Issue 177,  published September 18, 2018

The New York Times Magazine’s Soundscapes

I’m not sure how many people listened to The EP, the New York Times Magazine’s neat little audio experiment from last year, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t many folks that actually, sincerely, and enthusiastically loved the thing as much as I did. For the unfamiliar, The EP was a special audio project built to accompany the magazine’s second ever Music issue, which revolved around a hefty “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” package that featured a different contributor writing each entry. The EP only tackled thirteen of those songs, with each three-minute “track” being built around a contributor talking about their piece. Among them: Wesley Morris taking about Adele. There’s Alexander Chee spinning Rufus Wainwright. There’s Jenny Zhang unpacking Mitski. The tracks were short, sweet, and deeply enjoyable; pure little hits of thoughtful culture. I loved the hell out of it.

The magazine is back with another audio project, this time with significantly more ambition. This coming weekend will see the release of the magazine’s annual Voyages issue, which traditionally brings readers around the world through a themed series of photo essays. Last year’s theme was “How families around the world take vacations,” and this year’s, of course, boasts a more audio-centric premise: it will be, essentially, a soundscape ecology project, with the goal being to collect sounds that both surprise and that could, on its own, convey revealing information about a place. “We chose places based on what they sound like,” Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, told me. “We were looking for sounds that could really convince readers and listeners of our central thesis: that you can learn a lot about the world by listening to it.” On the list (spoiler warning, I suppose): the Gol Gumbaz mausoleum in India, a national park in Mozambique that features a huge bat population, rat-life in the New York subway system (!), and the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. “I have never actually heard how lava moves before,” Silverstein said. “It’s a mind-blowing sound.” In all, there will be eleven locations and soundscapes featured in the issue.

The print issue will feature almost no text — just some introductory words and a short essay by contributing writer Kim Tingley — and the photography will feature no captions. Readers will need to listen to the accompanying podcast to fully understand what’s being presented to them. Contrary to The EP, which was an optional companion project, the audio layer is absolutely central to the experience of this weekend’s Voyages issue.

Every episode will accompany a different entry, and it will feature soundscapes as well as contributions from individuals relevant to the locale: experts, scientists, authors. In many cases, field recorders and sound artists based in the area were used to collect the audio. In others, the magazine piggybacked on recordings made during ongoing scientific research. Kara Oehler was brought in to produce the whole package. Silverstein will host the proceedings.

The print issue will first hits subscribers in the New York area on Saturday, and that’s when the podcast becomes available. Meanwhile, the rest of us mere mortal subscribers will have to wait until Sunday. The digital edition will also hit the web on Saturday, and that version will fuse the audio-visual components together. (But what’s the fun in that?)

As part of the rollout, the magazine is also holding a special event at the FAIF in Manhattan this Thursday. It’s open to the public, so if you’re around, you should totally hit it up. “I think it’s going to be super cool — it’s a weird theatrical project for us where we’re trying to stage a live version of the issue on-stage.” (Pop-Up Magazine better watch its back.)

Because this is a trade publication, here’s the business angle: GE will serve as the exclusive sponsor for the issue across all platforms. The company partnered with the Times’ T Brand Studio and the agency Giant Spoon to send producers out into places like Chile, Uganda, and the North Sea to apparently make spots on GE’s power and renewable energy businesses. (Advertising is a transaction, you see.)

Ohh man, I’m excited for this.