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On 6 November 2012, the record label Dust-to-Digital released a compilation album called One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980–1980 to enormous fanfare in certain musical cliques. The release drummed up much excitement because it used digital technology to recapture audio that was previously lost to time; it translated musical sketching and directions in order to “resurrect long-vanished voices and sounds”. The project was ultimately doomed to disappoint. While curator Patrick Feaster did an astonishing job at replicating audio touchstones of the past, unfortunately, it was still a replication that lacked what Walter Benjamin would no doubt call ‘aura’, or authenticity.
Enter ‘Museum of Endangered Sounds’. The website was launched in early 2012 with a mission to “preserve the sounds made famous by my favourite old technologies and electronics equipment”. Essentially, the website exactingly records and compiles the comforting sounds of now-obsolete technology. You can hear the sick drop of a dial-up connection being triggered, the death rattle of a battered VHS being rewound (I hadn’t realised how much I missed that sound until I heard it), a Tamagotchi, a skipped CD on a Walkman. My favourite might be the start-up mini-symphony of Windows ’95 (which, and this might surprise you, was penned by Brian Eno, along with about 80 other contenders that I would kill to hear) which transported me back to my youth so viscerally I needed a lie-down.
It has to be noted that this is nothing unique, or even new. There are a plethora of record labels – Honest Jon’s and Mississippi Records, among others – who take master tapes of audio that was recorded, forgotten about, and left to rot, and re-release them into the homes of devoted listeners. But the Museum of Endangered Sounds doesn’t focus on music, or not as it’s conventionally understood. Instead, it catalogues the banal sounds considered dispensable, non-constituent facets of an object’s essential function. They have, through the power of memory, and more specifically, nostalgia, been imbued with emotional resonance.
There is a palpable irony in that the same technological advances that sustain these sounds are also responsible for rendering them irrelevant. It might also seem a little bit elitist and hasty to call the sound of a rotary phone an ‘endangered’ sound, but here, the project is forward-thinking. It projects its mission as being relevant for years into the distant future when few will remember what typewriters even were, let alone the clackity-clack that emanated from them.
That’s where things get poignant. According to one scientific study, even people suffering dementia hold onto sound-recognition until the very end. In this light, the website isn’t only interesting as an archaeology of esoteric cultural artefacts. The sounds aren’t only cool and bizarre and great, although they are indeed all those things, in fuckin’ spades – by virtue of the power of our senses, they’re transformed into something personally sacred.