The photograph is dark, cooling towers stark against a sky streaked with color. This is the Drax power station in England, a site of pollution and protests. What would it be like to stand at the site? What would this scene sound like?
The Drax photo is part of “Sound Photography,” a beautiful new project from Cities and Memory. Composer Stuart Fowkes started Cities and Memory in 2014 as a “global collaborative sound project.” It has a sound map of recordings from around the world, as well as special projects focusing on the sound of protests, the sounds of sacred places, prison songs, and more. Cities and Memory now covers more than 75 countries, and over 500 artists have contributed.
For “Sound Photography,” Fowkes asked volunteers around the world to send in photos. He put these into a database, then sound artists chose a photo and came up with a composition based on how the photo made them think and feel. “Sound is the neglected sense,” says Fowkes. We think “pictures or it didn’t happen,” and our social media platforms push us toward sound and video. “But sound is the first sense that we’re all aware of,” he adds. “We hear sound before we’re born, before we see, it’s intimate and close and important.”
Today, sound and visuals together usually means video. But Fowkes wanted to go for something different: “I wanted sound and static images, and seeing the image almost as a painting.”
The Verge chatted with Fowkes about his project, the power of sound, and what’s next. A few examples from “Sound Photography” are embedded here, but head over to the site to see and hear the rest.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Cities and Memory is based on “sound mapping.” What exactly is sound mapping?
Sound mapping is when someone goes to a place and documents the sound in a very true-to-life, encyclopedic way. Coming from a musical background myself, I wanted to bring something different. What would happen if you used the real sound and explored what that place could sound like? If you applied your own experience, your own memories to sound?
The net result is the Cities and Memory sound map. Every location has two sounds: the documentary, or “real” sound, and the memory sound, which is a recomposed or reimagined sound that takes the original recording and does something different. There’s one person collecting the field recordings, and you’ve got hundreds of artists creating this array of responses. That’s what I love about the project and the internet. I can’t go to all these places, but I could give the same field recording to 20 artists and come back with 20 completely different pieces based on that.
What is so compelling about sound?
Field recordings are an incredibly interesting source of material for musical inspiration. It’s not just the sounds themselves; it’s also the ways they can be manipulated and processed. Sound is basically limitless. So one thing is the pure artistic approach of seeing sound as source material.
The second is about helping people think differently about the world around them and how they listen to it. You can take a sound that’s pretty dull — say, the metro in Brooklyn. That’s something you hear every day and would consider to be part of the background. If you take that and turn it into a piece of techno or piano music, you present it in a lot of different ways and you start to get people to think differently. The project isn’t just about “remarkable” sounds like volcanos or political protests. It’s also about the very humdrum, almost boring sounds that are still fascinating in their own way.
Did you take any photos yourself for the project? Or compose anything?
I took photos and contributed two compositions. The first was a photo of a mural that had been done on the wall of a lighthouse in the south of Italy. It seemed like something from the pages of an old fairytale book, and so I created a sound backdrop that included real sounds of lighthouses and waves.
The second one is photo of the view outside the window of the house where I used to live. The sun came up perfectly and it created this really beautiful picture of light breaking through the tree. I remember feeling thankful that I happened to be up at this hour to see the sun. I created a sound piece called “Gratitude” that incorporated words for “thank you” in all these different languages.
There are always ideas buzzing around. One is the idea of the “connected city.” We’re thinking a lot about smart cities and how technology is becoming a part of how cities operate and their very construction. What does that mean? Is it something we should be embracing, something we should be concerned about? The other is that, because I have a weird obsession with airplanes, I think transitory spaces are always interesting.
Why the name Cities and Memory? Is the project focused just on cities and urban areas?
The name comes from the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. In the book, Marco Polo explains to Kublai Khan all the cities he’s been visiting on his fantastic travels. He describes each one of these cities in elaborate detail, and it turns out that he’s not describing cities. He’s describing his home city of Venice over and over, in lots of different ways. That makes you think that your experience of a city is very different from my experience. We all experience places in different ways, and that’s what I wanted to achieve with the project.
One thing specifically related to the photo project. Roland Barthes has a book on photography, and he talks about the concept of the punctum — the thing in a photo that just draws you instantly as an individual. It’s not related to how it’s formally good or what you “should” be looking at, it’s just the thing that catches your eye. And I think that is something you can also apply to sound.