Occasional posts on subjects like field recording, London sounds past and present, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

11 August 2014

The London Sound Survey as a full-time job

AROUND 2005 I got a job working for the British Library Sound Archive which eventually led to this website being set up. If I hadn’t worked there I wouldn’t have got into field recording.

The job was that of vaultkeeper, which was a great way of saying storeman, and on my first day I had to report to the depot in Micawber Street off City Road. It was a former wine warehouse which the British Library kept for storing some of its books and nearly all of its sound recordings. The other vaultkeeper was Trevor, a lean cheerful man from a family of Thames watermen. Trevor’s first words were: “You’ve landed on your feet here mate. This is a democratic workplace.”

So it was. Senior management were based at St Pancras leaving us vaultkeepers, accessioners and sound engineers to get on with our own work. Light manual labour is conducive to thought, and I became curious about the tapes, records and wax cylinders that I climbed ladders to fetch and put back.

The aisles of shelving were high and narrow. Here would be an almost complete run of LPs from the Smithsonian’s Folkways label. Pull one out: Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico. Another: Songs from Cape Breton Island. Elsewhere there were mysterious string-tied boxes; inside would be tapes from expeditions, wildlife recordings, the music of indigenous peoples, the trumpeting of every foghorn in Britain. One man had recorded the sounds of all the bus journeys that could be made in Yorkshire and each tape box had notes written on the back in a tiny, meticulous hand.

Field recording began to seem an attractive thing to do and so this website came into being. Many of my co-workers at the Archive gave me advice and encouragement along the way. They were a decent crowd of people.

Early hopes of becoming involved in more interesting work on a permanent basis proved to be naive. The lease on the warehouse ran out and, after an enjoyable one-year post editing the UK Soundmap, I ended up at St Pancras in a cramped windowless room with the hum of an amplifier rack for company. The room had a reputation for driving its occupants to despair. After spending three years in there, I’d say that reputation has something to it.

A gulf not a gradient separates those doing routine work from curators and others enjoying more stimulating tasks. Passage across the gulf to Arcadia is rare and your sails are best filled by the warm breeze of patronage. Only a few actively reinforce the division and they do it to satisfy either a need for control or an instinct for territorial self-interest. More often it is simply part-and-parcel of an equilibrium which takes the least effort to sustain.

This year I took up an offer of voluntary redundancy. I’m now renovating my home so I can rent it out, scratch around for a few earners here and there, and devote myself full-time to the London Sound Survey from this autumn onwards. This is the right thing to do because I love making recordings, meeting people, and seeing the website continue to grow.

The warehouse at Micawber Street has since been demolished and flats built in its place. It was good while it lasted.

16 June 2014

Thanks to everyone who came to Earshots 4

SATURDAY BEFORE last, the 7th of June, I was invited by Ed Lucas and Daniel Kordik of Earshots to play some field recordings at the start of an evening of improv music.

On the line-up were Sarah Gail Brand, John Russell and Ross Lambert. All three are renowned improv musicians so I was unsure how well me and my laptop would go down.

From the audience’s point of view, staring at the raised lid of a laptop just isn’t as exciting as being close to the physical effort and verve of someone playing a real instrument. I’ve wondered whether it might not be an idea to buy an old reel-to-reel machine and use that instead. Surely it would push things one notch up on the visual thrill-ometer.

Luckily Ed and Daniel had decided that I should play my recordings in pitch darkness anyway, and it all seemed to go down well. As proof, here’s the photo I took straight after the Q&A session:

I love giving talks and playing recordings to people, and the Earshots crowd were a particularly friendly lot. Sarah Gail Brand had to pull out at the last minute, so Ed Lucas stepped in to play an accomplished trombone solo. John Russell and Ross Lambert performed a fantastic duet, made more so by knowing it was unrehearsed, using not just the strings of their guitars but pretty much every surface of the instruments to make sound.

Later, I looked up some of John’s performances on YouTube and noted one comment along the lines of This isn’t music! It’s not a sentiment I agree with. Being exposed to ‘difficult’ music helps expand how you listen to and recognise the patterns and possibilities in the sounds of everyday life.

Many years ago I asked a friend to recommend me some modern classical music. Knowing very little about it, I could only describe it to him as: The sort of music that’s like being stuck in solitary confinement, you know, austere sounding. Back came a box of tape cassettes of Radio 3 broadcasts he’d recorded over the years: Xenakis, Ligeti, Carl Ruggles, Luigi Nono, Charles Ives, Jonathan Harvey.

That gift did a lot for my listening and so too did Earshots 4. Thanks very much to Ed and Daniel for inviting me, to Ross and John, everyone else there and the Hundred Years Gallery.

If you’d like me to give a talk and play recordings at an event you’ve got lined up, or to a group or organisation you’re involved with, please drop me a line via the contact form.

