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The reassuring din of Los Cantones envelops and calms me. I am in A Coruña’s shopping mall, sitting on a bench and listening. Wherever I go in the world, shopping malls always sound the same. Far from home, I sit and listen. I feel calm.

Squint a little and I could be anywhere. I could be, and have been, and now may be, in Jakarta, London, Tel Aviv, Tallinn, Houston, or wherever. It doesn’t matter. The shopping mall becomes a transporter, a weird nexus for the generic. I step in and am everywhere and nowhere.

Contrast and compare with McDonalds. Though the golden arches are as precisely curved and exactly yellow at each franchise location, stroll through the door and it is a different experience depending on where you are in the world. In Rome, for example, there are free breadsticks next to the straw dispensers. In Paris you can get a beer with your Big Mac. In Mumbai you might order a Chicken Maharaja-Mac™. At some branches in Manchester you may receive a complimentary stabbing. The point is, each McDonalds brings a little local flair to their offering.

Shopping malls have a range of ingredients that blend together into one specific sonic din: babelic bustling of shoppers browsing, nattering and buying, punctuated by the shrieks and yelps of toddlers, and underscored with a blurred soundtrack of inoffensive pop hits (or swap pop for some accessible classical – such as Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ or Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’ – if you happen to be perusing the posh part).

Visiting shopping malls when I am missing home is like riding a bike which I know I will fall off. It is ultimately quite unpleasant but nevertheless familiar, easy, and available to do almost everywhere in the world. Do not misunderstand me this is not a rant about the homogenisation of our retail shopping spaces. Today, I feel at home and am content in this messy, reassuring din.

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Later this month, I’ll be speaking about sound and cities at the We Are City Summit in Indianapolis. Here’s a short essay I wrote for the We Are City newsletter about why I do what I do:

I grew up in Manchester, England, a city known in the 1980s for Factory Records, gun crime, gangs and rain. I remember endless grey cement walls and pavement polka-dotted with old black gum. And the dirty beige of the Arndale Center, our flagship ‘American style’ shopping mall. Visiting as a small child, hanging on to my mother’s hand, being burnt by the lazy cigarettes of passing shoppers.

They say it’s grim up north in England. And it really was grim. In the 1990s a spate of arson and fire-bombings led to the big IRA bomb in 1996. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was on my way home from school after weekend detention. Although I didn’t see it, I heard it. My next trip to the city, there wasn’t enough Arndale Center left to visit.

Many years later, living in London my friends were routinely stopped and searched under anti-terrorism laws. With my olive skin, growing my beard a little too long drew concerned glances from fellow tube passengers. Living in Helsinki, a city that is safe and manicured, I saw fist-fights and once chased an attacker through the snowy streets. Living in New Orleans, the regular chatter about gun crime makes me feel afraid.

Cities are serious things. This is why I would like to bring a sense of playfulness to our cities. I write music and build soundtoys that empower residents to connect and create surprising experiences that bring a sense of wonder back to their city. I have built sound toys that explore crime and psychoacoustics in the city, wearable installations that encourage listeners to get lost and explore their hometowns, and musical devices that track and reveal the inhabitants in private buildings.

I like to imagine the city as a vast playground. Insert something unexpected into public space and we are snapped out of the noise and bustle and transported into a memorable moment. Dealing with the grim realities of modern life, we occasionally need a little perspective, a moment away from the noise, a special memory just for ourselves. This perspective reminds us of our role in the city and why cities are so important. This is why I create soundtoys and this is why I believe playful art in our cities is more important now than ever.

What next?

1. Try out a soundtoy I built called A Tool Through Which To Experience The City

2. Attend the We Are City Summit on September 21st, 2012

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The most recent change in my attitude toward sound has been in relation to loud sustained sounds such as car alarms or burglar alarms, which used to annoy me, but which I now accept and even enjoy. I think the transformation came through a statement of Marcel Duchamp who said that sounds which stay in one location and don’t change can produce a sonorous sculpture, a sound sculpture that lasts in time. Isn’t that beautiful?
John Cage, quoted in Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without A Thinker