SHARE THIS PAGE

Blog

Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

07 July 2015

Website spring-cleaning

YOU’RE SUPPOSED to redecorate your home every five years, according to popular wisdom which probably emanates from Dulux’s marketing department. Websites, however, do indeed show their age quickly.

I mourn the end of simpler times when anyone could put up a site about UFOs from Antarctica and, with a cheap program like HoTMetaL, stamp their personality on it by sticking pink text over an acid-green background. More grounded individuals could produce hobby websites rivalling those of big organisations in their design and functioning. That’s become harder to do for all kinds of reasons: commercialisation, mobile devices, the carousel of technical advances and user expectations.

That said, I was starting to get fed up with aspects of the London Sound Survey’s appearance and so have spent the past fortnight rejigging the dozens of templates which make up the site. The new look is slightly wider and hopefully less claustrophobic than before. Each page now has a more extensive range of navigation links and better access to the text-only versions for blind and visually-impaired visitors. An obsolete plugin has been stripped out of several sections, making audio playback more reliable.

Later this year I’ll be making a big change to the site’s content management system. In the long run this should pave the way for some new features.

02 June 2015

The White Lady of Camberwell and other London characters

MOST PEOPLE SIT on the port side of the top deck of a bus when they have the choice. That way you have a better view of the shop fronts and of pedestrians as they pass along the pavements below.

Sometime around the end of the 1990s I was on a number 45 (probably) from Blackfriars heading south down Camberwell Road. Something outside caught my attention; in fact, impossible not to notice. It was a woman dressed entirely in white, with a white face and white hair.

As she and the bus drew level I could see from the set of her features that she was a black woman who had applied some kind of heavy make-up all over her face. Her white hair looked matted as if a chalky paste had been painstakingly worked into it. Everyone on the port side of the top deck was looking at her. This was my only sighting of the White Lady of Camberwell.

The other day I came across a photograph of her on a Facebook local history group, but I’ve no idea where they got it from.

The White Lady of Camberwell


She’s hasn’t been seen for some years now. According to some posts on the East Dulwich Forum, her name was Alison, she had a gentle manner, spoke in a polite, child-like voice, and had been traumatised by some kind of serious assault. There’s a recording on the Survey of a preacher at Elephant and Castle who was known locally as the ‘Lady in White’ but they’re not the same person.

Memory plays tricks, especially when distinctive people and events are concerned, but it does seem that very visible eccentrics like the White Lady of Camberwell are becoming rarer in London. Here are some of the others I remember seeing about town.

THE TRAFFIC LIGHT TIMER

I saw him once during my late teens standing on King Street, Hammersmith in the small hours. He was a short man in late middle age, dressed in the shabbily respectable fashion which even then was a relic from earlier times. He held a clipboard in one hand and a pocket watch or stop watch in the other as he looked intently at a set of traffic lights. As the lights went through their colour changes he wrote something down on a piece of paper attached to the clipboard.

A few years ago there was a discussion about him on the Robert Elms Show on BBC Radio London. He’d been seen all over London. No-one knew his name but it was claimed that the Traffic Light Timer was a former civil servant who’d suffered a nervous breakdown.

WEST LONDON’S TRAMP WITH A CART

I first saw him shortly after I’d left school and got a job in an off licence in Turnham Green, west London. He was a tall, well-built black man, very raggedly dressed, who was walking slowly down the road. He pulled a small flat-bed cart behind him, like the sort used by railway porters. The cart was piled high with junk and a line of cars was being held up by him. Some beeped their horns but he paid them no attention.

The pop artist Peter Blake, who lived in Chiswick for a while, recalled the Tramp with a Cart in the course of TV interview, perhaps on Arena or something like that. Blake said the tramp would sometimes square up and adopt a boxing stance to those drivers who got out of their cars to berate him. The last time I saw him was in the back garden of a semi-derelict house near the Hogarth Roundabout. The fence had been smashed down so you could see him sitting in the garden beside a small bonfire he’d built. He seemed relaxed as he roasted something long and slick-looking on an improvised spit.

THE JOKE-TELLING BEGGAR OF CAMDEN

He was an old Irish beggar, short and slight of stature, who made money by accosting people in the Camden Town area and telling them jokes before asking for money. Night-times must have more lucrative for him as he worked the queues at venues like the Underworld and the Dublin Castle. I managed to record him in Camden during 2010 but I haven’t seen or heard of him since.

THE SHIRTLESS ITALIAN MAN

This is someone I’ve never come across but was told about recently by my friend Nick Hamilton. The Shirtless Italian Man has been seen in many different places around London for several years. He walks around briskly in a pair of Bermuda shorts, almost always bare-chested with no shirt or other top on. In the coldest weather he may wear a t-shirt but that’s it. He often carries a bulging shopping bag in each hand and has curly hair arranged in something like a mullet.

