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Walking sonic commons in Venice: an essay on auditory access

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Meri Kytö
 Meri Kytö works as a post-doctoral researcher in music studies at the University of Tampere. She  took part in the Walking sonic commons in Venice workshop in 2017.

 

[The aqua alta] really looks like musical sheets, frayed at the edges, constantly played, coming to you in tidal scores, in bars of canals with innumerable obbligati of bridges, mullioned windows, or curved crownings of Coducci cathedrals, not to mention the violin necks of gondolas. In fact the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky.
Joseph Brodsky, Watermark: An essay on Venice, 1992: 97.

 

The historic centre of Venice is in struggle. It struggles with the influx of tourists, diminishing number of local inhabitants and commodification of its public space. At the same time, its narrow resonant streets, bridges over rippling water and street musicians offer an enchanting labyrinth for the listening pedestrian. Venice could even be categorized as a travel destination for the sonically oriented – that is, people who search for something particular in the soundscape of their destination. This could be a sonic attraction, an acoustic community one could participate in while visiting or an infrastructural design that has influenced the growth of a special acoustic environment. The latter is the case with Venice.

For many visitors, the Venetian soundscape is an exception from an everyday acoustic environment, and it has been like that for centuries. Accounts from the Grand Tour (a popular rite of passage within aristocrat young men in the 17th to 20th century where they visited French and Italian cities for art and culture) mark the absence of sounds:

Already by the mid-seventeenth century, [English writer] John Evelyn wrote admiringly of a city that ‘is almost as silent as the middle of a field, there being neither rattling of coaches nor trampling of horses’. But it was the Victorians who particularly embraced the city as a haven from all that was aggressively modern and strident about their own hometowns; for them, Venice was where ‘instead of the foot-fall of horse and the rumble of carriage-wheels, the gondola glides noiselessly by. (Davis & Marvin 2004: 95.)

Even now the soundscape is still particular. There are no rumbling cars, no bleeping traffic lights, very little piped music. Instead there are boats with diesel engines, lots of trolley bags being dragged on stone pavements and hordes of walking tourists, pushing through the city centre in somewhat docile formations.

In this essay, I meander along auditory access as a mode of agency and listening walks as a possibility of sonic commoning in the urban environment – themes that have occupied my mind for a long time but always seem to flee conceptualization. The historic centre of Venice seemed to be a challenging – and thus revealing –  choice of fieldwork and the related research questions: Among all the heritagisation, museumisation, and tourist invasion what are the acoustic communities one should understand the soundscape through? As Venetians have been catering to tourists for centuries, what is the role of the visitor in this soundscape? Is there a possibility for sonic commoning and how would it fold out? I don’t expect to find answers to these questions in this essay but instead a charted area in which to tread further.

I categorize myself among the flaneuring tourists. My approach to Venice is that of a solitary walker. In his book Philosophy of walking, the French philosopher Frédéric Gros presents diverse approaches to flaneurism and paints a picture of the flâneur as someone who “does not consume and is not consumed” but instead practices urban foraging, or even theft, capturing vignettes, snatching “in flight implausible encounters, furtive moments, fleeting coincidences” (Gros 2014: 180). The recordings accompanying this essay are foraged goods that I wish to present as earwitness documents. They serve as a starting point to understand the dynamics of the city. The recordings were made in June 2017 and September 2018, first during the Walking Sonic Commons in Venice workshop of listening walks, discussions and documentation of sonic environments organized by the Finnish Society for Acoustic Ecology, collaborating with the Research Pavilion (Soundcloud FSAE 2017; Uimonen 2017), second during a conference, Musical Freespace: Towards a radical politics of musical spaces and musical citizenship, in which I presented a paper on the subject of walking as sonic commoning (Musical Freespace 2018).

