Michael Moynihan: Cork through the ears — a different way to experience the city

Damian Drohan's creation, Cork Sound Map, is an aural exploration of the city
Michael Moynihan: Cork through the ears — a different way to experience the city

'Places I’ve particularly enjoyed recording include Fitzgerald’s Park,' says Damian Drohan. Picture: Dan Linehan

Many thanks to the reader who got in touch and pointed out that there was another way to experience the city, one which might offer a fresh perspective on how we all process the information offered by the streets of Cork.

All we have to do, said the reader, is open our ears.

More specifically, I was directed to the work of Damian Drohan, who is responsible for the Cork Sound Map.

As a man whose aural expertise just about runs to getting a podcast to work in the car, I opened with the most obvious question...

“In its most basic sense, the sound map is an exploration of the city through sound,” said Damian.

“Then, putting those recordings on a map so you can explore it from your computer — your phone to a lesser extent, because the platform isn’t that great with mobile platforms — but you can pick a spot and listen to one or multiple recordings made there.

“The recordings are spread out over time: the first recording on the map is around November 2019 and then they go up to this week, in effect.”

Audio footprint

While studying digital humanities in UCC, he got into the idea of a sound map for Cork — he nods to the London Sound Survey, which has been up and running for 10 years — which explains why he brings his handheld recorder around the city, capturing its audio footprint.

How does he pick what to record, though?

“I tend to look at the map before I go out, I look for areas I’ve neglected.

“The most recent area was the Docklands and I was spurred into that because, on a previous visit, when I wanted to record, there was nothing going on, no action, but then I saw the Examiner reporting the new development there, so I thought, ‘this area’s going to change a lot and the sounds will be totally different’.”

We all know, of course, that the act of observation changes what’s being observed. Damian pointed out that observing, or recording, in his case, can be transformative in itself.

In a way, it’s a form of mindfulness, because when recording you’re very focused on the place you’re in, and the recording process itself forces you to be still and not to make much noise yourself.

“So that focuses your attention on a place, and you end up noticing things you wouldn’t normally notice.

“There are maybe 40 recordings on the map and I’m learning as I go which places are sonically interesting, which places are less so, which is a subjective opinion. If you’re a visitor to the city, you’re probably attracted to different things than a resident.

“But taking the Docklands as an example, that was partly a matter of preservation because that area’s going to change so much.

“Sometimes I go out with a particular place in mind, while other times I just have a wander. Sometimes the latter are the best recordings because you end up recording stuff you didn’t expect.”

As a for instance, one morning before Covid, he walked from the English Market over to Daunt’s Square, just recording general street ambience.

As he points out, given how central the location is, people familiar with Cork will have a very good sense of what the place looks like, but not many of those people think about what it sounds like.

“On that particular day, a guy there was feeding hundreds of pigeons, so there was that cacophony of noise from the birds, and then there were two tourists interacting with him.

“He was giving them bird seed and one tourist ended up almost shrieking with excitement when a pigeon landed on his arm.

“That’s just one recording, though. There are elements of preservation involved, too. One of the first bits of audio I recorded — it’s not on the map because the quality wasn’t good enough, the recorder wasn’t great — was the sound of demolition at the old FÁS office on Sullivan’s Quay. That was very much about preservation.”

So it’s not necessarily a narrative he’s constructing when he records, but at the same time, if nothing amazing is happening on the recording, then that might be the very point?

“That’s fair to say. The last time I went out I probably made 10 recordings and picked one for the map.

“It probably wasn’t hugely interesting, just a couple of guys chatting as they worked down on the quayside, and there was more activity further down the quay but I couldn’t get close enough to record there, a security guard was looking at me.

"When people see you with a recorder, they’re probably wondering what you’re up to.

“It’s a process of discovery for me, I sometimes go to town from A to B without thinking, but having the recorder with me forces me to think, to notice.”

Changing how we experience the city is a boast made by many but proven by few.

Act of recording

In chatting, I was impressed by Damian’s emphasis on the experience rather than the result: on how the act of recording is almost as important as the audio captured, as exemplified by his tidy sidestep when I asked for the ‘best’ place to record in Cork.

“Even though I’ve lived in Cork for many years, I’m still learning which places are most interesting to me sonically.

“Places I’ve particularly enjoyed recording include Fitzgerald’s Park, and up towards the Lee Road is interesting. But other parts of the city are very interesting too.

“I made one recording in Paul Street where I had the recorder nearly on the ground and it was a really interesting mix — footsteps, snippets of conversation, the church bells nearby ringing for morning Mass. That one was interesting.

“I’ve also done some walks around the English Market which are very interesting. When you’re moving, then the recording is obviously more dynamic — the slap of the butcher’s knife hitting the board, conversation as people buy stuff, tourists chatting — this was pre-Covid.

You’re not eavesdropping, by the way. You’re recording snippets without really getting the context.”

Originally a documentary photographer and a teacher of photography, the PhD student’s first sound map was of UCC for his master’s.

“It’s a project I like to dip into, going out to record gives me a focus but it’s not that big of a deal if it doesn’t work out because I’m not working for a client.

“While it’d be nice to have some kind of support, at present it’s up to me what I want to record. Working for a client might change that, but I’m also open-minded about talking to people. It’s a lot easier to get access to places if you have an organisation behind you.

“I’m open to conversations, certainly.”

Isn’t this a conversation worth having? I mentioned podcasts earlier, and people are probably more open to the private audio experience now than they’ve ever been; the preservative quality of urban photography is proverbial, so why not treat sound recordings in the same way?

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