(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 415: Everything that Moves Makes a Sound

January 12, 2023

This week we’re joined by Michiel Huijsman, Managing Director of Soundtrackcity in the Netherlands. We chat about how to think about the positive aspect of urban soundscapes, designing how a place sounds, and how thinking was changed by the pandemic.

To listen to this episode, you can find it at Streetsblog USA or our hosting archive.

You’ll find a full unedited transcript after the jump.

Jeff Wood (43s):
Michiel Huijsman, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Michiel Huijsman (1m 27s):
Thank you for having me.

Jeff Wood (1m 28s):
Well, thanks for being here. Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Michiel Huijsman (1m 32s):
Yes. Well, I’m an artist by a profession. I’m a physical artist and I made a lot of artwork in public space, lots with light, so night art. And then I did a quite funny turn. My partner zk, she started a project with sound artists and she asked me to be the manager, sort of. So that’s how I got involved in 2009 when this all started.

Jeff Wood (2m 2s):
Well that’s really interesting. I mean, sound is such an interesting thing. And you said you’d been a visual artist. Is there something about sound that interests you or that you knew you were interested in when you were younger?

Michiel Huijsman (2m 12s):
Yeah, I played different instruments but I wasn’t so into sound, but when Renard asked me in a couple of years, I got really hooked on the sound. Yeah, I think sound is really interesting. Sounded public space. It’s a sort of connector, eh, between all the, the living and non-living things. So it’s, it’s a sort of interspace, a trespassing thing. So for me these aspects were very interesting. So I got hooked and as you can imagine, as official artist, I’m also a sort of intruder in this sound field. And Renata is from theater, so she’s a theater director. So she also has this outer view on the subject and I think this gives you lots of freedom.

Michiel Huijsman (2m 56s):
Freedom to think, freedom to do stupid things, freedom to get people connected who otherwise won’t have connected with each other. So it’s kind of non-disciplinary exercise

Jeff Wood (3m 12s):
And you can be experimental too.

Michiel Huijsman (3m 13s):
Yeah, yeah, that’s a funny thing about it. Yeah, that’s nice.

Jeff Wood (3m 17s):
You are at soundtrack City. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started and how you got into Urban Sound? Specifically?

Michiel Huijsman (3m 24s):
When Renata started this project in 2009, the idea was to connect different artists from different disciplines and get them to make sound walks. So sound walks with headphones through the city with a length of approximately 60 to 90 minutes sort of theater play in, in public space. And the, the first seven years, this was what soundtrack City did. We produced these walks and we experimented with this medium because we thought this is a relatively new medium and it’s not like the opera or or a concert.

Michiel Huijsman (4m 6s):
You can still do a lot of experiments. So we asked composers to work together with an architect or a theater director with musician, things like that. Really beautiful pieces of art came out of it. And then the organization changed a little bit and we became a sort of tour operator because all these walks, I think 25 to 30 walks in only in the Netherlands. We organized them also with a group of volunteers. So we got a lot of public and a lot of contacts and people walking around with these headphones.

Michiel Huijsman (4m 49s):
And then the funny thing happened that most people after the walk, when they put ’em off, they said, now I really listened to the city. I hear a lot more and this triggers our interest. And we thought we have to change our modus operandi. And we thought we have to investigate what these people or we actually hear. Cause you, you have so many different modes of listening. When you go to a concert, you, you go automatically in the mode of listening to music. If you are in traffic, you have completely other mode of listening.

Michiel Huijsman (5m 31s):
You are looking out or noticing danger or signals or things like that. So we thought this is worth studying. So we thought we have to build up a sort of community project with normal people. How do you call them? They don’t exist, but a lot of different people also children, people of older age and everything in between and from different backgrounds. And then we started doing listening walks. So without headphones and just listening and asking afterwards, what did you hear at this walk? What does it mean to you?

Michiel Huijsman (6m 12s):
And does it tell you anything about the places you have been or about the city? How do you think these places should sound? Are they sounding right for you? So this is also a little bit more into social or political thinking cause these places are mostly in cities, mostly designed for traffic, going from A to B and not so much for being or being together or meeting people. So this sort of became a field of research in the last couple of years. We accumulated so much knowledge about this and it’s a sort of, yeah, practical knowledge also.

