I noticed it gradually at first.
As the first social distancing orders came last month, Austin quieted down. The sonic cloud cast over our Central East Austin neighborhood by the traffic-heavy upper deck of IH-35 diminished, its white noise suddenly less. Other sounds emerged more prominently. On our long morning walks, my dog and I heard newly boisterous birdsong.
By the time stay-at-home orders went in place March 24, I could hear a lawn mower from one street over. And I marveled over how the gathering rustle of trees in the wind rolled in from a distance before whooshing through.
More neighbors appeared walking our street in the evenings. Listening from our open windows, my husband and I remarked on hearing the neighborly chatter more pronouncedly now.
I was curious: What might a sound artist make of the city’s auditory changes?
Phonography Austin is a collective focused on capturing and presenting field recordings — audio recorded outside a recording studio — as art objects. They also promote an understanding of acoustic ecology, or the study of the effects of an acoustic environment on those living within it.
Related: “The Invisible Suburb” traces the sounds of domestic life
The tiny non-profit leads soundwalks in neighborhoods and nature areas, and also presents live field recording-based performances. Last summer, Phonography Austin staged “The Invisible Suburb,” an outdoor sonic art installation in the flood-plagued Onion Creek neighborhood, now emptied of houses.
Phonography co-founder Alex Keller told me that his practice of collecting field recordings hasn’t stopped during the stay-at-home orders.
“I’m really never without the means to record,” he says. “Even if I don’t have a recording device with me, I can use my iPhone or even my Apple Watch to record.”
If some audio artists chase sounds in exotic places — like the crunch of an Antarctic iceberg breaking — Keller finds his own daily sound world vastly more compelling. He is eternally fond of walks, hikes and urban explorations. What interests him is the contrast of natural, organic sounds with the ambient noise of industrialized city-scapes.
“Art comes from intention, not novelty,” he says.
Since the shutdown, Keller, who works from home as a creator of sound effects for the DC Game Universe, has ventured to previously busy places in downtown Austin. He’s made a minute-long recording of a construction site at East Fifth and San Jacinto streets, the grackles and raindrops louder than anything else. And in the Seaholm district, Keller recorded three minutes of a humming air-conditioning unit of a condominium tower, and the babbling sounds of Shoal Creek underneath the West Fourth Street bridge — audio moments typically lost in the buzz of the congested, hectic downtown mixed-use development.
(Austin’s stay-at-home orders do not preclude all outside activities.)
At Bull Creek, he recorded five minutes of the biophony (non-human sound produced by living organisms) interrupted by the distant sound of a single airplane. Often, he takes photographs of his field recording sites.
Intrigued by the sonic micro-environment underneath a glass patio table in his backyard, he positioned a recording device there for over two hours to make a meditative audio portrait of a thunderstorm.
Keller’s take on our vastly changed sonic environment remains delightfully prosaic. After all what can we thoughtfully divine now while in the midst of the pandemic?
He laughs: “I think the birds have actually gotten louder, bolder. They hear the changes too, the silencing of human industrial noise. To me, the birds sound louder, and not just because of (the decrease in other noise) now. They’re taking advantage of the moment.”
Keller and I chat about our shared fascination with the statistics of our now-quieter planet.
World wide, scientists have recorded a drop in seismic activity since the advent of COVID-19, as the din of industrialized daily life has quieted. A seismologist in Paris, for example, detected a 38% drop in the average daytime noise in his city.
In the United State, air passenger traffic has dropped 95% across the nation, and domestic airlines have collectively grounded thousands of planes.
Statewide, the Texas Department of Transportation reported a 41% drop in vehicle trips from Feb. 28 to March 28.
And in Austin, traffic is down by 49%. Just last year, a study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, ranked Austin the 14th most traffic congested city in the country.
“Actually, I’m surprised by how much traffic noise there still is now,” Keller tells me. “It’s not as quiet as I would have expected with (road trips) down by half.”
Now that state officials have signaled re-opening plans, the quiet will eventually recede.
Still, in the evenings just after dark falls, a cluster of neighbors has lately gathered in the middle of our street, several houses down from ours. They stand six feet apart, some with face masks on, chattering, drinks in hand. Against the fresh nighttime quiet, I hear snippets of conversation, bubbles of laughter, an occasional exuberant shriek.
Framed by social distancing protocols and a singular urban silence, social life nevertheless still makes noise.