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Exploring Soundscapes, Ambience and Photography through the Creative Process of Alternate Reality Café

Published onJul 18, 2022
Exploring Soundscapes, Ambience and Photography through the Creative Process of Alternate Reality Café


Exploring Soundscapes, Ambience and Photography through the Creative Process of Alternate Reality Café
Madison Miller, University of Wolverhampton

Electronic music is growing in experimentation and exploration, especially with the popularity of social media and music production applications. Two subgenres of electronic music which have evolved along with technological advancement are ambient music and soundscapes. Once seen as two separate forms of music now share many similarities which range from the artistic intentions of creative practitioners, and the sonic material used in the compositions. This commentary explores how ambient and soundscape artists’ use of familiar and other-worldly sounds to create imaginary environments has influenced my own work Alternate Reality Café. Additionally, I look at how the use of images – album covers, YouTube cover art, or other visual materials - contributes to how listeners perceive these fictional spaces. 

Alternate Reality Café crafts an imaginary world for the listener through the incorporation of field recordings of familiar café sounds, edited photographs of a coffee cup and additional sonic materials which contribute to the ambience of the soundscape experience. Through this work, I situate myself amongst other soundscape and ambient artists including Brian Eno and Janet Cardiff, in order to reflect on how their practice has influenced my own PhD research.

Alternate Reality Café


Alternate Reality Café was created as a response to the nation-wide lockdown during Covid-19. The piece aims to create an imaginary café experience for the listener using sonic and visual stimuli, whilst also providing a creative space for me to explore the relationship of my work to soundscape and ambient music art and artists (such as Brian Eno and Janet Cardiff). This accompanying essay will explore the artistic influences and ideas which have shaped my work, the creative decisions and conceptual basis of the project. Furthermore, I reflect on how my creative practice is situated across the boundaries of soundscapes and ambient music. 

New styles of electronic music have multiplied in recent years, especially with the growing popularity of platforms and applications like YouTube, TikTok, Soundcloud, or music production software like BandLab, Garageband, or Cakewalk. One subgenre of electronic music, ambient music, has been described as “accommodat[ing] many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”1 This definition frames ambient music as simultaneously background sound, like a bus driving past or elevator music, which can easily be ignored or go unnoticed, and an immersive sonic experience which significantly shapes our environment. 

Similarly, soundscapes (another subgenre of electronic music), have been defined by composer and founder of The World Soundscape Project, R. Murray Schafer, as a practice where artists explore environmental sounds and noises in abstract or familiar ways to showcase the cultural understanding of their interrelationships.2 In this case, field recordings are typically used to document and explore sounds of the environment, such as birds in the park chirping, or a motorbike revving its engine in a distant traffic jam. Due to the nature of these sounds as part of our everyday sonic environments, they are often associated with the idea of ambience. However, growing in popularity, use, exposure, and experimentation, the terms ‘ambient music’ and ‘soundscapes’ now overlap in definition and carry similar, if not the same, characteristics.

Soundscape and ambient compositions are often paired with visual elements such as album covers, photographs and moving image, or presented as part of a multimedia art installation. These visuals tend to reflect the feelings or mood expressed by the composition, therefore working with the sound to shape a narrative or sense of familiarity and understanding for the listener. Notably, field recordings paired with visual elements like photography influenced artists such as Brian Eno and David Bowie, guiding the experimental genre to incorporate ambient sounds. This process of experimentation incorporated ambience, field recordings, and visuals to generate soundscapes that embrace everyday sound environments. These sounds and visuals were then used to tell a story through audio and visual cues that are familiar and hold many cultural associations and meanings. 

In order to explore the terms of ambient music and soundscapes further, and the role of visual stimuli in shaping the imaginative, sonic experience of everyday spaces, I will now discuss two key influences which have shaped my creative work – Brian Eno and Janet Cardiff - followed by a more detailed outline of my creative process for Alternate Reality Café.3 Field recordings of the sonic environment of my kitchen were used, along with home photography, to generate a fictional parallel universe where cafés were still open and operating.

Ambient Sounds & Ambient Music

Brian Eno

Ambient music was originally associated with its use as a background music in physical spaces such as the music developed by Muzak Inc., a brand of United States music that played in retail stores or other public places during the 1950s.4 Over time, ambient music began to incorporate other elements or characteristics, like setting a tone or atmosphere, or not having an obvious structure or rhythmic element. Ambient music in the current moment has extended into a “genre-less genre: it has expanded to absorb electronica, minimalism, contemporary classical, various mutant strains of dance music, post-rock, shoegaze, and more beyond.”5 The reason for this shift, as discussed by Jon Dale, is that cultural relevance of commercialising ambient music, new music production techniques, and new parameters of listening, allowed a reconfiguration of what ambient music is and how it may be created or understood.6 For instance, much ambient airport or elevator music became commercially successful as mainstream experimentalist compositions. 

