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Noise as Material: Hanoi's Soundscapes Revisited

In a study conducted in Hanoi in 2018 by the Institute of Occupational Health and Environment, the average noise on 12 main roads and junctions ranged from a deafening 77.8 - 78.1 decibels (dBA) in the daytime and 65.3 - 75.7 at night, which is up to ten times the healthy recommended levels.

A city of over 8 million people, there is no denying that Hanoi is noisy. For those of us not born here, it may take some adjustment, but in time we relax and pay little heed to the neighbors' barking dog, the chorus of child's play, or the constant hum of motorbike madness. We learn to share audio spheres, holding tight our sanity while swimming in soundscapes of communal living. And though certainly an element less celebrated than the visual landscape, the sonic experience greatly affects our understanding of, our relationship with, and our navigation of the city, forming memories and influencing daily actions.

Audio material has for many years been of great interest to creatives since the term “musique concrète'' was coined by French composer Pierre Schaeffer in the early 1940s to describe sonic compositions using recorded sound (rather than writing musical scores to be played by an instrument or purely electronically produced). These surrounding waves have been captured, considered, and manipulated as raw material, producing a variety of works ranging from faithful documentation to aestheticized music or conceptual questionings of history, politics, and space.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of artists, projects and platforms whose point of departure come from Hanoi’s audio world:

Luong Hue Trinh - Revisiting the sounds of history

In 2014, the audio exploration app Echoes commissioned sound artist  Luong Hue Trinh to create a guided walk around the Hanoi city cener. "I used some original sounds that don’t exist on the streets today, for example the sound of the electric tram, some traditional music like the type of ‘hát xẩm’ music that was performed on the trams, and a number that still exist such as street calls, the sound of idle conversation, and the sound of vehicles that I have processed and convolved together, sometimes deformed, broken up or echoing as if coming from a dream,” Luong explained on the project page. “I wanted each participant to hear two sound sources at the same time, one that is being heard directly through the headphones and the second that is more abstract, that opens a larger space in that space. From these two sound sources, they can link between the present and the past to feel and experience Hanoi in a totally new way."

Robert Henke, Tri Minh & Vu Nhat Tan - Hanoi Soundscape project

Though a project that dates over ten years old, the Hanoi Soundscape collaboration is of importance for its unique regrouping of three star musicians: Robert Henke of Monolake and Ableton fame; Tri Minh, touted as “the first truly electronic artist in Vietnam;” and the late Vu Nhat Tan, the widely celebrated Hanoian musician and composer. Each artist collected field recordings from different areas of the city, such as train stations, intersections and streetscapes, reworking them to compose individual songs that were released in an album and performed live at the Goethe Institut in 2010. This particular project seeks to capture Hanoi’s characteristics, highlighting and amplifying them through audio manipulation. A truly narrative portrait of the materials and movement that compose the city.

artist's website · Robert Henke Intersection (2010)

Nhung Nguyen (aka Sound Awakener) -Space and place

Nhung Nguyen (aka Sound Awakener) is a young artist based in Hanoi. In 2015 she released Nocturnal Scenes as part of the Tiny Portraits project. According to their website: “Tiny Portraits asks each participant to dwell on these connections and disconnections between sound and place, representation and invention by starting somewhere small, somewhere overlooked or obscure, and to interrogate this site using sound.” The international project features works from around the world that each serve as an audio representation of place.

Though not exclusively found-sound, the idea of experiencing place through audio was further explored in two of Sound Awakeners’ works featured as part of Manzi Art Spaces’ art-in-public project Into Thin Air & Into Thin Air2.

The 37-minute soundwalk “The noise within” is a piece composed to accompany listeners along the walkable route from Hanoi’s Fine Art Museum (66 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street) to Manzi (14 Phan Huy Ich Street). Further pushing the possibilities of technology, the interactive work “Calm Realities," created with fellow sound-maker Kryshe, uses GPS localization to play to the listener each of the compositions “spread” across Ba Dinh Square in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Meandering across the square, you enter and leave each audio bubble, free to choose your own soundscape by moving through and interacting with the landscape and sonic space. The work can be experienced by downloading the app here.

Georgia Golebiowski -Actively Lingering

When living in Vietnam, multi-disciplinary artist Georgia Golebiowski took particular interest in her audio environment and the stories the sounds told. It has resulted in projects spanning everything from Saigon’s hems to street seller calls to Hanoi’s Indira Gandhi Park (a project under the umbrella of soundpocket in Hong Kong). The London-based artist explains: “For me, the recording process is to choose to actively linger in the moment, to connect to what is unfolding before us and engage with the setting we are within.”

Georgia’s installation work, “Places We Once Were And Will Always Be," recalls an early morning in Hien Van village near Bac Ninh: “I was called out of bed by the sound of rain. It was early, just after sunrise, the sky was not yet light. Everyone was sleeping and the house was quiet. Beer cans and cooking pots from the night before sat stacked in the small exposed courtyard to the side of the kitchen. Soon they would be cleaned and cleared and the rain would cease. I sat with a coffee listening to the zoom as it recorded flows and fluctuations producing percussive tones and melodies, observing the deluge as it passed. My lingering resulted in a series of recordings taken from different positions nearby and around the courtyard as it sounded during two hours that October morning.”

Photo of "Places We Once Were and Always Will Be." Photo via artist's website.

