The Quest to Find the First Soundscape

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The practice of recording the ambient sound of cities has exploded over the last few years. Every one with a smartphone is carrying around a fairly high-quality audio recorder that can upload instantly to the internet. Combined with mapping tools, people have built unprecedented archives of how our cities sound.

Seoul, Barcelona, New York, Madrid, Vancouver, Toronto, Berlin, New Orleans. All these places have active soundscape mapping projects. All over the world, people are walking outside and recording whatever is happening. Then, a different set of people is putting on their headphones and plunging into the aural world of a jamon shop in Spain, glasses clinking all around.

Tools like Audioboo, a simple service that lets you geolocate and upload recordings from a smartphone, are enabling whole nations to be enlisted as distributed recorders. Earlier this year, Scion partnered with The Smalls to launch a US soundmapping initiative called Street Sounds. The British Library teamed with Audioboo to create a nationwide sound archive of the United Kingdom this year, too.When people look back at 2010, they will have a pretty good idea about the noises dense agglomerations of people make in our time.

Touring the sound of these cities across the globe, I began to wonder if I could do the same thing in time. Could I go back a hundred years and listen to New York or Paris?

When it comes to film, you can see all kinds of old places. Sometimes even in high resolution, thanks to the work of archivists like Rick and Megan Prelinger. These films are incredibly important records for historians and citizens alike. They give us eyes in the past.

There's an amazing film sequence of San Francisco in 1905. A camera was placed on a streetcar and driven down Market Street, the diagonal that cuts through the city's core. Pedestrians, cars, carts, horses, the whole dizzying array of urban life before electricity and the automobile turned our cities inside-out. We recognize our buildings, but not our city. Similar recordings exist of most major cities.

I figured that there had to be similar documentation of the metropolitan soundscape, or any soundscape really.

But there isn't.

 


 

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You could easily be fooled into thinking that a very early recording of a city exists. At the University of California Santa Barbara, the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project holds a brown wax recording labeled, "Urban scene- newsboys yelling "Extra, extra"; car horns; and other sounds of the city, sometimes in non-English language." It was made between 1890 and 1902.

Listen to it.

It's scratchy and difficult to discern independent sounds, but maybe we hear a bell ringing, some horns and some vrooms, the clop-clop of horse hooves, a couple of people singing. When Suzanne Fischer, an archivist at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit sent me this link, I thought I had found my city soundscape! And it was just like I thought it would be. Horse hooves and horns, people singin' in the streets.

But this earliest recording of a city is actually fake. Or perhaps that's too harsh a term. What we hear is a performance of an urban soundscape. A banal radio play.

Actually recording the sturm-und-drang of a city would have been next to impossible impossible. "It would have been very difficult to do an on-the-spot actuality recording," explained Matt Barton, the curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress. "It was very difficult to do the kind of documentary recording that would be analogous to filming."

We have to go back to the actual physical recording technologies used to understand why we couldn't record cities.

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