Various artists helped pave the way for ambient music to reach a point of being absorbed into popular culture today. One popular artist is Brian Eno, who is known for his contributions to David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy,” Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979). This collaboration was alternative in nature, taking a new, radical approach to pop/rock music using experimental methods. As Will Hermes explains, Low was “a personal and aesthetic overhaul … from a creative and a political perspective, Bowie saw the divided city of Berlin [and his] intent was to ‘experiment; to discover new forms of writing; to evolve, in fact, a new musical language.’”7 Low shaped progressive rock, as well as Eno’s career as a musician. However, Eno, in some of his solo works, focused more explicitly on ambience, experimenting with creating ignorable but interesting music, which Eno has described as inspired by his experiences as a travelling musician.8

One notable piece of Eno’s ambient work is Music for Airports, released in March 1979. Historians and critics of ambient music have “often followed Eno by describing ambient music as an alternative to conventional ‘background’ or ‘programmed’ music for commercial spaces.”9 Eno was revolutionary with his work, establishing a difference between background music and music intentionally made for the purpose of ambience. According to Eno, 

An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres … Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.10

From Eno’s work and his description of his intentions with ambient music, the underlying foundation of his work appears to be inspired by aesthetics of sounds and meditation in the form of contemplation, or “calm and space to think.”11 Eno’s solo album Music for Airports showcases the concept of contemplation by incorporating sounds that evoke thought: “Airports needed to reflect the fact that travelling by plane always carries an element of ‘flirting with death’ … Airports subtly and ambivalently retain this sense of danger.”12 This can be further described as ‘ambivalent calm,’ or a “form of provisional comfort that nonetheless registers the presence of external threats.”13 Eno demonstrates the intention of his work by provoking the listener to contemplate a specific mood and atmosphere through the allusion of danger and death. Whilst the juxtaposition of calm, ambient sounds and the external dangers of flying are what inspired Eno to create the album, the music’s mood, structure, spatial qualities and the incorporation of calming tones, silence and loops of ambient sound induce tranquility and allow space for the listener to reflect in and experience the music in their own way. His emphasis on encouraging individual contemplation for listeners inspired my own approach to Alternate Reality Café, as did the work of another notable artist, Janet Cardiff, who I will now briefly explore.

Janet Cardiff

In Cardiff’s piece Alter Bahnhof video walk (2012), created along with George Bures Miller, the aim was to explore new ways of engaging audiences with histories of the Holocaust.14 Many Holocaust survivors have now passed away, meaning that their first-person survivor accounts, as Cardiff has argued, have become part of the cultural memory of the Holocaust.15 Using a combination of photographic media, monumentalisation, sound, immersive elements, and video recordings, Cardiff created an expression of this cultural memory which the listener experiences whilst participating in the walk. This means that “the participant is therefore constantly aware of the link to Holocaust remembrance and connects the artist’s personal thoughts on memory to questions of cultural memory about this event.”16 Additionally, the work is site-specific and should only be experienced in the physical environment of an old train station in Kassel, Germany. This presentation “commemorates what has happened in this station, but at the same time explores the ambiguous and capricious ways in which memory and commemoration are shaped” through the sights and sounds of walking.17 This technique goes beyond passive contemplation by creating a multisensory immersive experience and uses ambient sounds of the environment such as footsteps and people chatting. By “layering both the sounds and footage from the past and present” the piece “forms the phenomenon of reality and illusions toward the place as what we hear and expect to see.”18 Cardiff’s work gives the listener the space for contemplation by incorporating various elements together (ambient sounds, video, etc.) and much like Brian Eno’s work, the listener’s subjective emotional experience of the work is encouraged.

Development of Alternate Reality Café using Ambient Sounds

The inspiration for making Alternate Reality derived from a mixture of Cardiff and Eno’s explorations of field recordings and contemplation, along with my own experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic and working from home. During this time, I gathered a large number of field recordings in my kitchen, whilst also using my time at home for meditation and thought as an attempt to address my mental health and wellbeing, and to navigate the post-apocalyptic atmosphere I perceived when looking at the closed cafés of my local environment. 

