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Portraying the city throught music
Portraying the city throught music - Portraying the city throught music

Portraying the city through music

What can music tell us about cities ? Can musi­cal city por­traits be a star­ting point to reflect on ways in which music repre­sents cities and contri­butes to the crea­tion of sha­red memo­ries asso­cia­ting places and music ? This article is an invi­ta­tion to explore dif­ferent examples of musi­cal city portraits.

Unlike lite­ra­ry and visual repre­sen­ta­tions of the city, music por­trayals might appear more indi­rect, frag­men­ta­ry, open-ended, espe­cial­ly with regards to non-vocal music or music with lyrics in forei­gn lan­guages. Never­the­less, they still offer a unique pers­pec­tive to dive into the musi­cal psy­cho­geo­gra­phy of dif­ferent cities and explore the rich tra­di­tion that merges music with other cultu­ral spheres. Music allows us to have a glimpse at the soul of cities and dis­co­ver facets that often remain invi­sible and unk­nown to forei­gners due to lan­guage bar­riers or lack of suf­fi­cient know­ledge about the local cultu­ral context. 

Music has often connec­tions to cities and spe­ci­fic loca­tions, but to per­ceive and appre­ciate refe­rences that, for example, songs of Okudz­ha­va make to Arbat street in Mos­cow or Cha­va Flores, the unof­fi­cial urban folk­lo­rist of Mexi­co City, makes to La Mer­ced neigh­bou­rhood, or the poe­try of Rober­to Muro­los’ Nea­po­li­tan songs in local dia­lect, one would need to be fami­liar both with Rus­sian, Spa­nish and Nea­po­li­tan lan­guages and the city places they chro­ni­cled in their songs. For­tu­na­te­ly, music doesn’t require us to know this in order to enjoy it. But when we do make the connec­tions, it sti­mu­lates our curio­si­ty and offers a pri­vi­le­ged access to the sense of place embed­ded in urban his­to­ry, lan­guage and culture. Name­ly, to how locals have construed and still share living memo­ries that asso­ciate songs, times and places. As Proust obser­ved, the real voyage of dis­co­ve­ry consists not in see­king new land­scapes, but in having new eyes, or in this case in wide­ning the pers­pec­tive of our “hea­ring vision”.


Булат Окуджава – Песенка об Арбате

Bulat Okudz­ha­va – Song of the Arbat street 


Some places such as the canals of Amster­dam are so visual­ly ico­nic that we for­get that they also have an invi­sible his­to­ry. The spe­cial place they hold in the hearts of Amster­da­mers was musi­cal­ly cap­tu­red by Pie­ter Goe­mans in an ode to the canals that has become one of the unof­fi­cial city anthems. 

The song tells of child­hood memo­ries, the lon­ging to return to the city after long tra­vels, the changes brought about by the pas­sing of time, but above all it sings the eter­nal Amster­dam with a love decla­ra­tion to the city. It’s per­for­mance at the end of the tra­di­tio­nal Open air Prin­sen­gracht Concert in the canals with an audience wat­ching and lis­te­ning from boats, is one of the musi­cal city-high­lights eve­ry year. The bridge in the song was memo­ria­li­zed with a plaque and later named after him while his ashes were spread over the Prin­sen­gracht canal.

Pont Pieter Goemans, Amsterdam
The Pie­ter Goe­mans bridge, Amster­dam © Milliped


 Wim Son­ne­veld  – P. Goe­mans – Aan de Amster­damse Grach­ten | Prin­sen­gracht­con­cert 2013


Cities such as New York have, unsur­pri­sin­gly, been source of ins­pi­ra­tion for thou­sands of songs which have tra­vel­led across the world. The cen­tra­li­ty of New York in music is not only due to its cultu­ral vita­li­ty and capa­ci­ty to attract gene­ra­tion after gene­ra­tion of musi­cians but also because of the city’s key role in the his­to­ry of the music indus­try. After all, New York was where the pho­no­graph was inven­ted and where mythic places such as Tin Pan Alley, Broad­way, Har­lem among many others gave birth to modern Ame­ri­can music.

It would be almost impos­sible to list the songs connec­ted to New York, when alone a place like Cen­tral park has ins­pi­red artists as diverse as John Col­trane, Nina Simone and Chick Corea. Other city songs don’t praise ico­nic places and his­to­ric land­marks but rather its people and the unique city life expe­rience. The music and lyrics of On the side­walks of New York both sing and represent a nos­tal­gia of the old New York. It has been per­for­med and adap­ted by nume­rous artists and is also consi­de­red by many as the unof­fi­cial anthem of the city. 

Nat King Cole – On The Side­walks Of New York 


Music doesn’t use exclu­si­ve­ly the city itself as a source of ins­pi­ra­tion, it also takes and ampli­fies other urban ima­gi­na­ries from lite­ra­ture, visual arts, cine­ma, etc., as a topic of music repre­sen­ta­tion of city life.  In the docu­men­ta­ry Hel­sin­ki Fore­ver, Peter von Bagh crea­ted a city sym­pho­ny that poi­gnant­ly brings to life a cen­tu­ry of archi­val foo­tage in coun­ter­point to pain­tings, movie sequences and a beau­ti­ful and diverse sound­track of the city that invites the forei­gner to dis­co­ver decades of Fin­nish clas­sics that are lit­tle known out­side the coun­try. These include a wide range of genres such as Fin­nish jazz, pop, punk rock, clas­sic and film music with excerpts from Ture Ara, George de God­zins­ky, Einar Englund and the Har­mo­ny Sis­ters. It also includes songs from Ola­vi Vir­ta, the king of Fin­nish Tan­go, a unique cultu­ral phe­no­me­non unto itself, that illus­trates how forei­gn musi­cal influences are trans­for­med and inte­gra­ted into a local music tra­di­tion that grew to become one of the most popu­lar music forms in Finland. 

