What Does the Past Sound Like?

By Staff

The grinding Doppler buzz of Minneapolis’ tornado warning siren, tested the first Wednesday of every month, always puts me in mind of the first apartment I occupied in the city’s southern neighborhoods. Even now, I associate the siren’s harsh stutter with the swelter of June 2006. I envision myself sweating in my apartment, studiously applying my energies to a Graduate Record Examination practice test and wondering what the hell 11 lawnmowers are doing careening back and forth by my window. The memory isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it is vivid.

This aural recollection was triggered as I read Anne Matthews’ article “If Walls Could Talk” in the November-December issue of Preservation (excerpt available), a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Matthews reports on the study of sensory history, a budding field whose purveyors research and reconstruct the bygone sensory content, particularly the sounds, of physical spaces. Matthews highlights not only big-budget reproductions–for example, Philadelphia’s “Lights of Liberty,” a walking tour at Independence National Historical Park that features images projected onto buildings and headphones broadcasting whispers, creaking wheels, and sailing bullets–but also the meticulous efforts of radio producer and reporter Alex van Oss.

Van Oss produces “soundscapes,” sonic essays designed for radio broadcast and CD recording. For a 2005-2006 exhibition on the 19th century architect Adolf Cluss, he coproduced a CD featuring multiple soundscapes of Cluss’s Washington, D.C.-area buildings, including the downtown Masonic Temple. Though the building has been renovated and adapted for modern usage, van Oss generated a recording that pays homage to its sonic past and present.

The soundscape boasts an authentic 1879 Masonic Temple dedication march, played on a contemporaneous piano by the music researcher who unearthed the sheet music. Van Oss also mixed in the sound of footsteps and squeaking floorboards, even multiplying the footfalls to create the impression of an organized gathering: a recreation of the dedication march. Finally, he bookended this historical content with the contemporary sounds, such as automobile traffic, that characterize the Masonic Temple today.

Van Oss has labored to fashion a lasting impression of space across time. He says of the piece, “Truthful? Not really. Authentic? I think so. Evocative? Most certainly.”

Sample van Oss’s recordings and read an interview with Anne Matthews at the Preservation website.

Michael Rowe

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