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Listening to Istanbul: Preserving its past and present through sound

The Soundscape of Istanbul project examines the role that cultural sounds play in preserving heritage, memory and identity
Pınar Cevikayak Yelmi in the field, recording sounds for the Soundscape of Istanbul Project (Photo courtesy of The Soundscape of Istanbul)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - On a recent, muggy evening in the Galata neighbourhood of Istanbul, crowds piled into an old, disused factory, and visitors slowly began noticing unusual sounds.

They were coming from the outdated industrial machinery in the centre of the room: a simit (Turkish sesame-encrusted bagel) vendor selling his wares, the blare of a ferry horn, and from somewhere in a corner, the ringing bells of the city’s now-defunct nostalgic tramway. 

It was opening night of Protocinema’s Kiralık, Satılık (For Rent, For Sale)a group art exhibition where sound plays a subtle but important role in the examination of Istanbul’s rapidly changing urban landscape. It was also the first time Pinar Cevikayak Yelmi witnessed her work in a contemporary art context.

Usually her research is accessible via computer screen and headphones, but here, her Soundscape of Istanbul project audibly illuminates a room filled with sculpture, photography, and drawings.

The Kiralık, Satılık (For Rent, For Sale) exhibition is about how Istanbul is changing, using sculpture, photography, drawings and sound (Photo courtesy of Protocinema)
"The exhibition is about the city and how it’s changing,” Yelmi said a few days after Kiralık, Satılık opened to the public. “We wanted to do little, minimalistic site-specific installations, just to remind people about its sounds, which are also changing, and are not here anymore.”

The many sounds of Istanbul

For the past five years, 32-year-old Yelmi has immersed herself in the cultural sounds of Istanbul’s present, paying close attention to how they represent the city where she was born.

Originally an industrial design student, her interest in sound developed during her masters’ studies in visual communications, examining how sound and experience, united with design, can illustrate a broader picture of heritage.

Pınar Cevikayak Yelmi in the field, recording sounds for the Soundscape of Istanbul Project (Photo courtesy of The Soundscape of Istanbul)
As part of her PhD research in the Design, Technology and Society department at Istanbul's Koc University, she concocted the Soundscape of Istanbul – a vast digital archive of recordings from around the city.

People queue to buy sandwiches at a local kebab reastaurant in July 2012 (AFP)
After a quick search, sounds of the Turkish capital are available to anyone with an internet connection.

Street vendors are seen in the historical Eminonu district on 22 February, 2017 in Istanbul (AFP)
The interactive audio map includes the bellowing voices of kebab sellers in Taksim Square, seagulls flying overhead on the Princes’ Island ferry and the beeps and automated announcements of a daily commute on the Karakoy-Sishane funicular, a popular underground tram that carries travellers uphill into the Beyoglu neighbourhood.  

“This is basically a cultural heritage project,” Yelmi told Middle East Eye. “The first motivation is to preserve representative examples of these sounds because they are really important for cultural heritage, cultural memory and for cultural identity, and they are all changing.”

In the field

Istanbul is a big city; spanning both sides of the Bosphorus, it is home to over 14 million people and it is growing. An array of sounds, both old and new, contribute to the everyday soundscape of the city, and in recent years many areas, like the ports, have undergone massive renovation efforts. In a city that is so large, it wasn’t easy for Yelmi to decide where to begin recording her project.

The first motivation is to preserve representative examples of these sounds because they are really important for cultural heritage

Pınar Cevikayak Yelmi, urban sound researcher

“When I first started this project, I was trying to capture my favourite sounds,” Yelmi told Middle East Eye. “But then I thought: okay, this is my life in Istanbul, but there are so many other lives in Istanbul, so other people are not necessarily hearing or listening to similar sounds as me.”

She began distributing an online survey to around 400 participants, asking questions about the sounds people associate with the city, their neighbourhoods, and particular times of year.

The results were surprising: sounds that she thought of as iconic, such as the nostalgic tramway, which has been uprooted from the centre of Istiklal Street in the months since recording for renovations, or the portside seagulls, were low on the list.

Traffic jams form on a highway on 15 September, 2014 during the first day of school in Istanbul (AFP)
Sounds of modernity, like increased traffic, car horns and crowded streets came in at the top, and reflected how the city is growing and becoming more commercial. In between, the sounds of daily life, such as street vendors, tea stalls, and the call to prayer, made up the bulk of the answers.

“I analysed all of these results, and made up a detailed sound list, as well as a timeline of the sounds, and categorisation, such as food and drink sounds, transportation sounds, religious sounds,” Yelmi said, noting that people may personally value sounds they hear rarely, rather than in day-to-day life.

There is not much work being done on these issues, preserving sound, even around the world 

- Emre Yucelen, Turkish musician

“There are sounds that we hear daily – like the Turkish bagel vendors and the tea sellers, but there are some sounds that we hear only once a year, like national or religious festivals, and commemorations, and this actually determines their value and their place in society,” she added.

Armed with a sound recording plan that resembled a calendar, Yelmi and various assistants headed out into the city, prioritising sounds that were at risk, like the fishermen at the ports.

Fishermen sit aboard their crafts in the Bosphorus on 22 February, 2017 in Istanbul (AFP)
She dedicated the entirety of 2015 to recording the results of her survey, and in the process, noticed that some sounds disappeared before she had a chance to record.