08 June 2014

Edgelands: Staines Moor

STAINES MOOR LiES just outside London about a mile and a half southwest of Heathrow Airport. The Ordnance Survey map shows it as a fragment in that extra-urban mosaic of quarries, reservoirs, brownfield sites, marshalling yards and grazing land usefully named ‘Edgelands’ in 2002 by the environmentalist Marion Shoard.

The Moor is quite flat and bounded by road and reservoir embankments like the baize of a pool table. It is infiltrated by three watercourses: the Wraysbury, the Colne, and the Bonehead Ditch. One of the conceits of scrutinising Edgeland places on maps is that you’ll find somewhere which has slipped out of the normal stream of life, like the territory of JG Ballard’s Concrete Island.

Of course, no such place of more than a few acres can exist in England. The Moor is owned by a quarrying firm, has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and a number of local people hold grazing rights. An information board stands at the Moor’s southern entrance: a subway beneath the Staines Bypass.

This recording of skylarks was made roughly in the middle of the Moor where road traffic forms the dominant backdrop:


A few hundred years north, on a wooden footbridge spanning the Bonehead Ditch, the noise of jet engine from the airport begins to become noticeable:


The suburban village of Stanwell Moor lies further north again. The soundscape is typical in all but one respect of a residential street on London’s outskirts: sparrows chirping in bushes and hedges, someone is mowing their front lawn, someone else is tending to a car engine, radio adverts come from an open window.

Heathrow’s noise is behind everything but the source is unseen, like hearing the surf in a seaside town a few streets back from the promenade. Sometimes it rises in intensity as a plane begins takeoff.

Most of the variation I heard across Staines Moor was of one contrinuous sound source like the M25 fading while another, like the airport, grew. Perhaps more interesting differences exist among the range of Edgeland places surrounding the city.

The Edgelands were in our awareness before they had the name. To a city child like me they were the exotic parts of the old black-and-white London street atlas: blank areas with small rectangles labelled ‘Works’. They had good place-names too and in that sense all readable maps are sound maps.

There exciting or dangerous things could happen. Older youths might demand to know what football team you supported and there would be no right answer. Something tells me something’s gonna happen t-o y-o-u from Cilla Black’s 1971 hit sung jeeringly to a slow group handclap – then the chase begins.

Or there were the hazards of gravel pits or express trains or scum-topped canals. These fears was encouraged by public information films such as ‘Dark and Lonely Water’ made in 1973. Mark the gloating excitement Donald Pleasence adds to the line It’s the perfect place for an accident.


20 May 2014

Guest post from Cities and Memory

THE LONDON SOUND Survey very kindly asked me to send in a few words about the sound mapping/remixing project I run called Cities and Memory so here we go.

To give you the elevator pitch, so to speak, the basic idea behind Cities and Memory is that it’s a global sound map, except in every location there are two sounds instead of one. The first sound is the ‘real’, documentary field recording of what that place actually sounds like.

The second sound is a reimagining of it – whether it’s remixed, edited, combined with other sounds, reworked musically, whatever it might be is completely open to interpretation by the remixer. This gives the listener two sound worlds to explore – the real, and the imagined, or of course you can switch at will between two different worlds of sound on the map. But really the best way to get a feel for it is to take a look at the sound map and listen to a few of the sounds.

Cities and Memory soundmap

Since I’m based in the UK, there are already a lot of recordings from around the country, so it’d be remiss of me not to mention a few sounds from London, since I’m here on the London Sound Survey’s time! Each of the links contains both the original recording and the alternative version, with explanations as to how the remixed version came about.

A preacher on Electric Avenue in Brixton.

The Barbican Centre from the inside.

Competitive sport in Spitalfields Market.

Euston underground station.

I think there’s a real flexibility and interchange possible between the two worlds of field recording as documentary, recording a place and time unfiltered and unprocessed, and sound art and manipulation of sound. The two can have a dialogue with one another and I think just as listening to the field recording can show you where the remix came from, listening to the remixed version can add a new context to the original recording and the original sound environment and help to see it in a new way.

The idea came about through a few different strands coming together at the same time. I’ve been field recording for about ten years, mostly in a musical context to fit field recordings into musical compositions (for instance Listing Ships), and I’d been considering using field recordings to create places that couldn’t possibly exist. For instance, if you took straightforward field recordings of, say, the pyramids in Egypt and an English country garden together, you’d be able to create a new sonic environment that didn’t exist.

So I’d been thinking of doing something more ‘pure’ with sound and less musical. Around the same time, I was reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities – here, Marco Polo is describing his amazing travels to Kubla Khan, describing fictional cities by their remarkable characteristics and people. It becomes clear that in every instance he’s talking about his home city of Venice, and that places are completely different for every individual, according to how they experience the place subjectively.

