's Arena

Every Single Noise In The World

Is it possible to capture every single sound? user Kalli Mathios gets close with her catalog of sound libraries.

Photographs of sound waves generated by sparks and their reflections. Robert E. Wood, 1990.

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My roommate was out of town when the pandemic shut down New York City, in the terrifying days when hospitals overflowed with patients, and I wasn’t sure whether I should buy or make a homemade mask. I left my shoes outside the apartment; I disinfected my grocery items: cans, plastic containers, produce, the cleaning supplies themselves. It seemed like every moment of my life had a routine, a procedure; complimenting the rigidity I felt in my external world, I felt emotionally boxed in too, missing hangouts with my friends, poetry readings, yoga class, dancing in a crowded, smoky club.

When my roommate didn’t return, I converted her sun-lit room into an office and sat at my computer facing Allen Street. In the before times, our intersection kept us up at night. Cars honked at all hours, we could hear people tipsy-laughing on the street below, the low grate of skateboards rolling over concrete, a souped-up car pulled over in the no parking zone, four doors open, bass bumping. Whole groups of friends congregating outside of the 24-hour empanada spot. It was lit.

I never heard the birds until March of 2020. At the end of the work day, my neighbors would hang outside their windows or sit on their fire escape, banging pots, blowing whistles, and clapping for healthcare workers. It was a communal, ritual release. In the morning as the sun came up, I listened to birdsong over the Allen Street Mall sipping my coffee. It was eerie but eased my loneliness, providing a comfort I didn’t expect. It reminded me that I loved the natural world; it reminded me of all the absent sounds; it reassured me that the birds would still sing, and so could I. These replacement sounds created a new audio landscape, a new world in sound.

“These replacement sounds created a new audio landscape, a new world in sound.”

At the same time, I was circling back to sound poetry after abandoning it five years earlier. I started weaving music into my words, approaching the world ears first. I spent a lot of time in the UbuWeb sound archive studying sound poets. I wondered if I might find inspiration in searching for more sound collections and discover new ways to experiment with listening. I remembered a project a coworker had shown me through her work with the Kinokophone Collective. In 2015, they produced a series of field recordings at the British Library in support of the Save Our Sounds project, which aimed to place disappearing sounds within the context of various cultural, ecological, and technological perspectives. The Save Our Sounds project is described on the British Library Sound Archive’s website, but the original project page I linked to in my channel, Sound Libraries, almost four years ago is experiencing link rot, and a disappearance of its own.

Sound Libraries is part of the Librarians on group, a collaborative effort among like-minded library and information science workers and students to share resources and keep in touch. Contributions to the channel are open to the entire community. Obsolete Sounds was added by Media Librarian and Archivist Vinh Truong. The collection aggregates disappearing sounds like a pocket watch being wound, a lightswitch, a printing press machine, and a Geiko singing performance. Each sound is selected by a contributor who has recomposed and reimagined it, uniquely blurring the line between preservation and creative practice.

The inspiration for Sound Libraries was the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have an incredible bird-call collection, with over two million audio files. These recordings contribute to eBird and Merlin, resourceful apps beloved by birders for identification, tracking, and learning. I started the channel to share the resources like Macaulay’s audio collection and track what kinds of collections were out there; I wanted people to know that libraries hold more than books. At the same time, I wanted to keep the definition of a library as loose as possible. I was and continue to be primarily interested in both ordinary and obscure sounds, field recordings, and audio projects hosted by libraries, archives, non-profits, and creative collectives from around the world. I’m interested in researching a wide range of sound collections and learning more about the people who organize them and make them available to others online.

Obsolete Sounds inspired me to check out the Internet Archive’s Audio collections. I wondered if they had anything similar, but as I went down the rabbit hole I became delightfully distracted, spending time looking through radio program archives, a spirituality and religion collection, 78 RPMS and cylinder recordings, and a Grateful Dead collection. The Netlabels collection seemed curious, so I spent some time surfing its forum. It hosts complete, freely downloadable, and streamable catalogs of “virtual record labels''. I found a nowave French noise album recorded in 1999 (a year they describe as l'ère du brutal dèce, or the era of brutal death) on a label called Britney25MOMEStudio. It came to light after checking out a forum post recommending Verset 1334 by L'Office des Ténèbres.

Missing Sounds of New York was released on May 1, 2020 by The New York Public Library. It is an “auditory love letter to New Yorkers.” It spoke to the auditory subtractions we were living through at the time, but it can be listened to by anyone, anywhere, anytime. It’s New York as a romantic memory: as an underground show (remember those?), as a walk through Central Park, as my old street corner bustling with energy. Its audio landscapes tell stories, and allow us to live in them one track at a time.

100 Soundscapes of Japan are sound selections made by the Ministry of the Environment that exemplify the sounds of Japan in an effort to raise awareness for the effects of noise and environmental pollution. I collected the Wikipedia page for the project because I found the list moving and beautiful. It includes drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk (オホーツク海の流氷), Matsumushi (bell crickets) at the banks of the Yodo River (淀川河川敷のマツムシ), and the squeaking sand of Kotogahama Beach (琴ヶ浜海岸の鳴き砂).

I’m sitting at a desk in a sunlit apartment in Los Angeles in March of 2024, listening to American Crows, House Finches, and Dark-eyed Juncos from the window of my friend’s apartment. I’m here visiting for a few weeks. A steady stream of cruising cars builds out the audio landscape, too; I hear the breeze in the trees. The neighbor shaking out a rug, a car door closing, a plane overhead. How do our experiences of sound influence the way we think and feel about place? Who is it that hears these sounds, and why do we cling to them? While it is enough to be receptive to the beauty of sensory experiences lived best offline, my channel explores which sounds we record, save, and describe in our somewhat futile attempt to capture those ephemeral moments, always fleeting, brought back to life through sound.

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