Public interest in such people is widespread and often sympathetic. Which London characters do you remember?

ADDITION: Thanks to @frozenreeds on Twitter, who found out the origins of the photograph of the White Lady of Camberwell above. It appeared on the Walworth Saint Peter blog in this post from 2014 and was taken by Lorraine Atkinson.

25 May 2015

The trouble with sound maps

A SOUND MAP nearly always consists of a Google Map on a webpage sprinkled with little placemarkers. The placemarkers are like a randomly-shuffled index and when you click on one, an audio player appears in a popup box. They have no preferred sequence, they usually aren’t sorted into categories and they are not reached through the unfolding of a taxonomic hierarchy. They’re just there, meaning a geographically accurate depiction of where the recordings were made to within a few tens of meters.

Sound maps are pretty useful in giving access to large numbers of recordings made over a wide area. With projects like Radio Aporee and Cities and Memory that area can extend to many countries. They’re also the obvious way to depict the dispersal patterns of sets of recordings where that’s of relevance to the recording agenda, as with the 12 Tones of London stats-driven project on this site.

However, if you think that sound maps are the final word in presenting recordings of places then take a look at Tapan Babbar’s new website Sounds of Mumbai. This includes a clickable sound map but, most of the time, it’s wisely consigned to the background. What makes Sounds of Mumbai stand out is its impressive use of photography. As each recording plays, a photograph of the place or event fills most of the screen and this makes all the difference.

Sounds of Mumbai website screenshot


A purist might claim that field recordings are best experienced while lying blindfolded in a flotation tank, but I found the only slightly distracting elements to be the jiggling levels meter wrapped around the central play button, and the forward and back buttons which wobble impatiently when the cursor hovers on top of them. Auditory attention seems to face competition from fast-moving images rather than static ones.

The site has only thirteen recordings and it’s most likely meant as a portfolio entry demonstrating Babbar’s skills as a web designer. But I was left feeling dissatisfied with parts of the London Sound Survey. Imagine how much better the Thames Estuary section would work if its recordings were heard in conjunction with full-screen photographs showing the marshlands and windy expanses of the Hoo Peninsula, or the low-tide prairies of mud and sand at Shoeburyness.

FROM SOUND MAPS TO SOUND GRAPHICS

For the past year and a half I’ve been trying to turn away from sound maps towards sound graphics. A sound graphic is defined here as a webpage main content block in which the positions of sound-playing elements or links are meaningful but do not show with any precision where the recordings were made, or else represent values unrelated to location.

One reason for this was the relative success of the Waterways diagram, which in turn hitches a free ride on Harry Beck’s schematic of London’s tube network. Other reasons are to do with what I see as the limitations of sound maps in general and how life can be more fun when you escape their confines.

First, sound maps hog a lot of page space while leaving little room for graphical ingenuity. This wouldn’t matter so much if Google’s street map layer was absorbing to look at – but it usually isn’t. In contrast, the alternative aerial photographic view can be endlessly fascinating, to the extent that site visitors may lose interest in listening to recordings altogether.

Second, a sound map immediately elevates a recording’s location to being its most salient feature. But this may not always be the most interesting or useful thing to know about the recording, and it may not be the most important source of difference among a set of recordings.

Third, the map layer imposes the need for audio placemarkers to be located precisely and for the spatial relations between them to be geometrically accurate. This obviously creates problems for recordings whose locations are only known vaguely or not at all, or else for a series of recordings made at different times in the same place. But it imposes other constraints which can be illustrated by returning to the example of Beck’s tube map.

Consider how much more convenient and attractive Beck’s design is compared to a geographically-accurate version. The difference isn’t simply about the design rules Beck imposed on himself, how the line orientations were limited to just four different angles, or how all the tube stations had to be equally spaced. It is that Beck’s map foremost embodies a series of propositions about the tube network rather than being an analogue of its geographical layout.

They’re things like It’s eight stops to Covent Garden or You have to change at Bank. Everyday navigation consists of more kinds of propositions: distances estimated as travel times, turn left when you reach the Dog & Duck, the quick route versus the scenic route, places best avoided. It seems unlikely that mental maps resemble the AA Guide or the London A-Z.

Sound graphics have the potential to tap into such forms of knowledge as well as depict different kinds of measurement, including categorical groupings, cyclical time, the ordinal levels of first, second, third and so on, log ratios, and simple counts. Here are the ones I’ve come up with since late 2013 with brief notes on how and why they were put together.

NOVEMBER 2013: RICHARD BEARD’S HACKNEY YEAR

Richard is a wildlife recordist who, in 2013, was living in the borough of Hackney. He’d been getting up early each morning for a year to make recordings from a fixed point overlooking his back garden. He very kindly offered to share them with this site so we settled on a selection of a hundred recordings spaced evenly throughout the year.

