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This is what Halifax sounds like

Emergency scanners make for a unique instrument choice

4 min read
caption A view of Kings' radio equipment. (Staged photo)
Dylan Cunningham
caption A view of Kings’ radio equipment. (Staged photo)
Dylan Cunningham

An experimental music project now lets listeners tune in to the pulse of Halifax. That’s thanks to the website You Are Listening To.

Created by California residents Eric Eberhardt and Hugh Mandeville, the site blends a curated playlist of ambient electronic music with live broadcasts of police and emergency services. The track list is low-key and calming, broken up by the back-and-forth chatter and rapid-fire radio codes between emergency workers.

In an email to The Signal, Eberhardt says he picked Halifax to include “a smaller city that many people wouldn’t have travelled to … so that listeners have a chance to experience the different police radio and activities in that environment.”

He says every city has its own sound.

“The difference between cities is one of the most interesting parts of the project,” he adds. “Not only the size of the city, but the history, language and even how the police and dispatchers communicate can have a major effect.”

The project first came to him after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010.

“I was expecting there to be madness in the streets, of course, but I guess I picked a lucky route and made it back to my apartment,” he says. “When I got online and checked Twitter, I found out that there was at least some chaos happening in the city.”

Eberhardt saw people sharing a link to a livestream of the San Francisco Police Department’s police scanner. It was broadcasting reports of trash cans on fire and of police clearing people out of intersections. Eberhardt left the scanner audio on in the background while he started to play music.

“The atmospheric effect of hearing those two audio sources at the same time was pretty cool,” he says.

Make your own meaning

While Eberhardt says he didn’t have any particular goal or message in mind when creating the project, he notes that listening to it seems to “provoke different questions to each listener.”

Even though it was not his intent, he says listening to police scanners gives a new, human perspective on police and other public servants.

“Yes, there are many examples of brutality, unprovoked shootings,” he says. “But the majority of the time what you’ll hear are much more mundane examples of people going about their jobs, taking care of cases one at a time and basically functioning as a kind of ‘nervous system’ for the city.”

However, You Are Listening to Halifax won’t feature sounds of the police. In March 2015 Halifax Regional Police and district RCMP moved to an encrypted signal for privacy issues.

Eberhardt says moves to encryption might affect the site in the future.

Is it music?

Jérôme Blais is an associate professor of composition at Dalhousie University. He says that computer artists like Eberhardt are expanding our understanding of what music is.

“We’re seeing people defining themselves as ‘sound artists,'” he says. “You can create music, you can create ‘sound architectures,’ not necessarily with the traditional instruments … their score is not a traditional piece of paper, but a computer screen.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, says Blais. He says music continues to evolve and redefine what is music and who is a musician. He traces it back to the end of World War II and experimental musician John Cage’s work.

Blais says musicians are no longer defined by their training, or their use of an instrument. He describes the future of music as a “co-existence of traditional craft with all those new approaches.” While he says this is a positive evolution of the art form, he does note it makes it “difficult to determine who is a serious artist or not.”

Eberhardt says he wants to keep adding more cities to the site, and would like to hear suggestions of places to feature next.

You can listen to the sounds of Halifax here.

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