Likewise, music and meditative practices, such as guided meditations, were a source of inspiration during the pandemic. Since I began meditating in 2015, one YouTube channel that has been my main source of peace is The Honest Guys, with 1.11 million subscribers.19 Though they situate themselves within the meditation community, their field recordings and ambient music paired alongside their guided meditations have been a great source of inspiration for my current work. Their website explains, “our meditations and visualisations are made with one simple purpose: to try to help people.”20 Not only do I take inspiration from The Honest Guys’ aims and goals, but I find their choice of sounds extremely relaxing and useful for both meditating and falling asleep, which I aimed to achieve with my own sound choices in Alternate Reality Café. Their work titled Guided Meditation - Blissful Deep Relaxation, published 9th March 2011, with over 19 million views, is a video I frequently use to find calm, take a nap or fall asleep.21 The guided meditation is simple, having the sound of the ocean waves alongside the voice of the narrator which guides you through the meditation. Though simplistic, the use of only a few select sounds is what creates the atmosphere of the piece. In Alternate Reality Café, I have taken a similar approach to simplicity, incorporating only a handful of field recorded sounds and a minimal production style. 

Alternate Reality Café aimed to provide familiar sounds or soundmarks (audio signposts) to listeners. These soundmarks relate to personal and cultural associations with particular sounds, therefore allowing personal memories, feelings and interpretations to shape an individualised listening experience. For instance, hearing a spoon hitting a mug reminds me of stirring my morning coffee. However, since we all have different lived experiences, soundmarks from ambient sounds and field recordings of my kitchen will conjure different memories, emotional sensory and meditative experiences for each listener. 

With Alternate Reality Café, I recorded sounds from my own kitchen, but ones that are familiar and similar to that which may be heard in any café. Though the field recordings from my kitchen suggest a café, the interpretation of the ambient soundmarks are dependent on the listener’s imagination and the personal or cultural associations they have with these sounds. By allowing the listener to experience their own version of the soundscape through their personal associations with the soundmarks, my aim was to create a sense of calmness, much like the meditation practices which helped to shift my attention away from feelings of anxiety during Covid-19. This technique is often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as a grounding technique, where the focus goes to the senses to relieve anxious thoughts. With my experience of CBT, using my senses helps remind me, in the moment, that I am in a safe place and no longer living the experience that initially created the anxiety. With Alternate Reality Café, the soundmarks probe the imagination and take the listener through the piece to create an image in their mind’s eye. My aim was to inspire the listener to create an imagined atmosphere, which combines moods of both eeriness and calmness, using other-worldly and familiar sounds. The tension that this sound mixture creates enhances the experience and takes the listener away from the reality of the pandemic and towards the comfort and peace of their own imagination. 

The underlying, consistent tone of the piece is a mono-drone loop that begins and ends the piece. I chose this loop to create a sense of familiarity for the listener, providing security that the loop will always be there as the grounding tone. This reinforces the familiarity created by the use of soundmarks of making coffee in my kitchen, such as boiling and pouring the water, and stirring the coffee in a ceramic cup. Most listeners can create familiar associations with these noises as they are typical, everyday sounds for those who drink coffee or tea. However, the sense of unfamiliarity and eeriness of Alternate Reality Café is generated through the absence of sounds – chatting, chairs moving, doors opening and cars driving by, for instance – which are typically associated with the café’s sonic environment. The result is a sense of loss and loneliness for the listener and serves as a sonic manifestation of some of the common emotional effects of the pandemic experience.

Ambience, as understood in Eno or Cardiff’s pieces mentioned earlier, is the umbrella term that has grown into a popular category of music, especially when paired with imagery and multimedia. For example, ambience remains an element that is used to enhance the intention of Cardiff’s work, even though she would define herself as predominantly a sound artist and is known as a pioneer in this form of art. Cardiff works with ambient sounds, generating sound installations that she refers to as ‘audio walks.’ Cardiff often works with her husband, George Bures Miller, to create pieces that involve movement and audio experiences. Her pieces approach storytelling using sonic and visual components, often pulled from the environmental ambience of the work’s focus. Cardiff uses these visual components to create overlapping realities through various forms of media, including online video streams, to make spaces feel familiar but encourages wonder and mystery.22 

As an artist, I record everyday sounds, and during the process of producing I decide on the creative intention of my pieces. However, it is up to the listener to interpret the piece. Peter Chilvers, a musician who has worked closely with Brian Eno, explains

I think of ambience as the set of near-subliminal cues that quietly define an environment. They might be continuous sounds, like the rush of a river or distant traffic noise, or occasional point sounds, like the drip of a tap or a car horn. They invariably carry information the conscious brain is rarely aware of in the reverberation of the sound; they tell the size of the room the listener is in, the materials on the walls, the distance and location of objects and so on. I sometimes contemplate wearing a blindfold for a day to increase my awareness of these sounds.23

