“Sound of X”
The Sound of the City

Eight cities, nine soundscapes: “Sound of X.”
Eight cities, nine soundscapes: “Sound of X.” | Photo: Goethe-Institut/Benny Suhendra Panjaitan/Design: Groupe Dejour

A city can be easily identified by its skyline or sights. But can it also be identified by its sound? For “Sound of X” by the Goethe-Institut Singapore, artists audio-visually captured the identities of cities in Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

By Daniel Welsch

When you think of Sydney, the shell-shaped Opera House or the Harbour Bridge might come to mind. For Kuala Lumpur it might be the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, for Singapore its Marina Bay and the impressive skyline of the city of over a million people. But what sounds do you associate with these cities? Is there a typical sound that, like these sights, symbolises a city?

With the digital project “Sound of X” by the Goethe-Institut Singapore, various artists from Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand answer these questions in a very personal way. The artists set off in Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Yangon, Manila, Medan, Tāmaki Makaurau, and Ho Chi Minh City in search of interesting or distinctive sounds and recorded their expeditions on film. The images and sounds were then edited and manipulated to create a music video exploring the city’s audio-visual identity.

Equipped with a specially designed microphone stand shaped like a divining rod, Anomie (aka Sofie Loizou) roams the largest city in Australia and combines urban noises from a train or a circular saw with natural sounds such as the surf and birdsong. “From the sounds of machinery, to the rushing of crystal-clear streams, Sydney is a sonic mosaic, complex and full of contradictions,” the musician said about her work “The last winter.” The DJ and producer KoFlow from Singapore also works with this contradiction between nature paradise and city hubbub. In the video “Ride and Liberate” his hometown is a member of the band. “Can a city be treated as a music collaborator, a musician with its own plethora of sounds?” KoFlow asked beforehand. “Would a musician be able to find the same flow they feel in the studio when they are out in the bustling city?”

When “Sound of X” was conceived in 2017, no one could predict how different not just the cities portrayed would sound this year. The coronavirus pandemic has nearly shut down public life worldwide, and many cities are still under lockdown and social distancing orders. Places that were recently full of life and therefore full of noise are suddenly empty and quiet. But this brings other sounds to the fore: Without the noise pollution from automobile and air traffic, for example, the birds in many big cities chirp more quietly, yet are easier to hear. So “Sound of X” also invites us to think about which sounds we hope to hear again and which we don’t miss. But above all, the videos are an invitation to become immersed in the soundscapes of different cities for a few minutes.