The city of the past with ears of the present

Jaén, the morning of May 29, 1814. On Pozo street, Pascual Luque, a musician from the cathedral chapel, opens the window of his house. A general peal of bells announces to the four winds the saint of King Ferdinand VII and the celebration of the festivities for his return after six convulsive years of war against France.

General ringing of bells in the city of Jaén (June 19, 2022).
Author provided1.76MB (download)

The clamor of artisans and day laborers approaching the Plaza de Santa María in droves; the cheers and applause mixed with tears of joy; artillery salutes; the fireworks; the military touches; the march of soldiers and cadets on horseback… Based on these sounds, Pascual imagines the amazing multi-sensory spectacle that is coming in the streets. He closes the window. Silence returns, stillness, as if the city were left out. But in his head this soundscape continues to resonate.

‘Touches of order and retreat’ by Compañía Lírica de Andalucía.
Anthology of military music from Spain (Ricardo Fernández de Latorre, compiler) (Philips 5AMM010, 1990), Author provided3MB (download)

Let us think for a moment about the emotional impact that this and other events must have generated in the inhabitants of the time, especially feelings of patriotic exaltation, adherence to the Fernandina cause and hatred of French.

In this short article we invite the reader on a journey through the soundscapes of the city of Jaén at the beginning of the 19th century. We want you to reflect on the power of sound in the configuration of the ancient and current city, opening windows to the reverberations of the past.

Sound, space, identity

The city, as an inhabited urbanized space, is charged with symbolic meanings deposited over time. In their perception, a visual approach has prevailed and it has been defined as a container for streets, squares, buildings and infrastructures.

This reflects the traditional primacy that sight has had over the rest of the senses, ignoring that the city is a space for multisensory experiences built socially and culturally by its inhabitants. In this process, sound plays a key role, because it not only organizes and defines space, but also time and the daily life of the community.

Now that sound studios are so fashionable, it is interesting to rethink the city from this perspective. Thus, to the traditional “points of view” the “listening spheres” are added, which allows us to delve into the broad, complex and changing network of meanings built around urban sound.

This multidisciplinary model of urban analysis, indebted to the concept of soundscape coined by R. Murray Schafer, conceives the city as a body in which all kinds of acoustic signals have a place.

In addition to the different types of music, natural and artificial sounds are taken into account, pleasant and undesirable, everyday and extraordinary, in indoor and outdoor spaces, and linked to various and marginal activities, many of which have disappeared or are in danger of extinction. This also includes silence, an auditory trait associated with the past, since the Industrial Revolution invaded the city with mechanical and electrical noise and sounds.

Sound propagates from one place to another and therefore goes beyond the visual space. However, each place is usually linked to one or several specific sounds that define and characterize it compared to other territories.

Plaza del Deán Mazas in Jaén, 19th century. Photography 31×26 cm. by Genaro Gimenez de la Linde.
Jaen Provincial Museum

The soundscape today and yesterday

The study of the soundscape of the contemporary city can be done through recordings and informants. But how to go into history with microphones and how to reconstruct those extinct and forgotten sounds? What meanings and emotions were attached to certain sounds in the past?

The study of urban sounds far away in time is infinitely more complex than reconstructing the visual images of old landscapes, due to the evanescence of the starting material. Even so, it is possible to do so indirectly by drawing on a wide variety of sources, both oral and written, and evoking those sounds with imagination and historical verisimilitude through associations.

One of the most valuable sources for this purpose are the descriptions of parties, which allow us to approach the morphology of the soundscape of the past.

An example is the chronicle of the festivities celebrated in Jaén (Andalusia, Spain) from May 30 to June 2, 1814 for the reinstatement of Fernando VII to the throne, written by Diego Antonio Coello y de Portugal and published with a pompous title. : Description of the plausible parties with which this very Noble and Loyal City, the Hon. Mr. Bishop of this Diocese, the venerable Chapter of the Holy Cathedral Church, all the authorities, different corporations, unions and people of all kinds have solemnized the fortunate day of our adored sovereign, Mr. D. Fernando VII, and his return to the august throne of their progenitors (Jaén, Printing of D. Manuel de Doblas, 1814).

A proof of concept

After making a creative rereading of this source, and relying on digital technologies and a large interdisciplinary work team, we have designed a sound walk through the historic center of the city of Jaén. This aspires to recover the acoustic memory of that relevant event, as well as the context immediately before and after the Napoleonic invasion and the War of Independence (1808-1814).

Our main challenge has been to transfer the content of the chronicle to an accessible multimedia format, adding sound recreations. The consultation of the municipal and parish registers of the time was essential to reconstruct the urban planning of the city and to georeference in space the sounds, noises, locutions and music according to their description and typology (considering parameters such as height, intensity, duration, timbre and spatiality), as well as the emotions aroused in the listeners.

The route, created with the Google My Maps application, can be consulted on mobile devices. It is planned as a seventeen-stop guided tour that goes through significant scenarios mentioned in the chronicle to listen to on site a series of reconstructed sounds: from a general ringing of bells to the sumptuous Te Deum for choir and orchestra composed by the chapel master Ramón Garay at the Colegio de Seises, going through sounds of a fountain, the mill of an oil mill, a blacksmith shop or a market, recited sonnets and sermons, without forgetting military tunes, patriotic songs and popular music such as seguidillas.

Sound of fountain with trough. Recreation from library.
Author provided1.06MB (download)

Sound of oil press with animal traction. Recreation from library.
Author provided517KB (download)

Sonnet to the Virgin of the Chapel (1814). Juan Nepomuceno Lozano. Reciter: Antonio Bueno.
Author provided3.61MB (download)

Seguidilla by N. Paz, adapted by I. Mª Ayala Herrera, performed by Fuensanta Rey and Manuel Ángel Calahorro.
Spanish folk songbook: facsimile edition (Buenos Aires: National Library, 2013).3.73MB (download)

In short, a selective sampling of the three main categories that make up sound (music, noise and speech) and that make up the soundtrack of the city at the beginning of the 19th century. In addition, the application includes identifying historical images of the different spaces, most of which have been lost or have been profoundly transformed.

file 20230120 22 884k8k.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Facade of the Palace of the Duke of Montemar (16th century) in the city of Jaén, now disappeared. Drawing by Agustin Garzon.
Archive of the Sound and City Project: sound cartographies of contemporary Jaén (19th-21st centuries)., Author provided

Experience the past today through sound

In order for the community to affectively experience the sounds of the past, several turns of the sound walk were held as part of a major scientific outreach event: the European Researchers’ Night 2022.

file 20230120 16 h8gqj0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Several participants of the sound walk through Napoleonic Jaén held on the Researchers’ Night of 2022.
Archive of the Sound and City Project: sound cartographies of contemporary Jaén (19th-21st centuries), Author provided

This activity makes it possible to convert the physical spaces of the city into places that are emotionally shared, experienced and nostalgically signified through sound.

At the same time, it helps to become aware of the space occupied by sound, the evolution of the sound environment and the problem of noise pollution, transforming the ear into a useful sense to make us relive the past.

The itinerary and the sound reconstructions of the walk through Napoleonic Jaén have been possible thanks to the R&D Project “Sound and the city: sound cartographies of contemporary Jaén (19th-21st centuries)” (FEDER Andalusia Operational Program, 2014- 2020, no. 2921).

Related articles