Sound might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about discarded objects, but it is one of the ways that we mark our initial interactions with the world – the first wail of a newborn, the cry for food and attention – and it is also the means by which we form some of our earliest memories (the sound of a parents’ voice for example).
Sound has also been traditionally regarded as one of the most important of our five sense from an evolutionary standpoint in terms of survival – it is sound that most often alerts us to danger, makes us perk up our ears and pay attention, even recoil in fear. It is no surprise that sound plays such a crucial role in filmmaking, with sound effects at the core of horror films, but also playing more subtle role to trigger sensations and affect mood ranging from anxiety to melancholy to jubilation.
Sound is considered to be so important to the expression and preservation of who we are that in 1977, aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the United States sent into space a collection phonograph records called The Voyager Golden Records. The records attempt to present a sense of life on earth for those who might encounter the disks at some future date: they include 116 images, a variety of natural sounds, including surf, wind, thunder and animals (including the songs of birds and whales). It also includes musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages.
In July 2015, NASA uploaded the audio contents of the record to the audio streaming service SoundCloud.
You can listen to record here: https://soundcloud.com/nasa/sets/golden-record-sounds-of
Interesting to note is the inscription borne by the records, which alludes primarily to the auditory aspect of the concepts, though more than just sounds were included: "To the makers of music – all worlds, all times".
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Maybe there is something about music, about sound, that serves as one of the more accurate representations of life. Sound in a way inscribes for us some of our most cherished memories, be it the laughter of a loved one, a certain song that takes us back in time, or reminds of a certain place that is imbued with nostalgia. As much as sound inscribes a person, place, or emotion within us, it too must be inscribed by the object it represents – it carries within it the reverberations, the distant echoes of the thing that created it.
In composer Amanda Berlind’s evocative “found sound” montages, New York City comes alive through a labyrinth of suggested memories and associations. Each of Berlind’s three compositions below are created using snippets of sounds recordings made around New York City. Or, as she puts it: “a pile of recorded sound from around Manhattan, with this sorta relentless piano part I improvised over the top (and a few fragmented violin lines I had a friend play), organized with lots of panning.”
In Berlind’s arrangement that pile of sound takes on a shape and dimension that transcends the realm of sound and essentially sculpts images of places, people, and things within the listener’s mind. Upon listening one is confronted by notes, but also by a park, benches, people possibly on benches or strolling along, birds, and most certainly a squirrel is there too, overflowing city trash bins, irate truck drivers traffic, people crossing the street (most likely jaywalking), etc. In all likelihood, the things that were recorded and preserved by the sounds in Berlin's pieces have long disappeared or are no longer present in the exact same condition that they were captured in. Therefore, the sound records that we have of these items might be the only traces that we have of the once existent material reality.
Unlike many songs where the lyrics themselves might reference such material objects yet we do not necessarily dwell on them, Berlind’s sound assemblages not only call to mind the materiality of the sound, but forces us to make associations and build a world for them to inhabit, the imagination ping-ponging back and forth between things – a world of felt sound if you will.
And much like the Golden Records, or any sound recordings for that matter, Berlind’s creations serve as messages in a bottle, time capsules, preserved representations of time and place.
What we have to remember, however, is that unlike the Golden Records, which were created to travel to outer space and possibly last billions of years, our rather humble efforts at recording and preserving sound comes with a limit. As MR from Istanbul, Turkey wrote of his experience recording his voice as a young child onto cassettes, “All these cassettes, with old Turkish pop songs that were replaced with my creations, are unfortunately lost now.”
Best thing to do is listen, enjoy, and trust our memories.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.