Acoustic Genealogies

Human Nature by David Ambarzumjan, from the artist’s series “Brushstrokes in Time”

In 2017 product design entrepreneur David Al-Ibrahim launched a multi-sensory multimedia extravaganza re-imagining the sounds of Manhattan circa 1600, just prior to Henry Hudson’s arrival. Inspired by ecologist Eric W. Sanderson’s book “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City,” the Calling Thunder: Unsung NYC experience uses samples from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, mixed by Bill McQuay, to conjure images from “old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife and mysterious people” that populated the “island of many hills” (Sanderson 2013) 400 years ago.

Since the invention of the the phonograph there have been countless attempts to conjure the sounds of the past. Films and series do it best, but the idea has certainly not been exhausted by cinematic soundscapes and can be applicable equally to human geography and social-historical research domains. With reference to listening modes, what might have been the sounds of the ancient world? What can their recreation tell us about the present, even if only a sketchy impression of the past? We can glean some information about how things sounded from the acoustics of remaining architecture, to which we would add typical sounds of what archeologists tell us about everyday life: the rustling of fabrics, chopping of wood, people going about their lives, animal sounds and birdsong, the weather. What might original soundscapes have offered? Other sources of clues include painting and literature. Screen culture informs us, not without some authority, about the sounds of the ancient world as well as those of space or on alien places. This mediated realism is, of course, thoroughly constructed. It draws its cues from contemporary sounds and culture, which is why it might perhaps seem ‘realistic’ to contemporary listeners. Furthermore, these recorded renditions of worlds past do tend to sound dated when enough time elapses between their design and the present moment. Our own investigations and recreations of soundscapes might lead us to agree or disagree with such received acoustic renditions of worlds past, and to create our own.

Other sources might include witness testimony, oral histories, and accounts of events such as natural or deliberate disasters where aural memory is almost always intact at the expense of visual memory, which tends to block out entire episodes at moments of extreme stress.

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