The soundscapes of our environments, whether natural (woods, beaches, etc.), or constructed (cities, museums, homes, etc.), are accompanied by social and cultural expectations and understandings. For instance, when studying at a university, it is culturally expected that a library will be quiet with minimal whispers, typing on a computer, or the turning of pages in a book. Depending on the location, assumptions and expectations can be made about the immersive experience and what sounds will take place in that particular environment. For instance, it is to be expected that the sounds of traffic will be heard if you are in the City of London. However, during Covid-19 and especially during the lockdowns, the cityscape transformed from its typical busy, loud and bustling atmosphere, causing many Londoners to express their experiences of this change on social media:

… eerie photos show London's empty streets on the first Saturday of the coronavirus lockdown. West End theatres are shuttered and pub lights are switched off with the streets that are normally filled with Londoners enjoying a night out now eerily quiet … The world-famous lights of Piccadilly Circus, an area usually heaving with tourists, remained on, but only to illuminate the empty streets.24

The sights and sounds during the pandemic changed the immersive experience, causing Londoners to feel uneasy about the lockdown. With no busy streets, London became an unusually quiet place. Yet, on a normal day in London the sounds produced are often ignored because regular inhabitants of the city can become so familiar with the sounds of their surroundings that they begin to tune out sounds that exist in their everyday environment. 

Historical accounts of sounds are ways we can look back and understand what life and culture was like at a particular moment in time, or how listeners used sounds to cope with current events. The Wall Street Journal promoted that pandemic research concluded that playing or listening to music could be an effective way to cope during lockdown.25 Other research studies have noted that

While in lockdown, Spanish people spent more time devoted to musical activities to cope, and found that music listening helped them relax, escape, raise their mood, and keep them company (Cabedo-Mas et al., 2021). In Australia, life-satisfaction was positively associated with music listening, and negatively associated with other activities, such as TV watching (Krause et al., 2021), highlighting that music use may be a crucial tool during the lockdowns caused by COVID-19. Several other papers have highlighted that music has been an effective tool to cope with psychological distress during the pandemic, as a proxy for social interaction, and to improve well-being during the pandemic (Mas-Herrero et al., 2020; Fink et al., 2021; Granot et al., 2021).26 

In these instances, the importance of music during the pandemic offered a sense of comfort or security, particularly when dealing with psychological distress. This research connects to my work with Alternate Reality Café, as creating an imagined café space through music provides listeners an escape from psychological distress through a mixture of familiar café sounds and ambience. I found that when listening to my piece I also experienced a sense of escapism accompanied with relaxation.

Visuals Paired with Soundscape Design

Another example of using sounds for historical context can be seen in Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese’s album Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (1975). Inspired by the landscape from his trip to Malaysia, Froese took field recordings of the soundscapes he experienced during Tangerine Dream’s 1974 Australian tour. He then used the field recordings, along with modular, semi-modular analogue synthesisers and mellotrons to create his second solo album. A review of the album reads 

The title track begins with what sounds like a scrambled radio transmission of a flock of chirping birds chasing a locomotive before giving way to the airy, processed flute and mellotron that together provide the piece’s melodic anchor. Just as various themes and motifs begin to emerge from this tranquil but deceptively ominous bedrock, the distant train returns, and we find ourselves in a new and strange environment.27

Since Froese used sounds from the natural landscape of Malaysia, the cover art of his album complements the sound by using an image of the jungle leaves. With this, the listener takes a journey through the lush rainforest using sight and sound. As Lazar Mijanovic explains, “album covers are an essential part of the music listening experience. They are the first thing that sets the tone for the album and gives listeners a hint of the musician’s intent behind the record.”28 Through the imagery, listeners are inspired by Malaysia without having to travel and may anticipate where the music will go (see Figure 1).29

Figure 1. Edgar Froese’s Epsilon in Malaysian Pale album cover.

Much like Froese, I have used soundmarks, instrumentation, and visuals as part of my Alternate Reality Café project. Pairing soundscapes with imagery is not uncommon. For instance, looking at Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s album cover from The Pearl (1984), ambient music included in this album involved field recordings of birds and the sea, alongside piano and synth textures. The duo, Budd on piano and Eno as producer, used minimalist properties to evoke the feelings of sadness throughout the eleven songs. Subsequently, the cover art was made to match the feelings evoked from the music. The cover is abstract, using dark watercolors over the top of a tan canvas. “I always feel that many of the tracks have a ‘questioning’ quality and the title is perfect … searching for something precious in a sea of nothingness.”30 Album covers often include photographs, collages, paintings, or other visual elements, which pair with the music or musical artist. Many ambient albums, which at times are closely linked to soundscapes due to overlapping similarities, also follow this trend and incorporate visuals to accompany their pieces. Mijanovic explains that “while we may have moved on from listening to CDs to playing songs on streaming services, the cohesive cover art has remained a vital element that extends the connection between the artist and the listener.”31 The cover art works as a visual prompt to anticipate the type of soundscape the listener may experience (see Figure 2).32