Michiel Huijsman (6m 55s):
So we get questions from municipalities who ask us to advise them how to incorporate sound in planning.

Jeff Wood (7m 4s):
Well it’s really interesting. I mean how much urban sound is traffic and transportation related?

Michiel Huijsman (7m 9s):
Ooh, how much, how much? How much?

Jeff Wood (7m 11s):
Especially in cities I imagine.

Michiel Huijsman (7m 12s):
Yeah, in cities it’s the overwhelming sort of drone which sometimes suffocates all the other sounds who could be heard. And this is not good for wellbeing. You should be able to not only to orient yourself, which is as a pedestrian most of the time, not so easy anymore because everywhere it sounds the same. And if you have a more heterogene environment, you can go from this place to another place and it sounds differently and nah, you feel better

Jeff Wood (7m 48s):
For sure. I mean sound is so important to humans in that way, especially in urban environments. Why do you think it is so important that the sound is more heterogeneous in more varied than just that low drone of traffic or trams or just the general din of, of urban noise?

Michiel Huijsman (8m 7s):
Yeah, I think the letter is just very boring and we need, we need stimuli or stimulus and we need connection with other beings. And this din negates that in a sort of way. And when you sort of create a clean slate and the opportunity to have other sounds, you automatically make it possible that people can communicate more.

Jeff Wood (8m 35s):
Is there also value in the absence of sound and quiet?

Michiel Huijsman (8m 39s):
Yeah, yeah. Beforehand, I want to say real quiet is absolutely non-existent. There’s always something, but the high volumes, which are now usually in city centers, they’re also unhealthy. So they can be lowered. And this is also something cities already are doing for decades, the noise abatement. But it’s a very negative way of approaching this problem. You only want to lower the volumes and you are not looking at the quality of the sound because the sound of a car is not per definition bad or not interesting.

Michiel Huijsman (9m 23s):
It’s only the amounts of cars which make it so, and all the harsh surfaces, the the, the glass, the concrete, the stone which reflect this sounds for maybe 2, 3, 4 or five, six times they reflects in such a urban canyon that you get a sort of fog, auditory fog. And now I’m already again talking about the negative aspects, but I think we have to turn this around and approach it from a more qualitative way. So not only trying to lower the volumes in cities, but also look at what sounds do people want to hear.

Jeff Wood (10m 8s):
Well that’s another interesting question as well. And it was mentioned in the Noma article, which is the one that I read that I learned about your work. You know, planning is often trying to reduce the amount of sounds or reduce the loudness of sounds, but what can planners do on the other side of the coin in terms of the positive part of sounds? Because it seems like something that planners haven’t focused on in the past.

Michiel Huijsman (10m 29s):
I think if you really look at the planners, they don’t have any interest in sounds. They literally say sound is for the map of hell because they have a sort of map and they’re using the zones where they cannot build cause there’s industry or there’s too much noise or or this and that. So for them, sound is firstly very negative. So when you approach a planner and say yeah, you have to design, you can design how it sounds. This is very new for them. But in in Rotterdam we now do it for two and a half years advising and it kind of works.

Michiel Huijsman (11m 15s):
So for, for them it’s also an ear opener to incorporate this in the planning process. And basically it comes down to softening. So have more softer surfaces slowing down. So if you have a lot of traffic, make a a 20 miles zone that you don’t have this harsh sizzling sound of the tires cause the sound of the tires is dominant, not so much of the the engine. There’s also misconception when we get all these electric cars now they have a very heavy batteries so their tires are sometimes twice as broad as the other types of cars.

Michiel Huijsman (12m 0s):
So we have more sound and also more particles in the air, which is also not good for your health.

