The photograph is dark, coal power plants 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 “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.
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I trust by now we’ve all seen and been at least a little disturbed by The Selfish Ledger, the nearly 9-minute-long concept video from inside Google’s “moonshot factory” X labs. In the wake of it becoming public this week, Google quickly disavowed the video, claiming it was just a thought experiment “not related to any current or future products.” And yet, the company’s patent applications exhibit a mode of thinking that runs at least in parallel, if not on the exact same tracks, as The Selfish Ledger‘s total data collection proposal.
A reader pointed me in the direction of a Google patent application from 2015, made public last year, titled “Detecting and correcting potential errors in user behavior.” A core part of the Selfish Ledger concept can be defined in very similar terms: its premise, on the individual level, is to help users with self-improvement and behavior modification.
In all honesty, the idea described in this patent document sounds all kinds of helpful. It proposes a system wherein your device would use information Google already collects — such as travel itineraries from your email inbox — and act on that knowledge if it detects you’re going astray.
So if, like me on at least one occasion, you start heading to the wrong airport, your phone would be smart enough to notify you that you’re going the wrong way.
In order to make itself useful, however, your phone would require rather intimate knowledge of your life. Beside knowing your plans in advance, it has to also know your usual driving or commuting patterns, and it needs to be aware of your current location and activity in order to determine whether it’s in alignment with the earlier-indicated plan. This is the eternal dichotomy of Google’s services: they are genuinely useful and they do help, but how much of your privacy are you willing to give away to Google for the sake of that convenience?
Another Google patent application, also from 2015 and public since last year, is titled “Guided purchasing via smartphone.” This one is an automatic shopping assistant, which kicks in when it detects that you’re looking at a product that the system may be able to help you to buy.
Say you’re browsing through the latest sneakers on High Snobiety or The Verge‘s phone reviews. That’s when the system would offer to guide you through a purchasing process that has you select product type, features, model, and merchant.
To provide users with the correct guidance to complete a purchase, the proposed system would use information it has gained from previous users who had performed the required task sequence. To quote, it would “determine an order for the tasks within the associated sequence of tasks based at least in part on information gathered from consumers who have performed some or all of the tasks in the associated sequence of tasks.” Is this sounding like The Selfish Ledger yet?
One of the secondary claims in this “guided purchasing” patent application inserts advertisers into the final stages of the purchasing process.
Specifically, Google would collect bids from companies wanting to have their products surfaced on specific product searches within this system.
In this respect, the patent application departs from the highfalutin Brave New World aspects of The Selfish Ledger and gets right back to what makes money for Google: creating new services that help advertisers better flaunt their goods.
The thing that has most stood out to me, in witnessing the strongly negative reaction to The Selfish Ledger, has been how few people truly understand the extent of data collection that Google already engages in. The Selfish Ledger is not a radical departure from Google’s practices of today, it’s just a conceptual video taking them to their logical extreme.