Figure 2. The Pearl cover art by Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Photography and Alternate Reality Café

Alternate Reality Café was originally inspired by meditation practices, particularly immersive and guided meditation, where my work was made with the purpose of taking the listener on an audio journey through audio and visual stimuli. The intention of this piece was to have the listener transport themselves to an imaginative space through the sound cues, a combination of mystical ambience and real-world field recordings, and photography. Almost like guided meditations walking listeners through the processes of visualisation, this work takes the narrative approach by signposting listeners throughout their journey using relatable sounds and an edited photograph of a coffee. 

I chose to display the photography using the video format which helps to evoke the emotions of the piece, much like how The Honest Guys use ocean imagery to pair with the ocean soundscape they create for their guided meditations. Soundscapes, as well as music in general, can be displayed using different media formats, one of which is utilising video streaming platforms like YouTube, which, since 2004, has become a key platform for archiving and sharing digital content created by ordinary people. As Jason Miles explains, “YouTube actually combines several key elements: it is a video sharing site; it is a social networking site; it is an advertising or marketing site.”33

Many contemporary soundscape artists use YouTube to reach wider audiences. In order to improve searchability on the platform, many soundscape pieces are categorised using keywords such as “chill,” “relaxation,” “vibes,” “ambience,” “ASMR,” “study music,” “music to sleep to,” amongst others. The range of keywords associated with soundscapes on platforms such as YouTube demonstrates the broad spectrum of moods and atmospheres of soundscapes available for listeners. Eliza Brooke notes that 

Library and cafe environments tend to be popular, but viewers can also enjoy the more specific experience of a carriage ride through the woods, a haunted Victorian manor, the RR Diner from “Twin Peaks” or a full hour of Olivia Rodrigo’s hit single “Driver’s License” edited to sound like it’s playing in another room during a rainstorm.34 

Not only are the keywords used to grab the listener’s attention, but cover art, still images or videos uploaded alongside the soundscape catch the eye and play a role in how the listener experiences music. For example, “ambience videos pair relaxing soundscapes with animated scenery to make viewers feel immersed in specific spaces.”35

Alternate Reality Café uses visual cues to prepare the listener for the sonic journey. I wanted to use visuals alongside the audio because photography is something that I always try to actively incorporate into my work. In the past I have used photography and text to overlay with the music to probe the listener’s imagination. After receiving feedback from listeners, I have found that text included in the video is too blunt and obvious, controlling the narrative that listeners experience, whereas photographs shape the narrative of the listening journey in a more subtle way. Photographs portray the creative intention and conceptual basis of the work in a visual way, but the story created throughout listening to my piece is unique to each person. The photograph acts as a signpost to provide visual stimuli which contributes to a multisensory and imaginative experience. 

I am a self-taught photographer with over 10 years of experience working with film and digital photography. Using these skills, I was able to develop a photoshoot concept that would not only embody my own experience, aesthetic and showcase my artistic ability, but a photo that would encapsulate the overall sensation of a familiar, yet slightly odd, café. By using an edited photograph of a coffee cup in my kitchen to pair with this piece, my work draws inspiration from Cardiff’s use of site-specific visual and sonic stimuli in her audio walk pieces. I specifically chose to present my photography using the video format so to connect the work with the experience of watching guided mediations on YouTube, thereby framing the piece as soothing remedy to the pandemic experience.

The Creative Process of Alternate Reality Café

Photographic Composition and Design

My equipment included a Canon EOS Rebel digital camera, Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. The set-up process for the photoshoot took some time, as I wanted to acquire a glass mug that would contrast with a white geometric dish that I intended to use to hold the baklava. I specifically chose to take the photograph in the morning because I wanted to take advantage of the natural sunlight and to reflect the time of day I usually drink my first cup of coffee. My aim was to capture my authentic coffee making experience during lockdown, both visually and sonically. However, it is important to note here that the image I shot was done after making the sonic elements, so I was drawing inspiration from the sounds of Alternate Reality Café and my everyday coffee routine to compose the photograph. 