 

Auditory access and commoning

“Because of the scarcity of space, people exist here in cellular proximity to one another, and life evolves with the immanent logic of gossip. One’s territorial imperative in this city is circumscribed by water, the window shutters bar not so much daylight or noise (which is minimal here) as what may emanate from inside. When they are opened, shutters resemble the wings of angels prying into someone’s sordid affairs.” (Brodsky 1992: 46.) Looking at the small metal statues of faces on window cornices, the ones that keep the window shutters open, I’m listening to the shrieking swallows and chiming church bells at the corner of Campo San Stefano. I wonder about the sizes of congregations: are there communions, an acoustic community for each church with a bell anymore?

Picture 1: The church bells of Venice on a map. Screen capture from Venice Project Center (2018).

Picture 1: The church bells of Venice on a map. Screen capture from Venice Project Center (2018).

English geographer and anthropologist David Harvey (2012: 73) defines the commons not as resource or asset but as an ‘unstable and malleable social relation’ and suggests understanding it as a verb – commoning as social practice. For the German philosopher Gernot Böhme the atmosphere of a city constitutes a commons as “[t]he atmosphere of a city is the subjective experience of urban reality that is shared by its people” (Böhme 2014: 58). This, interpreted by Borch and Kornberger (2015: 11), means that the consumption of the city is a subtle form of producing the urban commons: Urban atmospheres even tend to benefit from population density.

English philosopher and physician John Locke (1995/1689) helps us with practicalities, giving us three principles of commoning. One: don’t be greedy, only take what you can use. Two: be sure to leave enough for others. Three: be sure the resource will renew itself, so that the value of the thing being commoned stays the same or even grows. These principles are familiar from the Finnish legislation of everyman’s rights (jokamiehenoikeudet, see also Alitalo & Alitalo in this journal) as well as the sustainable environmental practices in Native American cultures. Cultural scholar Juhana Venäläinen (2016) argues that is would be more fruitful to consider sonic commons (or sonic commoning) not as a collection of acoustic events but as an experience, aural commoning, a freedom to listen to the soundscape. Seeing this as a political economy of soundscape, his argument is based on silence as the point of departure, as the commodity of value. Looking at media texts, he identifies the scarcity of “silence” and abundance of “noise” as a reoccurring topic. Although concluding that “silence” in most cases stands as a shorthand for “peace and quiet”, for an ethnomusicologically oriented soundscape researcher like me, it is almost counterintuitive to value silence as the defining commodity for aural commoning. It rings too emic as a term and it shifts the focus away from sonic agency. If aural commoning is conceptually bound to be a tool for noise abatement, the freedom-of-listening narrows down to freedom-of-not-hearing, as Venäläinen also notes quoting Isaiah Berlin’s (1998/1958) concept of negative freedom. A more broad approach that would also serve the study of sonic agents in their auditory cultures would be to think of the value in soundscapes, for example, as different modes of sonic frugality (see Yang in this journal) together with auditory access to spaces, with what grounds they are granted and by whom and to which ends.

 

The walking tourist, listening to other tourists

In her classic text Soundwalking (1974), Hildegard Westerkamp notes that if you can’t hear your footsteps while walking the soundscape is out of balance and the environment might not be scaled on human proportions. Interpreting footsteps as a “measure” of the acoustic environment, as well as a way to converse with its physical properties, is a guideline I took for my small experiment. Although I itch every time human proportioned hi-fi soundscape is being set as the norm for environmental evaluation (the good, the healthy) I understand the argument for balance and the communicative room it enables. It could also be asked if the hi-fi soundscape of Venice is a sign of a working acoustic community or is it just a sign of a diminishing population (the city’s population reached its peak in 1951 with 174,000 residents and has since dropped to 50,000). The tourist doesn’t necessarily hear this difference in the city’s silences: it is the exact same sonic dynamics that fascinate the contemporary tourist as it did the tourist in the 19th century. Building-wise Venice is an urban medieval outdoor museum and thus very much scaled for humans. As a World Heritage site having “outstanding universal value”, Venice is described as remaining broadly similar in its structure and urban morphological form to its form in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Unesco 2018).

