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Sound: a vital part of intangible heritage

By Matt Pickles.

A common concern in heritage is that cities across the world look increasingly similar, with the proliferation of Starbucks and McDonalds signs and identikit skyscrapers. But are cities also starting to sound the same? This question is being explored by Stuart Fowkes and myself.

Sound is a vital part of a city’s “intangible heritage”. Speaking to a UNESCO audience at the launch of ‘Intangible Heritage’ in 2001, poet and novelist Juan Goytisolo referred to the “voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches” in Djemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech. Sounds are part of what make cities interesting and distinctive, and are often a reflection of a city’s community, culture and history.

But interesting sounds like markets, water, bells, festivals, conversation, and music are under threat. More cars, buses, planes and technological gadgets are producing more noise which is trapped between increasingly imposing buildings. Sounds of character and importance are being drowned out, not just by technology and construction, but also by a lack of recognition, protection and preservation.

In this immersive, multimedia presentation, we will discuss the importance of sound, consider how sound can be protected and promoted, and offer up some of the sounds of the world in which the audience can immerse themselves.

Recent attempts to preserve sound include the development of ‘sound maps’ which encourage tourists and residents to explore a city by its sounds; technological manipulation of sound, such as the Organ of Conti in London which converts the sound of traffic into more melodic sounds; and collaborations between sound artists, architects and city planners to improve the ‘soundscapes’ around new buildings.

R Murray Schafer wrote that “noise pollution happens when man does not listen carefully”. This is part of the inspiration behind Stuart’s project ‘Cities & Memory’, which encourages people to record sounds from around the world and then produce a reimagined version of that sound. The project encourages us to re-examine our relationship with sound, memory, and the interrelations between the two. Sounds from the project will be played to illustrate the presentation.

We welcome feedback and insight from experts in other areas of ‘intangible heritage’, as well as suggestions of the audience’s favourite sounds.

Read more about Cities & Memory project