The photoshoot consisted of two backgrounds. I decided to stay with neutral colours so not to have them overpower the coffee cup as the central focus. The black background was shot first using a black scarf laid over a box. After positioning and playing with angles a number of times, I switched to a white background, using the walls in my kitchen. In total I shot 45 images. These images were then arranged into a photoset on my laptop so I could lay them out and filter through to decide which I would use as the visual component to Alternate Reality Café (see Figure 3). The process of taking multiple photographs during a photoshoot is common practice in the photography industry as it allows for more choice when deciding on the photograph that best represents the artistic vision.

Figure 3. Sample photoset from the photoshoot for Alternate Reality Café. Photoset not published or available through sources. Generated by Madison Miller after shooting photoset in kitchen March 2021.

I decided to go with a shot of the coffee taken straight on because the layers of coffee and frothed milk were more visible from this position. The shots from above tended to emphasise the baklava, rather than the coffee and therefore did not adequately express my artistic vision. Similarly, the white background felt too cheerful, leading me to select the black background as it spoke more to the creative intentions and themes of the project as a whole. The darkness creates an ominous feel which contributes to the other-worldly atmosphere I intended to invoke. I then imported the photo into Adobe Lightroom to enhance the dreamy and unearthly atmosphere by manipulating the colours of the photograph. Instead of remaining realistic and true to the natural colours, I increased the contrast, lowered the saturation, and only allowed brown to showcase itself among the black and while hues. The reason neutral colours, like brown, are dominant in the photograph is to take away the realistic expectation of how coffee is normally presented in a coffee shop. By removing the more realistic, everyday colours, I attempted to visually match the eerie ambience of my imaginary café soundscape. With these edits, I believe this photograph is a visual driving force that assists listeners in creating their own imaginative café space, narrative and emotional experience of what their alternate reality coffee shop might look or feel like. For this reason, I purposely did not use a photograph of an existing café (like Starbucks) in an effort for the listener to attribute the visuals and sounds to their own memories or imagination. 

What we can see from Cardiff’s work with audio and visuals, context from associations, whether that is from culture or memory, is needed to develop an understanding of the world we live in. In Cardiff’s case, she uses video recordings of her walks and does not manipulate the footage. However, sometimes soundscapes are paired with a moving image or video that is manipulated. For example, a moving image could be a still image with one moving part, such as a CGI fireplace, rain or snowstorm. This is another common format that soundscape artists use to present their work. To understand the creation process more, the YouTube artist Nemo’s Dreamscapes sometimes includes how they create the visuals right before the beginning of their soundscape.36 For example, in the video titled “Oldies playing in another room and it's raining (City night Ambience Paris, open window 3 HOURS ASMR),” they used a still image from the movie The Aristocats (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970), adjusted some of the colours to emphasise a purple tint, and added animated rain in the background.37 This moving image creates a digital world for the listener to inhabit when they hear and see the rain alongside music from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. With that, sound environments paired with images can be manufactured, like Nemo’s Dreamscapes, or taken from the natural environment, like Cardiff. In the case of Alternate Reality Café, a photograph taken from everyday reality was used as the starting point for me to construct a fabricated visual environment. Not only does photography help to capture everyday life or form visual representations, but cultural influence plays a role in what associations the viewer makes, in a similar way to the cultural meanings we attach to everyday sounds, which I will now explore in more depth.

Figure 4. Before (non-edited) and after (edited) photograph used for Alternate Reality Café.

Soundscape Exploration

As I briefly introduced earlier, recorded sounds from different environments, whether urban or natural, and placed in an artistic form are known as soundscapes. R. Murray Schafer is a key influential composer during early artistic soundscape exploration. His unique take on artistic soundscapes also included the fusion of environmentalist thoughts.38 He is most known for the World Soundscape Project but has also contributed to the development of soundscapes since 1977 with his work The Tuning of the World, a publication of his findings during the World Soundscape Project. In this book, he describes soundscapes as an immersive environment which embody the listener’s perceptions. The listener applies their meaning of sound to the environment or, conversely, how the environment gives meaning to sound. Schafer then defined natural sounds as geophony and human-made sounds as anthrophony to assist with making his observations between people and their sonic environments.39

An example of R. Murray Schafer’s composition work fusing anthrophony and geophony can be seen in the 1979 piece titled Music for Wilderness Lake.40 This is a piece of environmental music where Schafer used sound theory to explore the natural soundscape during transformative times of day. “Twelve trombonists positioned around the lagoon play meditative music across the water to one another at dusk and dawn while the music is cued via flags from a canoe in the lagoon.”41 Schafer would develop his soundscape concepts and coined the term “soundmark” to define a unique sound or collection of sounds that relate to a particular area or environment.42 This soundmark concept relates to Cardiff’s work, where her audio walk uses soundmarks of the old train station environment as a way of narrating the listener through a story of the holocaust. Though this is considered the ambient sound from the environment, the soundmarks reflect the soundscape of that particular environment. 