Screenshot of Richard Beard's Hackney Year webpage


The obvious answer was to structure the links to the sound files in calendar form, but this wasn’t doing much for the wow meter. Thinking about the mutability of time and distance yielded a better solution in the form of the solar year and the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The main graphic was made using a 30-day trial download of a 3D modelling program, and then overlaid with an HTML image map. Each blue Earth has a hotspot which, when clicked, loads an individual webpage with the appropriate sound file and its metadata into an iframe at the top of the graphic. Here’s the link to the Hackney Year.

This simple method is described at length in a blog post from 2011. It’s a handy technique when all the recordings for a particular project have been provided at the same time. However, additions involve making a new underlying graphic each time, uploading it, and amending the HTML code. This can become a chore so it’s not the best method for an open-ended project.

APRIL 2014: ANDRE’S LONDON

Early in 2014 the recordist Andre Louis and myself agreed to create a page for some of his work. Andre lives in west London and is blind. Blind people don’t have supersenses to compensate for the loss of sight, but they do pay more attention than most sighted people to what they can hear, smell and feel. I am always struck by the precision with which Andre listens. He will pick out sound details in the environment and infer meanings from them which I might simply not detect.

Knowing that this would be an open-ended project, and not being able to predict Andre’s future movements or preferences, meant that the sound graphic had to encompass the whole of London. Andre had written a short piece about why he records in London and what it means to him, so I rendered this as a block of Braille in the shape of the city. The individual Braille dots could act as placemarkers linked to the appropriate recordings. Here’s the link to Andre’s London.

Screenshot of Andre's London webpage


To avoid the hassle of changing both the graphic and the underlying HTML each time Andre added a new recording, each placemarker dot consists of a DIV element targeting an iframe at the top of the graphic. When a new recording is added to the site’s content management system, a new dot is created automatically and its position set using inline CSS with the left and top values taken from fields in the content management system entry. This is a lot quicker than updating an image map, although professional web designers will argue that inline CSS is a Bad Thing. They have some good reasons for doing so but, on the other hand, it works.

JUNE 2014: THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Being too old and too weird to get ahead at the British Library I decided to take voluntary redundancy. I’d been there for 15 years and felt contradictory emotions of disappointment and relief as the leaving date approached. A Library-related project would serve as a form of closure. I made a bunch of recordings around the building in public areas, inside the reading rooms and in staff-only nooks and corners. Colleagues came up with some useful suggestions of sounds worth capturing.

I originally thought of arranging the recordings on a geometrically-accurate diagram of the Library building, but then remembered how verisimilitude in art can be cheesy, just like those ultrarealistic airbrush paintings from the 1980s of nubile female robots holding cocktails. Better to represent it in a stylised way which would draw more on an idea of working there, as well as exploring the vertical dimension in sound. This had interested me for a while, particularly in the ways that large buildings tend to reproduce a class structure based on elevation.

The proles often labour in basements or at ground level, where post rooms and delivery bays have to be situated, while senior executives bag themselves offices with impressive views on the higher floors. It’s not quite that straightforward at the Library, but there are big differences in sound and appearance between the Library above ground and its huge basements. Here’s the link to the British Library sound graphic page.

Screenshot of the British Library sound graphic webpage


Using CSS relative and absolute positioning makes it easy to assemble all the individual elements. The graphic has audio players directly embedded within it, rather than using links and an iframe, and the one I used was the HTML5-based Pickle Player. (This has recently superseded by an update in the same firm’s Wimpy Player.) It costs money but it’s a one-off payment and there are several reasons why it’s worth the cash. It’s easy to install, a content management system can spawn endless different instances of the player as required, and it’s completely skinnable. You can only use one player skin per webpage, but making the skin mostly transparent allows variety with background images in container DIVs.

FEBRUARY 2015: LONDON UNSEEN

Thinking about how Andre and other blind people must rely strongly on sound to help build their knowledge of places, I thought it would be an idea to make some sound graphics with almost no useful geographical information. You’d have to listen to guess where you were. The array below presents 36 recordings made in a grid pattern. The distances between them are given as walking times in minutes, and each recording was made while facing north, the aim being to help the listener orient themselves. Here’s the link to the London Unseen page.

Screenshot of London Unseen webpage


CSS relative and absolute positioning again plonk player instances in the right spots. Also, it’d make a nice tea towel.

APRIL-MAY 2015: EDGELANDS

I’ve always loved visiting the kind of semi-derelict and apparently unclaimed areas which exist around the edge of the city. Knowing how they’re impermanent and that, somewhere, a developer wants to ‘realise the vision’ of turning an expanse of rough ground into a theme park, can add a pre-emptively elegaic sense to such explorations. The aim was to make collages of sound recordings and pictures along with fragments of maps, with the latter being presented in ways that would render them fairly useless as detailed navigational aids.

