Sunday, November 21, 2010

Korea's inappropriate soundscapes

Imagine this.

You get off the bus in a concrete jungle, without even trees to break up the cement, pavement, steel and glass. You walk to the park, with the express purpose of taking a mini-break from urban culture only to find that the sounds of nature have been overlaid with pop music.

Assumption number one: parks exist as green spaces to break up the urban landscape and serve as an accessible extension of nature and the sounds that accompany it.

At first, this assumption rings true, but soon the reality of Ulsan’s manmade nature sinks in. Music is blaring from speakers, two on each lamp post, and regardless of where I go in the park, I cannot hear the uninhibited “sounds of nature.”

Nature encompasses me. A river flows through the park, grass and trees on either side. A great blue heron stands in the water, gracefully waiting … for what, I have no idea, but waiting none-the-less. Ducks sleep or dive to eat, and jumping fish plop back into the water, seemingly with no worries about predators. Observing nature, I am nearly drawn in. I see the beauty that Asian artists have painted for centuries, the trees that grow in seemingly effortless, beautifully curved lines that beg to be replicated.

Yet, as I walk, I’m wrenched out of this contemplative mood by blaring club beats.

The soundscape of nature has been co-opted by pumping rhythm. Like an art gallery displaying too many sound-art pieces together, the overlapping themes clash. The juxtaposition feels off. Rather than gleening the expected inner calm from nature, I am distracted and wondering at the logic of such created experiences. Suddenly, I have moved in my mind from nature, to the bar or club from the previous evening, and I am reminded of the electronics shop I walked by on the way to the bus stop.

Assumption number two: music in an outdoor setting should be controlled by the listener.

While in a grocery store, at a club or restaurant, or basically anywhere indoors, I have come to accept music as a part of my daily experience. Many times I tune it out or cover it up with my own music via iPod, but, perhaps because I was raised in Idaho where nature usually means uninhabited space, I have always taken it for granted that a public, outdoor space will generally be music free, barring obvious exceptions.

That being said, public outdoor music is not completely new to me. I remember feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere, deep in a forest in Moscow when music interrupted the mood and crowded the soundscape, but the ability to escape from the music made it tolerable.

In Ulsan, at the greenbelt, it is nearly impossible to escape. Each bench lines up with a light post to which two speakers are attached. As soon as I think I’ve reached the point at which the next step will bring me far enough away from the speaker so the sound cannot reach me, the next set of speakers takes over. The city obviously invested money in the research and development of this soundscape because there does not exist an escape from it, but that’s exactly the problem.

As a visitor to this bit of nature, there is no choice but to listen to music. This begs the question why? What is the purpose of a greenbelt with constant music playing?

I have not yet found an answer to this question, and I challenge anyone to find a reasonable argument for such outdoor, public soundscapes.


  1. Reading this brings even more questions to my mind...
    So, I wonder if Korea did their research homework before playing the music in their park spaces?
    Was the music there from the inception of the parks?
    Was the music added later?
    Have you analyzed the sound to discover what the aim is...or is it just random music?
    Is the Korean culture as a whole - compliant and conforming?
    Does the music try to instill this or to perpetuate it.
    Do all cities have this music in their parks?

    I enjoyed your Ted speaker. He has done his homework with sound - As a teacher, I've known that a calmer and quieter atmosphere helps the students concentrate... maybe I should incorporate more of that knowledge into my classroom atmosphere.
    As always Kim, I love reading your blog. Thanks for tickling my cognitive sense!

  2. What percentage of the patrons at the green belt do you suppose have ever experienced nature as you know it. That is a place where it is so quiet that you can hear an insect flying towards you, then as it passes the tone drops off. Or just hearing nothing? Maybe the designers also never have experienced just what nature sounds like. So when it was all in place they went in, sat on a bench and it was so quiet so foreign that the sound was added to give the patron something familiar to cling.

  3. Not all parks in Korea are like this. One of my favorite places in Ulsan is the "bamboo forest." While it was planted recently and designed by humans, the height of the forest blocks almost all outside noise. It is replicated nature, and while it is nothing like being in nature in Idaho, it gives me a clue, that Koreans must understand nature.

    I think part of the answer to why there is music has to do with the greenbelt being seen as a place to exercise, not a place to contemplate the universe. Part of my reasoning behind adding the Julian Treasure's TED speech was because I think Ulsan spent a lot of money on development of continuous sound and no money on research appropriate sound or music.