Sound Diaries, Sonic Tourism and the Travel Journal

At the Sound Diaries conference in 2009 an interesting presentation given by Denise Bryan and Adrian Wilkins concerning their project – Silkthreads – got me thinking about the relationship between making Sound Diaries on holiday, and The Travel Journal. Bryan and Wilkins set off to India in 2008 to explore the old silk roads and document their journey in photographs and sound-recordings.

As a filter for deciding what to record in their travels, they asked friends, acquaintances and website visitors to request sights and sounds for them to collect along the way. The result was that during their journey they gathered an eclectic collection of visual and sonic materials that was determined neither by personal taste or pure chance, but by the wishes and desires of others. This filter for collecting images and sounds embodies a philanthropic approach to their project, wherein the final artwork becomes a sort of gift to the audience. Silkthreads is also entirely concurrent with the mechanisms of tourism where the lure of otherness in foreign places drives our desire to visit, hear and see them, and in some ways is therefore less about specific places or a sense of place, and more about exoticism and the acquisition of souvenirs.

The website Byran and Wilkins set up to showcase their collected sonic/visual artefacts was inspired in its design by the idea of the Victorian cabinet-of-curiosities. The website – now sadly expired – was a whimsical and playful exploration of the experiences we hope we will acquire when we go abroad, and a collection of documentary artefacts from Bryan and Wilkins’s journey. The website acted as a place for people to register their requests, and a kind of live travelogue – its archives expanding as Bryan and Wilkins journeyed, documenting and uploading their findings en route. The glimpses offered by their website into the experience of travelling along the silk roads were tantalising, but the sound clips were rather short, which made them more like objects or photographs, somehow. Listening to them was like getting just the idea of a sound, rather than experiencing an immersive audio recording.

In contrast, Sound Transit – another web-based project which uses sound to convey a journey through distant lands – only accepts field-recordings from contributors which are a minimum of 2 minutes in length. This timeframe is presumably given in order that listeners have an opportunity to experience more fully a sense of the geography where each ‘transit’ is located. Designed very much like a flight-booking site, (where you pick your destination and departure locations) field recordings from all over the world are organised through a database so that while you wait, (as for ticket prices) a ‘transit’ representing your virtual journey is collated. After a few moments you can download an mp3 featuring recordings from places along the route you have chosen. As with Bryan and Wilkins’ Silkthreads project, the wishes of the audience or the listener drive the experience, but instead of leaving a message to say what it is that you want to hear from a specific journey, you manually choose where your ears will go, using the interface of the website.

Both of these projects are representative of a kind of Sonic Tourism, enabled through the Internet. Silkthreads is more like a traditional travelogue; Denise Bryan updated a project blog during the journey, and the website was updated as they travelled, so that folks following the project could keep abreast of what was going on by regularly visiting it. Silkthreads offered a selection of glimpses of the journey made by Bryan and Wilkins, filtered through the wishes and desires for souvenirs expressed by people interested in their and The Internet provided a platform for the artists to share their journey in real time. Contrastingly, Sound Transit is more about remixing existing content to create your own journey. Many different artists have contributed sound recordings to the site, so it is representative of many places and many journeys. The ability for visitors to remix the content into their own personalised journeys creates yet more journeys, (albeit virtual journeys) so that Sound Transit is not so much about documenting a specific route as it is about the phenomenon of travel itself – and particularly the role that sound plays in our experience of travel:

The ear is always much more alert while travelling in unfamiliar environment…when one travels, new sounds snap at the consciousness and are thereby lifted to the status of figures.

With increased leisure all men could become touists of the soundscape, remembering affectionately the entertainment of soundscapes visited. All it would take is a little travel money and sharp ears.

R Murray Schafer, Our Sonic Environment and The Soundscape, the Tuning of the World

Using the Sound Transit website is extremely remeniscent of our actual travel experiences where, for many of us, booking tickets online is now physically a part of the experience. The length of the recordings included in the site and their pared-down descriptions allow one to envisage in some way the places one is listening to. Sound Transit shares elements of escapism and exoticism with Silkthreads, but one’s own wishes to hear and experience foreign places drive the browsing and exploring process when using the Sound Transit site, and there is the suggestion of creating your own journey or exploration. In Silkthreads, one is placed more in the position of being a voyeur, experiencing the idea of travel through documentation from other people’s adventures.

Aaron Ximm’s One Minute Vacation shares elements of both Sound Transit and Silkthreads, providing an opportunity to experience the soundscape of a different place for just one minute. Browsing the different sounds that can be heard is reminiscent of shopping for a holiday and builds into the narratives concerning escape, relaxation and desire that fuel the tourism and leisure industry. However, while relating to these narratives, the sounds are available for free and the invitation to take a holiday is a philanthropic, gift-giving gesture rather than a tourist-brochure advertisement:

Surely you can spare a minute to clean your ears? Take a one-minute vacation from the life you are living.

