Interview Stuart Fowkes

Stuart Fowkes is from Oxford, UK and he loves field recordings. He aims to remix the sound of our planet.

Could you please introduce yourself?

I’m Stuart Fowkes, the creator of Cities and Memory, one of the world’s largest sound projects, which aims to remix the world, one sound at a time.

Is there a sound dear to your heart? Could you tell us about it?

The soundscapes of the city of Venice – a sonic place like no other, with the sound of cars replaced by footsteps on bridges, passing boat traffic and the ringing of bells through narrow alleyways, as the wash of canals laps gently alongside the streets. Venice is where the Cities and Memory project was born as an idea, and I regard it as the spiritual home of all my work with sound.

Is there a sound that brings back memories of your childhood?

For me, this would be the sound of vintage machinery – piston engines, steam engine-powered funfairs and the growl of vintage diesel engines. My childhood involved a lot of following my father in his passion for vintage vehicles, so as I child I spent a lot of time among the sound – and smell – of old, loud and throaty combustion engines, sounds I would now regard as noise pollution for the most part.

Which certain disappearing sound should be preserved?

I am in favour of preserving most disappearing sounds, since noise is only a matter of perspective. However, I feel that the disappearing sounds of nature are those that are of gravest concern, and must be preserved at all costs, since preserving the sounds necessarily not only means preserving nature itself but also ensuring that the surrounding environment is also protected.

How important are sounds to you in your everyday life?

Vital, essential, one of the things that makes life itself worth living. Choosing to listen closely to the world around me has changed the way in which I experience everything, and the way in which I express myself creatively.

Could you describe the soundscape of your daily work?

My day job is punctuated by the hellish clacking of keyboards and incoming email notifications. My work with sound is about responding to whichever soundscapes surround me – so I try to hunt down sounds that define any given place at that particular time, for instance the unique soundmarks of a city, or which sounds mark out one place as distinct from another.

Have you sensed a transformation of sounds over time?

Absolutely – having been part of a generation that has experienced the fastest change in technology since at least the industrial revolution, it’s clear that the timescale for changes in a soundscape have reduced dramatically. Sounds that were commonplace just two or three years ago already sound outdated and out of time, because so much of our soundscape is dominated by technology of one form or another. What that also means is that the chief sonic changes are marked by designed sound rather than natural sound, with warning beeps, loading sounds, notifications and the sounds of electric vs. combustion engines are what we notice, rather than sweeping changes of naturally-derived sounds, for which there is increasingly little space, especially in an urban environment.

Should sound be preserved? Why?

It’s essential that we preserve the sounds around us – for too long sound has been a poor relation to visuals in today’s world. We have „blue plaques“ to preserve famous buildings and famous sights here in the UK – why is there not a blue plaque for sound? Sonic preservation has been in the back seat for too long, and it’s time we preserved the sounds that are culturally significant to us before they disappear forever.

Is there a sound you would not preserve? Why?

The only reason to preserve the sounds of heavy traffic are to say to future generations „never do this again“.

Staurt Fowkes, Oxford, UK, April 2022


Find Stuart with CITIES AND MEMORY online: