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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.

19 August 2016

Audio problems for Android users

AN EMAIL ARRIVES from the United States helpfully pointing out that this site’s audio players won’t work on an Android tablet. I’ve since checked it on someone’s Android smartphone and find the same thing happening, or rather not happening.

Once upon a time the audio player, in its different visual forms, did work with Android but evidently times have changed. The only solution is for me to change all the players for a much newer version, which means redesigning and reinstalling them all from scratch. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, since the pages here are dynamically generated, meaning only the templates need adjusting, but it’ll still take a while to get everything sorted.

For those interested in such things, the now-obsolete player was called Pickle Player. I’ll be replacing it with Wimpy Player, which is made by the same company. It looks pretty versatile and should allow for playback on just about every device around.

19 August 2016

Hello to New York Times readers

RECENTLY I APPEARED in the New York Times alongside Kate Carr and Chris Watson in a piece written by Alex Marshall about field recordists. So if you’ve come here from there, hello.

Alex originally approached me a couple of months earlier and we agreed to head out to north-east London so he could watch me in action. But action perhaps isn’t the right word for what I do. There is a lot of walking from A to B but once you find something you want to record, it’s usually a matter of standing stock-still for a short while.

This was frustrating for a student documentary-maker I met some years ago and the only highlight of that outing was when I stepped on a plank with a nail sticking out of it. The nail went through the sole of my shoe, up between my big toe and the next toe, and then out through the top of the shoe. I sat down on the ground abruptly in surprise and stared at my foot. The documentary-maker sprang out of his despondent state and began eagerly filming me.

Alex made for good company as we first visited New Spitalfields Market in Leyton and then made a long walk northwards to Stamford Hill. The market sounds like this when it’s closing up and there were indeed forklift trucks hurtling about, one of them coming uncomfortably close:

It was a Saturday and the streets around Stamford Hill were full or Orthodox Jews coming out of the local synagogues. Alex took this photo of me frowning at my recorder, which he’s kindly let me reproduce here:

Me recording in Stamford Hill

A pleasant Sabbath-day atmosphere filled the streets with conversations and occasional cries of greeting in English and Yiddish. I hung around at a corner where two streets joined together in a fork to try to capture some sense of time and place:

Opportunities like that presented by the New York Times are rare, and I’m always keen to ask journalists about their jobs and the workings of newspapers and broadcasters. Earlier this year Alex wrote another sound-related article for the NYT on the European Music Archaeology Project and he told me about Republic or Death!, his Random House book on the stories behind national anthems. You can read more about the subject on his blog of the same title.

Kate Carr is due to make a live performance at Cafe Oto on Thursday 22 September, for which I’m doing a support slot. More information on the Cafe Oto website.

22 June 2016

The EU referendum and the silence of the streets

THE EU REFERENDUM vote is due tomorrow, June 23rd, but the campaigners haven’t made the streets resound with action, which is what urban recordists like me yearn for.

So far I’ve had one campaigner knock on my front door, and there have been a few stalls in pedestrianised shopping streets and outside tube stations. In London the Remainers are more visible than the Leavers, but they’re not much more audible. One old chap was politely trying to dish out Remain literature with all the passion of someone advertising a church jumble sale: “Leaflet sir? Leaflet madam? We’re stronger in Europe.”

Mainstream politics had more of a street presence three or four decades ago. This BBC video about the 1975 European referendum shows a different world of marches headed by Highland pipers, town hall meetings and busy walkabout schedules for politicians.

Just as today, televised debates were of great importance, but they were different in style. Last night’s BBC debate, broadcast from Wembley, had six main speakers playing a kind of conker match armed with some soundbites and their supposed credentials: “speaking as a mother and a grandmother”, “speaking as the only one here who has served in the armed forces” and so on. One Twitter wag described it as looking like the worst Kraftwerk gig ever.

Compare it with the 1975 televised Oxford Union debate, titled ‘A Question of Europe’. Each of the four speakers – Peter Shore, Jeremy Thorpe, Barbara Castle and Ted Heath – are skillful orators and have the time to develop arguments of some substance. The Liberal Party leader Thorpe puts in a particularly memorable performance at odds with his austere, headmasterly appearance, beginning around 27 minutes into the video.

Even as far back as the mid-1970s there was a detectable move away from the rough-and-tumble of the open political hustings towards the security of studio debates and ticket-only election rallies. A pivotal moment in this transition was the public mauling of the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 election campaign in Birmingham. Whilst addressing a crowd at the Rag Market in the Bull Ring, he came under intense heckling from Labour Party and other opponents which eventually overwhelmed him. The event was televised, compounding Douglas-Home’s humiliation. As he noted in his memoirs:

It produced an appearance of strain which inevitably conveyed itself to the television onlookers – I looked rather hunted and that had a bad effect. I blame myself for not studying the techniques of television more than I did.

