June 3, 2020
In late May, the New York Times published an article on the sounds of a city confronting COVID-19 and practicing social distancing. Capturing the new acoustics of the pandemic were sixteen microphones that had been spread through three boroughs as part of Sounds of New York City (SONYC), a NYU-led project on noise pollution. At one intersection, the researchers found a five-decibel drop between April 2019 and April 2020, and across the city twenty-nine of the thirty quietest days in the past three years have occurred during the past few months. But this diminished volume—understood in terms of both loudness and quantity—has meant that some sounds suddenly seem more audible. All around the world, the piece reports, listeners have begun perceiving more birdsong, even though these animals and others are likely quieter than ever now that they no longer compete with other sources of sound.
This increased audibility of avian activity is obviously not the noise that most concerns the team collecting these recordings. They are instead examining the somewhat trickier terrain of the man-made, which is, as so many thinkers have noted, one where noise is often in the ear of the beholder. The article even cites an environmental psychologist’s explanation of how some New Yorkers “miss the honking horns, the crowds. And they would probably be the first people who were critical of those sounds. But it’s not that they miss them. They miss their lives.” The very same listeners, in other words, can easily shift their criteria for classifying a given sound as noise, which is something the SONYC project is less capable of doing. Sorting through their extensive stores of digital files is machine learning software that was trained on a corpus of human-tagged sound samples. The resulting algorithm—which, to cite Jonathan Sterne’s seminal phrase about early sound reproduction technologies, we might consider a new example of a “machine to hear for them”—identifies the sounds in the recordings by measuring their similarity to the human-labeled samples. The goal, as the project’s website explains, is to better understand the causes and distribution of noise within the city in order to provide local officials with more information as they work to mitigate it.
Although the application of sophisticated algorithms and the activity of semi-hidden microphones (signs alert passersby to their presence) might suggest a form of surveillance, the researchers emphasize that the recordings are broken up into short segments that ensure anonymity by eliminating any possibility of identifying speakers. But the project does unmistakably echo surveillance by producing a sizable archive, one that starkly exhibits a key concern of archives more generally as some spaces and speakers get recorded while others are effectively muted. The formation of an archive therefore conditions the interpretations that might develop within it, and an archive attuned to noise only amplifies this point since it filters out some sounds in order to shape a listener’s understanding of others.
One distortion that arises from working within such an archive emerges in a casual extrapolation that appears at the end of the article. Amid all the undoubtedly negative effects signaled by the diminished sonic activity, one of the SONYC researchers locates something positive: “the baseline sound of the city, stripped of all the idling engines, the jackhammers, the honking, the stereos, the chatter, the arguments, the commerce.” Having now isolated it, this researcher added, “we can begin to ask what we might want the city to sound like on top of it.” But it should strike us as deeply troubling that finding this baseline requires eliminating so many sounds of labor and living and that such a normative or even conservative conception is passed off as something neutral. It is a gesture that hears within an unfortunate silencing the possibility of enforcing silence elsewhere. Which groups, simply because of the sounds they produce, would be excluded from a future designed around that baseline? And who, beyond never being recorded in the archive, might now find it used against them?
One such figure, albeit from a far different context, quickly came to mind: the early twentieth-century lustrabotas, or shoeshiner, in Buenos Aires. Almost always a man, he was often an Italian immigrant who frequently accompanied his work with a gramophone whose sounds spilled into the street. While writing a dissertation examining the intersections of aurality, immigration, and literature in Argentina, I came across a few references to these individuals but never so many that I could really discuss them. There was just not enough to let them speak for themselves, and I was always reminded of Lila Caimari’s remark in La vida en el archivo (Life in the archive): “every researcher knows the voices of the archive (and not one’s own voice, or not obviously one’s own voice) must speak in an argument that is one’s own.” With the lustrabotas, I felt this was particularly true: what could I responsibly say about a prominent source of sound—or, depending on the listener, a source of noise—whose own voice was rarely if ever recorded?
An illustration of lustrabotas that appeared in the June 24, 1904 issue
of the Buenos Aires magazine El Gladiador
With archives now closed and future visits still uncertain, I can turn to digital newspaper archives and search once more with various terms related to the lustrabotas, although that process only trawls through text that has been accurately transcribed. Or I can look again through the more than 2,000 digitized issues of the Buenos Aires magazine Caras y Caretas that I had downloaded and annotated a few years back. Here I can more carefully attend to the visual elements that never surface in the textual searches and to pieces that might offer some indirect but relevant insight into the life of the lustrabotas. Both methods naturally have limits that I hope to address once I have returned to requesting old volumes in a reading room. For now, though, I have tried to think these limits in conjunction with the SONYC project in an effort to determine how we might sound out archives both past and present. To what extent do my somewhat superficial keyword searches resemble the machine learning software that picks out sirens without being able to say that much about them? Can the practices of the human listener whose labels train that software suggest new strategies I might employ when reading through magazine issues myself? Do both archives ultimately only demonstrate how certain groups listened, or can they also indicate how others did?
