the company that is building the port knows this. And they have made agreements with the fishermen, they will compensate them.
I wanted to do a project on underwater environmental damage. How do you do that? You can’t see it. So I thought I would make recordings underwater when they were digging out the channels. But that’s very difficult, because you need to be there when the ships that dig the channels are actually working. And it’s very difficult to find out when this will be: the company won’t tell you, the fishermen’s agreements have secrecy clauses in them and they will not tell you. So there’s no way you can find out to be there at the right time, unless you’re very lucky. The only thing I could do was to just sit and watch and wait, and see if it happened when I was there.
In the meantime, I made recordings of other ships going past all the time (and I took photographs), and some of them were dredging ships. I also discovered on the Internet that you can follow ships. There’s a wonderful system called AIS – Automatic Information System — and if you go to the website, you can follow every ship in the world, where it goes. It gives you the ship’s position on Google satellite image. Of course there are many ships that go up and down the North Sea and into the river. So I followed some of the dredgers and found that they went to the middle of the sea or the channel. They dredged up pure sand and took it back to London, where it was unloaded onto the shore on the bank of the river. That sand is used by building trade and the construction industry. So I followed those dredging ships. They were dredging and collecting mining sand for the construction industry, but they weren’t involved in building of the new port.
I followed the wrong ships and I call the piece “The Wrong Dredger“ (laughs). I did find out the name of one of the ships that was dredging from the port. But by the time I’ve found the ship’s name, it was no longer working in the Thames. It went to work somewhere else, it was working in the Baltic Sea the coast of Russia, where the border of Estonia and Russia is. The Russians are building a new port there. Huge one, it’s even bigger than in the river Thames. So I followed this ship as it dredged out a channel for the new Russian port. I looked at the Russian port website and the river Thame’s port website and I read what they said about the environment and the damaged. They both say that they will cause damage, but they also all say that they will repair it, and if a wildlife area is destroyed here, they will build a new one there, and everything will be fine.
What impressed me was the fact that the environmental public relations of the both companies were identical; they could have been written by the same person. That’s clearly the public relations technique that these huge international companies use for dealing with environmental questions. I’ve found that kind of globalized technique. Of course, you can never check whether what they say actually happens, nobody will ever know. It could be anything from truth to complete bullshit. So you never know. But it is public relations and I became, through that project, interested in the public relations to do with the environment. So that’s the story.
So do you want to explore public relations’ connection to the environment?
Don’t. It will just make you angry I think… Anyway. What about other recent projects?
Since I’ve been in Germany, I’ve found out about brown coal. Quite a lot of German (and Polish, Czech…) energy and electricity is created by burning brown coal. And usually brown coal is mined by open mining; it’s not underground, they just dig a big hole. Ed.: Strip mining is what we call this back in the States. They even write Bluegrass songs about it. -PK And one of the biggest mines in Europe is actually near Cologne. This place is called Garzweiler and it’s a huge hole in the ground with very, very big machines digging out the brown coal. But they have to remove maybe 13 meters of top soil before they get to the brown coal. Also, it grows; the mine gets bigger and bigger. And whole villages have to be pulled down and destroyed. Two motorways are disappearing and all the people from the villages have to be moved, have to find new places to live.
And the whole process is one that I’ve become interested in for the next project. I’ve been there twice now. The mine in Garzweiler is very interesting, because it’s not just a mine, it’s the whole process. Only few kilometers from the mine are seven power stations where they burn the coal. They have a special train that takes the coal from the mine to the power stations, and because it’s very heavy, the tracks are industrial-strenth tracks. They can take heavier weight than normal railway tracks. And they have special trains for the coal. And it’s a very closed system, so in one area here, the mine is producing the brown coal and here the power stations are burning it and out come pilots of electricity to fuel the area. So everything happens in one place, which is rather interesting, and the company controls the whole area. They have a kind of their own police force in a way for their own property. They don’t call it that, but that’s effectively what it is.
The company has very wide interest. It not only makes electricity from coal, but it has also been involved in nuclear power and now in green energy. So also in the same area, there are many wind generators, and there’s a bio gas station. So again, it’s kind of a public relations exercise. The majority of the electricity comes from brown coal, but growing around it is kind of this green energy to give it a different face, and I find that interesting, as well. Plus, the sounds from the wind generators are actually very beautiful, some of them. And also in the mine were more sounds than I was expecting. You expect the big open hole to be fairly quiet and it is quite quiet, but they’re nevertheless very deep drones.
And one village is being pulled down and stone is being smashed. We recorded church bells of the village that in two years time will not exist anymore. So these are sounds that are disappearing. In a couple of years they will just not be there, so it would be also a slightly historical set of recordings. All those things, that’s the new project.
Since seeing that place, I discovered that were similar mines in Poland, slightly smaller in the Czech Republic and also in former East Germany. I’m working with other people on this project, including Miloš Vojtěchovský from Prague and we will do a bigger project in couple of years on brown coal.
Yes. Well, if you make a photograph or a recording and just wait, in the end it becomes history. And although photography was invented before sound recording (so there are many old photographs in the world now), the idea of old sound recordings is less familiar. But certainly, they exist, now they go back almost a hundred years, or maybe more than a hundred years already. So that’s a long time. But everything you do – providing it doesn’t get destroyed – becomes history. It’s kind of inevitable.
