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To most people, the following recording would evoke a feeling of calm. A quiet park where we hear peaceful birdsong and a few people walking along the gravel path, chatting in Italian. This could be any day of the year, but in fact this was a day that would go down in history.

– use headphones for optimised listening experience –

Shortly after we had arrived in the historic city of Mantova (Mantua in Itlaian), we decided to pay a visit to the Teatro Bibiena, a stunning 18th Century theatre. They were about to close for lunch but we were told it should only take ten minutes or so to visit and were invited to go in before they closed. We were completely alone as we explored backstage, went up to the balcony, onto the stage and admired the beauty of the building that, in 1769, had played host to a 14 year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

And then the building began to shake.

On the 29th May, the second earthquake in a month hit the Emilia-Romagna region causing eighteen deaths and widespread damage. The epicentre of Medolla is 50km South of Mantova, and the tremor caused significant damage to the historic city centre.

As for us, it was an incredible sensation to feel the tremor as the ground waved back and forth. There was a distinct low-frequency sound to it too. A really crazy sensation. Plus, being inside of a building that was built almost 250 years ago, was pretty scary to be honest. It all happened so quickly that I didn’t have the time, nor the reflex, to record anything whilst inside. The moment I heard bits of plaster begin to fall from the ceiling, I grabbed my stuff and ran out as quickly as possible.

And so, a bit shaken up, we began to walk away from the theatre and into the town centre. Everyone was out on the streets looking very lost. It reminded me a bit of how people reacted after the London bombings in 2007. There was a feeling of helplessness, of shock and mostly of worry.

A few minutes later we walked to a small square (Piazza Pallone) just behind Palazzo Ducale, a UNESCO heritage site. The earthquake had caused the lantern of the bell-tower of the St. Barbara’s Church, inside the palace complex, to fall down and word seemed to quickly spread that this had happened as more and more people turned up to witness the damage.

I recorded the birdsong in the park very close to where people were gathering to look at the damage. I found it quite interesting that the natural environment (i.e. the birds) just got on with their normal habits after the event, whereas the locals were greatly affected by the shock of having lived through the experience. What would have been really interesting would be to see if the birdsong had stopped during the few seconds that the ground shook. I have heard that prior to an earthquake, animals generally become very calm. Whether this was true in Mantova, I’ll never know.

I guess the story behind this recording actually has very little to do with what can be heard in the soundscape. But it just goes to show that there is often much more to something than meets the eye (or the ear in this case). I am actually very happy to have experienced the earthquake. I obviously feel for those whose loved ones lost their lives, as well as those who lost their homes and businesses as a result, but I do feel that experiencing the immense power of nature is a very humbling process.