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endangered sounds: a sound project

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2005

garth paine
marcs auditory laboratories, school of contemporary arts, university of western sydney, sydney, australia e-mail:


endangered sounds is a project that focuses on the exploration of sound marks (trade-marked sounds). the initial stage of this project was funded by arts victoria, and comprised legal searches that resulted in the listings of sound marks registered in australasia and the united states of america. this list was published on the internet with a call for volunteers to collect samples of the listed sounds internationally. the volunteer was sent a specimen tube with label and cap, and asked to collect the sound by placing the specimen tube close to the source (thereby capturing the air through which the sound travelled), securing the cap and then completing the label, documenting the time, place and nature of the sound (sound mark reg. no., sound mark description, time of capture, date of capture, location, etc.). these specimen tubes were collected and displayed in chemistry racks in the exhibition in the biennale of electronic arts, perth in 2004, illustrating the frequency and diversity of the environment into which these ‘private’, protected sounds have been released. the exhibition project consisted of:

(1) a web portal listing all the sound marks listed in australasia and the usa, and negotiations are underway to expand that to include the eu.

(2) a collection of sound marks in specimen tubes with caps and labels gathered internationally by people who volunteered to collect samples of sound marks in their environment.

(3) a number of glass vacuum desiccator vessels containing a small loudspeaker and sound reproduction chip suspended in a vacuum, reproducing sound marks in the vacuum, notionally breaking the law, but as sound does not travel in a vacuum the gallery visitor hears no sound – what then is the jurisdiction of the sound mark?

(4) a card index register of lost and deceased sounds.

this project questions the legitimacy of privatising and protecting sounds that are released at random in public spaces. if i own a multi-million dollar penthouse in a city, and work night shifts, i have no recourse against the loud harley davidson or australian football league (afl) siren that wakes me from my precious sleep – both sounds are privately protected, making their recording, reproduction and broadcast illegal.

while there are legal mechanisms for protection against repeat offenders, and many of us are committed to a culturally conditioned moral obligation re sound dispersion, there are no legal limits – i can call the police, but the football siren is already within legal standards and still permeates the private domain of city dwellings. the noise abatement legislation is only applicable to regular breaches of the law, and takes some time to sort out, but it does not apply to singular occurrences which, although within legislated limits, still disturb. additionally, the laws are based on amplitude and do not really address the issue of propagation. the ownership of the sound is not addressed in these legislative mechanisms – it should be; if the sound is an emblem of corporate identity, we should be able to choose not to be exposed to it, in the same way that we can place a ‘no junk mail’ sign on our letter boxes. acknowledgement of the private domain is sacrosanct in other areas of legislation, in fact heavily policed, but not addressed in discussions of the acoustic environment beyond amplitude limitations.

Research Article
cambridge university press 2005

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