Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

21 May 2014

Guest post from Cities and Memory

THE LONDON SOUND Survey very kindly asked me to send in a few words about the sound mapping/remixing project I run called Cities and Memory so here we go.

To give you the elevator pitch, so to speak, the basic idea behind Cities and Memory is that it’s a global sound map, except in every location there are two sounds instead of one. The first sound is the ‘real’, documentary field recording of what that place actually sounds like.

The second sound is a reimagining of it – whether it’s remixed, edited, combined with other sounds, reworked musically, whatever it might be is completely open to interpretation by the remixer. This gives the listener two sound worlds to explore – the real, and the imagined, or of course you can switch at will between two different worlds of sound on the map. But really the best way to get a feel for it is to take a look at the sound map and listen to a few of the sounds.

Cities and Memory soundmap

Since I’m based in the UK, there are already a lot of recordings from around the country, so it’d be remiss of me not to mention a few sounds from London, since I’m here on the London Sound Survey’s time! Each of the links contains both the original recording and the alternative version, with explanations as to how the remixed version came about.

A preacher on Electric Avenue in Brixton.

The Barbican Centre from the inside.

Competitive sport in Spitalfields Market.

Euston underground station.

I think there’s a real flexibility and interchange possible between the two worlds of field recording as documentary, recording a place and time unfiltered and unprocessed, and sound art and manipulation of sound. The two can have a dialogue with one another and I think just as listening to the field recording can show you where the remix came from, listening to the remixed version can add a new context to the original recording and the original sound environment and help to see it in a new way.

The idea came about through a few different strands coming together at the same time. I’ve been field recording for about ten years, mostly in a musical context to fit field recordings into musical compositions (for instance Listing Ships), and I’d been considering using field recordings to create places that couldn’t possibly exist. For instance, if you took straightforward field recordings of, say, the pyramids in Egypt and an English country garden together, you’d be able to create a new sonic environment that didn’t exist.

So I’d been thinking of doing something more ‘pure’ with sound and less musical. Around the same time, I was reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities – here, Marco Polo is describing his amazing travels to Kubla Khan, describing fictional cities by their remarkable characteristics and people. It becomes clear that in every instance he’s talking about his home city of Venice, and that places are completely different for every individual, according to how they experience the place subjectively.

These two ideas gelled together to become Cities and Memory (which takes its name from the Calvino book) – a place where there are two sound worlds coexisting simultaneously, and in which each individual’s imagination can come into play in terms of reimagining how a place could sound.

Cities and Memory masthead

On top of that, I’m something of a frustrated cartographer, so I knew that I wanted some kind of mapping element to the project, but that I wanted to add something different and new to the wealth of excellent sound maps that are already out there, including this one, which I’ve been following for some time.

Cities and Memory was always intended to be completely open, and submissions are welcome from anyone around the world - contributors so far have come from as far afield as LA and Calcutta, as well as quite a few here in the UK, whether field recordists, musicians, sound artists or just sonically curious people. People can either submit both a field recording and their own remixed version, or just send a field recording for us to work on ourselves, or alternatively I have a huge bank of submitted field recordings which I’m happy to share for others to remix.

What excites me about the project most is the sense of infinite possibility – in theory any place could be added to the map, and at any time since of course places can sound very different according to the time of year or even the time of day. And each remix is completely open to the imagination and interpretation of the remixer, so in theory any one recording could have an infinite number of reworkings!

I’m a big fan of Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes – one of the most enlightening books on photography I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’m not the first person to draw attention to similarities between field recording and photography (see for example Des Coulam’s posts on Soundlandscapes), but there’s something in particular that grabs me in Camera Lucida. Barthes explains his concepts of the ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ of a photo – the studium basically being a formal characteristic of a photo that makes it a ‘good photo’, e.g. this photo is well-composed or well-lit.

The punctum, on the other hand, refers to that indefinable ‘something’ about a photo that just grabs your eye, arrests you and moves you – it may not be related to anything around why the photo is technically a good one, it may not be the thing that you’re ‘supposed’ to be looking at first in the photo, and it may be different for each individual. But it grabs you and you can’t help it.

I think there’s a similar quality to field recording. When I listen back to recordings, when it’s a successful recording there’s always something in there that jumps out as the outstanding characteristic of that sound. Perhaps it’s something that really sums up that place – a sound that could only have come from that place, and perhaps even only at that time. But sometimes it’s something unexpected, like the beeping entry door poking out in Florence’s baptistery, for example (see Insects inside the baptistery). That’s how I select the recordings that make the final cut: there’s a ‘punctum’ there, which sums up the experience of what it was like for me to be in that place at that time. And when I’m remixed or re-editing the sounds, it’s usually that element that I focus on and try to draw out, manipulate or highlight.

In terms of where the project is heading, the most prosaic aim would be to have as many places as possible represented on the map in order to make a decent stab at the concept of remixing the world one sound at a time. But more ideally, I’d love this to be a destination for people eager to experiment with sound and place and exercise their imaginations through sound. I think there’s a huge untapped area of creativity around sound online in terms of how it’s presented and consumed – all the major innovations so far are around video and photography, the visual world, and yet there’s nothing quite like sound (until the internet of smells comes along) to give you an enveloping, evocative sense of the entirety of what a place is like.

If Cities and Memory can inspire people to think differently about the sounds that surround them every day and how there’s music and beauty to be experienced in even the most mundane of sounds, then I think that’s the point at which I can say it’s been a success. Anyhow, I hope it’s of interest to some readers here, and please drop me a line at stuart AT citiesandmemory DOT com – I’d love to hear from you!

Stuart Fowkes