Since 2014, hundreds of artists have been making field recordings, transforming them into new sounds, and sending both files to the online project Cities and Memory. Its founder, the Oxford-based musician Stuart Fowkes, has steadily been building a global, collaborative sound map that highlights the relationship between sound and personal memories and experiences. To date, it features over 1,300 sounds from more than 55 countries, with each sound accompanied by its remix: one user has tweaked a rush of water from Finland’s Lake Kilpisjärvi into a slow, ambient track; another, the shrill singing of cicadas in Sandy Bay, into a heavy, thrumming drone.
“If I ask you what Paris looks like, you’ll probably default to the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame as shorthand for the city,” Fowkes told Hyperallergic. “But if I ask you what it sounds like, you’d be much more likely to think of the sounds of the metro, or bustling cafes in Montmartre, for instance. Sound is often closer to our everyday life, but sometimes it’s almost so close that we ignore it.
“In focusing on the sounds that surround us every day, our hope is to help people listen to the world around them more closely, and perhaps reconsider their relationship with — and the importance in their lives of — sound.”
Cities and Memory’s most recent effort exemplifies this intention: it recently published “The Next Station,” described as the first-ever sound map of the London Underground. Compiled with the aid of 95 sound artists and the London Sound Survey, it features recordings from 55 stations and the corresponding, reimagined songs. Announcements, train screeches, footsteps, and the music of platform performers such as a didgeridoo player become minimal electronic compositions, heavy techno tracks, and other unexpected soundscapes, many of which completely transform the original recordings. Some meditate on London’s history — such as the artist who considered the wartime past of Angel station or one who reimagined the sounds of Piccadilly Circus in response to Brexit — while others introduce sounds from around the world or simply reflect on their creators’ personal memories.
“In listening to a reimagined version of a sound, we are forced to listen out for the familiar elements of the original recording that have stood out to the artist in question and have been used to create something new,” Fowkes said. “In doing so, we can ask ourselves what element of that sound we ourselves found most arresting or might have chosen as a starting point.”
“The Next Station” is just one of a number of sound projects Fowkes has organized, with each one focused on specific themes. Previous sound maps include “Dada Sounds,” an effort that invited artists to remix sounds with a Dadaist approach; “Sound Waves,” a water-focused collection; and “Prison Songs,” which involved 30 artists’ reimaginings of work songs recorded at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in the late 1940s. With each of its endeavors harnessing participation from around the world, Cities and Memory not only highlights past and contemporary sounds that we may take for granted but also how we come together around music in spite of geographic or cultural borders.
Cities and Memory has a consistent open call for submissions; to contribute a field recording, a reimagined sound, or both, simply follow the project guidelines.