Most of the tourists walking beside, in front or behind me wore comfy shoes or sandals with rubber soles – rare was a click of the high heel pump or leather-soled brogue. Elena Biserna (2018) writing on walking as a method for sound art, considers the step to be a:

fundamental bodily contact with the environment while walking as well as a sound signal that generates a sense of presence, activates the surroundings, and locates us in space. Therefore, I interpret the footstep as a primary auditory event, allowing us [–] to explore and perceive – but also to reshape and participate in – acoustic spaces, establishing a material, embodied, situated, and mutual relationship with our context. (Biserna 2018: s/p)

This kind of listening walk as a method feeds ethnographic imagination (see Vikman 2010: 192) and it is way to position oneself in a constantly changing sensory environment. To reshape and participate (to hear myself and the resonance of the built environment better), I chose rubber-heeled shoes for my listening walks that produced a faint beat to accompany me, a reference sound to measure my environment.

 

Inside the Fondazione Querini Stampalia gallery, I am surrounded by my own steps.

 

Night time walk in Dorsoduro (around 2 am), a demonstration of the nocturnal emptiness and narrowness of the streets. I pass a fountain or two and a few ventilators. As most tourists are daytrippers that don’t spend the night, and restaurants and bars close at 11pm-ish, the city is calm and silent. There is nothing to buy at night, no one to thank for music; the tourist is relieved from consuming.

I started out by recording bridges I crossed. There are 433 bridges in Venice (Venipedia 2018), some of them private, most of them made of brick, white Istrian stone, metal, concrete and wood, some big, some small (some are tiny), usually steps on both sides and a plateau on top. Crossing a bridge makes steps audible in a different way compared to the narrow resonance of the streets. The acoustic horizon opens up sideways and suddenly you hear far. Stepping up stairs sounds lighter than stepping down. Strollers, shopping trolleys, wheeled luggage and special Venetian stair climbing buggies, all need to be lifted, dragged and pushed along.

The wooden steps of the Accademia bridge are covered with a metal plate. The bolts attaching the plates were loose and they squeak. The bridge is now under renovation, so the squeaky bolts are no longer there. It is also one of the most popular busking pitches in Venice. Here we hear Nino Rota’s score from The Godfather. It is late evening.

 

Listening to people crossing bridges with different characteristics. 1) Ponte del Batelo in Cannaregio, over Rio del Battello, 2) Ponte de la Madoneta, San Polo, over Rio della Madonetta, 3) Ponte di Rialto, Canal grande, 4) Ponte de Ghetonovo, over Rio della Misericordia, 5) Ponte de le Capuzzine, Cannaregio, over Rio di San Girolamo, Ponte San Polo, over Rio di San Polo.

Solitary walking is not always a possibility as the average number of daily tourists rise up to 60,000 (compared to people living in Venice, ca. 50,000). In 2015 there were 167 visitors per year per resident (that makes 9,427,415 tourists a year). Some more numbers: The average number of commuters – people who work in the historic center but live in the mainland Venice – is around 18,000 per day. Then there are the university students, most of whose specialty is evacuating the city during summer, and people who own second homes in the city. (Blanco et al. 2014: 15.) So it’s not only residents and tourists, there are many different types of people who inhabit Venice on a daily basis.

The heated tourism business, of course, has an impact upon the living economy. In the words of architect Marco Casagrande: “If you own a house or a flat in Venice, renting it to tourists is simply too lucrative, in comparison to actually living in it: In Venice, the tourist season never ends, and an owner can be reasonably sure to have every room booked all year round.” (Casagrande 2016: 126). Tourists staying overnight are favored in Venice: they represent 20% of tourism, yet they contribute 80% of the tourism industry’s revenue (Blanco et al 2014: 28). In total of all tourism, we bring in about five times the costs associated with tourism, in net 323 million euros of income for the Italian government in taxes (Blanco et al 2014: 35). This also means there are about 9 million pairs of ears and feet going about Venice per year that are part of the soundscape but not part of any of its local acoustic communities. This is obviously a terminological issue: not all acoustic communities manifest as “local”.

