The noisy world we live in suddenly became a whole lot quieter when the Coronavirus pandemic hit. So much so, that science journalist Andreas von Bubnoff and designer and art director Veronica Semeco decided to capture the change of the world’s soundscapes through a new initiative – the Pandemic Silence Project.
The project is a global call for and collection of sounds submitted by people from all around the world, attempting to showcase exactly what the pandemic sounds (and feels!) like where they are.
We spoke to Andreas to find out more and to get his insights on what a pandemic actually sounds like.
Q: Where did the idea for the Pandemic Silence Project come from?
It’s a long story… you could probably trace it right the way back to my childhood! In the short version though, it all started in autumn 2019, before the pandemic began.
I was doing a fellowship in Heidelberg and had a lot of time to think about journalistic projects. I had already done a lot of work around sound, so I decided that I wanted to do something next that dealt with silence – and global silences in particular.
I had seen stories about how whales were less stressed following the attacks of September 11 in New York City because there was less noise. So, I kept thinking: ‘why not do something on September 11?’ The problem was, it was really difficult to get hold of any footage showing how quiet everything was during that time. So, I kind of gave up on it.
Not long after, the pandemic struck. At the time, I was teaching in Cambodia and life was as normal there as ever. When I came back to Germany though, everything was already in lockdown – everything was empty. I was so struck by that.
We just said, my wife and I, ‘we have to do this project now’. So that’s how it started. She designs everything – she knows what’s pretty – and I write about things. So I guess we’re a great team!
Q: Was it hard to get the project off the ground so quickly?
Yes! It was just the two of us creating a website to start with and doing it on the side. We didn’t have any funding, so it was a bit rough!
But we’re still at it, we’re still collecting sounds – now also of the world reopening. And we have someone helping us with social media now too. The plan is to eventually turn this into an exhibition online and hopefully even in real life.
Obviously, people are now sick and tired of this pandemic, so we were a bit worried that they may not be as conscious of the changing soundscapes around them as they once were. But we want to stress that sound submissions for the project don’t just have to be about silences or people being excited about silences. It can be anything that’s related to that.
For example, there was recently a Tweet that blew up about traffic jams in Paris. People were trying to get out before lockdown. That’s the kind of thing that’s absolutely fascinating. And it’s not just about the sounds we collect, it’s how people feel about them that makes them so interesting.
Q: You have sounds now from so many different countries. Are there any patterns that you’ve noticed cropping up?
There are so many different kinds of soundscapes. First, there are the sounds from inside people’s apartments. These are usually just things like tapping on a laptop or the clacking of dishes. But they also include things like people laughing from the next room. One person who submitted this said the sound made her afraid because she was in lockdown. She was scared of getting infected and her roommates kept having parties.
Then, we have sounds of nature. There are choruses of birds at dawn, coyotes in Boston coming closer to the neighbourhoods, that kind of thing.
And, of course, there’s the lack of sound – no cars in places where you usually have lots of them, or huge empty buildings like airports or train stations that are usually filled with people.
There’s one clip of Grand Central Terminal with nobody in there. You can actually hear echoes. It’s amazing to think that this is something you can hear now after decades of not being able to! As restrictions are lifted, it’s also interesting to compare the clips that show a lack of sound to newer clips that show the sound of things coming back.
On top of this, I’ve been struck by strange combinations, like the sound of a military helicopter enforcing the lockdown together with the prayer call to a mosque in Tunisia. Or a bird singing at 4am in Brooklyn New York, mixed in with sirens from ambulances and a helicopter. So, that contrast between nature and all the mayhem going on – together with the silence of everything else – is also quite interesting. I could go on!
Q: Was there anything in particular that shocked you? Anything that you weren’t expecting to hear?
There is one thing in particular that’s stayed with me. It didn’t shock me, but I found it really cute.
This woman in India sent us a clip of the tree in front of her house. It turns out that the tree is now full of birds – she can hear them now. This was in New Delhi.
Just her saying that and hearing how happy she sounds… that’s one of the strongest things for me. Every time I listen to it, it makes me so happy!
Q: Is there anything from this time that you think will continue after the pandemic ends?
I think the chatter from open plan offices will probably take a long time to come back to the same level that people were used to before the pandemic – if ever. In a way, that’s also my hope because a lot of people were already discussing how annoying these things were.
Sadly though, I feel that other noises are actually coming back more forcefully. For example, we have sounds from a lake in the south of Germany, which was even more crowded than in normal years. We also have traffic jams in Germany right now because infections are up again and nobody wants to take public transport.
So, I’m a little bit afraid that the counter-reaction might actually be stronger than just going back to the normal levels we had before.
That said, even though I’m not sure that the quiet will stay with us for long, I do hope that people will be more aware of how nice it is when it is quiet. A lot of people, especially young people, never really missed nature sounds because they were never exposed to them in the first place. With our world becoming a sort of agricultural desert, that’s something that I was always very concerned and kind of sad about.
I think this summer has enabled some of those sounds to come back a little bit and has created some sound memories for people. Hopefully, this will encourage people to be more active in keeping nature from disappearing even more.
At the Pandemic Silence Project, we’re really interested to find out how people will feel when soundscapes return to their normal levels. There may be everyday sounds that people didn’t notice before the pandemic that they’re now going to be more aware of when they come back. This increased awareness is something that I hope won’t go away anytime soon.
The Pandemic Silence Project is still collecting sounds from around the world, so why not contribute to their collection by submitting a sound of your own on their website? It’s super easy and it doesn’t have to be of silence – as Andreas says, it’s now a pandemic noise project too!
Plus, don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled to see the results, which will eventually be shared in an exhibition about global silences, online and maybe even in-person. We can’t wait to see the finished work!