Jeff Wood (12m 8s):
We talk about that on the show a lot actually. The particulates from the tires and from break dust and other things especially, oh really? As electric vehicles are coming because you know, like you said, the batteries are heavier, there’s more wear on the tires, the particulates and the, the small microplastics from that, the water and all that stuff. So like you said, there’s a whole other discussion on that one. Yeah, which is really interesting. But I’m interested in this argument too in terms of sound because I think that all over the world there’s a lot of folks in cities that are, you know, pushing for the low traffic zones, pushing for kind of pushing cars out of the center of cities. Paris specifically is one example I can think of at the moment, but there are plenty of them. But that’s an interesting thought for the soundscape as well because of what you mentioned in terms of low traffic or slow traffic equals less noise from tires.

Michiel Huijsman (12m 54s):
Yeah. And also the, you can make the noise of the tires much more interesting by making variation in the surface. So not only asphalt but also cobbles stones or or other types of stones. You have a lot of choice. This also gives the driver feedback was if he is driving on an uneven surface, he will automatically slow down and the sound of the rolling car will be different than on asphalt and intuitively for the pedestrian this gives a a safer feeling.

Jeff Wood (13m 31s):
Well that’s another interesting point is that, you know, sounds that are out of context are more troubling to people. Mechanical sounds in nature for example, set off mind alarms, you know, like basically people get a little bit edgy because of the different sounds that are introduced in places maybe where they didn’t expect them to be. And so I imagine that kind of matches with that discussion about cars and roads and tires and all the sounds that come from them too is how humans perceive them.

Michiel Huijsman (13m 57s):
Yeah, and this goes on also subconsciously a lot cause our attention is only consciously, I think we only hear or listen to 10% of what we actually hear. The rest is not passively managed by the body. It’s active process but you don’t have it in your mind. It’s just going on.

Jeff Wood (14m 19s):
That’s really interesting.

Michiel Huijsman (14m 20s):
Yeah, it has an impact. So I always say to the planners also, you should not design for what people listen or how the appreciation is or what I think about the sound. But you should also design for the 90%, I called it auditory black matter. So what people actually hear, but what they don’t have in their mind consciously.

Jeff Wood (14m 46s):
Well, so Rotterdam has specifically worked with you all and and others to think about sound and there’s a noise action plan that happens every five years. What’s included in these plans that are created?

Michiel Huijsman (14m 56s):
Yeah, the noise action plan. Five years ago they made this sort of turn the, the Elderman really requested that the qualitative aspects of sound should be incorporated in eight big projects in the, in the city. As a sort of example for the rest of the city development, this is not the right word, but they choose a certain neighborhood or a square or or a bigger project and they, they’re going to redevelop, there’s a word for it, but

Jeff Wood (15m 30s):

Michiel Huijsman (15m 31s):
Yeah, city re regeneration projects they’re now doing. So these are seven or eight projects and that’s also, these are the projects we are involved in.

Jeff Wood (15m 45s):
And so what are those projects like? How does that plan filter into those projects? What are the things that you do that come from, you know, the noise action plan for each of those regeneration projects? How you approach them, what the end result is supposed to be, the goals of it. Is there something specific for that?

Michiel Huijsman (16m 1s):
Yeah, this is actually really specific because for every project is a project group of civil servants who manage this whole project. And so we propose a sort of research and advice trajectory to them and we go and we negotiate and then accept our plans and then we, we do this research and the research we do with the community, the people actually living in the place. Then after a half a year or maybe seven months, we present them with the research paper and our research are already incorporated advices, how to redesign aspects in the project, which will be benefactory for a better sound.

Michiel Huijsman (16m 52s):
And then it depends on the team of every project, how they incorporate it in their process. This is also very interesting. It’s always the chemistry between people working on something if it goes well or if it is rejected or, so I have a lot of experience now with how different groups react to something new. It’s, it’s amazingly interesting.

Jeff Wood (17m 20s):
Can you share some of the examples of that? Like how one group responds as opposed to another group? I’m curious how people react to that. Yeah,

Michiel Huijsman (17m 28s):
For example, the first project we did the project offline, very iconic place of Rotterdam with a fountain in the middle. And yeah, our advices were quite harsh because they plan to make a, a park there, but at the same time they still have a 100 trends passing this supposedly park. And the trends, they go in sort of roundabout rails or tracks and it sweeps, it makes a lot of noise. And we said, nobody is going to use your very beautiful park because everybody is still going to run away for this, this sound.