These two ideas gelled together to become Cities and Memory (which takes its name from the Calvino book) – a place where there are two sound worlds coexisting simultaneously, and in which each individual’s imagination can come into play in terms of reimagining how a place could sound.

Cities and Memory masthead

On top of that, I’m something of a frustrated cartographer, so I knew that I wanted some kind of mapping element to the project, but that I wanted to add something different and new to the wealth of excellent sound maps that are already out there, including this one, which I’ve been following for some time.

Cities and Memory was always intended to be completely open, and submissions are welcome from anyone around the world - contributors so far have come from as far afield as LA and Calcutta, as well as quite a few here in the UK, whether field recordists, musicians, sound artists or just sonically curious people. People can either submit both a field recording and their own remixed version, or just send a field recording for us to work on ourselves, or alternatively I have a huge bank of submitted field recordings which I’m happy to share for others to remix.

What excites me about the project most is the sense of infinite possibility – in theory any place could be added to the map, and at any time since of course places can sound very different according to the time of year or even the time of day. And each remix is completely open to the imagination and interpretation of the remixer, so in theory any one recording could have an infinite number of reworkings!

I’m a big fan of Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes – one of the most enlightening books on photography I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’m not the first person to draw attention to similarities between field recording and photography (see for example Des Coulam’s posts on Soundlandscapes), but there’s something in particular that grabs me in Camera Lucida. Barthes explains his concepts of the ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ of a photo – the studium basically being a formal characteristic of a photo that makes it a ‘good photo’, e.g. this photo is well-composed or well-lit.

The punctum, on the other hand, refers to that indefinable ‘something’ about a photo that just grabs your eye, arrests you and moves you – it may not be related to anything around why the photo is technically a good one, it may not be the thing that you’re ‘supposed’ to be looking at first in the photo, and it may be different for each individual. But it grabs you and you can’t help it.

I think there’s a similar quality to field recording. When I listen back to recordings, when it’s a successful recording there’s always something in there that jumps out as the outstanding characteristic of that sound. Perhaps it’s something that really sums up that place – a sound that could only have come from that place, and perhaps even only at that time. But sometimes it’s something unexpected, like the beeping entry door poking out in Florence’s baptistery, for example (see Insects inside the baptistery). That’s how I select the recordings that make the final cut: there’s a ‘punctum’ there, which sums up the experience of what it was like for me to be in that place at that time. And when I’m remixed or re-editing the sounds, it’s usually that element that I focus on and try to draw out, manipulate or highlight.

In terms of where the project is heading, the most prosaic aim would be to have as many places as possible represented on the map in order to make a decent stab at the concept of remixing the world one sound at a time. But more ideally, I’d love this to be a destination for people eager to experiment with sound and place and exercise their imaginations through sound. I think there’s a huge untapped area of creativity around sound online in terms of how it’s presented and consumed – all the major innovations so far are around video and photography, the visual world, and yet there’s nothing quite like sound (until the internet of smells comes along) to give you an enveloping, evocative sense of the entirety of what a place is like.

If Cities and Memory can inspire people to think differently about the sounds that surround them every day and how there’s music and beauty to be experienced in even the most mundane of sounds, then I think that’s the point at which I can say it’s been a success. Anyhow, I hope it’s of interest to some readers here, and please drop me a line at stuart AT citiesandmemory DOT com – I’d love to hear from you!

Stuart Fowkes

02 May 2014

Darwin among the earthworms

DARWIN’S LAST book, written in 1881, was The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits. Across its 300-odd pages Darwin describes and explains the nature of worms, before concluding: ‘Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.’

Privately, he noted the pleasure it had given him to elevate such humble animals. The book is full of fascinating observations, showing how Darwin was not only a great gatherer of facts, but also as diligent an experimenter as Faraday before him. On page 26 he begins describing his investigations of whether earthworms can hear, and their sensitivity to ground-borne vibrations:

Worms do not possess any sense of hearing. They took not the least notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet.

Although they are indifferent to undulations in the air audible by us, they are extremely sensitive to vibrations in any solid object. When the pots containing two worms which had remained quite indifferent to the sound of the piano, were placed on this instrument, and the note C in the bass clef was struck, both instantly retreated into their burrows. After a time they emerged, and when G above the line in the treble clef was struck they again retreated. Under similar circumstances on another night one worm dashed into its burrow on a very high note being struck only once, and the other worm when C in the treble clef was struck.

On these occasions the worms were not touching the sides of the pots, which stood in saucers; so that the vibrations, before reaching their bodies, had to pass from the sounding board of the piano, through the saucer, the bottom of the pot and the damp, not very compact earth on which they lay with their tails in their burrows. They often showed their sensitiveness when the pot in which they lived, or the table on which the pot stood, was accidentally and lightly struck; but they appeared less sensitive to such jars than to the vibrations of the piano; and their sensitiveness to jars varied much at different times.

The whole book can be read at the Darwin Online website.