Stuart Fowkes: “The project just makes people want to listen more.”


Cities And Memory is an online project that uses audio recordings from around the world as the starting point for a variety of journeys into sound. Musicians can be heard accompanying nature, elsewhere sounds are transformed and new memories are created as old ones are stirred.

The results can be surprising for what they reveal outside of the listener and within. For example, a recording of cicadas in Costa Rica can stir memories of the sound of Australian summer.

To learn more about the Cities and Memory project ahead of their latest release Space is the Place, Cyclic Defrost’s Jason Richardson quizzed founder Stuart Fowkes in a series of emails.

Do you remember what recordings first captured your interest?

I first started recording through a love of sampling, hip hop and records from the likes of Ninja Tune and Mo’Wax in the late 90s – Endtroducing was an absolute revelation to me as a teenager. I started out playing in bands that used samples as a form of both percussion and melody, with the founding principle of never using a preset. This meant I spent hours scouring TV channels, movies and radio stations for sampling gold dust to turn into kick drums, bass noises or melodic content. So actually the first sounds I recorded were really things like film dialogue and foley sounds.

From there I got my first handheld recorder and started folding real-world sounds into musical compositions – and it was urban sounds that primarily interested me as they were the most obviously – fertile sources for percussive and musical sampling. I played in 3 or 4 bands for whom sampling was pretty central, but it was only after I’d left the band format behind that I realised I was sitting on a bank of field recordings and samples that I really wanted to use, but didn’t have an outlet for. From here, I started to build them into solo compositions. Basically, for me, the concept of field recording has always been around sound as a source material for composition, and the idea and challenge of perceiving any sound as potentially musical and potentially of interest. This idea of sound as source is pretty central to how Cities and Memory came about, and to my attitude towards how sound is perceived, recorded, presented and appreciated.

How has Cities and Memory developed?

It’s developed hugely since the early days – I can still remember proudly uploading the first field recording to the sound map (from near my home in Oxford), and a few years later we’re well over 2,500 sounds on the map, as well as more than 550 artists from around the world who have contributed. In some respects it’s exactly the same – the founding principles are around taking a field recording of a sound of the world as creative inspiration, and developing a new, reimagined sound from it. The original “tagline” (for want of a better word) of “remixing the world, one sound at a time” is as true now as it ever was – and the basic idea that it would always be an open, collaborative project that anyone can be a part of is an essential part not just of what it is, but of how it’s grown too. The biggest change was that alongside the ongoing, global sound map which is always open for contributions, we decided to set up specific projects to take a deeper dive into one aspect or theme of sound, and it’s these projects that have really captured people’s imagination and got some pretty extraordinary media coverage, from Wired magazine to, erm, Marie Claire and beyond.

Which projects have prompted you to reconsider the direction of the project?

We’ve run 13 global sound project so far, with two or three per year (full list here) – they’ve covered everything from the sounds of churches and temples to a survey of global protest, and even a couple of projects that have taken us off the map (for instance, imagining the sounds of the world created by Thomas More in Utopia). I wouldn’t say any of them have changed the direction of the project, but they’ve inspired some different ways of thinking about sound. For instance, in Oblique Strategies artists used random instructions from the oblique strategies cards to inform their approach to reworking a sound, and in Sound Photography the challenge was to create a sonic response to a photograph. So I think some future projects will be looking at other approaches and methods of working with and thinking about sound, while others will be more “thematic”, like examining the sounds of nature, worship or protest, for instance.

Where do you see it going?

Well, the tagline for the project is “remixing the world, one sound at a time”, so that’s one pretty infinite aspiration! We’ve got 87 countries on the sound map, and it’s always an amazing experience to get an email from someone somewhere in the world who’s come across the project and been inspired enough to contribute. Waking up to the reimagined sounds of birdsong in Bali or urban life in Brazil is what makes the whole thing worthwhile. In the short term, I think we’re technically about 10 countries away from covering more than half of the world – and one of my aspirations is to get more recordings from Africa in particular, which has been much more of a challenge than anywhere else in the world. If anyone reading this has field recordings from Africa, we’d love to hear from you! And our next project in fact takes us off the face of the Earth to explore the sounds of outer space, so I guess there’s a galactic ambition for the project once we’ve covered the Earth…

Seeing as memories and sounds are both fluid in being able to be manipulated, have you been prompted to consider the impact of the project?

I think one of the fascinating things about the project is that any given artist can respond to the same source recording in a completely different way – and in fact may respond to it in a different way themselves from one day to the next, as they bring their own weight of experience and perspective to the sounds. In fact, one project I’ve always wanted to do is to distribute the same recording to 50 artists, and see what different responses to the sound come back as a result. I think that in itself – and the stories behind those sounds – would be a great demonstration of how we might all technically hear similar things, but we can respond to those things completely differently. Sometimes the reimagined sound can add a whole new layer or weight of context to the original recording, perhaps by delving into the history of the recording location, by drawing on a personal experience etc. There’s a fascinating part in “Camera Lucida” by Barthes in which he talks about the aspects of a photograph that draw the attention – the “studium” is the formal quality about the image that should draw you in, while the “punctum” is that indefinable something about an image that leaps out to each viewer and connects them at a deeper level to what’s going on. I look at field recording in a similar way – in the best recordings, there’s a “punctum” that makes itself known immediately, that inspires and that generates the most successful reimagined pieces, as it’s usually an obvious starting point for the reimagined sound. Whether the project makes people consider places differently I don’t know, but one thing that’s important for me is that the project just makes people want to listen more, wherever they go. It’s only when sound is at the front of our minds for the public that it can ever become a policy issue in terms of preserving the positive soundscapes that go to define a place, instead of allowing them to be swallowed up by development, urbanisation or some other damaging factor.

You can find Cities and Memory here.


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Living in regional Australia led Jason Richardson to sample landscapes instead of records.

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