The “Bermuda-shorts triangle” of San Marco, Rialto and Accademia is the most congested area. Primary pedestrian routes are stitched together from narrow streets the Venetians call calli. If one gets lost, the solution (if you don’t have GPS) is to find a crowded alleyway that will eventually will lead to San Marco, Rialto, Accademia or the train station. Following the crowd, the tourists keep out of the way of locals who get to enjoy in privacy those areas of the city that lie outside the thoroughfares. This is the reason the locals “walk hidden” (andar sconte) (Davis & Marvin 2004, 79–85). That is, when they don’t use their boats. The topography of the city is made for boats, only secondary to walking. Venetian authorities would want tourists to disperse to the streets more, outside the Bermuda shorts triangle, to practice “detourism” and to “get lost” wandering about the city, to get a symbolic and personal contact to the topographical pleasures of Venice (Detourism 2018).

Efforts by the local municipality and tourist authority, ATP, have just launched a new campaign to guide, educate and influence visitors. #EnjoyRespectVenezia is an awareness campaign of the City of Venice guiding visitors towards responsible behaviour that “respects the environment, landscape, artistic beauty and the identity of Venice and its inhabitants. The aim is to increase awareness of the impact of tourism and to spread a responsible way of traveling that can contribute to sustainable development.” (ERV 2018.) As a tourist I try to move according to the sites “best practices” guide (Buone pratiche 2018). I walk on the right. I do not stop to stand on the bridges. I did, however, arrive in September, which is not recommended as the congestion of tourists can be too high for the city to be safe in case of grave accidents. But there is nothing about sound in the list. The unwanted sounds of tourism must then emanate from somewhere else.

 

Street music, canal music

I start to suspect that background music in cafés and restaurants is either not á la mode or it has been somehow regulated. Maybe playing local radio stations in ice cream bars doesn’t match the Medieval atmosphere. Maybe the city is so dense that anything played in a ground floor establishment would need to be well argued for. Otherwise it would be questioned by people living and working at earshot.

Busking in the streets in Venice is highly regulated – as one can imagine. Relative to all pitches, the following spaces are excluded from the exercise of busking: in front of churches, banks, police stations, and hospitals; in the bridges, streets and fondamenti narrower than 6 meters; on intersections between callifondamenti, campi, campinelli and corti, streets etc; and in piers. Violation of these rules can lead to the Municipal Police Corps taking hold of the instruments and the money earned. Last year, the police sanctioned 42 buskers: Compared to the number of licensed artists (141) one third was working without a valid license (Commune 2017.) There are about 10 licenses granted by the town council at a time, each valid for a fortnight. During the carnavale the number of simultaneous licenses increases to 70, with a condition to hold a pitch for a maximum of two hours at a time.

Accordionist playing “Somewhere over the rainbow” in an upscale shopping alley, Calle Larga XXII Marzo, one of the widest in San Marco. A duo (singer and accordionist) on a gondola in Rio della Canonica.

The gondolas, flat-bottomed rowing boats, are the original pitches for local busking. Organized under cooperatives and licensed by the city under the guidance of Istituzione per la conservazione della gondola and Associazione gondolieri di Venezia, the average rate for taking a thirty minute ride in a gondola is 80 euros and more if paid musicians on board. In 2013 there were 433 licensed gondoliers in the city – aptly as many as there a bridges – many having as much as 15 years of experience as a substitute gondolier before becoming a licensed one. The yearly revenue of gondola rides is calculated to be 29,6 million euros. (Blanco et al 2014: 20; Commune 2013.) This is a relevant source of income from musicking while gliding, though not always respected by the locals in all of its forms; in 2010, a local councilor accused gondoliers of avoiding to sing Veneto folk songs, instead belting songs that were “culturally deficient” (Neapolitan “O sole mio” and the like) and ignoring “Venetian identity in a way that is detrimental to tourism” (Telegraph 2010).

