At the Museum of Work in the Swedish city of Norrköping, curator Torsten Nilsson oversees an unusual collection. Housed in an elegant old cotton mill, the museum displays everything from manufacturing equipment to tinned tomatoes, all part of an effort to “document working life and bring its history to life.” But last month, Nilsson began a quest to collect something less tangible. For an ambitious project called Work with Sounds, he and a handful of museum employees will visit sites across Europe to record what he calls “endangered” sounds of the industrial era.
The resulting archive of 600 recordings will focus exclusively on things that clang, screech, hiss, grind, roar, and clatter—that is, noises most of us try to avoid. Nilsson plans to spend two years building the collection, which will then be posted on a public website. “We have to record these things before they are gone,” he said recently, speaking from a rest area on his way back from recording a fence-making machine. “Nobody else is doing this in a systematic way.”
The preservation of sound is, in fact, a burgeoning discipline. In audio archives that are already online, you can hear jazz concerts at the Library of Congress, or listen to thousands of bird songs on the website of Cornell University’s Macaulay Library. British acoustics expert Trevor Cox just released a travelogue, “The Sound Book,” that pursues fascinating sounds from the bubbling mud pots of Iceland to the rock gongs of the Serengeti, while “sonic journalist” Peter Cusack has published a book and audio collection called “Sounds From Dangerous Places”—for example, from Caspian oil fields.
Nilsson, though, will be the first to catalog such a wide range of mechanical processes and products—and this, he says, is what makes his work so important. The Age of the Machine is coming to an end, bringing about social and cultural upheaval as great as any in history, and Nilsson believes that the sounds of these relics, as much as any other kind of sensory input, will give us a profound sense of what we have lost.
As for whether anyone will listen to this stuff when it goes online, Nilsson doesn’t know. “I hope so,” he says. “Maybe someone will use one as a ring tone, or find a good sound to use in a song. But that’s just me dreaming.”
IDEAS: How did this project come about?
NILSSON: A couple of years ago, we realized that society is changing so fast, technology is changing so fast, it won’t be long before industrial sounds are gone. So we started thinking about preserving them. We found someone to sponsor the project and recently got started.
IDEAS: How much will it cost?
NILSSON: It’ll be 400,000 euros [$550,000]—the European Union will bring in half and we’ll pay the rest.
IDEAS: That’s a lot of money.
NILSSON: Well, I just drove 250 miles to get into a fence factory to record a fence-making machine. Two days’ work to get about two minutes of sound.
IDEAS: Was it worth the trip?
NILSSON: Most definitely. It was a wonderful machine, a marvelous machine. In goes the wire and out comes the fence.
IDEAS: What did it sound like?
NILSSON: Not as noisy as I expected. It had a nice rhythm, like music, nearly.
IDEAS: But you’re not setting out to find pleasant sounds, right?
NILSSON: No. We’re collecting sounds people try to protect themselves from. A lot of our sounds won’t be nice, not at all, but they’ll be interesting.
IDEAS: Can you give me a few examples?
NILSSON: There will be a framed pit saw, a Merlin aircraft on low fly-by, a chain saw, a spinning jenny, a chocolate factory in Belgium, and an Atlas mine compressor from 1910.
IDEAS: You’ll be doing a few household objects, too, yes? Old whistling tea kettles, electric mixers, things like that.
NILSSON: Yes, it’ll be everything to do with industrial society. The important thing is, we want our sounds to be real. If we do an old typewriter, it’ll have to be worked by a skilled typist, not some museum employee just banging on it.
IDEAS: How many sounds have you recorded so far?
NILSSON: We have a firetruck bell from 1920s, and next week I’m going to record at two shipyards, one wooden and one iron. We have a lot of iron making in Sweden, these big hammers run by water wheels. I’ll be going to record one of those this summer.
IDEAS: There are millions of machines out there. Why the fence-making one?
NILSSON: It was built in Germany in 1936, then came to Sweden, where it has been working all these years, until last year when they closed the factory. The owner is very proud of his machine, but not many people will have a memory of that sound. This is one of the more endangered ones. It won’t last long.
IDEAS: How do you decide what to record?
NILSSON: We’re all nerds, so we think a lot of machines sound pretty cool. I often ask my wife. We’ll also talk to collectors, other museums.
IDEAS: Isn’t there a risk that a Swedish fence factory and a Belgian chocolate factory will sound more or less the same?
NILSSON: That’s an interesting question. We’re about to find out.
IDEAS: The big question is: Why? Why are you doing this?
NILSSON: The most obvious answer is that we can, and nobody else is doing it.
IDEAS: But what’s the value? Who cares about an old fence-making machine in Sweden?
NILSSON: What we know is that these sounds will die in a couple of years, so it’s now or never. Sounds are a very honest way of describing history. And the industrial world is a big part of our history.
IDEAS: Is there an emotional aspect to what you’re doing? We think about tastes and smells and sights as evoking memories and feelings—but sound is just as powerful a trigger, isn’t it?
NILSSON: For sure, sounds have a big impact on you. The fence-making man today, he will most certainly love the sound of his machine. I live in a house with a gate that produces a special sound when people close it. My wife says she likes the sound of the washing machine—not the spinning, but the sloshing sound.
IDEAS: Are there any industrial sounds from your past that you remember?
NILSSON: When I was a boy, I lived in a small village in northern Sweden, built around one factory. It produced paper pulp, and the timber was delivered through a hatch. On winter nights, I’d hear the hatch slamming and I’d feel good. I’ll never hear that sound again.
IDEAS: Since you’ve been working on the project, have you become more attuned to the sounds around you?
NILSSON: Oh yes. I skipped Spotify last night and just listened to sounds. I spent eight minutes listening to a thunderstorm. It was pretty good.