Michiel Huijsman (18m 16s):
And this project group reacted very good on this, on our advices. Advices were very detailed. For example, there were signals sort of musts with lights on it and a speaker, which gives a sort of bell sound when a trim is approaching. This is for safety, but there were, there are 12 crossings at this square, 100 trims per hour. You can imagine there’s always a bell there, there are always diff many more bells ringing in at the square all the time.

Michiel Huijsman (18m 57s):
So what we saw is people fidgeting the the square are not paying attention anymore to these bells because it’s part of the nervous soundscape. So we said, yeah, you do this for safety, but it has a first effect. People don’t pay attention anymore. You have to do something about these bells or these bell sounds. And they’re, they’re also going to do that.

Jeff Wood (19m 23s):
So they’re gonna get rid of the bells completely or just have them only every once in a while

Michiel Huijsman (19m 28s):
Completely is not yet out of the question. But I think they cannot do it for safety measures. So we propose to lower the volume first of it. Also play another sound, nicer sound. Cause this is like this ding, ding, dinging, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. That is, you get agitated. So it’s a sound you want to run and the purpose is that you have to stand still cause the tr approaching, but it’s, it’s not the right sounds psychological. So we also pointed to Japan, where in Japan they play a lot with sounds in public space and they have different kind of melodies which have different meanings.

Michiel Huijsman (20m 13s):
For example, every train has a sort of sound when the sound is played in the station, this particular line is coming in, we don’t know this, but every citizen of of Tokyo knows, we said, yeah, you can play with sounds also here in Rotterdam them don’t use it only as a sort of signal.

Jeff Wood (20m 36s):
I didn’t even know that, that in Japan that there were trained sounds specifically tied to each train. I mean it makes sense. Yeah. You know, if you use a a bus line or a train every day, it seems like it would make sense that you need to, you know, know, differentiate and and that’s a way for maybe visually impaired folks to know exactly if their train’s coming. Right, right. You have another output that allows people to be in the same space as everybody else, even if they have different abilities.

Michiel Huijsman (20m 59s):
Yeah, right. And it works both ways. Also for the not impaired, officially impaired people. This frees up space to look at other things and not only to have to look to the number of the train, you just hear it and you think, okay, I go. So it’s a more multisensory approach.

Jeff Wood (21m 23s):
Are there other sound designs for Huff Pine, you know, outside of the trams? Was there something else that you all did for that square?

Michiel Huijsman (21m 30s):
Yeah, yeah. We advised to sort of sculpt the ground surface because if you create a little slope or a hill at best from grass or open open soil, this is very good for the acoustics or how sounds not only reflect but get absorbed or shattered. Yeah. It’s not so much about, we are not so much thinking about the sound from the source. Yeah, the sound from the trim or for the auto automobile or, or something else. But we are really thinking about how is, this sounds sort of modulated in space itself.

Michiel Huijsman (22m 13s):
Cause this you can work on, so if you make more open soil or more differentiated soil, you get more interesting soundscape. So that we advised and we also advised the fountain in the middle of the square, which is quite big and which is spouting all the time. But this is kind of dull a spouting fountain like this, it’s, it’s like the gulf on the, on the beach or like traffic in the distance. So we proposed to give composers an assignment to make a composition for the water, for the nozzles of the fountain to make a more modulated sound composition, how the, the fountain is, is working.

Michiel Huijsman (23m 4s):
Cause now you don’t hear the fountains because there is, it’s not a low traffic zone, it’ll be, and the traffic is, there are six lanes of traffics around the fountain. So nobody can reach the fountain at the moment, but in the future when it is a park, this will be pedestrianized around the fountain and then it follows that you do something interesting with the water sound, you can sculpt it. And they reacted again very positively to it. And just recently, four weeks ago, we had a big meeting with different parties, people from the city, but also the people maintaining the, the fountain, the designer of the fountain.

Michiel Huijsman (23m 50s):
And this meeting was underneath cause there’s a huge seller under this fountain. And we could practically discuss what are the possibilities, also the technical possibilities for such a composition. So this is, again, I think this team reacted really good and they constantly come back to us to ask for additional advice or to talk about it.