The grief over what should be sung is old. According to Marie-José Gransard (2016) in the 18th century, the gondolieri were reputed by many visitors to beautifully sing verses of Ariosto and Torquato Tasso and of having singing matches, as William Beckford reported in 1782: “The gondoliers, catching the air, imitated its cadences and were answered by others at a distance, whose voices, echoed by the arch of the bridge, acquired a plaintive and interesting tone.” This tradition then disappeared in the 19th century, to the disappointment of many a traveler. (Gransard 2016: 56–­63.)

A third category of live music a traveller bumps into are cafe-concerts in Piazza San Marco. Several cafes have a small podium or a stage outside surrounded by coffee tables. Two or three orchestras can be heard simultaneously under the voices of flocking tourists. The music ends up as a background track in every mobile video shot in the piazza.

Four evening strolls (2017 & 2018) in Piazza San Marco and in the loggia under Procuratie vecchie. People, pigeons, and orchestras playing their Middle-Europe style cafe-concerts in Caffé Florian, Ristorante Quadri and Cafe Lavena. The repertory of Caffé Florian is listed on a programme card at the tables, also listing the musicians in violin, piano, accordeon, bass, clarinet: “Forever Venice (music dedicated to Venice), Viva l’Operetta (famous arias by Lehár, Kalman, Von Suppé, Loewe), Evergreen (easy listening and international evergreen music), C’era una volta… (soundtracks by Morricone, Mancini, Rota, Lai etc.), Italian music (easy listening Italian music, folk songs from Naples, old fashion music), Classic Jazz (music by Ellington, Porter, Gershwin, etc.), Venezia classica (the great music by Brahms, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Vivaldi, Strauss), From Venice with love (love songs, chansonette and romantic music), Carnevale Latino Americano (samba, bossa nova, swing, tango), Ballando L’Europa (waltz, polka, beguine and European traditional folk dance)”. Customers pay an extra 6 euros table charge (coperto) for the live music.

To conclude this meandering listening walk, I want to bring the reader-listener to the exhibition of Bill Fontana at Ca’Foscari. At the palace courtyard we hear a piece based of hydrophone recordings from the lagoon. Inside the palace there is an installation of the MOSE flood barrier system together with sounds that can be heard from it. The MOSE flood barrier system is designed to protect Venice and the lagoon from tides but it is a controversial project, tarnished with corruption, huge and still growing costs, already eroding elements, corroding hinges and nibbling mussels (La Stampa 2017). One can’t escape the thought that climate change in all it’s gravitas is present as an apocalyptic vision: the flooding has come and gone in the form of aqua alta until the day it takes over the streets permanently. These recordings lack my footsteps. It might be appropriate because if the permanent flooding happens there won’t be footsteps for us to explore anymore.

Two snippets from Primal Sonic Visions installation by Bill Fontana. First 43 seconds are Underwater sounds from the Venice lagoon and AC humming at the Ca’Foscari courtyard (pictured). After that: Floating echoes (of the MOSE flood barrier system) and a speed boat passing the installation room at the Grand canal. 

 

References

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Biserna, Elena 2018. “Step by Step”. Reading and Re-writing Urban Space Through the Footstep. Journal of Sonic Studies, 16. URL: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/456238/456239

Blanco, A., D’Ambrosio, V., La Manna, A., Marton, K. 2014. Impacts of Tourism: Analyzing the Impacts of Tourism on the City of Venice. Undergraduate Interactive Qualifying Project. URL: http://www.wpi.edu/Pubs/Eproject/Available/Eproject121914094957/unrestricted/VE14TOUR_FinalReport.pdf

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Brodsky, Joseph 1992. Watermark. An essay on Venice. London: Penguin.

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Westerkamp, Hildegard 1974. “Soundwalking.” Sound Heritage 3 (4): 18–27.

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Uimonen, Heikki 2017. Blog posts of Walking sonic commons in Venice workshop. URL: https://researchpavilion.blog/category/heikki-uimonen/.

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***

I thank John Kannenberg for language editing and feedback.

Cover photo: Tourists crossing the Rialto bridge, photo by Meri Kytö.

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