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Listen to the Wind: the sounds of Hurricane Sandy

Samuel Breen
sandy 300x225 Listen to the Wind: the sounds of Hurricane Sandy

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Last year the beautiful compilation I Listen To The Wind That Obliterates My Traces (Dust-to-Digital) premiered obsolete field recordings from recording pioneers and radio towers. As the title suggests, the theme of this compilation is the idea that time passes, represented by an early recording of the wind framing recordings of voice, song, and nature. Of the eponymous recording, it is a strange, haunting souvenir that draws acute focus on the vernacular lives captured by proxy in the sound. For this ancient wind sweeping through evokes a lot of emotions and looking at the front covers of this week’s papers, brings out the horror of it all.

Here is the poem from where the compilation takes its title:

I listen to the wind that obliterates my traces.
The wind that resembles nothing,
Understands nothing nor cares what it does,
But is so lovely to listen to.
The soft wind,
Soft like oblivion.
When the new morning breaks
I shall wander further,
In the windless dawn begin my wandering afresh
With my very first step
In the wonderfully untouched sand.

Par Lagerkvist ‘Aftonland’ (tr. Evening Land, 1953)

Looking back 100 years, recordings of this nature are rare. They exist in a balance between our folkloric inclinations, sensory memory, and aesthetic perceptions. As Lagerkvist’s words aptly highlight the wind’s luggage in voices and people.

Composer, novelist, and journalist Paul Bowles of NYC studied with Aaron Copeland, wrote for theatre, before migrating to Tangier to write. When camped in North Africa his love for recorded sound manifested in his narrations of his tales. One poignant recording The Garden, now available through UBU Web, it employs sound to evoke the story.

Ironically it is a tale of enlightenment, comprehending faith, and the threat of danger. In its conclusion the desert wind is brought in to represent the passing of life. Again the majesty of a ghostly wind can be heard. It is used to evoke ideas of existence and the passing of time.

Today recordings of the wind are more stark than ever. As Manolo Espinosa Head of Audio at Soundcloud remarks, “The recordings of Hurricane Sandy before and during the storm provided a powerful way to get a sense of the strength and impact of it through one of our most fundamental senses.”

He draws my attention to one podcaster Baratunde Thurston who has been recording excerpts of his journey through Manhattan during the storm ‘We are making the news: Audio journey out of & back into a dark, post-hurricane NYC’. At first the podcaster’s tone suggested that of a lonely anorak waffling on, broadcasting for his own pleasure. It would have been easy to be more dismissive of him, were it not for the humbling self-realisation that followed. But where Thurston engages in citizen journalism, it is the recording purists that charge my interest. It’s the cracking microphones caught in a gale that excite. The peaking of the sound levels in the might of the storm.

Espinosa corresponds via email, “We can’t see wind, of course we eventually see its punishing effects, we hear the wind and sense the danger is approaching through the howling and the whistling. These sounds formed the haunting soundtrack to this event right before and during the impact of Hurricane Sandy.” Indeed it is possible to track the storm as it approached NYC chronologically placing recordings of it.

“This is becoming even more relevant the more mobile our society becomes – the more people take their smartphones on-the-go, the more of a hunger there is for audio.” Espinosa curated a set of recordings on his Soundcloud page, offering a vivid portrayal of the ’superstorm’ which he continues to update.

The volume of recordings is clearly an issue, one we are familiar with in the internet age. “I believe having more choice is always a good thing,” argues Manolo. “Of course there’s always a challenge in surfacing the worthy material from the rest when the volume increases, but that’s where people and curation and good search comes in. If a piece of audio resonates with enough people, then it should rise, just like useful information on other social media channels.”

With mortality impossible to disassociate from these recordings, it’s painful to imagine that by their intangible nature they themselves may not survive, taken from us in technology’s advance.

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