Jeff Wood (24m 16s):
That’s really interesting. I’m so glad you all are working on that. During the pandemic there was also kind of a change in the soundscape and I wonder if you noticed that?

Michiel Huijsman (24m 26s):
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. We, we even put out a call in the second week of the lockdown in the Netherlands. I can send you the link because there are also English language reactions from people who describe how the soundscape changed

Jeff Wood (24m 45s):
For what were some of the reactions that people had. What were some of the inputs that you got from folks?

Michiel Huijsman (24m 50s):
Basically that I heard more, more different sounds and also from further distance. So your, your sound horizon was suddenly very broad. Most of the time in the city it’s very near and you don’t hear songs from fire away. And it was also a different time because people weren’t allowed to go to work. So they did a lot of strolling in the city. So they had a different experience maybe. I think this was an ear opener for lots of people that they could think about.

Michiel Huijsman (25m 32s):
Well the city isn’t predestinated to sound like it sounds, but it can be completely otherwise. So that pandemic had this sort of positive effect.

Jeff Wood (25m 46s):
What’s your favorite urban sound? What’s your favorite sound from cities?

Michiel Huijsman (25m 52s):
I think the first thing which springs to mind now is the gathering of a certain bird. The starling. The starling, they gather in autumn. So this time in a huge groups and they sort of murate in the air and when they approach you, you also hear them. And I think this sound is, I I like it very much. Yeah. I can just look at it and listen to it and think about nothing.

Jeff Wood (26m 24s):
What is the urban sound lab? What’s the process and work that goes into that?

Michiel Huijsman (26m 29s):
Ah, yeah. The, the Irma Sound lab is really a, a bottom up community lab in the south of Amsterdam. And constantly we do different workshops and people go out and about with little recorders and record sounds. They appreciate and in the workshops they exchange experiences about these sounds. It’s a sort of low, low level experimenting place for us.

Jeff Wood (26m 58s):
It’s really interesting. What kind of sounds do folks bring back? Is there anything that folks bring back more often or, or are there rare things that are very exciting?

Michiel Huijsman (27m 6s):
It’s quite exploratory. So people don’t know, most of the time what I bring back, they really explore or experience new things and then put their sounds on a digital map, an online map. And there they can attach certain emotions to their recorded sounds, which is quite interesting because everybody has different emotions with the same sounds. So it’s also good to know. So there’s not a solution. There’s also not a, a normal human being where we should design all the soundscapes for it doesn’t exist.

Michiel Huijsman (27m 50s):
Which a lot of planners are convinced that they have to design for this normal human being. There’s even a norm for it. And then I, I tell them, do you know only 12% of the population fits this norm? So you are, you are planning for a minority, you have to plan for everyone. And then they say, yeah, yeah, but this is the norm. No, I say, this is not good. You have to plan also for the impaired people and for nobody is is the same. And then they, they’re a little bit confused and they think, yeah, you cannot do that because they, they used to play by the norms.

Michiel Huijsman (28m 35s):
And I say, yeah, you just have to offer as much different things as possible. So there’s always something for everyone or as much as possible for everyone. So this is also this mantra for me from of the heterogeneity. If you have a lot of different kinds of sounds, people will find something they like.

Jeff Wood (29m 1s):
It’s really interesting the fact that there’s so many people that have different opinions on sounds and whether they like them or not. You know, some people can’t stand music, other people, it’s their life. Yeah. I think I read somewhere where in somewhere in the Netherlands there was a argument over a playground where, you know, some people love the sound of children playing and other people hate it. So there’s, yeah, there’s those differences between what people like. And so like you said, designing for one group is not going to make everybody happy.

Michiel Huijsman (29m 29s):
No. And I think you have to discriminate in this case with the playgrounds and give the the children the, the chance to play. Even if people are complaining, they have been tilden also, they should know you, you scream, you have to scream. It’s no, that’s not right.

