Sound Map provides unique portrait of city

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Sound Map provides unique portrait of city

Jeon Kwang-pyo, a sound designer, can tell a lot about an area just from his recordings.

The 42-year-old collects audio from different places in Seoul using a tall fluffy boom microphone.

“Just by the sound from the recorded area, I can tell if it is frequented by white-collar or blue-collar workers,” he said.

In his recording studio in Jung District, central Seoul, on Jan. 29, Jeon clicked on Jamsil Station on his Sound Map, an online map of Seoul with sound recordings of each area. Instantly, the click-clack of high heels resonated in the room.

“What you hear is the sound of people transferring from Jamsil Station to trains headed to Gangnam Station in the morning,” he said. “It is mainly filled with the footsteps of people going to work.”

But the audio was more muted when Jeon clicked on Bokjeong Station. “A lot of elderly transfer to trains headed to Jamsil Station from Bokjeong. Most of them wear sneakers.”

When Jeon clicked on City Hall Station, deliberate footsteps resembling an army march echoed in the studio.

“What’s remarkable is that no matter where you are, you don’t hear much talking in the morning” he said. “People are too busy trying to get to work.”

The audio recorded in the same locations during the evening hours were also markedly different, filled with sporadic ringtones and conversation. “The evening sounds are lighter. Everyone is more relaxed after work.”

To collect the audio, Jeon stands in one area for hours, like a scarecrow. So far, he has collected sound from more than 100 areas, including City Hall Station, Gyeongdong Market and the Namdaemun area.

The audio for Gyeongdong Market was marked by the vendors’ continual calls. “Three a set!” “2,000 won!”

“I’ve seen more young vendors flock to Gyeongdong Market recently. What’s interesting is that their repetitive calls for sales don’t overlap, as if they orchestrated the timing in advance. They all have their own timing and tones,” Jeon said. “You feel the pulse of the city in their calls.”

Jeon began recording the sounds of Seoul in 2007.

“As an engineer, I visited many different countries. A lot of the foreigners who have been to Korea recall hearing ‘ppali ppali’ [quickly] or honking sounds from cars,” he said. “Seoul is so much more than that. I wanted to share Seoul and its wonder through its sounds.”

Jeon shares the audio he has collected through his online Sound Map and at the Sound Festival, which he hosts once every three months in small cafes. “Many foreigners like the sound of soups and stews bubbling in restaurants here,” he said.

In January, Jeon also created a program called Sound Walk, in which users can virtually tour Seoul via the audio. There are four routes, including one through Samcheong Park and another through Dongdaemun Peace Market in central Seoul.

But Jeon’s favorite sound bite comes from a person he nicknamed the “Dongdaemun Market whistler.”

When he clicked on the file, the clinking sound of metal was followed by two distinct whistles - the whistle of a man transporting goods among vendors. “Because the road is very narrow within the market, the guy is whistling to request that people make way, rather than shouting at them or ringing bells. Isn’t that quite human?” Jeon said.

“Seoul still retains a touch of humanity in the city.”

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