One of these was a popular street for nargile (shisha) in Tophane that was bulldozed to make way for the Galat Port project and she couldn’t quite track down a wandering boza (a low-alcohol drink) drink seller.

Employees work on the top of Istanbul's iconic marketplace, the Grand Bazaar during its renovation on 1 March, 2017 in Istanbul (AFP)
“It’s okay that they are changing, but it’s very important to preserve sounds that are representative, and transfer them to the next generation, because you never know what the future will bring us.”

By the end of the year, however, she had amassed around 300 individual examples of Istanbul’s iconic cultural sounds, which were then made public on the Koc University archive website

Making a map

“I always had this idea to encourage people to contribute to the archive,” Yelmi said, describing her decision to take her research one step further, after the recordings had been archived online.

The interactive Soundscape of Istanbul website (MEE/Mary Pelletier)
At the end of 2015, she and her advisers initiated the Soundsslike Project, a separate, interactive website dedicated to the Soundscape of Istanbul. Complete with a detailed, easy-to-navigate map, sounds can be played by category, neighbourhood, or timeline.

“We wanted people to create their own soundscapes and to play with the sounds, so that we purposefully allowed them to play three sounds at the same time.” 

Through this website, Yelmi opened up her archive to others and allowed them to contribute. Anyone with an Mp3 recording they want to share can upload it to this crowdsourced map and enter the details of the sound. Much to Yelmi’s delight, someone was able to track down an elusive boza seller and upload a recording of his voice.

The Soundscape of Istanbul's team in the field, recording the sounds of the city throughout 2015 (Photo courtesy of The Soundscape of Istanbul)
“One of the reasons that we are turning this project into crowdsource is to collect sounds from people, but also make this archive into a more accessible thing,” Yelmi said. “When it’s just a library archive, it can seem very far away, but when people are interacting directly, they feel that it’s not that far away, and they are inspired to collect sounds and upload them.”

When Emre Yucelen, a Turkish musician who has been compiling his own Istanbul sound recordings since 2006, met her last year, the two joined forces.

My recordings were primarily for relaxation and meditation, because living in a huge city like Istanbul, it is just totally noise 

- Emre Yucelen, Turkish musician

“My recordings were primarily for relaxation and meditation, because living in a huge city like Istanbul, it is just totally noise,” Yucelen told MEE, who focuses many of his recordings on quieter aspects of the city; the sounds of nature in the parks, or muezzins calling for prayer outside the centre of the city.

Yucelen contributed 129 recordings to the map, happy to unite his personal project with one that is growing.

“Everything about sound is precious to me,” he said. “There is not much work being done on these issues, preserving sound, even around the world, but I think it is a very valuable work. Istanbul is completely changed, and now the only thing left in Istanbul is noise.”

For rent, for sale

The interactive website is also reaching far and wide – with Yelmi teaming up with international sound archives, like Europeana, and continuing her research by bringing the Soundsslike platform to institutions like the British Library. It can also be applied to other cultural endeavours.

The exhibition is about the city and how it’s changing

Pınar Yelmi, urban sound researcher

When curator İbrahim Cansızoglu began putting together Kiralık, Satılık, he wanted to show how Beyoglu's urban landscape was changing by using the neighbourhood’s many recent “for rent, for sale” signs as his starting point. He knew that sound could be a valuable addition to the visual elements he was uniting in this abandoned factory space – it was just a matter of finding the right sounds.

A picture taken on 14 January, 2016 shows seagulls flying over Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul (AFP)
“I think in Islamic societies, the soundscape is more dominant,” he told MEE, citing the tightly controlled sounds of the city’s Ottoman history, and the continued importance of the azan, or call to prayer, in daily life in Istanbul.

“It shapes society, and people’s conceptions about how they live and how they understand society,” Cansızoglu said.

In Protocinema’s Kiralık, Satılık (For Rent, For Sale) exhibition, sound plays a subtle but important role in the examination of Istanbul’s rapidly changing urban landscape (Photo courtesy of Protocinema)
Yelmi’s archive project was a perfect fit for Cansızoglu.

Within the Soundscape’s hundreds of sounds, Cansızoglu was able to unite four separate recordings to complement the multimedia installation of Antonio Cosentino, an Italian-Armenian artist who was born in Turkey. The installation explores a fictional account of Istanbul, sliced in half by a giant wall that separates a modern, paved over, redesigned part of town with the older, historical area.

The Soundscape of Istanbul was mounted as the sound element in continuing group exhibition Kiralık, Satılık, For Rent, For Sale (Photo courtesy of Protocinema)
The simit seller, sounds of the metro, ferry, and an old goods seller play atop the old machinery, and, in a stand-alone room, Yelmi’s favourite sound, the recording of the nostalgic central tramway, echoes by itself.

“In a way, everybody is attracted to the sound element of the exhibition,” Cansızoglu said.

“Other exhibitions using The Soundscape of Istanbul were much more focused on presenting the archive, and we wanted to do that also, but we didn’t want to separate or carve out a space in the exhibition just for them. We wanted them to be mounted within the idea of this group show, so it was in a way, both new for Pınar and me, but it was an enriching experience for both of us and the audience," he added.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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