Four different areas now have their own sound graphics and they present a record of experiences, including the act of looking at paper maps and having to refresh one’s visual memory by doing so repeatedly, rather than definitive accounts of those places. Here’s the link to the Edgelands section.

Screenshot of an Edgelands webpage


CSS transforms make possible the slow fading of one image into another, with different time values set for each image pair.

These examples show, I hope, some of the potential in thinking in terms of sound graphics. It’s another approach to consider alongside all kinds of possibilities for organising and presenting sound recordings on webpages, not least simply writing well about them.

I’m never satisfied for long, and beyond the fun had mucking about and experimenting with these graphics, there remains the sense that something more is needed.

The fundamental issue in recording is the relationship between the recordist and their subject. When that changes, everything else follows.

07 April 2015

Challenging the BBC to broadcast unusual sounds in 1924

THE RADIO PRODUCER and sound artist Mark Vernon has sent me a clipping from the June 1924 edition of Popular Wireless Weekly, a magazine for radio enthusiasts which was published between 1922 and 1934.

It’s an editorial piece written in the facetious style which educated English people used to adopt when they were excited about something, but didn’t want to appear so. The cause of the excitement was the BBC’s first live outside broadcast the previous month in which the cellist Beatrice Harrison accompanied a nightingale’s song. This became an annual fixture lasting almost 20 years and there’s a Radio 4 retrospective about it available for listening here.

Popular Wireless article from 1924


The mentions of Wembley refer to the British Empire Exhibition which ran from 1924 to 1925.

With the exception of the nightingale and cellist, the BBC were generally reluctant to take their microphones out of the studio environment, and the earliest location recordings (as distinct from live broadcasts) didn’t begin until 1934 with Lawrence Gilliam’s feature ‘Opping ‘Oliday.

However, someone at the BBC may have recalled the Popular Wireless editorial when they commissioned a short series entitled Unusual Recordings, which included the sounds of a transatlantic cable-laying ship and various other workplaces. Only one of the programmes survives to the present day: it’s of Victoria Coach Station in 1935 and you can listen to it right here.

Popular Wireless Weekly was an early forerunner of those magazines where you have to buy every edition to collect the parts for a model battleship or tyrannosaur. The Weekly, of course, sold radio kits piece by piece and the Radio Museum website has the pictures and plans for its ‘Northern Star’ wireless set from 1933.

19 March 2015

The average of the average

A FEW WEEKS ago I went out with Paul Tourle from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology to record around Bowes ward in Enfield, north London.

This site’s slowly-evolving 12 Tones of London statistical project has identified Bowes as the most typical council ward within the least remarkable cluster of wards. If you want an unreasonably condensed answer to the journalist’s question of So, what is the sound of London? then it’s not a bad place to start.

Paul took along his film camera and I’m pleased to be able to reproduce here some of his photographs from our trip.

A typical residential street in Bowes, Enfield


Bowes is mostly comprised of residential streets of terraced and semi-detached houses. The ward boundaries plot a sausage shape with an east–west axis and it’s sliced up along its length by a railway line, the New River, and Green Lanes. There also seems to be a wealth gradient running from west to east mirroring the traditional one of London as a whole.

It’s curious to wonder if this pattern of self-similarity occurs above chance levels across council wards and even boroughs. Well-to-do people likely always preferred to live upwind of industry or have their smoke drift over poorer areas in the parishes and villages which eventually became engulfed by the city.

By the railway line is a small path called Wishaw Walk that leads past an electricity substation and some allotments. All the recordings and pictures were made on a weekday afternoon.

The electricity substation in Wishaw Walk, Enfield


Apart from the New River, the other waterway in Bowes is Pymme’s Brook. The stretch of it immediately north of the allotments off Chequers Way amounts to little more than a convenient rubbish tip for some locals. Tangles of fallen tree branches make it reminiscent of a bayou in the Florida Everglades provided you look away from all the beer cans and plastic fertiliser sacks. Further downstream Pymme’s Brook is confined to a grim concrete culvert.

Pymme's Brook of Chequers Way, Enfield


The afternoon shuffled along the mundane streets like a pensioner coming back from the post office. Tottenhall sports ground in the south-east of the ward was deserted except for gulls that lifted and settled on the football pitches in a light breeze.

Tottenahall sports ground, Enfield


These are some of the sights and sounds of the most demographically-typical part of London, the city with its edges shaved off. What’s left is someone putting the rubbish out in a wheely bin, voices from behind garden fences, distant trains and planes, a car door slamming somewhere down the street, the chirp of sparrows in a hedge, a dog barking from far off across a sports ground.

It’s not a bad world to live in. I belong to it. So do you, probably.