In 2005, the oldest map of “anywhere” in the western world was unearthed in Soleto, in southern Italy. Dating from a recent 500 BCE, its thirteen towns were marked with dots–the Mediterranean represented by zig-zagged strokes. Imprecise, and on the side of a vase, this visual map wasn’t meant as a guide to get from “here” to “there”, but rather to know in what relation “here” is to “there”. Cultures had developed other ways to navigate, using natural visual landmarks, the stars, and other methods that included hearing, smelling, and feeling. Though inexact, the use of all senses created not only visual, but multi-sensory relationships. By the Age of Exploration, technologies like the compass, sextant, and telescopes allowed cartographers ever more precise (though non-portable) visual representations of the world. Today, with the advent of mobile GPS, real-time maps point out the easiest way from “here” to “there” on a screen. The Soundscaper uses mobile GPS technology to create a way of experiencing “here” and “there” through sound. The sound map is akin to research being done by scientists, using locative data to map likely flood zones, stores of minerals, and the progress of pathogens. But the intent here is to evoke poetry and fantasy in the form of a sound map on the Web.
This project started with the mundane Manhattan grid. Laid out in 1811, it is rather irritating; parts below 14th St. are organic and twisted, above 14th St., if it weren’t for Broadway, there would be no mystery at all. Prosaic as a visual map, from the “perspective” of someone’s ears, there is much to reveal. Sometimes, hearing tells us more than seeing; birders often identify a species by sound, and much danger in the wild, or in the city, can be avoided by a growl or a honk. With this project, we develop a soundscape of Manhattan through GPS-enabled mobile phones. The street is always changing: a street can be utter chaos during the day, yet be a large echo chamber by night used by birds to call a mate. Likewise, a little sidestreet may become a hive of activity after work gets out, with a constant flow of languages and timbres. The Soundscaper takes the grid of Manhattan and uses it as musical staff paper. Performers are given a set of instructions to follow, and a GPS-enabled Nokia phone with a small microphone.