Sound and Memory

We need an Instagram for field recordings

My summer is the sound of an American flag and a Union Jack whipping together in the wind at my grandfather’s house in Wellfleet. I visit every year. Every summer that sound. I think of the season as a jangling symphony in my head of flags, crickets, wind chimes, waves, and the interiors of some odd shells washed up on Marconi Beach.

I have photographs to keep these memories but with the ubiquity of photography, images fail to capture special moments the way they did when a picture was something you kept in shoebox on a shelf someplace. But field recording, audio of environments, preserves more of the elusive qualities of an experience. It is just as easy as taking photos— if you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got the Voice Memos app.

This is why I’m encouraging someone to build a product as simple as Instagram for our field recordings. Right now social media feels too explicit — this is my opinion, my face looks like this, let me check in to this place and find me as these coordinates. We need space to share more inchoate things. I want to listen to conversations out of context you overheard at a coffee shop. I want to hear thunder from someplace miles and miles away. If there’s a leaky pipe in your basement, I want to hear it. Really, I do. I could listen to all my friends’ tiny sound files on a loop all day.

Can’t tell by looking at it, but some very enjoyable sounds happen in here.

There are times when sound conveys an experience better than pictures or words. Sound vibrations won’t fit inside a frame (neither will taste or touch, for that matter). There is something rare and warm about calling a memory to mind without perfect image documentation. This goes for concerts, of course. Less obviously, it might have been nice to quickly share the noise of the data centers I toured a few months ago. People generally know what a data center looks like. But do you know what it sounds like? Some data centers have awesome buzzy static and ringer tones like obscure Nurse With Wound tracks or Coil b-sides.

After Hurricane Sandy, Marc Weidenbaum, who blogs at Disquiet, collected several field recordings posted to Soundcloud from Harlem, Astoria, Cambridge, and elsewhere. It would have been nice to have a place to share these tracks in the moment with each other.

The BBC had a story on how the sound of war has changed over the years. An army officer who was interviewed, said his “memory of the Balkans is the ‘distant thud’ of artillery shells and tank shells, while Iraq was distinctive for IEDs and Afghanistan for the sound of helicopters.” And now there is the haunting buzz of drones. I couldn’t find examples of zananna what the humming overhead is called in Gaza — on Soundcloud, but here is a track of “Celebratory gun fire in Gaza.”

Soundcloud is designed for community feedback rather than quick sharing and simple faving/liking activity. The ideal app would be lightweight and keep files neatly organized. Twitter was recently reported to be in talks with the company, but the deal fell through. Licensing would be a challenge, but not if the community is encouraged to share the sounds of a place rather than someone else’s music.

Recently, I lost the metadata for my files saved in Voice Memos. The recordings defaulted to “12/31/11” as the file names and dates. Writing this post, I listened to a few tracks at random. Among these files was my recording of a gamelan performance on a hot night in Bali. Another track was captured the time I stumbled upon a band playing weepy rock music in a small club in Taipei. Some rain on my windows, a lot of it is just me talking to myself. Another track I recorded from the backseat of a car in Moscow. It is the music playing on the radio (that’s artist Constant Dullaart you hear, saying it’s Christmas time). Often a gust of wind blocks out whatever it was I hoped to capture or my sleeve rubs against the device and interrupts things, but for the most part the sound quality is pretty good.

I didn’t share any of this on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. But if there had been an app to exchange field recordings, I would have posted these tracks there. Audio “doesn’t go viral,” according to people who comment on such things, but neither do selfies. It is not hard to imagine an internet community coming together to share field recordings as a way of remembering things.

Now I’m imagining the inevitable cliches that will emerge from such a product. Maybe train station split-flap Solari boards will become its latte art and the revving of an engine will pop up as commonly as pictures of an aerial view and wing from an airplane window.