It goes without saying. Our lives have altered dramatically due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has not only forced a change in our social and economic structures, but also impacted numerous aspects of life and living.
One of the primary changes we have all experienced (or noticed) in recent months due to lockdowns and restrictions, is the evolving soundscapes of the cities and neighbourhoods we live in.
Thanks to “Cities And Memory”, a global crowd-sourced art project, we can now hear how the sounds of cities have changed across the globe. Its offshoot initiative, named "#StayHomeSounds", uses an interactive sound map to track the aural shift.
According to founder Stuart Fowkes, the inspiration for "#StayHomeSounds" was born from the idea that things around us were beginning to feel a little different. He says that “Cities and Memory” has been collecting the sounds of the world for around five years.
“But it was pretty clear early on that the sounds of the world were changing in a way that none of us have ever seen or heard before. That felt like something really important to capture for the future and to explore right now.”
A Changing Aural Landscape
Fowkes admits that he began noticing that sounds around his home city were different, and in turn, that made the city different too.
“Most obviously was the sound of traffic noise disappearing,” he says.
“I live in Oxford, which is an ancient city full of old colleges and small streets – and in the lockdown you can almost imagine how it would have been to live here 300 years ago, before cars and industry came along.”
Fowkes points out that he immediately began noticing the silence in the streets, which allowed the bells from individual colleges to be made out at a distance.
“For the first time I could clearly hear the bells from my own house, and I think the little things like that have truly been one of the few wonderful positives in a horrific time for everyone.”
When he finally set out to start "#StayHomeSounds", Fowkes was amazed by the responses he began receiving.
“The two things I loved were that it was not just people who'd consider themselves field recordists, but just people who wanted to share their story from all over the world.”
The stories shared by the people, Fowkes adds, also had personal insights and perspectives, which gave the project so much more emotional resonance and depth than a simple collection of recordings.
“In today's world, context, voices and stories are so important,” he notes.
Diverse Collection Of Stories
A brief exploration through “Cities And Memory” and one can immediately encounter how vastly different the sound settings are in each respective locale.
For Fowkes, the variety is both compelling and surprising, as it included sounds such as people reading out stories to socially-distanced children, and guitars hanging in trees in the snow, as well as famous tourist attractions that are now shrouded in silence.
“What surprised me personally was the vibrant tapestry of different sounds, not just the absence of it,” explains Fowkes.
“This includes applause for healthcare workers to the sounds of a reawakened natural world, and so much more.”
He believes that sound is able to resonate better in documenting this changing landscape, as sound is closely interwoven with our daily lives.
“Sound really resonates in terms of telling those close, intimate stories. When I listen to the sound of people clapping for healthcare workers from a balcony in Malaga, or a protest against Bolsonaro in Belo Horizonte, I can really feel like I'm in those places.”
Despite the different geographical locations, some of the submitted recordings did share common elements such as an increased presence of nature.
“Noticeably, we hear birds louder than ever, or hear new species in the city that you would never hear before,” Fowkes elaborates.
“In cities we hear the sounds of protest or social unrest; the sounds of how people are keeping themselves entertained or in touch with family during the lockdown. There are even some novel sounds we've never heard before, like anti-coronavirus songs playing on the radio in Senegal.”
Solidarity Through Sound
Of all the recordings he has received, Fowkes singles out the protest sounds from Brazil as the most impactful for him personally.
“It was incredibly powerful to hear – listening to the people and reading the news from afar, I can almost share in the frustration, anger and sadness of a country trying to cope but being betrayed by its own president,” he says.
When asked if he expects the world to go back to the way it once was, filled with familiar sounds that we are all accustomed to, Fowkes pragmatically admits he is of two minds.
“My heart says no, things will change. But my head says unfortunately I think things will mostly – slowly – return to normal, as our capitalist system is so engrained and embedded it's hard to see how it won't be restored more or less in full,” he adds.
“That said, it will be some time before we get to hear the roar of a sports crowd or a packed bar chattering again, but it will come.
“I just hope that some of the environmental benefits of the lockdown can be kept and we see fewer cars, fewer flights, less industry and greener – and quieter – solutions to society's biggest challenges.”
Until that time comes though, Fowkes hopes that "#StayHomeSounds" will be able to serve as a long-term document of how the world's sounds have changed during the pandemic.
He also anticipates that in the short term, the recordings will be able to help people, in allowing them to listen to similar sounds from across the world.
“Maybe by reading these personal stories, they will be able to feel just that little bit more connected as we go through this together as a global population.”
Cover Image: Ana Frantz/Unsplash
Writer | Richard Augustin
Two decades in journalism but Richard believes he has barely scraped the surface in the field. He loves the scent of a good story and the art of storytelling, two elements that constantly fuel his passion for writing.