That’s possibly true. I mean, it’s easier to find out about historical music, than about historical sounds. Because music, or Western music, is written down and people can play it. Who knows whether they play it right as it was played 500 years ago… I mean, people research that and they know a lot about it. The same is not true of sounds in the environment. It’s possible to find out and do research; there is writing you can read, as long as writing goes and some people write about sounds, so you find out that way. You can look in paintings, because in paintings you see people doing things, which would obviously create sounds… so you get some idea from painting and literature and writing. But it’s not the same as having a recording. [smiles]
But I think that in the beginning, people were recording just music and they were not recording just some sounds…
Well, that’s not quite true.
Isn’t it? Okay!
There are very early recordings of birds sounds, for example.
Really, from when?
From before the first World War. I think the earliest bird recording is 1890-something. It’s an Indian myna bird recorded in Belgium, I believe in a cage. It was a caged bird, a pet bird. That’s the first known bird recording.
But I agree, most of the attention was on music. But when you record music, like Bartok, and people went around small villages in Europe or United States, they recorded musicians, but of course you record other sounds at the same time. So even the musical recordings have other sounds in them. And the recordings made by film. Sound film was invented 1929 or something like that. After that, documentary films had sound of environment, where they were making the pictures. There are films of the industry from the 30s and things like that. So they do exist.
Now you are in Berlin till the end of summer, so what are you up to here?
I’m doing a project on Berlin’s soundscape. Berlin is interesting because it’s changed so much since the Wall came down over 20 years ago. The transformation of Berlin from being a divided city and a divided nation, to being the capital city of the united country means that there are big changes in Berlin which are unique to Berlin. And of course those changes have created changes in the soundscape. For example, a lot of industry, particularly in the former East Berlin, was immediately closed down. Those areas are now being rebuilt, the factories are going and housing is being built, for example. So the area has changed in 20 years from an industrial area to a residential area, a new community, that was not there before, is moving in and growing and forming. Those are actually big social, architectural, and economic changes in Berlin. How that changes the soundscape is what this project is about.
We’re concentrating on Rummelsburg which is one of those areas which has transformed from an industrial area to a residential area, and also in Prenzlauer Berg, where the architecture hasn’t changed, but the people have changed and it’s now become a very wealthy area for people who have money. The rents have gone up, the people who used to live there have been forced out and it has been a big social change there. How has that changed the soundscape? Those are the kind of questions I’m interested in in Berlin.
Can you tell — only by the sound of its motor — if you are listening to a very expensive car or a cheap one?
Not really; I don’t think it’s so easy to put your finger on what the changes are; then you need several things. Ed.: Heh, ask a car expert and you’ll get a different answer here!
But, for example, Prenzlauer Berg is now full of cafés and full of children, so there are playground sounds, people sitting outdoors in the summertime, drinking, eating or just talking. It feels prosperous, and there’s kind of a buzz to it, and it just feels pleasant. It’s also quite green, there are birds singing. This is different, I think, from a poor area.
Have you been to Prenzlauer Berg, when it used to be a poor area?
No, we’ve been talking to people about what they remember. For me, it’s quite more difficult to do this project in Berlin, because I’ve only been here for a year. But of course, I’m not the only one and also we’re talking to people who used to live in Prenzlauer Berg and who moved out. And there are still some people there, who have been there the whole time. So you have to ask people what they remember. It’s not very easy project to get the answers to those questions. So I’m not sure how clear the research will be. But maybe the important thing is just to work how you can study and talk about sounds in city and what they mean to people. And that’s just one way of doing it.
It really seems like a journalism, because it’s investigative. You go and you talk to people, you meet them and ask them questions…
Yeah. Again I’m personally less doing that, because I can’t speak very good German. In Prenzlauer Berg, I’m working with students from sonic studies courses in UDK and they are asking people questions. It’s a bit of a problem for me because of the language, I don’t speak very well. But nevertheless, it’s been very interesting to do and we will continue. [smiles]
When you said that you’re here mostly for one year and you’re going to leave soon, probably, do you have a lot of new material? Do you have any idea of how the result might look?
This project will have three public events. We’ve chosen three places to do the work. One is Prenzlauer Berg, as I just said, so one of the events will be in Prenzlauer Berg. Another will be in Rummelsberg and the third is in Tempelhof Airfield. Because, again, that was until a few years ago an airport, but it’s closed now. And people are still discussing and arguing about what to do with the space. Some people want to leave it, other people want to build on it. Nobody knows what will actually happen. So in Tempelhof, it’s a question of being imaginative about the future. The theme there is “Future Soundscapes,” imagined soundscapes of what it may be like in 30 years time or something like that. One of the public events will be there. But there will be quite a lot of material, there will be a website and maybe a publication, I don’t know.
On the website on London College of Communication, it is written that you also collaborated with visual artists. Can you tell us a bit more?
[Thoughtful] Is it?
Yeah, there are also written disciplines that you’re into, like acoustic ecology, sonic journalism, collaboration with visual artists, and the last, especially, caught my eye.
Well, I collaborate with a lot of people, and some of them are visual artists, that’s for sure. But I don’t think you can study sound on your own, I think it’s a very big topic. It crosses into many areas, into science, law, politics – and into all kinds of other media. You find sound everywhere. So I think it’s impossible to work with sound and to try to understand its space, culture, and society without collaborating with other people. And I have collaborated with visual artists, in particular Ursula Biemann. She’s a video artist, or, primarily and recently, her main work comes out in the form of video. I’ve worked on a project with her, so yes, I’ve worked with visual artists. But also scientists, sociologists and biologists and other sound artists. [smiles]
I think your collaborations would be long material for another interview, so let me ask you the last question: I read you are the first person who played the bouzouki in England…
That’ a complete rubbish!
It’s on Wikipedia… But do you still play from time to time?
Well I played bouzouki once, but me being a first person playing it in England, that’s a complete nonsense, forget it! [laughs]