Mention New York City and immediately images of buildings like the Flatiron, Chrysler and Empire State, or perhaps even other famous structures such as the Brooklyn Bridge, come to mind.
But the Big Apple is certainly more than those concrete icons that have helped shaped and defined its skyline over the decades. A big part of what makes New York City so identifiable is also owed to the sounds that percolate through the densely populated streets.
Just a few years ago, Breather, an online platform that provides on-demand private workspaces, produced recordings to help its clients focus and concentrate on their daily tasks. They included several iconic locations in New York City neighbourhoods.
Called “Sounds Of New York”, the project featured recordings of atmospheric sounds from the Comedy Cellar, Apollo Theatre and Chinatown, to name a few.
Each soundscape not only served as an opportune and inventive marketing tool for Breather but it also allowed workers to listen to the familiar sounds of the city. For some, these moments of familiarity also served as an important accompaniment for workers as they went about their daily workday from the comfort of their workspace or office – regardless wherever they were at the time.
Although “Sounds Of New York” has ultimately run its course and is no longer made available by Breather, for the moment, there are still ample soundscapes of New York City that are widely available on the internet.
Thanks to the work of several passionate individuals, these intriguing soundscapes of the Big Apple help provide a deeper understanding of the many different layers behind this unique city.
A Blast From The Past
History is perhaps one of the best ways to help people understand how sound has played a part in moulding New York City to what it is today. For this unique perspective, Professor Emily Thompson has provided curious listeners the opportunity to “travel back in time” to the late 1920s – a time period many credit as an industrial boom for the city.
Together with the help of designer, Scott Mahoy, Thompson created The Roaring Twenties, an online resource that helps transport visitors to that era. It paints a picture of the cacophony of New York City, complete with sound and newsreel footage recorded between 1930 and 1933.
The audio and visual footage, ranging from sirens to ferry whistles, street traffic and construction, is also further complemented with an interactive map of the city from that era. There is even interesting documented proof: newspaper clippings, as well as noise complaints lodged by residents during that time.
In her presentation of the project to Princeton’s University’s Department of History, where Thompson also serves as a Professor, she explains that the aim of The Roaring Twenties is not merely to present sonic content surrounding New York City, but to also evoke the original contexts of those sounds and to help people better understand that context – as well as the sounds themselves.
The main goal of the project, she says, is to recover the meaning of sound and undertake a historicised mode of listening that tunes our modern ears to the pitch of the past.
For visitors and enthusiasts, The Roaring Twenties project not only helps draw an important, albeit different, picture of the Big Apple, but also chronicles its rise as a prominent city.
If anything, the interactive site acts as a time machine that helps pull back the curtain of the city’s well-storied past, while also helping visitors understand the sonic culture that has become part and parcel of New York’s environment that many identify with today.
Modern Sounds Of The Big City
Over the years, the landscape of New York City has changed dramatically. One thing has however, remained a constant – and that is the distinctive soundscapes from its streets that fill the air around the city.
This particular hustle and bustle soundscape of the Big Apple that native New Yorkers have come to know and love are now part of a series of recordings by field recordists Marcel Gnauk and Libby Green.
Both Marcel and Libby are founders of Free To Use Sounds, an online sound library featuring royalty-free recordings captured from around the world. One of the most downloaded and popular recordings are, unsurprisingly, the duo’s series on New York City.
In total, there are three volumes of “New York City Sounds”. They showcase the diversity of sounds that are produced, as well echoed throughout the Big Apple practically on a daily basis.
Marcel and Libby’s recordings seemingly act as an aural tour of this bustling city. To give you an idea, their recordings ranging from city traffic and people along busy 5th Avenue, the rumblings of trains at main stations as well as neighbourhood sounds from popular areas such as Queens and Brooklyn.
Each recording is also accompanied by a brief description of the location, as well as the circumstances that occurred during the time.
The sounds captured by Marcel and Libby that are featured across the three volumes (so far) have provided novice sound artists and professional sound designers a resource to tap into these iconic sounds for their projects.
They include a wide spectrum of industries, ranging from film to music and video games, as well as advertising across the globe.
However the most important takeaway from “New York City Sounds” is the fact that it is helping to document life in the city as well as that of its citizens. This in itself will no doubt serve as a living and breathing historical audio map of the city, which will then be useful for visitors for years to come.
Cover Image: Jonathan Riley/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.