Art project captures sound of cities during coronavirus outbreak

Lanre Bakare

An anti-coronavirus song from Senegal, applause for health workers ringing out in Paris and the return of the dawn chorus in Warsaw are just a few of the sounds that have been captured as part of an art project that aims to record how the sound of cities is dramatically changing during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Cities and Memories website has collected field recordings from around the world for the past five years and this week launched a new campaign to build a global crowdsourced sound map, which shows how our aural lives are shifting as lockdown affects the world and urban environments evolve.

Stuart Fowkes who runs the project, which has had contributions from 70 countries, says the outbreak and subsequent lockdown has transformed the way cities sound in the matter of a few days. “This is a really unique time when the world is sounding like it’s never sounded before,” he said. “In none of our lifetimes has the world ever sounded like it does right now.”

“There are lots of amazing photo galleries of abandoned cities and great video testimonies but there hasn’t been a huge amount focusing on the way that the world’s sounds have been shifting,” he added.

The interactive map features a sound from around the world and information about the entry and the contributor. So far they have included everything from the changing sounds of morning prayer from a Tibetan monastery in northern India to a Finnish woman reading out excerpts of Roald Dahl stories to her infant relatives in isolation.

Fowkes says the sounds can be categorised into four areas. Firstly, the new sounds that have been created because of the outbreak, such as applause for health workers. “There are recordings from Brussels, Paris, Lima, Madrid from people who are doing it every single night,” he said. “There are church bells being rung to support health workers as well, these are the new sounds.”

People in Paris take part in a daily applause in support of medical workers. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

The second category is sounds from inside the home, such as a woman in Helsinki who can’t see the children in her family so she records stories for them remotely instead. “We’ve got a chapter of the BFG being read out in Finnish,” said Fowkes. “It’s what people are doing inside their own houses and how they are coping with social distancing and how that can be translated into sounds.”

The third is sounds from the natural world that are reemerging as human activity in cities dwindles. Fowkes says a man from Warsaw said he could hear birdsong that had not been audible before. “One of the few positives from this situation is that people are starting to reconnect with nature a little bit and starting to notice the sounds that are usually drowned out around them,” he said. “It’s not the biggest thing in the world but it is a little bonus.”

The last category is the lack of typical sounds caused by the desertion of certain places, such as Times Square in New York, which is one of the most popular urban attractions in the world but a recording sent to Fowkes captures how “now all you can hear is just an air-conditioning drone and nothing else”.

Barbara Leigh, 93, (second left) rings a bell for the NHS, with her family in Manchester. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Fowkes says the project is not just about collecting the sounds, it’s also about recording people’s experiences and concerns, such as fears they may have about losing their jobs or how they are going to entertain housebound children for weeks on ends. “We had one in this morning from someone in New York who said the city hasn’t sounded like this since 9/11,” Fowkes said. “There’s a real sense in New York that it feels like ground zero again because it is the epicentre of the outbreak in the US.”

Fowkes hopes the project will encourage people to pay more attention to their sonic surroundings and notice how human activity can change it dramatically, for example, the disappearance of air traffic “People don’t necessarily notice when something disappears but when it comes back again they really notice it,” he said.

“The sounds of cities are changing all the time,” he added. “Before any of this happened traditional sounds, such as church bells, were starting to become harder to hear and birds were starting to change the way they call in order to combat traffic noise. But now things are really changing in a matter of weeks.”

Anyone can take part in the project by contributing a sound to the map. Entries can be sent to the website and Fowkes says his dream addition would be church bells from Italian towns and villages. “I’d love to be there to record the bell towers ringing while everything else is pretty much closed. I think that is a poignant reminder of daily life as it should be and daily life as it is now.”