There have been many maps made of the London tube, from the useful to the artistic, but they invariably appeal to one sense: vision. Field recording project Cities and Memory appeals instead to the ears with its new London Underground “sound map.”
“The map is so iconic, but also, for me, the sounds of the Underground are completely iconic; they’re one of the things that defines London as a city,” creator Stuart Fowkes said in a phone call. From the closing of tube doors to the “Mind the gap” announcements, they resonate both with locals and tourists.
The sound map is presented as a regular tube map with sounds linked to 55 stations. Each actually hosts two types of recording: a documentary-style field recording (the “city” version) and a remix or reimagining based on it (“memory”). Below is a playlist of the reimaginings.
The sounds were gathered with the help of the London Sound Survey, which collects recordings of the everyday life of the city as it changes. Participants (almost 100 over all) just had to go to a station, record the sounds of that location with a handheld sound recorder, then perhaps clean them up a little.
“There are no shortcuts to doing it; you have to physically be in the space at the time to get the recording,” said Fowkes.
These were then uploaded to a central repository and artists were invited to remix a station as they saw fit. The result is a broad range of sounds, from ambient and drone-like sounds to full-on techno tracks, featuring everything from the hum of conversation to snippets of buskers performing and regular “The next station is…” announcements. Many of the artists come from London, but others hail from around the globe.
Part of the point, for Fowkes, is to create something of a documentary record of the city’s soundscape. “Sound changes just as quickly, if not more quickly, than visual stuff, but the thing about losing sound is people don’t realise it’s happening,” he said.
Today, that’s more evident than ever—think of the sounds of a dial-up modem or a Nokia ringtone, which have become retrospectively iconic but are now rarely heard.
He hopes that the reimagined recordings, meanwhile, will encourage people to appreciate the sounds around them. The broader Cities and Memory project is open, so any collaborators—either sound recorders or artists—are welcome to contribute to a growing, global sound atlas.