Attempts by politicians in more recent times to return to the soapbox in the street have been rare. John Major spent part of his youth speaking for the Conservative cause outdoors near Brixton Market and, in 1992, he decided to revive this approach in Luton during the General Election campaign. There’s a Press Association photo of him looking quite cheerful as he contends with Trot Left hecklers, helped by what must surely be called the ‘Executive’ model from the loudhailer range.

Media reactions to this approach were mixed, although it evidently didn’t harm Major’s chances greatly, since he won the election. Less fortunate was the former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who oversaw Labour’s demolition by the SNP in the 2015 General Election. Murphy had tried for a down-to-earth image by going on a lengthy campaign tour with a couple of Irn Bru crates given prominence as improvised speaking platforms.

The lesson of Douglas-Home in the Rag Market seems largely to have stuck. The Rag Market itself had been a gathering place for radical and labour movement speakers since the 1830s, with some rallies attracting many thousands. The pressure for popular involvement in politics was eventually reflected in the main political parties enjoying very large numbers of members.

In the 1950s the Conservatives had around three million members, and the Labour Party one million. Today’s figures are 150,000 and 270,000 respectively. Even allowing for the fact that many may have joined for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons, such as making business contacts through a local Conservative Association, or being able to buy a drink in the local Labour Club, mass membership provided a large pool of potential helpers during elections.

Have a listen to the enthusiastic crowds in this 1949 recording from the Hammersmith South by-election in west London. Both Labour and the Conservatives flooded the constituency with hundreds of volunteers, organising marches, rallies and noisy motorcades with slogans broadcast from roof-mounted loudhailers. Below is Mark Kaufman’s photograph of a large crowd attending the hustings in February of that year:


Vocal involvement in politics was expressed and encouraged in other ways too. A common feature of popular political tracts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the effort to provide their readers with the ammunition to help them win verbal arguments or debates with friends, workmates and neighbours. Sometimes this was done in the form of a dialogue in which the main speaker would overcome a series of convenient objections from a sceptical listener. Or, the pamphlet might be written in a markedly oratorical style, as though designed to be read aloud to an audience.

The most successful political book to combine both approaches was the socialist Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, originally published in 1893. It would eventually sell over two million copies across the English-speaking world.

Blatchford begins by addressing an imaginary Mr Smith, a ‘shrewd, hard-headed, practical man’. What better kind of person to be able to convince?

Now, Mr. Smith, if you really are a man of hard, shrewd sense, we shall get on very well. I am myself a plain, practical man. I base my beliefs on what I know and see, and respect “a fact” more than a Lord Mayor. [. . .] Now I assert that if the labour of the British people were properly organised and wisely applied, this country would, in return for very little toil, yield abundance for all.

The goal of face-to-face persuasion is now limited in politics to occasional doorstepping and is absent in political writing. It survives only among Christian proselytisers and in the pamphlets and leaflets they produce. The best-known examples are the inadvertently entertaining Jack Chick tracts from the United States, and which are sometimes found in religious bookshops in this country.

You may detect a note of regret here and you’d be right. An atomised society is a difficult one to record.

04 June 2016

Last Wednesday's radio rampage

MANY THANKS are due to my friend and former colleague Eve Anderson, who on her own initiative put up some posters advertising one of my talks around Broadcasting House, where she now works as an audio engineer. (You can hear her digitising a wax cylinder on my British Library sound diagram.)

The result was a day of invitations to take part in different radio broadcasts. The BBC paid my train fare to appear on Radio 4’s Today program and you can hear the results below:

The experience was one of joining a very slick, very well-organised production line, rather like the old Generation Game where a parade of different household goods would pass before the contestants’ eyes, only you’re the hostess trolley or the Goblin Teasmade. Some atavistic urge compelled me to eat as much as I could of the free breakfast food provided in the Today program’s green room before going on air.

Later in the day I got a call off BBC Radio Essex and did a short interview with them, but before that I had the pleasure of meeting the very versatile Robin The Fog at Broadcasting House and together we recorded a short feature for BBC World Service:

It was a good, busy day followed by a talk to deliver in the evening. I fell asleep as soon as I got home.

13 April 2016

Media chancers

THOSE WHO USE, or want to use, your amateur field recording work tend to fall into three broad categories.

First, there are those who probably make tunes and music mixes at home. They’re the ones who download your efforts from Soundcloud but almost never add a comment or send you a message to say thanks. Digital objects to them are like blackberries on a bush. The bush might have a few blunt thorns in the shape of a copyright notice, an ineffectual right-click disabling function on photos, or a forlorn ‘Donate’ button. Eager, grabbing hands won’t be put off by any of that, don’t you worry.

