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“Missing Sounds of New York” Brings the City to Your Headphones

The New York Public Library has released a playlist of sounds that take us back to pre-pandemic days in the city that never sleeps.

Missing Sound of New York recreates the sounds that New Yorkers are missing during this period of self-isolation (artwork by Mother New York, courtesy of NYPL)

Ah, the sounds of New York City: a symphony of cars honking in unison, an impromptu subway concert, the percussive clink and clatter of silverware at that one raucous restaurant where you can never get a reservation. For New Yorkers, even the daily racket that once made some of us pledge to move upstate now seems charming and nostalgic.

The city that never sleeps, an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US, has been rendered uncharacteristically silent except for the occasional chirrup of birds or, distressingly, the endless loop of ambulance sirens.

That’s why The New York Public Library (NYPL), in partnership with creative agency Mother New York, has released a playlist of comforting sounds that take us back to pre-pandemic days in the city. “Missing Sounds of New York,” publicly available to stream on Spotify or on NYPL’s website, is a collection of audio landscapes that lead us from the park to the train to the streets themselves, where zooming vehicles’ basses thump as chatty neighbors converse in a fusion of languages.

One of the tracks, “To See an Underground Show,” is a collaboration with the beloved Bronx-based dancer and music producer Kid the Wiz, who went viral when he started dancing in the middle of Times Square as a high schooler. The track blends the familiar swoosh of moving trains and shuffle of rush-hour riders punctuated by diverse beats and applause during a subway dance performance, an NYC standby. The track gives way to “Romancing Rush Hour,” an aural tour of the busy station itself, complete with a saxophone solo.

Another, titled “Never Call It a Night Again,” opens with a baritone voice asking for IDs, the recognizable prelude to an evening out. Inside the bar, drinks pouring, whispers, and giggles set a sultry nocturnal scene. The intoxicating buzz of overlapping conversations and cocktail shakers evokes the singular allure of not knowing what the night will bring.

The coda to the album is “The Not-Quite-Quiet Library,” a recording of sounds from inside NYPL’s busy flagship branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in Midtown Manhattan. Amidst the pitter-patter of feet in the library’s majestic hall, a tour guide’s voice leads visitors to landmarks such as the two marble lions that flank the building’s entrance, Patience and Fortitude.

For those of us in New York and elsewhere, NYPL’s kaleidoscopic urban soundtrack is more than a much-needed respite from the monotony of being inside and at home. It is perhaps also a hopeful reminder of the world awaiting us on the other side of the crisis, one pulsing with life and adventure.

“Missing Sounds of New York” is one of many forms of escape provided by the library, all free of charge: NYPL also offers countless recommendation lists for e-books, curated by its expert librarians and ready to download immediately for an imaginary journey away from your living room.

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