Another artist influenced by soundscapes and cultural references is Camille Norment, an American sound artist. Norment uses her work to convey sound affecting the individual body and mind, along with challenging social norms. Through installations, performance, or drawing, Norment incorporates sounds as a component in the installation with recorded sounds which “utilizes the notion of cultural psychoacoustics as both an aesthetic and conceptual framework.”43 To elaborate, Norment investigates sound and social dissonance through her pieces, often involving ‘quiet,’ symbols, or other elements to reveal narratives. For instance, Norment’s piece titled Rapture was a site-specific installation at the Nordic Pavilion in Venice Italy during the 2015 Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition.44 Rapture was a combination of musical performance and physical space where musicians and vocalists, along with the architecture of the Nordic pavilion, “explore the relationship between the human body and sound, through the visual, the sonic and the architectural body.”45 All elements came together to create a multisensory experience through the immersive sounds and visuals. Norment described her work thusly: 

I am interested in how music has long been used to facilitate both the forging and transgressing of cultural norms. sound permeates all borders. throughout history, fear has been associated with the paradoxical effects music has on the body and mind, and its power as a reward-giving de-centralizer of control. recognized as capable of inducing states akin to sex and drugs, music is still seen by many in the world as an experience to be controlled – especially in relation to the female body – and yet it is also increasingly used as a tool for control under the justification of war.46

In this work involving the Norwegian hardingfele, electric guitar, and glass armonica, Norment explains, "each of these instruments was once banned in fear of the psychological, social, or sexual power their sound was thought to have over the body, and the challenge they represented to social control.”47 The outcome of this piece conveys repression, censorship, and relationships to the listener’s body through the sonic performance. Likewise, Norment’s Rapture Trio “investigates the visceral qualities of resonance, noise, and overtone, creating music that enacts and deconstructs cultural and historical positions relevant to each of the instruments.”48 The result is an organic movement that incorporates composed and improvised noise, fabricating a dynamic soundscape that soundmarks a particular environment and reference. The Rapture performance is a hybrid of art and music, creating a soundscape that “cycles the listener through lulling and abrasive textures inspired in part by the instruments’ relationships to ideas of magic and the uncanny, hypnosis and trance, and noise as a psychological atmosphere.”49

Much like Norment using soundmarks from cultural associations, I used sounds that are associated with the café experience. Though I used field recordings from my kitchen, the sounds are culturally attributed to the café environment. I chose my kitchen location due to lockdown restrictions in England calling for a stay-at-home order. I saw my kitchen as a new café, but I also did not want to be at home because it had become the place I lived, worked, and studied at. I wanted to mentally escape from the lockdown. Alternate Reality Café shares my experiences of creating a makeshift café at my home as a form of creative escapism from the reality of confinement that I experienced during the lockdown restrictions. Choosing to record in my kitchen established a relatable experience and soundscape for the listener, as many of us are staying and working from home. The coffee making process sound interacts with the walls, microphone, and overall psychical space of the kitchen through the sounds of the stir or water pour, which are not muffled out by crowds or chatter. This indicates a sense of loneliness or being one person, alone, making coffee. Likewise, the room layout created an echo that can be heard in the recording. This echo, along with the silence in between pours, enhances the feeling of loneliness. The soundmark is relatable to everyday lives of other coffee drinkers, waking up early to an empty and quiet kitchen, ready to brew their coffee. The soundmark of pouring the coffee operates as a virtual ‘landmark,’ derived from the sound of the kitchen environment, which many of us can easily imagine as drinking coffee is a common behavior. By capturing a unique sound that specifically refers to the process of making home brewed coffee, Alternate Reality Café captures the sound qualities and characteristics of the kitchen and coffee brewing activity through field recording. These sounds are authentic and have no other production manipulation. Instead, the ambience of the drone and the melody are overlaid, keeping the piece simplistic and focused on the kitchen soundscape. With these sounds, the story is not permanent or laid out in front of the listener. The soundmarks may point the listener in a particular direction that is influenced by the current pandemic, showcasing the current relationship and associations we have with coffee shops or making coffee at home.

Not only does this piece capture the kitchen soundscape, but it captures the essence of how many people miss their café experience or café routines throughout the pandemic. Vice, a popular digital media producer, shared the general view that “cafes symbolise the little opportunities for everyday pleasure that were available to us before the lockdown.”50 This resonated with my own experience, leading me to incorporate this feeling into my work as “artists reflect the times they live in; they are a mirror of society.”51 In turn, the piece both reflects and attempts to remedy this experience by recreating the café elements which were missing from our daily lives during lockdown. 

