Echoes of the past ring true in sound museum

The online Museum for Endangered Sounds stores long-forgotten gadget-based audio for today’s networked generation.

The Remington International typewriter was introduced to the market in 1961, and such distinctive sounds can still be heard today, thanks to an online repository [GALLO/GETTY]

Brendan Chilcutt wears oversized glasses and glances over his shoulder as he types.

“Imagine a world where we never again hear the symphonic startup of a Windows 95 machine… the textured rattle and hum of a VHS tape being sucked into the womb of a 1983 JVC HR-7100 VCR,” he writes.

Chilcutt? Yes, Brendan Chilcutt. He is a fabrication, a “nerd mascot” dreamt up by three advertising students in their mid-20s who met at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter.

“Where will we turn for the sound of fingers striking QWERTY keypads? Tell me that,” Chilcutt writes.

“And tell me: Who will play my GameBoy when I’m gone?”

It is this question which haunted the trio – Marybeth Ledesma, Phil Hadad and Greg Elwood – who came up with an idea to create an online museum for “endangered sounds”.

The homepage of the Museum of Endangered Sounds houses audio clips and memories from many a long-forgotten childhood.

The museum, which started as a fun extracurricular project, was born out of a late-night snack session.

“The idea all started when we were on our way to a restaurant. Everyone was texting on the way there, but you could only hear Marybeth because she didn’t have a smart phone. We heard her clicking while our texting was silent,” explained Hadad, a 28-year-old from Boulder, Colorado.

“It was like an epiphany, because we realised how technology today is so silent and sleek. Then we thought of the opposite – how loud technology was when we were growing up,” Hadad, a copywriter at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, told Al Jazeera.  

Fun website

Later that week, the three made a list of their favorite sounds of old technology and decided to build “a fun website”, dedicated to the archiving and preservation of the aural experiences surrounding yesteryears’ gadgets.

‘Nerd mascot’ Brendan Chilcutt is the fabricated online curator of the museum [Museum of Endangered Sounds]

They then asked one of their friends to pose as Chilcutt, lifting the glasses and dopey expression from “Mark”, a photo-realist painting by artist Chuck Close. Chilcutt became the museum’s imaginary online curator in January 2012.

“It was just for fun. We took the name from Pete Chilcutt, a basketball player during the 1990s,” said Ledesma, an art director at Made Movement. 

The world beeped and buzzed in the 1980s and 1990s with the sound of consumer electronics, yet they were so banal that they hardly registered existence.

The sounds of digital watch alarms, dot matrix printers, dial-up modems, floppy disks and others died a silent death, thanks to technology’s perpetual invasion of smaller, sleeker and less annoying gadgets. Dial-up modems gave way to WiFi, floppy disks to CD-ROMs and later to USB flash drives.

The idea, initially a side project, turned into an artwork of its own. The three were in a graduate programme together, and thought the museum could be a “great piece in our portfolios”.

But after graduation, “we were pleasantly surprised by all the enthusiasm for the museum, that it has become our duty to continue the project for generations to come”, Hadad told Al Jazeera. 

The website hosts sounds created by Reagan and Clinton-era electronics. “We grew up during the 1980s and 1990s, so those electronics first came to mind when building the site, and they hold a sentimental value for us,” 25-year-old Ledesma told Al Jazeera.

The museum “preserves the sound of everything” – from Nokia ringtones to dot-matrix printers; a VCR accepting a VHS tape in its bay to a 56k dial-up modem; a cassette tape rewinding to a rotary phone dialling – all recorded for posterity as the world of gadgets is getting quieter and quieter.

Art and heritage

It is not merely a Dadaist-inspired art project, but its origins lie in that direction. “We can’t really say that Rolf Julius had a direct influence on our idea. But indirectly, we wouldn’t doubt it,” said 27-year-old Elwood, a creative technologist in Boston, Massachusetts. 

“We can’t really say that Rolf Julius had a direct influence on our idea. But indirectly, we wouldn’t doubt it.

– Greg Elwood, co-founder

The response from the public has been incredibly positive. They receive hundreds of emails every day from around the world. “We read every email,” enthused Ledesma.

“People thank Brendan for creating the site, or they’ll share stories about sounds that reminded them of a specific memory.”

These days, televisions don’t make static noise. Connecting to the internet gives no sound. Even automobile engines barely are hushed compared with their predecessors. And, as such, sounds once frequently heard in childhood, and since believed lost forever, can be very close to our heart, evoking the memories of a time since passed. 

All three agree that the dial-up modem is one of their favourites. “At the time, we hated hearing that terrible screech. We took it for granted. But now whenever we hear it in the museum, we laugh at how annoyed we used to be.”

Their parents still own a VCR, and two of them own typewriters. “The noise is very nostalgic,” they agree.

The trio has a huge list of sounds to add to the site. “But after graduation, we all moved to different cities and started new jobs, so it’s been a little difficult. But no worries, we have a lot of cool updates in store,” Elwood assured Al Jazeera. 

Viewers often give suggestions and sometimes mail them “home-recorded sounds” to add them to the archive. “Our favourite email came from a teacher who was featuring the Museum of Endangered Sounds in their high school play,” Ledesma told Al Jazeera.

The creators, who often miss toys and games such as Speak & Spell, Tetris and MindMaze from their childhood, do not forget to update Chilcutt’s Twitter and Facebook whenever they add new sounds to the site.

“Other than that, we’ve just been fortunate that there are curious people out there,” Elwood said.

Source: Al Jazeera