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Mapping the Sounds of the London Underground

The Next Station catalogs and remixes the aural environments of 55 Tube stops.

Neil Hall/Reuters

Descend into one of the stations along the London Underground’s 11 lines, and you’ll be greeted with a predictable cacophony: the shriek of an oncoming train overlaid by a cool voice reminding commuters to “mind the gap” between the platform and the train, or the organized bustle of crowds passing through turnstiles and tube doors.

But you’ll also encounter sounds that are more specific and surprising. “There are multilingual conversations, buskers playing bagpipes, woodwind and lap steel guitars, chanting football fans, sick passengers, delayed trains, and much more,” says Stuart Fowkes, the creator of Cities and Memory, a global sound map that’s collected and cataloged sounds from 55 countries around the world since launching in 2014.

Fowkes’s latest endeavor, The Next Station, applies that method to 55 London Underground stations to create the first-ever sound map of the Tube. The project has two components. First, an interactive digital map offers a auditory tour of the Tube, “enabling anyone around the world to experience the now-iconic sounds of the world’s oldest underground railway,” Fowkes says. To aggregate all the noises, Cities and Memory teamed up with The London Sound Survey, and spent three months trawling through the stations and recording. In the Liverpool Street Station, they captured a droning, repetitious call of “Free Standard!” punctuated by a passerby calling out, “Stop shouting in my ear!” At Piccadilly Circus, beleaguered passengers meditate on the turmoil caused by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

The aural environment, Fowkes says, is influenced by physical differences in the Tube stations, like the depth of the tunnels, the newness (or otherwise) of the trains, and the shape of the station halls. “But the more fascinating differences, as ever, are related to people,” he adds. The project traces a path through the epicenter of British government at Westminster, to the hipster den of Dalston, to the multicultural hub of Brixton. Accents and outburst abound, painting a patchwork auditory portrait of a diverse city.

While the sound map is documentary in nature, the second section of The Next Station takes some creative liberties. For it, Fowkes commissioned 95 artists around the world to remix and reimagine the sounds of the Tube stations. Results varied delightfully. There’s an eight-minute long Muzak-inspired riff on the sounds of the Waterloo station, a compilation of a station announcement in 12 languages (below), and a narration of the beginning of Paddington Bear woven into the noises of the iconic character’s namesake station.

The noises that soundtrack the trip through a city  play an important role in people’s daily lives, Fowkes says. “The familiar beeps and clanks and the intonation of the station announcers all help to say to commuters that ‘all is well,’” he says. The noises are more ingrained than passengers tend to realize. “Sound is so closely tied to memory, as is one’s experience on the Underground,” Fowkes says. “The same Underground sound might trigger a totally different memory and a totally different emotional response from one person to the next.”

The Next Station offers a way to explore those responses and memories outside of their original context. The remixed playlist, Fowkes adds, might encourage people to engage with the sounds around them in a more creative way. Still in the early stages of the project, Fowkes says he hopes to expand The Next Station out to more Tube stops, and perhaps other subway systems worldwide.

Compared to visual markers in a city, sounds are much harder to encapsulate and preserve; they’re often taken for granted, Fowkes says. But “it’s vital that we recognize the importance of sound to our lives in today’s ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ culture,” he adds. “If a few more people decide to dispense with their headphones for the day and try listening to the world, the project has been a success.”                                      

H/t The Guardian

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