Finally, the increase of online apps and websites during lockdown which were specifically designed to help those struggling with transitioning to living and working from home greatly influenced the conception of Alternate Reality Café. One website growing in popularity is I Miss My Café, which is specifically focused on recreating the sounds of a café experience, where you as the listener can control the sounds and setting by selecting the volume of many aspects of the virtual surroundings: “barista,” “preparing drinks,” “coffee cups,” “other customers,” “machinery,” and “street ambience.”52 Likewise, you can choose whether to have radio music playing alongside these cafés’ sounds. There is overlap between the goals of my piece and the project since both have the intention to bring a piece of café life back to the listener. However, the most notable difference is the adjustability of the platform, whereas I decided to make my piece non-adjustable so I could have more control over the creation of the other-worldly café atmosphere. Rather than letting the listener decide the mood, I wanted to manipulate and manufacture the feelings of familiarity through imaginative engagement. The reason for this decision was that I wanted the piece to resemble the YouTube meditation videos mentioned earlier. As the host, much like a guided meditation instructor, I help guide the listener throughout their journey by signposting a café (both visually and sonically), yet allowing enough ambiguity for the listener to engage with the work and the café in their own imaginative way.


Experimenting with sounds of everyday life, Alternate Reality Cafe was made with the intention to provoke thought through relatable noise. What that thought is will be up to the listener, but the soundmarks of the ambient melody, single drone, and kitchen recordings, created an alternative café atmosphere which can drive interaction, form narrative threads or memories, or inspire contemplation. Alternate Reality Cafe captures a piece of my reality during lockdown and can permeate into collective consciousness as a historical account of missing cafés during lockdown. Additionally, through the inspiration of artists and modern, popular forms of sound immersion, I have come to find that soundscape and ambience cannot exist without the other, especially in the form of my work. I captured the atmosphere of working from home, lockdown, and the feeling of missing cafés by using both looped ambient sounds and field recordings of my kitchen. The ambient sound is the background feature, whilst the soundmarks of the coffee making are at the forefront, but both are needed to create the imagined reality of the café mood I want to invoke. Though I used sounds that café patrons are used to hearing, I wanted to add an element of eeriness with the ambient sounds to add an element of fantasy to the work, to inspire the listener to imagine a new kind of café. I purposefully did not use photography from a familiar place or brand, such as Starbucks, to encourage the listener to use their imagination with the sights and sounds, to envision an alternative café atmosphere. 

Throughout this paper I have situated myself with others working in the field of electronic music, soundscapes, or ambience. Thinking in more depth about where my work fits within these spheres has enabled me to find kinships whilst also absorbing new terms, ideas and aesthetic approaches, enabling me to develop and more effectively understand my work. With Alternate Reality Café I believe I fit within the sliding scales of ambient music and soundscapes, where “ambience … pairs relaxing soundscapes with … scenery in order to make viewers feel immersed in specific spaces, like a jazz bar in Paris or a swamp populated with trilling wildlife.”53 In order to contextualise my work, I reflected on the processes of creation, inspirations, fellow artists, and the potential fluidity of the definitions of both soundscape and ambient music in the present moment. Alternate Reality Café is an electronic piece that incorporates both ambience and soundscapes, meaning that does not rest in a single category of music, but rather music created with a combination of soundscape and ambient elements. Alternate Reality Café forms part of my PhD research where I use autoethnography and creative practice to explore soundscape design and impact. By looking at my creative work and researching who inspires me, the reasons for my creative decisions, and the keywords and concepts which shaped my ideas, I have been able to better understand myself as an artist and form stronger connections between my research and practice. 

Early on in my research, I found that defining ambient music and soundscapes was more complex than I first thought, that ambient music and soundscapes had similarities and often fused with one another in musical compositions. Therefore, Alternate Reality Café, as a practice-based component of my PhD research, became a way of helping me to understand the terms and artists in these fields and to reflect on the shifting material, sonic and emotional realities of the present moment.


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Madison Miller is a PhD candidate studying soundscapes at the University of Wolverhampton. Originally from the United States, she received her BA in in Philosophy, Psychology, and English in 2015 from Millersville University. Later, she moved to England in 2017 to pursue her MA in Media and Communication at Bournemouth University. She is currently on the Student Committee Member for the Royal Music Association, Treasurer for the Doctoral Students Society at the University of Wolverhampton, and Digital Officer for the Music and Mental Health Study Group. 

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