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Street Art

Mapping a City by the Sound of Its Streets


As a country bumpkin who moved to New York City in my early twenties, there was no remedy for the overwhelming cacophony of noise that assaulted me on every street and underground, whether it was the piercing horns from cabs or the unbearable throttling clatter of the express trains roaring by me on the local tracks of the NYC subway system. Eight years later, when I left the big city for the more livable confines of Oakland and then San Francisco, I was just thrilled to hear the screaming banshees of Hades that emanate from BART's rails under the transbay tube. I don't know how you lifelong city folk can bear to listen to it without plugging your ears.

That said, there so many sounds in a day that represent the entertaining or lovely sides of our urban centers and now there is a website that is collecting those sounds and mapping them, from New York to San Francisco and everywhere in between. The Smalls Street Sounds is an offshoot of The Smalls, a website where independent filmmakers can showcase their short films. In addition to mapping short sound clips uploaded by users, Street Sounds will be a competition starting on February 8th where filmmakers are encouraged to use street sound clips uploaded by the public in their next short film.

Joanna Riedl of MSR Communications, the company doing outreach for Street Sounds, said the effort is much more than just a film competition. She would like to see users upload sound clips that personify the communities where they live. "It’s more about taking a moment and taking in the sounds around you that illustrate your city and the streets," said Riedl. "We go through our day not listening to the abundance of beautiful sounds around us. We want to highlight the sound and the creativity behind it."

In addition to a slightly-more-pleasant-than-a-banshee BART recording, I'm inclined to like the barking sea lions from Fisherman's Wharf and the amazingly loud McDonald Trail squeaky gate out in the Oakland Hills (it's almost a symphony by itself). If you're interested, get out your phones (there's an app for that!) or other recording devices and upload your favorite sound from the streets. Street Sounds is trying to get 5,000 clips uploaded by March.

I think my first sound subject will be the Epileptic Saxophone Scales dude who sets my teeth a-grindin' when I hear him underneath the Rockridge BART station. I hope he's there tomorrow night.

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