The mostly defunct red phone booths don’t attract much attention in London anymore, except from tourists. But Stuart Fowkes is delighted to find one still in working order.
His ring is one of the world’s endangered sounds that his pioneering “obsolete sounds” project is dedicated to preserving.
He pulls out a portable recording device and springs into action, explaining, “I’ve always had a curiosity about sound.
“New sounds appear faster than at any time in history, but they also change and disappear faster than ever.”
Over the past five years, Fowkes’ Cities and Memories website has collected and remixed over 5,000 sounds from 100 countries which are archived by the British Library.
Today, his latest project aims to preserve sounds that are “just at the edge of memory”.
Those sounds that we “almost forget” are the ones that have the “greatest emotional resonance”, he told AFP.
“What struck me was how people reacted emotionally to certain recordings.
“You have people who heard the sound of a Super 8 camera and it reminded them of being in their living room in 1978 with their dad showing them home movies for the first time.”
The Obsolete Sounds project includes over 150 recordings collected from around the world, as well as remixes of these sounds by musicians and sound artists.
Considered the largest collection of its kind, it includes everything from personal Walkman stereo cassette players and vintage video game consoles to steam trains and vintage race cars, as well as sounds evoking the environment rapidly changing nature, like crumbling glaciers.
“Before the Industrial Revolution, our sonic environment — horse bells and hooves and manual industry — wouldn’t have changed much for hundreds of years,” Fowkes says.
“Today the pace of change is ridiculous. Things that are only a few years old, like ringtones on cell phones, already sound dated.”
Descending below street level in the London Underground network, Fowkes gets back to work.
Much like the ‘trainspotters’ that were once a familiar sight on British station platforms, Fowkes is a dedicated ‘soundspotter’.
But to him, there is nothing boring or uninteresting about the screeching of train wheels scraping the curves of metal rails or the sound of doors opening and closing.
“I’ve always been someone who listens to the world. As soon as I have a recording device in my hand, I start to listen to the world differently and hear things that other people wouldn’t notice or listen to. not necessarily.” he says.
The digital consultant launched Cities and Memories in 2015 and has attracted some 1,000 collaborators around the world.
“Every morning I wake up to emails with recordings from a completely unexpected place, like a beach in Bali or even the subway in Pyongyang,” he says.
Field recordings are “going on a while”, he adds, with artists such as ethereal Icelandic singer Bjork using them in their music.
“It used to be considered niche behavior, even trainspotting, but now anyone can make a decent recording on their phone and it’s becoming more and more common.”
Fowkes was delighted with the response to his project – but wants more, especially from African cities.
Anyone can contribute, he says, simply by “putting their cell phone out the window” and then visiting citiesandmemories.com.
In the meantime, he will continue to add his own recordings, while admitting that his devotion can sometimes be a source of mild irritation for his wife.
“Every time we go to a new vacation destination…I say ‘did you hear that crosswalk? I have to go save it “.”
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