Sounds of Utrecht

As I sit here surrounded by silence that is broken only by the ticking of the clock, I find myself pondering the sounds that I have come to associate so closely with Utrecht. Living here in the city center, we get our fair share of noise, but we still manage to have our fair share of golden silence. The noises that I associate with Utrecht — my Utrecht — may be nothing like the noises any other person would think of when they think of this city. On the other hand, some of the noises could be ones that anyone in the Netherlands could find familiar.

One of the first sounds I associated with the city is the chiming of the bells coming from the Domtoren every hour. It’s not just the tolling of the hour at hand; there’s also a musical prelude to the hourly tones. Hear for yourself:

That may be the more obvious sound of Utrecht. My own private soundtrack has more to do with the clanging of pots, pans and silverware that drifts out the open door of the Indonesian restaurant across the street. It’s the chatter of the young child who lives in the apartment building next door as he plays in the courtyard. It’s the sound of the daily piano playing and the frequent opera singing practice also drifting over from the apartment complex. It’s most certainly the sound of the cheerful doei or doe as people say their goodbyes. I think that in the way I still remember the sound of the streetcar clanking past in New Orleans, I will always remember the sound of the almost high-pitched doe that is such an integral part of the everyday Dutch language.

Even if you try to bring the sounds of another city or another country into a new environment, the daily, regular sounds are bound to interfere and give the interloper a run for his money. I attended the RioolFest this week, which means I went to the spot on Zadelstraat where the specially designed speaker was sending its imported sounds out into the Utrecht sewers. On the day I was there, the sounds of the Paris Metro could be heard coming up from underground. It was a subtle sound, but there nonetheless. It was a metallic hum underlying the usual sounds of the street. That said, it was certainly quieter than I remember the New York subway cars being when they rushed immediately beneath your feet. I suppose you’re going to need the real thing to get the real feel and sound! Yet as I tried to make a recording of the sounds I was hearing — a poor recording, though — what struck me the most when I played it back was the loudness and primacy of the typical sounds of the street: the feet walking past, the broom sweeping in front of the shop.

I enjoyed the idea of making something unpleasant (sewers) into something unusual and a bit arty. In the end, however, it’s the real sounds of my adopted city that make me smile the most.