Jeff Wood (29m 50s):
It’s so funny, you know, as you get older you kind of grow less tolerant to louder noises I feel like, or parties next door or things of that nature. But it’s something that we all did. I think about that from time to time when there’s a party across the street, I’m like, well, you know, it’s bothering me now and my baby’s trying to sleep. But when I was that age, I was probably the one making the noise. So it has come full circle. I’m sure that I woke somebody’s baby up and I’m yeah, I’m kicking myself for it.

Michiel Huijsman (30m 22s):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s funny. But you are completely right. That sound sort of accumulates in your body, in your whole life. So, and, and sometimes your environment is just too stressful and this drop in, in the bucket, this party, it can be a drop in the bucket for you personally. And then yeah, you have, you have to cope or you have to talk with them. It’s not so much about the sounds, it’s it’s about how you handle it. Yeah. And yeah, this brings me to another topic. It’s not so fruitful to only talk about sounds, but you have to think about, sounds like a sort of connector or trespasser or whatever it, it, everything which moves, makes a sound, everything.

Michiel Huijsman (31m 14s):
So not only living things, but also the, the hopes here in Europe, they, I definitely, they, they should make a sound because Africa is pushing these mountains up, but we are just too tiny to hear the sound. So yeah, my theory or my approach is sound is a sort of, sort of connection between you and maybe the, the source of the sound of, but if you think more deeply about it, you cannot even say where the sound is. Is the sound in me because I vibrate with this party? Or is the, is the sound in between in the air or is the sound in the pa of the party?

Michiel Huijsman (31m 57s):
It’s, it’s one system. Yeah. I’ve read a little bit from Bruno the, the last months he just passed away, a French philosopher and he has this theory actor, actor network. So his thinking is, it’s not so fruitful to make definitions of of things. You can only say something about a thing if you include the network where this thing or being or us is embedded in

Jeff Wood (32m 30s):
What’s next for you all in terms of the work that you’re doing? Do you have any projects planned? Do you have anything exciting coming up?

Michiel Huijsman (32m 36s):
Yeah, a lot. Yeah. Business, like we’re advising Rotterdam still the next year, but also on therapy in Belgium. And we are trying to interest also other cities in Europe. And of course Dolton Horizon for me is I want to work with cities in other cultures. So yeah, I’ve never been there Lagos or Singapore or yeah, really in other culture because if you only are in your European western culture, you miss a lot I think also sound wise.

Jeff Wood (33m 14s):
Yeah, that’s an interesting thought.

Michiel Huijsman (33m 16s):
And what we also going to do, we are going to write inspirational guide for designers, city planners, designers. Cause we cannot be everywhere. So we thought we sort of aggregate all these advices and make a sort of, yeah, inspirational guide for other cities so they can do it themselves.

Jeff Wood (33m 43s):
I look forward to reading that. I wanna be inspired by sound. Where can folks find you if they wanna look up your work or if they wanna find you online?

Michiel Huijsman (33m 52s):
Soundtrack city.net. That’s where we are. We also have very nice guides. Maybe you have seen, seen, seen this

Jeff Wood (34m 1s):
One. I saw that one online. Yeah, yeah,

Michiel Huijsman (34m 3s):
Yeah. Do it yourself guides, different kinds of listening sort of scores. Scores for listening.

Jeff Wood (34m 11s):
Awesome. I have one more question before we wrap up. For example, if US cities wanted to start thinking about, you know, how to design soundscapes or putting sound in their planning programs, what would be the first thing you suggest?

Michiel Huijsman (34m 23s):
The first thing I suggest is that you appoint in a particular team, somebody who is responsible for this aspect for sound. Because if there’s nobody responsible, it will be neglected.

Jeff Wood (34m 41s):
That makes a lot of sense. We now have, you know, chief heat officers, we have climate officers. Yeah. There needs to be a sound officer now I think.

Michiel Huijsman (34m 49s):
Yeah, of course you have to be wary for this compared mentalization. Yeah, that there’s an officer for every tiny aspect, but the responsible figure can also have other responsibilities. But I very much like a multi sensorial approach. So it even shouldn’t be a sound person, it can also be an ecologist who is responsible for the sound.

Jeff Wood (35m 15s):
Great idea. Well Michael, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Michiel Huijsman (35m 20s):
Thank you Jeff. It was really nice talking to you.

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