The city and sound: What a global survey during the pandemic could tell us about our future soundscapes

Future Cities is the latest venture helmed by the team of Cities and Memory, a larger global collaborative project, which in its current stage covers more than 100 countries and territories.

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya January 08, 2021 09:55:32 IST
The city and sound: What a global survey during the pandemic could tell us about our future soundscapes

Cities and Memory's latest and largest sound project - Future Cities.

In the past five years that I have been living in Mumbai, I have got pretty accustomed to the madness this city is known for — from the jam-packed local trains thronged with a motley crowd; thousands of cars, taxis and bikes honking on the roads, to relatively quiet sea-fronts and quaint by-lanes of old Christian neighbourhoods. Everyday experiences and perceptions aplenty, one is often unable to process what Mumbai actually sounds like. And as luck would have it, due to COVID-19 restrictions I could never venture out to hear Mumbai in its moment of quietness, when it's just a city and not a contraption.

But while we were locked inside our homes, there was a team of sound recorders and chroniclers who were creating aural portraits of cities across the globe. Future Cities is the latest venture helmed by the team of Cities and Memory, a larger global collaborative project, which in its current stage covers more than 100 countries and territories (with well over 4,000 sounds). The overall concept of Cities and Memory is "remixing the world, one sound at a time", where field recordings from all over the world are gathered, and everyone is reimagined or recomposed by an artist, who takes inspiration from the recording to create something new. With Future Cities, the team aims at shining a light on the vital role sounds play in our urban lives.

"While physical sites of importance are often protected through measures such as UNESCO World Heritage status, little attention is given to the defining sounds of a city, and rapid growth and globalisation means our cities are increasingly sounding the same," states the objective of Future Cities.

Sound artist and field recordist from Oxford, UK, and the founder of Cities and Memory, Stuart Fowkes says the concept of this project has been running for around five years. "Every few months we undertake a larger global collaboration around a specific theme, in which we take a deep dive into one aspect of sound — for instance, we've run projects on the sounds of protest, the sounds of nature, the sounds of temples and prayer and even outer space to mark 50 years since the Moon landings. This time around, Future Cities was about mapping the way our cities sound, and how those sounds are changing over time."

The city and sound What a global survey during the pandemic could tell us about our future soundscapes

Fowkes recording at Komsomolskaya station in Moscow. Photograph by Giulia Biasibetti.

Fowkes informs that Future Cities was conceptualised in autumn 2019, with a callout to field recordists globally to submit sounds from cities they either lived in or have visited, with a brief that those sounds should encapsulate what that city sounds like right now, and ideally should be unique or particular to that city. "The callout initially went from our extensive mailing list and our social media channels and spread outwards from there through things like Facebook Groups and communities on Twitter. We added to this database of sounds with a wide range of recordings from our own collection, covering places like Santiago, New York, Venice, Paris and London," Fowkes adds. Once these recordings were received, the team ended up with sonic accounts representing more than 80 countries and a huge range of different "categories" of urban sounds, like places of worship, parks, technology, cultural centres and so on.

The field recordings were offered up to sound artists around the world to select those that most inspired them, and from there to generate a brand new composition based on that sound. "That's the 'memory' part of Cities and Memory, where the original recordings are the 'city' part," reveals Fowkes. These new compositions came in from all over the world from January through to March 2020 when the project was due to launch. However, the COVID-19 outbreak came along and changed everything.

The city and sound What a global survey during the pandemic could tell us about our future soundscapes

Recording in Burano. Photograph by Giulia Biasibetti.

"The pandemic changed the way every city in the world sounded completely, so the Future Cities project went on pause, and we immediately set about a new project called #StayHomeSounds, which collected the sounds of the COVID-19 lockdowns. There was obviously a lot of crossover with Future Cities, and in fact, many sounds from the lockdown also feature in the project, as they too are indicative of how our cities currently sound," says Fowkes, adding that the sounds of the pandemic in urban spaces were rather fascinating. He explains how these sounds were further divided into several categories. From new sounds that one had never heard before like anti-Covid announcements or applause for health workers, to the increasing sounds of nature being heard in urban spaces, sometimes for the first time ever. Fowkes underlines how with these recordings one had the "ability to hear cities in new ways once the throbbing of vehicle traffic had disappeared." He says, "Iconic spaces like Times Square in New York or Oxford Street in London were totally transformed."

"I think the lockdown has given people an insight into how cities could sound in the future without excessive noise, and I hope there will be an increased desire to look after and be concerned with the way our cities sound as a result."

According to Fowkes, the most rewarding experience of this project is to dive right into the sound map and start exploring all the beautiful sounds captured and later remixed. From a structural recording from inside the Eiffel Tower to a rare geiko performance from Kyoto; from the public transit system in Pyongyang, North Korea, to the chinchineros (street drummers) in Santiago — Future Cities paints the world through a myriad of sonic reimaginings and reinterpretations. While for Fowkes himself it is rather too difficult to pick his favourites, he, however, does list a few for us with a complete explanation as to why they appeal to him so much. "There's one from Valparaiso in Chile, in which gas salesmen drive around in their trucks, with a man in the back drumming out a complicated rhythm with a metal rod on the gas canisters themselves to alert customers to their presence. It's like an ice cream truck siren, but made specifically for Chilean gas salesmen, and it's a totally indicative sound of city life in South America."

He further continues: "There are the sounds of some of the world's most famous places — for instance, the story behind how the Sistine Chapel, one of the most visually-recognisable locations on Earth, actually sounds. Every so often a voice declares through a PA (public addressing system) 'Silenzio' and 'Silence', followed by exhortations not to take photos. Each time silence is declared, the noise level dips respectfully, but over the course of the following minutes builds back up in a crescendo of chatter."

The concept of a sound map was first established during the late 1960s and early 1970s as an educational and research group by Vancouver-based R Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University. Schafer's World Soundscape Project (WSP) was primarily aimed at studying the relationship between human sounds with sounds of nature; they wanted to stress on sonic environment through a course in noise pollution. WSP was also instrumental in formulating a theoretical framework for the study of acoustic ecology and soundscapes (a term coined during the course of the project) in the future. Almost five decades later, urban noise is still an issue that most cities are grappling with on a daily basis. While sounds are very close to us and are ubiquitous entities of everyday existence, excessive noise can be quite damaging. Yet, it is never a vote-winning issue in most cities, hence the problem persists.

"It's proven that excessive noise in urban spaces can be hugely harmful, increasing stress, affecting children's learning patterns and having a devastating effect on wildlife and nature too. Until citizens are aware of the huge problems excessive urban sound can cause, it's unlikely to become a pressure point for councils, governments or urban planners," Fowkes points out. He hopes that a project like Cities and Memory can "play a small part in helping people to listen more carefully to the urban spaces in which they live, and appreciate the role sounds plays in their lives." That, he considers, would be a massive success for the project.

What is the scope for a project like this in the future? "The project records moments in time as much as it records documents of space — when recording the lockdown, for instance, or a protest about a specific event, we're recording something very specific to that time in that place. So to that extent, the project is as much of a time capsule as it is a cartographic record of location sounds," says Fowkes. He believes it could be very valuable to chart how the sounds of our cities are changing, thus highlighting the fact that important cultural sounds in our cities are in danger of being removed due to industrialisation, construction, increased traffic sounds and so on. "Sound can often be the 'canary in the coal mine' for other changes that are taking place, whether they're societal or cultural. And because the project is ongoing, Cities and Memory will stand as an ongoing record of how the sounds of our planet are changing — for better or for worse."

Listen to the entire Future Cities album here:

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