Installed across five speakers on beams under the bridge’s tiled roof, each recording offered an invitation to pause and linger in a space that guided and encouraged movement. The digitally composited file (2021 - 15’26”) weaves together two-minute excerpts from the recordings, otherwise untouched by post-production.

Domdom - The Hub For Experimental Music & Art -Learning in the field

When discussing experimental art practices in Hanoi, the DomDom project is unmissable. Established in 2012 and led by artist-mentor Tran Kim Ngoc, the organization offers young musicians innovative education programs and curates large-scale events for Hanoi’s eager underground public. Young artist “residents” that follow the DomDom program are not only encouraged to learn traditional Vietnamese musical techniques, but are also enabled to incorporate field recordings in their works. The list of DomDom alumni artists exploring found-sound runs long and includes Phú Phạm, Quân Đơ, Phạm Thanh Tâm, Hương Dona, Tuấn Nị, Hà Thúy Hằng, Nguyễn Thùy Linh, Hoài Anh, Nguyễn Quốc and Hoàng Anh. The most recent collective release, “Những Chân Trời Bụi Đỏ," showcases five compositions “exploring the boundaries of tradition & modernity.”

The Six Tones -Academia and the Politics of Sound

Observing audio ecology through an academic lens, the The Six Tones collective, a group of Vietnamese and Swedish artists, theorists and composers created Arrival Cities: Hanoi. The ongoing project had its first performance in 2014. Using field audio and video recordings of extended interviews, the project focused on the living conditions of women inhabiting Hanoi's migrant zones. It was presented as a live performance featuring adapted scores and video.

The work questions the relationship between sound, social-economic power, and the effects of urbanization on the lifestyles of people living on the margins of society. Through their extended involvement in international academic institutions, The Six Tones are also able to bring these issues to light with essays featured in multiple publications and doctoral research thesis’ such as Dr. Nguyễn Thanh Thủy’s The Choreography of Gender in Traditional Vietnamese Music, which discusses gender, performative documentary-making and transcultural practice.

Live recording from the Tacit or Loud Festival at the Inter Arts Center in Malmö via artist's YouTube.

AGF poemproducer - Sounds for society 

In 2019, the Berliner organisation Blind Signal curated “Blind Signal VTMN - GRMN,” an exchange program involving international and local sound artists. Of the six participants, Finland-based AGF (aka Antye Greie-Ripatti) was specifically interested in the gathering and manipulation of field recordings. As a sound artist, electronic music producer, curator, poet, and gender activist AGF is particularly known for multimedia works that actively support marginalised communities, with a particular focus on gender issues. 

In this light, on International Workers Day (also known as Labor Day), AFG — with fellow project artists Hương DonNa, Luong Hue Trinh, and Linhhafornow — visited two small sewing factories around Hanoi. This video features a live improvisation and collaboration with all artists using these sounds.

Whilst in Vietnam she also conducted a “treeing” workshop in her ongoing series #sonicwilderness guiding listeners through exercises in audio awareness and focused reconnection. 

 

Son X -Performing Urbanisation

Concerns regarding Hanoi’s urbanization have been artistically explored for years, including the performance piece One Face Number 4. Composed by Son X in collaboration with video artist Brian Ring, the project was presented at the 2009 edition of the Hanoi New Music Festival. “I was thinking about urban development, about people living in buildings like tombs...there are still a lot of people from the village that want to come to the city. In the countryside, factories and industrial zones flourish. Farmers come to urban places, in the desire to find a better life for themselves...but it's never better,” Son X tells Urbanist Hanoi. The work’s harrowing opening lines, taken from a famous cai luong song, begs the listeners not to forget their roots, close to loved ones near the riverside. The verse, highly removed from its original context, is explained by Son X “The verse is like a message, light, showing the wealth of the city is only a temporary thing and that nature is eternal”.

Son X and Brian Ring - One Face Number 4 via artist's YouTube.

Alistar Hobson -When words fail

“I mean for proper field recording heads, just the straight-up recording is considered a project…I guess they’re pieces of art in themselves,” is a kind reminder pickled with the dry English humor known to Alistar Hobson. The now London-based audio scientist bouncing from projects of post-production for short film and animation, electronic music-making, live performance and audio/visual installation.

In a composition kindly prepared for Urbanist Hanoi, Final Week In Hanoi – Field Recordings, Alistar gathers poetic snippets of the everyday, amplified by the ears of romantic nostalgia ”At this point my ears were drawn to an unexpected sound without an obvious source. As I got closer to the edge of the courtyard I discovered an idle rowing boat tethered below the lake’s railing. Unable to drift away the boat was lapping water between itself and the wall, its wooden body amplifying the bobbing sounds in contrast to the calm pagoda ambiance.”

It’s Monday morning as I type the final words for this article. A rooster crows, a water pump pumps from across the alley, gentle car horns, shoveling, crowing again, honking again, acceleration, two meows, a child's cry...in these past years living in Hanoi, I have been lucky enough to encounter many talented artists that were sensitive to their sonic environment and communicated through sound. Is Hanoi too noisy? Sure, in some ways, but these sounds are the city trying to tell us something, in a language that we need to pay more attention to.

Hanoi is still growing, and there don't seem to be steps being made towards a quieter city in the future. The aggressive, political, personal and unique noise is a language to be reconsidered on a personal level, for its historical value, as a form of social expression; perhaps it can even be designed for the greater health of the community.

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