The Sounds of a City

Finding hidden meaning in our aural landscapes.

james ransome, sunset boulevard sounds
James Ransome

When you live in a big city, you are a sound designer, whether you know it or not. You alter your sonic landscape each day to fit your changing needs. But while a city’s din can be measured in decibels, at heart it’s an imaginary construct as varying as the residents and just as malleable. The live banda booming from a neighbor’s backyard can trigger warm nostalgia or a desire to close the window. Those flocks of wild parrots screeching overhead can evoke a tropical childhood—or make you want to reach for a slingshot. “Sounds are not universal, and they’re always culturally contingent and specific,” says Josh Kun, a USC professor who frequently writes about the aural landscape of Los Angeles. The moment when sound is classified as noise is determined by cultural and class signifiers.

There’s politics to quiet, says Kun. “It’s used as a marker of ascendance economically. The richer you are and the more expensive property you can buy, the quieter your life will be.”

Jose Anguiano, an associate professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o studies at Cal State Los Angeles, studies music and communities. He says that working-class neighborhoods he’s lived in have a greater tolerance for music and street life, celebrating the Fourth of July and “Los Lakers” with exuberant fireworks. Now he’s in the suburbs of Long Beach, where it’s easy to trigger noise complaints on Nextdoor. “There’s a class and culture component,” says Anguiano. “In Latin American culture, we have a tradition of pasear—to cruise, to go out, to socialize and be out in the world.”

Indeed, soundscapes crank louder and more musical in dense neighborhoods, where streets provide escape from crowded apartments and multigenerational homes. When neighborhoods gentrify and paleta vendors give way to gelato bars, leisure moves indoors or to backyards and sound grows more muted. Each immigrant community that arrives or departs can carry entire aural streetscapes and sound catalogs with it, says Kun, who’s recently been creating aural time capsules to commemorate places.

writer and usc professor josh kun
Writer and USC professor Josh Kun identifies distinct music ecologies that convey the character of Los Angeles neighborhoods for a project with the Getty Research Institute.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times

For the Getty Research Institute’s online photo exhibit 12 Sunsets, Kun has been identifying distinct music ecologies that convey the character of Los Angeles over time at specific venues along Sunset Boulevard and providing audio links to bring them back to life. (The ongoing project draws from American pop artist Ed Ruscha’s more than 65,000 photographs of the street, which he’s been shooting since the mid-1960s.) “I imagined songs for every building, sounds for every address,” Kun writes in one of the accompanying essays. “The street is saturated with musical ghosts, layered in rich sonic sediment.” Thanks to live recordings made at those long-vanished clubs, Kun was able to create sound snapshots of the early-1960s Black- and Latino-friendly Crescendo and the late-1960s Black Cat (the site of pre-Stonewall LGBT anti-police protests), of Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records outpost and the Middle Eastern fantasies spun by the Arab nightclub where Palestinian singer Maroun Saba recorded Live from the Fez in Hollywood. “By listening to Sunset, you can hear how the street’s built environment has changed, how its musical color lines have been both crossed and shored up, how gentrification has displaced generations of communities,” Kun writes.

Even office building soundscapes are variable and revealing of cultural contrasts. Anguiano has examined the role that Spanish-language radio plays for Mexican custodial workers. When white-collar workers exit at day’s end, hushed buildings change dramatically as janitors set up speakers and blast Spanish music and DJ patter. Anguiano found that music weaves an aural community among workers, providing a lifeline to the outside world but also connecting them emotionally to family back home. The music alleviates monotony and solitude and feels safer than wearing headphones—no one can sneak up on them.

Each dawn, this sonic world disappears like Cinderella’s magic coach, and soon the building reverts back to hushed English and Muzak.•

Denise Hamilton is a Los Angeles native, crime novelist, and former reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
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