Juggling work, practice and research at the times of Covid-19.

By Mattia Cobianchi, PhD in Music, Goldsmiths University of London, Chase Student Committee Rep

My name is Mattia, and I`m a permanent resident of the UK since 2013, but I`m originally from Italy, and since we Italians were the first in Europe to be hit by the pandemic, I started to worry about the impact of Covid-19 on my friends and family there first, and about myself only a month later. It was a little bit like seeing a catastrophe in slow-motion. You see it coming, you brace for it, still you can`t do anything about it. The first personal hit for me came on the second week of March, when I had to cancel a trip abroad to attend the VIVA of an interesting researcher that works in the field or urban planning and soundscape research. Then, a couple of weeks later, came the second. I am a part time PhD student, but also a part time employee in a large audio company, and I was put on furlough, together with a lot of colleagues, starting from April (I was finally recalled back at work in July).

I`ve been working in the audio sector no-stop since 2004 (oh yes, sorry, I forgot to mention that I`m quite a senior student 😊) and being told to stand down and stop working, was quite a shock. I didn`t know how to do it at the beginning! Even if of course I was aware that I was one of the lucky ones able to keep my job and that I could dedicate more time to research while on furlough, it had been the first time for years that I had to completely stop working. What I ended up doing, although by a fortunate coincidence, was to write some technical articles for a magazine about what I design and research at work – loudspeakers, and that helped me feeling not as isolated from my job.

Figure 1 – A measurement session at work – lasers and speakers, what else could I wish for?

On the academic side, my research is practice based and deals with the issue of improving the urban soundscape through adaptive and dynamic compositions to mask or at least steer away city-dwellers’ attention from annoying noises such as that produced by traffic and construction works.

An exciting part of my research has been attending hands-on workshops and events organized in London both at Goldsmiths University and in other venues with fellow scholars or musicians: this of course has stopped completely and has not been replaced by any online surrogate unfortunately. Total disruption.

A second aspect of the practice that has been instead only partially disrupted, is the chance of spending time outdoor with all the senses alert, especially my hearing, both in the built environment as well as in nature reserves and parks, often bringing along a portable audio recorder for field recording.

Figure 2 – Capturing the sound of pebbles rolling up and down the shore along Hove beach

Once the lockdown was in place (or an edulcorated version of it, since here in the UK it`s been very “permissive”), the daily walk to exercise constituted a useful although limited chance to appreciate how the soundscape of my city, Hove, had changed. New faint sounds, both natural and artificial, started to be audible: sparrows’ calls in the streets, faint ventilation and air conditioning units breathing sounds, car or house alarms ringing from far, far away…

Figure 3 – A woodland patch near my flat has been a regular lockdown escape for a walk

When at home, I started to register to the myriad of webinars that popped out like mushrooms, and to some conferences that had been ported online, hoping to keep myself engaged and active, but found just a few useful or interesting. I realized that it was much harder to focus, the temptation to do something else, in the privacy of my flat and with the webcam off, was high. The ones that I enjoyed the most were the ones where either by nature of the workshop or by personal commitment, I kept the webcam on and tried to focus on the speaker face, as if in trying to establish a personal connection. With a lack of stimuli from a real environment, it`s easy to seek new stimuli while on an online meeting by browsing the web or checking your emails: well, at least for me, it causes both a predictable deficiency of engagement and retention, as well as increased mental fatigue. Human beings are not meant to multitask. Trying comes at a price.

I also noticed a new pattern: while I`m not usually checking social media or emails more than a couple of times per day, the lack of physical interaction with my colleagues at work and fellow students at college, kept me going back over and over again, waiting for signs of life from the outside world… I`ve not yet mastered a strategy to overcome this, but I`m trying to use the Pomodoro technique and check Whatsapp or emails only during breaks. Plus I`ve started to plan in advance at least one online catchup with friends living far away every week, so that I always have a virtual meeting to look forward to.