Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Thousands of Londoners gathered outside the Houses of Parliament on Aug. 21, 2017, to hear Big Ben bong out the noon hour, the last regular ringing of its bells for four years while repair work is underway in Elizabeth Tower, which houses the clock.

"People can become complacent about sounds," Stuart Fowkes told me last week. "But there's now a gap in the lives of some Londoners. Sometimes, only when a sound is taken away do you appreciate it."

Fowkes is a digital marketer living in Oxford, England, and in the City Sound Guides section on his website, CitiesAndMemory.com, he focuses on an aspect of travel that most of us take for granted or even dismiss as background noise: sound.

Since childhood, Fowkes said, sound has been the primary sense he uses to process the world. His website is "a passion project."

The site is 4 years old, and the sounds have collectively had about a million plays. The quality varies, as does the intensity of the listening experience. You can hear a bird get decapitated in an open-air market, subway buskers of varying degrees of talent singing and strumming or the interplay of sirens on New York streets. Sounds that have been recorded in nature tend to be similar to the soothing, sleep-inducing tracks played by digital, white-noise machines and apps.

The site is a prime example of user-generated content, and he credits Twitter with expanding his base into the world of sound engineers (and higher-quality recordings). It's interesting to me how the names of some of the clips, e.g., "Many Paths to the Sea," could be the titles of paintings and trigger a visual component.

Fowkes is not only an archivist of 2,500 sounds from around the world, he's also a preservationist, consciously conserving what he considers endangered sounds that may define a place as much as any other perceivable aspect.

"There are plaques signifying a building has historical importance, and those sites are preserved," he said. "But with urbanization and technological advancements, we're in danger of losing an understanding of the ways that sounds can characterize a place."

Listen

Highlights from the City Sound Guides have been made into podcasts. To hear them, click here.

Parallel to his desire to protect sounds is his excitement about re-imagining sounds -- remixing them -- in artistic ways.

The website has both city sound guides for travelers and a bank of sounds that anyone can upload to or download from. An amateur musician himself (keyboards and bass), Fowkes has been incorporating the material on his website in a musical context, working with bands.

Two days after I spoke with Fowkes, I found myself traversing Charles de Gaulle Airport with Joel Revzen, assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and his wife, Cindy Rhys, a former opera singer.

I shared with them some details about my conversation with Fowkes. Given their vocations, I asked if sound played a prominent role in their travels.

They both immediately thought of a recent trip to Cuba, where music was "wonderfully inescapable," Rhys said.

She said she also has a tendency to hear rhythm in background sounds, from trains to construction sites.

Revzen said he was tuned into bird calls and at Lake Tahoe was quite taken by the sounds of water mixing with the sound of wind through the pines.

Fowkes points out that sounds, like smells, can trigger memories. Many of my own most powerful travel memories involve sound: silkworms munching surprisingly loudly on mulberry leaves in a Laotian silk farm; Twa pygmies singing around a fire in the Ituri Rainforest; chai-wallahs hawking tea outside an Indian village train station. I remember the sounds first, then the images fill in.

People who have developed one sense keenly help the rest of us appreciate what we would otherwise miss. When I settled into my seat for my connection out of Paris, I picked up Air France Magazine and discovered they had engaged the British fashion designer Paul Smith to write a monthly column on things that catch his highly developed eye.

The June installment is about his love of pencils, a tool I associate most strongly with primary school. But he not only got me curious to look at them afresh but also to visit Fratelli Bonvini, a Milan pencil shop that Smith considers to be the finest in the world.

It also made me think of how passion and a unique perspective add value for travel advisors. If an advisor's passion is real and can be conveyed convincingly, it doesn't matter how narrow the subject matter. In this age of increasing accessibility and bucket-list travel, coming home with a unique story, whether it's about a pencil shop in Milan or the sound of water rushing through Rio to the sea, is far more interesting and meaningful to others than predictable talk about how crowded Venice has become.

Often, passion-inspired experiences cost nothing but enrich greatly.

"We go sightseeing," Fowkes told me. "Why don't we also go sighthearing?"

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