“Humans are a really, really noisy bunch and we’re getting louder all the time,” says composer Stuart Fowkes, creator of the “global collaborative sound project” Cities and Memory.
Since its beginning in 2014, Cities and Memory has created sound maps focused on protest, sacred places, and photographs. Its newest project, however, steps away from humans and instead focuses on the areas where the natural world is undisturbed. Sounding Nature is the biggest global collection of nature sounds, featuring nearly 500 sounds from 55 countries, from jungles to glaciers to underwater shrimp recordings. The map has two parts: the field recording of the sound itself, and then the musical remix it inspired.
The Verge spoke with Fowkes about the new project and how sound pollution is disturbing the natural world. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you tell me about the origins of this project?
First, we wanted to try and showcase what a map of the world would sound like if you couldn’t hear the humans. That’s really difficult to do because humans are a really, really noisy bunch and we’re getting louder all the time. Noises in the ocean have doubled every 10 years for the past 50 years, and the trend is holding even for remote areas.
The other side is that we wanted to shine a light on how the noise we make as human beings can have a serious and dramatic impact on the natural world. We’re not just talking about the animals being irritated, we’re talking about habitat changing and physiological changes.
What type of physiological changes are we talking about?
The first and most obvious one is hearing loss, which we don’t often think about with animals, but animals need to be able to hear to avoid predators, too. There are changes like increased stress in animals. There’s behavioral changes that can vary depending on the species. An example was done on tree frogs exposed to traffic noise for a period of days. At the end, they experienced a 19 percent drop in the efficiency of immune responses, which is a huge problem.
Where is this noise pollution the biggest problem? I imagine it’s linked to urban development.
That would be about right. I don’t think it’s a huge, huge problem in Antarctica. And if you go to New York City, you’ll find the noise pollution levels are so high that animals have adapted. I think the danger is when sound increases quite suddenly, like areas of rapid urbanization. Around problems not related to urbanization would be drilling sites and oil rig sites in remote rural areas. It’s impossible to overstate quite how novel it is in a marine environment to have this sudden increase in intrusive noise.
There’s great evidence that the window of time without noise pollution is closing. A friend of mine recorded sound in Hamburg, and one of his favorite things is to record the dawn chorus, when you get up at daybreak and all the birds wake up and start singing at once. It’s a magical sound and he found that there’s a window of only about 25 minutes, after which the first flight from Hamburg goes over and ruins everything. This window is getting smaller and smaller.
What are some of the sounds included on the map?
The project as a whole covers 55 countries and almost 500 sounds. There’s exotic sounds like hippos and hyenas, to stuff like nightingales and robins and the sound of the geyser in Iceland and Hurricane Harvey as it passed overhead in Texas. It’s been a privilege to be able to share the world of some field recorders who dedicate their lives to recording the sounds of nature and camping out to try to capture things like baboons being frightened.
Some of the more specialized recordings are, say, in sanctuaries in Senegal, but there are also sounds from urban areas that people have snatched on their iPhones.
The second part of the project is a remix inspired by the nature sound, right?
Right. You hear the original recording and recomposed version where someone has taken the original and created some kind of artistic response. You’ll find everything from full-on house and techno tracks to compositions to people basing tracks on Shakespeare plays. It’s amazing. I can give the same sound to 10 different people and they’ll come back with 10 completely different artistic inspirations. It’s just a delight to be sent all of this stuff.
What’s next for Cities and Memory?
A lot of the things I’ve done with Cities and Memory have been around the idea of what’s unique, what’s out there that isn’t like everything else. I feel like something we’re interested in now is the sounds that define a particular city — when you think of your city, what do you think? Are those sounds going to be around forever, and if not, why?