One-minute vacations are unedited recordings of somewhere, somewhen. Sixty seconds of something else. Sixty seconds to be someone else.

These projects all bear some relationship to the idea of the exotic and the desire to be elsewhere, experiencing otherness. R Murray Schafer’s text and especially the idea that unfamiliar sounds become “figures” in the soundscape rather than “background noise” are useful for unpacking the attraction and lure of projects which explore sounds from distant lands. Put simply, our ears are less inured to sounds which we do not hear each day.

One question which is especially interesting here is the rationale behind the recordists’ decision – in each project – to record a particular sound. In Silkthreads Bryan and Wilkins deferred responsibility for this decision to their friends and to people interested in this project; in Sound Transit, the motives behind each recordist who has submitted sounds to the site are not necessarily presented; this is also true of Aaron Ximm’s One Minute Vacation webpage. If Murray Schafer is taken literally, we might assume that it is the unfamiliar quality of a sound which prompts a recordist to document it. However there is no guarantee that all the sounds submitted to either Sound Transit or One Minute Vacation were created by field-recordists who were travelling away from home at the time.

Some of the notes on the One Minute Vacation page give hints as to the rationale behind creating Sound Diaries whilst travelling:


A true vacation comes to us today from Angela Duncan, who writes, ‘This is Mackinac Island, Michigan, as I heard it sitting on the beach (Lake Huron, I think?) with my iBook, recording the waves and seagulls, and playing with the little white stones that covered the entire beach. It was a perfectly beautiful, blue-sky day with little white clouds. I worked there last summer as a photographer for the Grand Hotel and had a lot of free time.’ Oh, the long golden days of summer…!

‘We’d just arrived in in Istanbul, Turkey, after driving from London through northern & eastern Europe, and after finding our hotel we wandered out onto the roof terrace to admire the view as the sun was starting to go down. As soon as the ezan started we knew we were starting to leave Europe… In the background you can hear the calls from other mosques in the neighbourhood and across the Bosphorus. Recorded with a Zoom H2, using its built-in microphones.’ So writes culinary anthroplogist Matt Purver, today’s contributor. [This recording particularly tickles me, because Matt and his wife Anna are friends, and it was mostly by my energetic advocacy-cum-arm-twisting that they were convinced to take a sound recording device along on their enviable travels! -Aaron]

These footnotes to each recording give some insights into the complex reasons why people make recordings while they travel; in Angela Duncan’s case, the recording documents the pleasure of an afternoon’s leisure on the beach, while in Matt Purver’s case, the sound recording seems to have been made partly in response to Aaron Ximm’s enthusiasm re: making field-recordings, and partly in response to the immediate sense of being somewhere else evoked by the distinctive, regional “figure” of the Ezan in Istanbul.

Exploring these projects leaves many questions unanswered; what or why do we record sounds when we travel? How can sound recordings convey a sense of place in ways that other forms of documentation cannot? And what are the limits and the potentials of virtual forms of sonic tourism?

In my own trip to Miami in 2010, my observations matched R Murray Schafer’s text to some extent in that my ear was drawn to aspects of the soundscape which were especially strange to my ears. In terms of the relationship between the traditional travelogue and the Sound Diary, I felt compelled to organise my recordings sequentially, as one would make notes in a journal; and as with taking photographs, the reasons for making each recording varied in each instance. The ambience inside the National Hotel lobby where we stayed became an important sonic signifier of being home at the end of each day and I wanted to document that specific aspect of our trip, whereas the recording of the airboat in the Everglades was made primarily because it was such a strange and regionally specific sound. The sound of the lift in the Wolfsonian building seemed sonically representative of the Art Deco period which gives Miami its distinctive regionality, and I recorded that sound rather in the same way that I collected postcards and purchased books about the Art Deco style during my stay. I also recorded the sounds of birds and cicadas which felt distinctly strange to my ears, being so different from the fauna which I associate with my soundscape here at home in Reading, Berkshire, UK.

On the airboat tour in the Everglades
birds in the Everglades, in a tree at the edge of a carpark, beside a main road
Miami radio in the car
the old Elevator in the Wolfsonian building
the elevator in The National
the lobby in the National
walking along Miami beach, then Ocean Drive with Mark, Jack and Sam
clinking ice-cubes together in Islamorada
the basement in The National
birds on Collins Avenue
on the glass-bottomed boat in the Florida Keys
feeding sharks and fish in the water just outside the Islamorada Fish Company restaurant
steel drums outside the restaurant
blowing bubbles in our drinks and laughing
in a noisy micro-brewery pub in Miami
street parade (Halloween Night?) Lincoln Road
parakeets on Lincoln Road

Several other Sound Diaries projects have explored the phenomenon of Sound Diaries featuring holidays – including the Sonic Advent Calendar from 2011 – and we hope to continue exploring the theme in future Sound Diaries ventures.

– Felicity Ford

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.