Meet the composer creating a crowdsourced soundmap of the world in lockdown
Already they sound like strange echoes of the past. Public announcements in silenced airports, asking that people stay one metre apart, in Spain, in March 2020. The sound of music and clapping in support of frontline workers, in April. Fruit vendors calling out on the quieted streets of Chandigarh. The croaking of frogs in the formerly-bustling city of Valdivia, Chile.
When the world went into lockdown last March, British composer Pete Stollery had a sound idea. The 61-year-old professor of electro-acoustic music and composition at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, reached out via social media and asked people to send in recordings of ways in which their everyday soundscapes changed amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
He suggested four possible groups of sounds: recordings from quietened city centres and public spaces, loudspeaker announcements relating to the pandemic, birdsong and other sounds from nature, and new community events (such as the clapping for frontline workers).
Stollery has received 241 recordings from 24 countries so far — the bulk of these from the UK and mainland Europe, the rest from around the world, including the US, Canada, Japan, India and Australia. Submissions are still rolling in and Stollery is logging them one by one. Many are now audible on his Google Earth sound map (tinyurl.com/covid19soundmap), a sonic memory of a unique time, preserved for posterity.
In so many senses, we mustn’t forget, Stollery says. Excerpts from an interview:
What sparked this idea?
My research area is composing and making sound art using technology. I spend a lot of time making recordings of places from all over the world. Sometimes I make pieces of electronic music using the sounds I’ve recorded. But I also like to preserve sounds, using sound maps. They are like photographs preserved in an album. I also think of these as a museum of sounds.
When we went into lockdown in the UK, it was a terrible time — I’m not trying to trivialise it in any way — but we found ourselves in a situation where there wasn’t any traffic on the road, no airplanes in the sky, and it was very different as far as our ears are concerned. I wanted to capture and preserve that. It fits in exactly with my research.
What, to you, are the interesting sounds you’ve collected so far?
The bird sounds are different from each country. I have a very interesting sound sent to me from Chile, where they have a lot of frogs in the city but you don’t normally hear them because of the traffic.
Someone from the UK sent me a recording from a hospital waiting room, which is normally full of people. While sharing the sound with me, she wrote, “Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time at Inverclyde Royal Hospital, but I’ve never heard the lifts so clearly before. This recording was taken on the 8th floor and it’s hard to imagine, in this silence, what the atmosphere is like one floor below in the dedicated Covid-19 ward.”
What did you feel, when you listened to this soundscape of a changed world?
This feels like a museum to me. Because in 10 years’ time we will all be looking back on Covid in a different way, and it will be one of the very important points in history. I definitely want to capture what it sounded like so that people can listen to it like they might go to a museum. Hopefully that will have an emotional impact.
What impact do you hope this project will have, on a world slowly opening up again?
When we come out of this, all vaccinated and back to normal, I want people to wonder, where have the birds gone? Why can’t we hear them now? And then perhaps we can put pressure on our city planners and make them understand that we need these natural sounds around us, and that perhaps the way we plan cities should change.
What has the lockdown been like for you?
I live in the countryside of northeast Scotland with my family. I have two grown-up sons who are also here because of the lockdown. The nearest shop is 6 miles away and it’s quiet all through the year. So, in the lockdown, what I hear while going out for a walk is exactly what I would normally hear, which feels strange given the sound clips I’ve received. There are fewer airplanes in the skies. That’s it.
What next, after this?
My next stage is collecting sounds as we come out of lockdown, so that we can compare the two. I hope to collect them throughout this year and I’m hoping that people who’ve sent me sounds will send me recordings again, depicting how it’s changed for them. I’m also going to make some pieces of music, using the sounds that people have sent me. I’ve started one recently where it starts in America, then I go on a journey, to Turkey and then somewhere else. So, it’s a kind of guided tour of different parts of the planet, but with sound.