In Miami and Philadelphia, an MIT professor is leading citywide efforts to turn urban noise into a masterful symphony. But for enthusiasts elsewhere, who may not have the means to mobilize an entire community to gather soundbites, there are other ways to make a city sing.
Since the late 1990s, the London artist Stanza has been mapping sounds from cities across the globe—from New York to Berlin to Tokyo—and asking the public to contribute. “I realized that the whole value of putting it online is sharing it with everybody, so I made the database open sourced,” he says.
His online database, Soundcities, launched in the early 2000s; now, it includes thousands of sounds from dozens of cities. The clips are short and often recorded by phone or with inexpensive recorders. There are sounds of protests in Barcelona, of a man sweeping the floors in the English city of Camberwell, of a cockatoo in the heart of Taipei.
These sounds are what Stanza believes reveal a city’s identity—especially as cities appear increasingly visually alike. Certain aspects, like shiny high-rises, hipster coffeeshops, and large shopping complexes, seem to repeat themselves from place to place—which Stanza attributes, in part, to globalization.
But, “if you walk around blind,” he says, “you can hear those differences.” Listening to people talk might reveal the issues the community cares about, for example, and paying attention to the languages spoken uncovers the demographic diversity that makes up city populations. Listening in on how traffic noise mixes with more natural sounds might expose how a city evolved and how urbanized it is.
The way to appreciate all of a city’s sounds, according to Stanza, is to treat the mix like music. “As you’re navigating the city, you sort of make your own musical interpretation of this space,” he says. And in that sense, we become the conductors of a city’s soundscape. Each individual soundbite is like a sample that can be remixed and incorporated into different musical pieces.
So he encourages the public to not only contribute clips from various cities, but to actually use the database in performances and other projects. Stanza has multiple installations, including an interactive sound map called Herd Above the Noise, in which users can arrange clips from various cities to play in succession. Users can filter sounds by city or by mood—ambient versus industrial, for example.
In an accompanying installation created at his studio, Stanza laid 170 speakers on the ground, arranged like a map of London. But they can be reconfigured to look like maps of Rome, Paris, or even the world, depending on where it’s displayed. The sounds played through the speakers correspond to where the sounds are tagged on the Soundcities, essentially creating an audio tour of the city via a live version of the database.
The clips can also be combined with traditional music, in the same way that MIT’s project in Miami combines urban noise with symphonic instruments. But the “noise” can be its own tunes and rhythms.
“The city is its own music, constantly evolving, a beautiful composition of squeaks, clanks, and pulses,” Stanza writes on his website. “The city is the orchestra.”