Just about everyone now treats pictures, code snippets, music and videos like they’re tumbling out of a post-scarcity digital cornucopia somewhere on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Institutions whose revenues aren’t threatened have recognised and begun managing this in various ways, such as Creative Commons licensing or, in the case of the British Library recently, by letting people take cameras into their reading rooms so they can photograph the contents of books. This is an enormous boon to researchers.

The second group are on a similar level to the recordist. They might be podcasters or musicians, or they might work for a community radio station or a small record label. Typically they can’t pay you much, if anything, but they’re more than happy to give you a credit, and they’ll do what they say they’re going to do. Sometimes there’s a reciprocal element to this: if they publicise what you’re doing, then you can do the same for them. Trust is built and friendships are made.

The third group is the real focus of this post. These are the professionals, typically working in broadcasting but occasionally in the museum/archive/gallery sector too. Relations tend to be more formal and businesslike than with the second group (the first group probably don’t think of you as an individual), and most of them work efficiently and to a set of clear expectations. But some don’t and I call them media chancers. Here are three examples presented as cautionary case studies, based on personal experience. The names and some other precise details are made up.

THE CARROT THAT NEVER WAS

Dominic works for a well-funded county archive. He first contacted you asking for advice on different ways of making sound maps on websites. You answered him at some length by email. He thanked you and then came back asking for some more specific pieces of information. Again, you do your best to provide good answers. This time there was no immediate reply.

A few weeks pass and Dominic sends you another email, asking for help in beta-testing some aspect of the new website the archive is putting together. He also lets you know that the archive will soon be looking for a sound recordist, working in exactly the same specialism as you do. ‘We have someone in mind,’ Dominic writes suggestively.

Asking him whether that someone might indeed be you somehow seems crass, so you don’t. Instead, you provide him yet again with what he wants. ‘Thanks’, says Dominic this time, before adding that the recordist in mind is not you. Sorry about any confusion this may have caused.

With the miracle of hindsight you realise that a more forthright approach on your part would have been better early on, such as asking how he intended to reciprocate all the help and advice you’d been feeding him.

Part of the problem here is the context. You weren’t expecting a county archivist to be like someone out of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, which Dominic probably uses as a self-help guide.

YOU SHOULD FEEL HONOURED WE ASKED

Antonia works for a major broadcaster. She sends you a very flattering and slightly surprising email, asking whether they can use your seven-minute-long recording of small household items being dropped into an industrial wood-chipper for a children’s program. Sadly, neither the program nor the website formats will allow space for you to be credited. ‘Would this be a deal-breaker?’ she asks brightly.

She’s written a lot of nice things about your recordings in her email, and it’s possible that she’s even listened to some in addition to the wood-chipper. But there’s no mention anywhere of payment. The request is easy to answer: no.

A SECRET BIT OF SOUND MAGIC

Hear Today is one of your favourite radio programs, presenting as it does the work of upcoming British poets. You’re delighted when producer Oliver emails you to ask if they can use not one but four of your recordings! ‘We will of course talk about the site’, he promises.

The email avoids all that vulgar stuff about you getting paid something, but it doesn’t matter. You’re more than happy to support Hear Today and a credit on air would be great. You root around your dusty old hard-drives so you can send Oliver the edited WAV files rather than the MP3s which are closer to hand, and you go off to make a cup of tea when gazing at the upload progress bar becomes unbearable.

No reply comes but Oliver must be busy. You email him the next day to make sure he got the recordings and the program went out okay. ‘Yes thanks very much we did’, he replies, before adding a sentence the full implications of which don’t sink in immediately:

We didn’t name check it as we wanted it to appear as a secret bit of sound magic without too much signposting.

This hints at something of greater significance, like the way anthropologists can reconstruct an entire ape-man from finding a single piece of shin bone. But what is it?

Then you grasp what’s going on. The sentence is a hole through which you can see all the dismal things in the world drifting through a black void: the restaurant you end up in at the office Christmas party, the £12 margharita jug with its homeopathic alcohol percentage, films full of CGI effects, self-service tills, scrambled egg done in the microwave, the meaningless made-up names of rail companies, slimy marketing-speak.

You email to ask for clarification and in his reply Oliver seems contrite, although he now claims the omission was made in error rather than from design. It would’ve been much better if he’d started out with that explanation.

That’s the end of that, although you won’t enjoy Hear Today quite as much as you did before.

None of these are exactly terrible things to happen. It’s more like the feeling you get when you’re walking along and you get splashed by a car driving through a puddle. The answer is to be a little more circumspect.