It's may be hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when New York was a tranquil place, an island of lush greenery and singing birds and majestic mountain lions sipping out of clear freshwater ponds. That foreign-sounding land was known as Mannahatta—Lenape for "the island of many hills"—where the equivalent of noisy garbage men was the croaking bullfrog, which seems much preferable but really did drive some people crazy.

"Calling Thunder," a new virtual reality project out of Cornell University, offers the chance to experience how that pre-European Mannahatta of 1609 might've sounded, and how it compares to the cacophony of our present-day city. Created by sound engineer Bill McQuay and artist David Al-Ibrahim, the project layers wildlife audio from Cornell's archive over 360-degree sketches from four Manhattan locations—the High Line, the American Museum of Natural History, Inwood Hill Park, and Collect Pond Park.

In some videos, the noise of contemporary life interrupts the natural soundscape—the soothing rhythm of waves lapping against a shoreline is quickly replaced by the honking of cabs driving alongside the High Line; the bustling lobby of the Natural History Museum backslides into a serene wetland marsh.


The goal, according to the producers, is to create an immersive audio environment, one that resonates as historically accurate even without realistic images. "The sound is the color that we are trying to get the listener to put within that outlined environment," McQuay said. "We don't view the world in 360 degrees, but we hear the world in 360. We hear sound all around us. That's the way we're wired."

The result is a visually and sonically stunning experience, an "aural bridge across four centuries," according to the New York Times. A few of the 360 videos are over on the Times site, while more options, including straight audio clips, can be found at Unsung.NYC.

Once you're appropriately chilled out, click over to this interactive map to learn how the noise pollution in your neighborhood compares to the rest of the country—spoiler: probably not well.