What is it?
What do you perceive?
Each thing has its own sound.
Do you hear it?
In mainstream culture, soundscapes are often (mis)understood simply as nature sound audio productions used in spas and massage therapy where one can hear birds, ocean waves, falling rain, or a calm river. In a certain sense, they are; however, the concept of soundscapes is even broader. R. Murray Schafer (1977) called soundscapes the sonic environment, and technically all portions of the sonic environment are considered part of the field study. Schafer’s research took up the acoustic ecology of the sound world. He considered the soundscapes of the world a great musical composition, which is constantly developing around us. We are simultaneously its audience, its artists and its composers (Schafer, 1977). For Schafer, even the pollution of sound spaces and the bustle of different habitable environments constituted soundscapes—technically every part of the sonic environment was considered as a field of study.
The first over-listening of this study starts with identifying high fluency places, common ecologies where the citizens exchange their sounds produced by their social dynamic, “anthropophonies,” (Krause, 2015). In the context of our study, public transport in the downtown area of Ciudad Juárez, in contrast to that of El Paso, contains a peculiar acoustic repertoire enriched by the hustle and bustle of this ecology. “Rutera” users (Audios 17 & 18) identify when the passenger bus is approaching based on (1) engine noise, (2) wear and tear of mechanical features, (3) sounds of brakes, and (4) the music that the driver tunes, usually “Cumbia, Banda or Norteña” the most popular musical genres in the city.
Audio 17. “Rutera Zona Centro.” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)
Audio 18. “Rutera Zona Centro 2.” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)
The music becomes more intense as you get on, and the driver tells you the amount to pay, although most already know the rates. Once inside the bus, the driver usually shouts the area to get off and sometimes they don’t say anything, some sing the songs on the radio. On the other hand, in El Paso, bus and streetcar users hear very different sounds (Audio 19).
Audio 19. “El Paso Downtown Buses.” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)
In El Paso, users waiting for the bus or trolley hear (1) the running diesel engine and (2) air brakes. When boarding, users swipe a card and hear the card reader beep, sometimes along with the driver’s greeting, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. On the bus, they hear the announcement of the main avenues and stops and the signal pulling from the stop cord makes. Every single day, thousands of users on both sides participate in this dynamic where sounds have a fundamental role. Soundscape scholars argue that humans not only make sense of individual sounds, but they also make sense of those sounds in a context that both gives meaning to the environment and informs the construction of our identities (Gunn et al., 2013).
Many people from Ciudad Juárez have the opportunity to live both experiences and compare them. On the other hand, not too many people from El Paso could say the same thing because they mostly use their own car when they visit Ciudad Juárez. Commute on a bus from Juárez to El Paso is something that many people do, like riding a bus through the streets of El Paso and sharing the acoustic ecology with El Pasoans every single day; it is something full of meaning because it opens up multiple perspectives. On the one hand, perhaps for some people riding on a bus means progress (e.g., attending school or going to work), or perhaps happiness (e.g., visiting their family or going shopping). As soon as they get on the bus, sounds are a relevant part of their behavior, of their identity, no matter if they are aware or not.
The Border Soundscapes Project lies at the intersection of the field of sound studies and rhetoric and ear culture through soundscapes. It is a cross-border project that seeks to preserve and promote the sounds that originate in the Paso del Norte region between Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas. Our goal is to collect sounds that contribute to the study of a binational identity through a web platform. This study contributes to the cultural heritage of border inhabitants by drawing attention to the relevance of sounds in our daily lives and enhancing our collective identity. A free access platform, the Border Soundscapes Project is a repository of resources that promote the community's ear culture. The Border Soundscapes project currently has five aims:
The need to capture sound through technology has left us with a lack of knowledge. As a consequence, we have relied on semantic interpretations that depend on the epistemic, ontological, and axiological orientation of the readers. An example of this is México’s pre-Hispanic music. At a conference in México City, ethnomusicologist Felipe Flores (2013) explained that the sound of pre-Hispanic music is known to be made up of various instruments, such as whistles, ocarinas, flutes, huéhuetl (vertical drum built with a hollow tree trunk), rain stick, snails, teponaztli, windbreaks, pots and stone marimba, among others. Although we have an approximation of the musical form of the pre-Hispanic melodies, we can’t know precisely their authentic sound. Through ethnomusicology, researchers have been able to obtain, create, and enhance notions about certain musical instruments’ sound. This has been possible thanks to the oral history that has survived for approximately 500 years in some festivals and rites of Oaxaca, Totonacapan, and Yucatán in México. As Flores (2013) pointed out, just as the language, customs, and practices of indigenous peoples have persisted, music has also continued, but just like language, musical sounds have had to be understood through a combination of visuals, text, and oral culture. Further, our present-day “ear” is as enmeshed with western culture as our “lens” for understanding the past. Some sounds transcend, transform, and blend together, losing their natural essence. Thus, the preservation of soundscapes becomes crucial.
Today’s sound scholars have managed to capture the sounds of an atom, black holes, skyquakes, and recently the experimental sonification of the Coronavirus and the real sound of the lung affected by Covid-19. But how will we explain to future generations the missing sounds of our community? In simple terms, those voices that are gradually forgetting (e.g., those popular voices that surrounded our ecologies), like the voice of the corn vendor listened throughout the city or the sweet potato vendor’s whistle, longed for by both the people of Juárez and some people who migrated to El Paso. Due to their health, many of the vendors now use technology to advertise their products. They changed their voices, so creative and iconic, for recordings in an mp3 file. Although we have oral history as a resource to transfer this knowledge, we would lose the sound experience that a soundscape offers us.
Audio 20. “Elotes Calientitos vendor recording.” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)
Simply analyzing the shift from voice advertisements to recording tells us something about our epistemology, ontology, and axiology. In recent years, the border region has seen significant growth. The population has increased and the public spaces began to undergo changes including gentrification and expansion. In this transition, “natural” sounds are affected, and concern arises for those sounds that no longer exist in our acoustic ecology and for those that have somehow changed. For that reason, we believe it is urgent to promote an ear culture in classrooms, to motivate students involved in writing studies to listen to their environment, and to use technology to capture meaning—to value sounds as much as words and text. By listening to our surroundings, we not only develop a broader investigation of the soundscape that manifests before us, but we also expand our self-awareness.
The Border Soundscapes Project