Remembering a crisis in sound

Street recordings from the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown tell a tale of quietness, crisis, and the presence of absence.

Lights streak by on a main road in east London.

by Jay Richardson
3rd April 2022

If you’ve seen a Hollywood disaster movie or two, you may have a sense of how they usually sound: loud. Some, like Earthquake (1974), famously came with their own specially-constructed sound systems. Rolling Stone describes The Poseidon Adventure’s soundtrack as “a symphony of screaming and breaking glass”. As I said, very loud.

The coronavirus pandemic landed very differently: no meteorites hit and no skyscrapers fell. It struck suddenly and forcefully, but mostly in private. Trauma and loss happened inside sealed intensive care wards, at sparsely attended gravesides, and in rooms that people could only leave once a day. It also struck public spaces, and with them, the world’s sounds. Streets, squares, parks, playgrounds, malls, and stations around the Earth fell suddenly silent.

Paradoxically, the one activity that could have lifted that silence was itself the main danger: people gathering in public. The radical quietness gave a sense of abandonment, emptiness, and desertion, when in reality many people desperately wanted to be together–not just to regain a sense of normalcy, but to comfort each other, and to grieve. The sense of disaster was palpable in our soundscape not by what it sounded like, but by what was missing.

This is a recording of King’s Parade, the busiest pedestrian thoroughfare in central Cambridge. In spring and summer, it’s often tightly packed with tourists, tour guides, buskers, open restaurant and shop fronts, the occasional car, and dozens of cyclists. Usually, tourists and visiting parents would be wandering slowly, cursing cheerfully at bollards, and yelling at their dawdling family members.

But on this Monday afternoon in late April, you could hear each individual bicycle passing. Sirens from many streets away were loud and clear above the voices of the five or six people within earshot. The street was empty of buskers and touts and jangling shop fronts. There weren’t even enough people around for the bollards to get in their way. It was just over a month since the Prime Minister had announced the first nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

Other parts of Cambridge were even quieter in lockdown: this recording of Quayside, for example, is startlingly, oppressively silent. The nearest street is 60 yards away, but you can hear everything that passes along it: the odd cyclist, a pedestrian’s cough, a moped, someone whistling to themselves. Birds from 100 yards away and across the river are perfectly audible in what would normally have been a bustling commercial area. I worked at Quayside through several summers and frequented its bars and restaurants as a student; this soundscape sounds frightening to me, like an unnerving signal that something has gone suddenly, badly wrong. If screams and explosions belong in disaster movies, this deathly silence belongs in a horror.

Even where some people had good reasons to appreciate the quietness that lockdown imposed, their comments on the soundscape were tinged with sadness and anxiety. The brilliant Cities and Memory #StayHomeSounds project, which collected over 500 recordings, documented many people’s thoughts that started off cheerfully–“I’m thankful for my quiet spot”, “we have each other’s company”, “the coronavirus crisis feels somehow liberating”—but ended with expressions of alarm at the economic and social damage that people were confronting. Life is lived in the details: these are mundane sounds from people’s everyday lives, but captured in an extraordinary moment.

What these recordings mark is absence. Wherever people go, they make sounds, and as much as quiet places can offer solace, peace, and relaxation, they can also instill a frightening, eerie loneliness. Coronavirus soundscapes are worth remembering if only to remind us that even the most impressive, beautiful, and historic places are but shadows without people. º


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