Manhattan’s aural landscape is distinctly man-made–the sound of decades of car culture squeezed into 22.8 square miles. Rewind to the year 1609, though, and you’d hear something entirely different: croaking frogs, chirping birds, and the soothing sound of wind breezing through tree leaves.
Thanks to Calling Thunder: The Unsung History of Manhattan, a new VR and 360 video experience, you can plunge into the past and hear what New York City sounded like 400 years ago.
A collaboration between interaction designer David Al-Ibrahim, audio producer Bill McQuay, and conservation ecologist Eric Sanderson, the project aims to redefine how we perceive our surroundings.
“Our environment is as much what we hear as we see–it’s a different type of acoustic space,” McQuay says. “We hope this gets people thinking about the environment in a more inclusive way.
Before it was built up, the land was home to oak forests and maple swamps. Over 24 species of mammals, 233 birds, 32 reptiles and amphibians, 85 fish, and 627 species of plants could be found on the island. Per acre, Manhattan was more ecologically diverse than Yellowstone, one of the country’s most famous National Parks.
While biologists know what New York looked like in the past–the Mannahatta project, to which Sanderson contributed, mapped what the city looked like before it was developed–and what species were present, they didn’t understand the landscape in its entirety. By recreating these sounds, they aimed to create a bigger body of knowledge about the past.
“The challenge for me is, we have the sounds of the species, but what environment are they in?” McQuay says.
Al-Ibrahim, McQuay, and Sanderson picked four different historically significant locations in Manhattan for their VR experience: Collect Pond Park, which was formerly a substantial source of fresh water; the High Line, one of the city’s most popular green spaces; the American Museum of Natural History, a destination for learning about science; and Inwood Hill Park, an area of the city that’s closest to what it looked like in 1609. (The year 1609 is significant since it’s when Henry Hudson “discovered” New York.)
Using recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds and information from the Mannahatta Project, they developed Ambisonic audio tracks that recreate acoustics of the past. A type of surround sound, Ambisonics let headphone listeners hear sound in 360 degrees. The technique was originally developed in the 1970s and fell out of favor with sound engineers as new recording tools became available, but is experiencing a resurgence because of virtual reality and other simulated, immersive experiences.
On the recordings, you’ll hear crows, robins, geese, frogs, heron, katydids, hawks, blackbirds, gulls, ospreys, sandpipers, and ravens, among other animals. (Unfortunately, many species that were around in 1609 have gone extinct and those sounds are forever unknown, and obviously didn’t make it into the tracks.) Al-Ibrahim, McQuay, and Sanderson also created field recordings of present-day Manhattan to create a dialogue between past and present.
“We used an ambisonic microphone to record the four present-day locations in Manhattan, decoded them to 5.1 surround sound to match the 5.1 surround sound soundscapes we created for the soundscapes circa 1600,” McQuay explains. “For web and mobile users we then processed the 5.1 surround sound into a binaural format to create an immersive sound experience for people using standard earbuds or headphones with their mobile device or laptop.”
During a demo of the experience, Sanderson mentions that ideally there would be a soundcsape for every block in Manhattan. The overall aspiration for the project is to make the natural history of New York more accessible and interesting to people today using experimental storytelling techniques. He believes that sound is a powerful and untapped tool for getting stories to stick in our memory.
“We’re wired to react to sound since it’s a sense that’s wired direct to our brain’s emotional centers,” Sanderson says. “[Hearing] is active all the time and it’s a continuous connection to our environment.”
While the pursuit of knowledge drove the project, there is an activist component as well. The project’s creators hope it can influence how we think about our city and use the past to help plan for its future.
“One of the things we didn’t want to do—and I certainly didn’t want to do—is tell a story about how much we’ve ruined New York,” Al-Ibrahim says. “It’s hard not to be struck by the lack of different species [here today], but what I think is interesting is in New York there’s a lot of potential.”
Al-Ibrahim hopes that using natural-history storytelling and celebrating what’s here today can help foster a deeper environmental ethic in the city and get people thinking more about how sound influences our well-being. Excessive noise has been shown to elevate heart rate, increase blood pressure, and interfere with sleep and planners and architects are now thinking about how better urban design could potentially mitigate some of the problems.
“Sound affects our emotional levels,” he says. “There’s a reason people are living in headphones now. It’s a form of adaptation to our natural surroundings.”
Designers and data scientists are focused more and more on the sound of cities–how it makes us feel, how it symbolizes inequality, and how it could be harnessed to improve quality of life. The best way to improve urban acoustics could be in getting more people to care about them in the first place. Al-Ibrahim believes that stories like the ones he and McQuay and Sanderson developed could serve this purpose.
“It starts with visibility and then you can build off that for behavior change,” he says. “I definitely hear and see the city differently now that I’ve done the project. I don’t think I listened for the natural sounds. I go to the park now and I hear life that I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.”