Urban design magazine


Michel Redolfi – urban melody creator

Image of Redolfi in Nice tram
Michel Redolfi in a tram, Nice

His musical creations float through trams in the French cities of Nice and Brest and soon also in Besançon and the Belgium city of Liège.

Michel Redolfi create “sonal” melodies that set the rhythm for journeys made by public transport users. Not only this, but as head of the Audionaute studio, he also intervenes more generally in public spaces during events dedicated to art, architect and landscape design. The Urban Design Observatory set out to find out more about the profession of sound designer, which lies at the crossroads between art and technology. Michel Redolfi invited us to discover his world.

What is your approach when developing sound design in a new place?

Firstly, I complete an acoustic audit (audit = audition). This involves studying the different ways that sounds would be reflected or could slide creating mist or sunshine within the spaces. I then inspect the walls, “body work” and structure to understand how the site and its volumes will conduct the sound. I use loud speakers increasingly rarely – I prefer electro-acoustic vibrators, a kind of tuning fork that conducts vibrations when applied to materials. The sound emanates from the structures and spreads into the listening space. It is like listening to a musical instrument in a room.

Diffusing sound using loud speakers is an old fashioned and absurd idea. The diffusion = infusion equation creates watered down acoustics! The solutions that I’ve developed during my sound conduction projects in water and the human body place the site, object and listeners back at the art of the sounds.

Image of sub-aqua sound show

Underwater concerts by Michel Redolfi, in a swimming pool

Sound effects in public transport is one of your areas of expertise. What solutions have you come up with during your different projects to simplify urban spaces that are saturated by noise?

In trams, I’ve banished standard small loudspeakers that use grills to replace them with decent-sized speakers above passenger seats – they are invisible behind the overhead panels that look like plane baggage compartments. Sounds escapes through air vents opening on to the panes. This means that the wave spreads harmoniously onto the bay windows – this reflex effect is like a light projected onto a wall. With 10 acoustic projections across the glass, the sounds envelopes the compartment with softness and clarity. Alstom used this solution in their trams in Nice and Brest.

Image of Nice tram - Jazz sonals

Tram in Nice during the Jazz Festival

Following the trams in Brest and Nice, one of your next projects is to design sound effects for the Liège underground in Belgium, not to mention international projects in the pipeline. How do you adapt your sound creations to very different cultural contexts?

This adaptation is made easier by what I call “sonals”. A sonal isn’t a jingle. A jingle, as it names suggests, shakes things – for example, an unchanging and monotonous station announcement that sounds like a warning. A sonal, on the other hand, gently wakes you up and changes over time. It discretely, though efficiently, accompanies you on your journey and contains musical, vocal and historic elements linked to the place’s specific features and to the unconscious collective sounds shared by the local population.

In Nice, the sonals are richly brocaded and vary randomly at each station with a different night and day version – just like Nice itself, which is a baroque, festive and floral city. As you approach the markets, you can almost hear the landscapes being described. Some of the announcements are dubbed in the Nice dialect (Nissarte).

In Brest, we wanted to evoke, without exaggerating, the marine context. The sonals are pronounced by a women when the tide is coming in and a man as the tide is going out. Of course, this changes every day, but it means you can always tell where the sea is! The announcements are randomly dubbed in the local Breton dialect. This is more prominent than for the Nice dialect, though we didn’t want to overdo it in order to avoid a bilingual effect.

I am now working on the tramway in Besançon, which will have a vast programme of sonals that will personalised not only at each station, but also on each of the 19 lines. The lines will all have their own moving universe or mood. I can’t say any more though as the inauguration isn’t until 1st September 2014.

Image of Sunfony chairs

Audio-solar loungers, Sunfony© in Monte Carlo

You’ve developed “sound” street furniture with designers such as Christophe Harbonnier (Sunfony bench) and Marc Aurel (Treccia bench). Have you considered adapting this furniture to public transport spaces?

Yes, of course. I tried this with Marc Aurel for a two-year period in collaboration with the Paris public transport (RATP) at the experimental Osmose bus shelter near the Gare de Lyon. The experiment has now come to an end. We made the glass walls musically interactive and harmonised the resonance of the metal structures. Unfortunately, much of the work was masked in this very noisy site that is saturated with the sound of engines and frequent horn-honking. “Sound” furniture needs to be in spaces that acoustically clear where the notes can gently unfurl. Ideally the music is produced in transparent pastels that integrate into the background in order to harmonise, rather than mask, the sound landscape.

Image of Treccia bench

Treccia sound bench, in collaboration with Marc Aurel

Finally, which cities have public spaces that inspire you and where you would like to add your own personal touch?

Many of the cities in the new world, for example, the United States where I worked for a long time. I’m fascinated by Miami with its skyscrapers and art deco seafront. But, I’m also intrigued by cities in Asia – in 1989, I was involved in a project to set up sound installations in Hong Kong (Diasonic with Louis Dandrel). Tokyo would, without doubt, be a marvellous playground for a sound designer!

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