Ola­vi Vir­ta – Unfor­get­table Home (Tan­go Frostbite)



A unique and ambi­tious pro­ject that brings music into dia­logue with the city and its repre­sen­ta­tions from mul­tiple angles are Jor­di Savall’s recor­dings of Istan­bul, Jeru­sa­lem, Gra­na­da and Venice. Ini­tial­ly known for his his­to­ri­cal per­for­mances with ori­gi­nal ins­tru­ments of ear­ly wes­tern music, these grand his­to­ri­cal pro­jects consti­tute a rich col­lec­tion of musi­cal fres­coes. They are not only aes­the­ti­cal­ly and musi­cal­ly fas­ci­na­ting but their mul­ti­lin­gual docu­men­ta­tion, par­ti­ci­pa­tion of musi­cians from Israel, Europe and the Arab world, recreate his­to­ric atmos­pheres and offer a unique mul­ti-laye­red city-music experience. 

These cities have a com­plex reli­gious, eth­nic, lin­guis­tic his­to­ry and the nar­ra­tives cho­sen along with time­lines illus­trate the cultu­ral cros­sings bet­ween the west and the orient. These are punc­tua­ted by text rea­dings, dances, cere­mo­nial and reli­gious music, evo­king such his­to­ri­cal moments as the birth of Venice, the 4th Cru­sade, the Fall of Constan­ti­nople, the Bat­tle of Lepan­to, and of Jeru­sa­lem as a Jewish, Chris­tian, Arab and Otto­man city. In Istan­bul, the music from Dimi­trie Can­te­mir, a Mol­da­vian 18th cen­tu­ry poly­math whose life and music repre­sents a stri­king example of East-West connec­tions and cultu­ral cros­sings.  Each of these recor­dings focus on a city but toge­ther they com­plete one ano­ther in their por­trayal of mil­len­nial Medi­ter­ra­nean cities and cultures, show­ca­sing a true inter­cul­tu­ral dia­logue, brid­ging dif­fe­rences and wars, where a com­mon huma­ni­ty across cen­tu­ries and cultures is brought to life in music.



Der makām – ı Hüseynī Sakīl – i Ağa Rıżā (Mss. D. Can­te­mir 89) · Jor­di Savall 



Invo­ca­ción Qam­ti be – Ishon Lay­la · Jor­di Savall

Vil­lan­ci­co : Aquel­la mora gar­ri­da – Gabriel, Can­cio­ne­ro de Pala­cio (CMP 254)


The music heri­tage of a city does not only allow us to tra­vel the world musi­cal­ly, but also can help us connect and relate to the city and its his­to­ry in new and mea­ning­ful ways. It’s an invi­ta­tion to redis­co­ver places through music but also new music through places we thought we knew. Music is a power­ful reci­pient of his­to­ries and memo­ries. The reso­nances and inter­play bet­ween music and other city repre­sen­ta­tions can enrich our expe­rience of music, cities and ourselves. 

In the “The Poets’ Soul”, a song about songs, Charles Tre­net reveals us a musi­cal secret : The poe­try and the memo­ry of a city can remain alive through music as long as we conti­nue to sing it, even after their authors are forgotten. 

Long, long, long

After the poets have disappeared

Their songs flow still through the streets.

The crowd sings them, a lit­tle distracted,

Una­ware of the author’s name,

Not kno­wing for whom his heart beat.

Some­times one changes a word, a phrase,

And when one has run out of ideas

One goes “La la la, la la lay.”

At the end, the evo­ca­tive power of music is such that even what seems to be for­got­ten, remains often present in music, wai­ting to be resur­rec­ted by us.


By the same author :

« Nar­co­cor­ri­dos : A musi­cal tra­di­tion per­ver­ted by violence ? »

« Modern urban trou­ba­dours : Beg­gars or buskers ? »



Alejandro Abbud Torres Torija

Alejandro is a Franco-Mexican with over 20 years of international experience and has lived in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Munich, St. Petersburg, Interlochen, Aspen and Mexico. He currently lectures at several French Universities and organizes international seminars on urban issues in Europe for universities and local government delegations from Mexico and Chile. Previously, he worked in international relations (OECD, UNESCO, Mexican Embassy in Berlin) and since 2014, he has been teaching at Sciences Po Paris (Poitiers, Nancy and Reims campuses) and at ESPOL Lille. His classes include Music and PowerSounds of the World: Music as a mirror of the intimate and the collectiveBeing an actor of the city and Languages of the world/world of languages.  Alejandro is also a musician (classical guitar) with a master in International Relations from Sciences Po Paris and holds a multilingual (English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Russian) official license as a cultural guide (www.aatt.mx).

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