There is, as one might expect, no collection of streetscape recordings of early twentieth-century Buenos Aires like the one that now exists for New York. In this respect, the archive is indeed silent. Yet at the same time the rest of the archive can break that silence—a term that I use sonically but that an article by Anna Krakus and Cristina Vatulescu in the newest issue of Diacritics theorizes metaphorically—through other sources that can indicate how sounds were understood. Like all archival pursuits, working with the acoustic is a question of assembling assorted sources, with the print ones also signaling a process of remediation that underscores the mediation that constitutes any archive. In the case of the lustrabotas, one could reconstruct some of the favored operas his gramophone played by examining advertisements of available recordings, and it is also possible to produce a partial portrait by compiling what others said about him. But I’m not sure I will ever find enough material to fully articulate how a lustrabotas might have understood his role as a source of sound that could shape how other immigrants were heard.
As a result, the archive can frequently feel like a site of apprehension. On the one hand, it can produce a certain anxiety as I sometimes ask myself whether I’m looking in the right way but in the wrong places or in the right places but in the wrong way. (Now, however, it is perhaps more acutely a question of when exactly I will even return to looking.) But since my research is concerned less with cataloging what sounds existed than with how they were understood, this apprehension also concerns the very acts of perceiving and comprehending: in what ways can I get a sense of what was actually going on aurally in environment defined by immigration, which is to say by newly arrived listeners? And then there is that other meaning of apprehension, the one closely associated with sound recording: to detain or arrest. Edison famously remarked in one of the first pieces on his recently invented phonograph that it was a machine capable of “gathering up and retaining of sounds hitherto fugitive.” (It was not a casual remark: elsewhere in the same piece he alludes to “the captivity of all manner of sound-waves heretofore designated as ‘fugitive,’ and their permanent retention.”) Whether or not a phonograph is involved, the archive always apprehends. But rather than being apprehensive about what I might not find, I should understand those potential gaps as what might have fled the archive or eluded its grasp. That might sound like a small semantic difference, but it ultimately situates a figure like the lustrabotas as one can still speak about the archive and its absences instead of remaining silent within it.
But what of the actual experience of working at the archive? I had always assumed that it should be a space of absolute silence, but after coming across the lustrabotas what I once thought of as noise no longer seemed so noxious. Whispered conversations, the creaky crank of a microfilm reader, the ripping of an old page turned too quickly, the entirely unnecessary sound of a phone’s digital camera shutter—all of them used to be interruptions. Like the NYU researcher, I had been operating with the idea of a baseline, but now I think it is better to hear those sounds as the homophonic bassline, a propulsive rhythm that can push archival work to be improvisatory, creative, constructive. These fleeting moments make it possible to flee from apprehension and to unarchive, which, as Marc Kohlbry proposes in his opening entry to this series, is to move these ideas outside the space of closure and open them up to other readings.
For now, I’m ensconced in a quiet Ithaca apartment, where I remain alert to anything that might inform how I can best tackle the next trip. Some possibilities emerged in another piece from the New York Times, although this one appeared a few years ago. The print version features vivid photographs of the hands of New York shoe shiners, almost all of whom are from Latin America; the online version I consulted also includes a few brief testimonial recordings. (One even explains that he hears a rhythm as he shines, suggesting one way to understand the records played by the lustrabotas.) It is, to put it plainly, just the kind of piece I am always looking out for to learn about shoeshiners in the early twentieth century in Buenos Aires. And even though any such piece would lack sound, this 2015 article accentuates the visual, with each photograph focusing on a hand wrapped in a well-worn rag colored by contact with numerous shoes. This accumulation of gleaming traces was produced through labor far more tactile than mine—my fingers are rarely streaked with ink and only sometimes capture the smell of musty pages. But it is still a reminder that any approach to sound requires moving around to assemble a similar collection of traces gleaned from various sources. The two methodologies align as each performs a slow circling motion—one that also recalls the needle steadily spinning around the gramophone of a lustrabotas.
 “Quien investiga sabe que son las voces del archivo (no la suya, o no evidentemente la suya) las que tienen que hablar en un argumento que sí es suyo.” Lila Caimari, La vida en el archivo (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2017), 10.
 Of course, in these last days of May it has been impossible to miss the echo of an apprehended sound of an apprehension: the repeated cry of “I can’t breathe” that we heard from Eric Garner in 2014 and that we have now heard again from George Floyd, both of whom were killed by the police. The video of their arrests-turned-murders forms part of an appalling archive of racist violence that demands we do so much more than arrest the officers responsible.
 Thomas Edison, “The Phonograph and Its Future,” North American Review, 126 (1878): 530–36.