Sound, Place, and Preservation

If you walked outside of your house or office building or classroom right now, what would you hear? Really think about it.  Are you in a busy downtown, an office park, in the country, on a college campus?

If I walked outside right now into downtown Lexington, KY, I would hear the hum of traffic (and the echo of the traffic off of the tall office buildings around me), the rush of two sizable fountains nearby, the chitchat of the huddle of smokers just down the sidewalk. If  I was outside on the hour, I would hear the sound of the Old Courthouse clock tower chime.  The bell, the heaviness of the traffic, the fountains – they all orient me in time and place.   Today, I am near the Old Courthouse and the fountains, at rush hour, on the hour,  in modern America (modern cars noise, modern American speech).

What would you have heard 100 years ago? 150? Something quite different, right?  Even if you are out in the country on a farm, I suspect the sounds would be different – tractors versus plows,  the variety and number of animals, the sound of distant traffic… unless you are very isolated (in which case, kudos to your internet provider for keeping you connected way out there!).

If I stood in the same place in Lexington and wound the clock back 150 years,  I would hear the sound of the traffic, though it would be more of the four-legged-possibly-hitched-to-a-wagon/carriage/coach variety. I wouldn’t hear fountains. There would still be the sound of smokers and pedestrians, but they would sound like 1860s Americans.  The courthouse clock would still be there to chime on the hour. And there would also be another sound to let me know I was in downtown Lexington – the sound of the Town Branch.

About Town Branch

Lexington was built on a branch of Elkhorn Creek (as evidenced by the slightly off-compass orientation of our downtown grid).  While it was an essential resource to early settlers, by the mid-19th century, the creek was buried to expand valuable downtown real estate. It now runs beneath the streets and buildings, unbeknownst to many who live and work here, totally inaudible – until now!

Artist Description Plaque

Thanks to an art installation by Bill Fontana, the sound of Town Branch Creek is back in the mix of downtown sounds! The sound sculpture, Surface Reflections, provides a live audio broadcast of the Town Branch flowing beneath the streets via a series of speakers installed in  the passageway between the Lexington Financial Center and its adjacent parking garage.

Artist Bill Fontana stands in the wooded passageway where he installed Surface Reflections, via Lexington Herald Leader

The passageway is a meandering wooded spot, where traffic sounds are muffled.   LexArts president and CEO Jim Clark said of the location,  “it gives you the natural versus the urban. [Surface Reflections] will add to that.”  I would argue that it also adds a historical note to the downtown “sound-scape” that has been missing for over a century.

Of course, I am not advocating for some sort of ordinance to protect the characteristic sounds of a city or landscape. (Other than archiving audio files of the sounds, could the sounds that define a city even be protected?)  But, its an interesting concept – how does sound shape our places, orient us to place and time? What sounds are unique to your city, neighborhood, or countryside? Are any historical sounds missing?

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