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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.

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.

01 February 2016

New feature: Sounds of the Musical Museum

THERE’S A new addition to the Features section called Sounds of the Musical Museum. The Musical Museum is in Brentford, west London, and it’s a great place to visit.

Owen Cooper, the Museum’s chairman, kindly took the time to demonstrate some of the self-playing instruments in the collection, and he told me a lot about their origins and how they work.

Nicole Freres musical box, Brentford Musical Museum

The photo above is of a Swiss musical box made around 1840, and it’s one of the smaller items in the Museum. It’s showcased in the feature along with four other larger (and louder) instruments, including a reproducing piano and a thirteen-foot-tall orchestrion.

13 January 2016

Near year, new-look features

LAST YEAR I came across a great-looking website called Sounds of Mumbai. It’s the work of web designer Tapan Babar and it does seem to be a portfolio entry, showing off his skills, rather than an ongoing project. I was struck by how well the large photos worked with the recordings. Some of the moving elements are another matter. I think they’re not needed and there is experimental evidence to suggest that attending to fast-moving images can distract from hearing. Attention is a finite resource for which looking and listening may compete.

The example of Sounds of Mumbai encouraged me to think that some recordings at least might go well with full-screen photos. It took a while to sort out the page template and get it working properly, and thanks are due to one of the website whizzes at Artangel. She had a look at the basic template and made a couple of helpful suggestions. These new efforts are called Features and you can start looking at them, listening to them and reading them via their own index page.

06 December 2015

Wednesday 9 December: London's Lost Worlds of Sound

THIS COMING WEDNESDAY, 9th December, I’m doing another London’s Lost Worlds of Sound talk. It’s by kind invitation of Richard Thomas and Jonathan Bohman (one half of the Bohman Brothers improv music duo) and will be held at the Brewer’s Bar, 77 Shacklewell Lane, London E8 – it’s about half-way along Shacklewell Lane. Nearest stations are the Dalstons Junction and Kingsland, and Rectory Road to the east.

Flyer for London's Lost Worlds of Sound

This is the start in a series of talks which Richard and Jonathan will be putting on. Next up after me will be David Toop sometime early in the new year, so come along and help get it all off to a good start.

I’ll be talking about and playing a selection of old London recordings, taking you back through time to the very earliest ones made in the city. This has gone down great with audiences at festivals, pubs and historical meetings alike, so hope to see you there. I haven’t drunk in the Brewer’s Bar yet but it looks like a nice place for an evening out. Doors open at 8pm, £5 to get in.

02 December 2015

The soundscape of Oxford Street

ONE OF THE more irritating things you hear said about London is how such-and-such a neighbourhood has a ‘villagey feel’. So it’s got a Spar shop, a UKIP councillor and a British Legion club then? No – just a Montessori school and a newsagent who puts down his mobile phone and makes eye contact when a customer asks for something.

No-one’s going to say that Oxford Street has a villagey feel, which is one of the few saving graces of a generally unpleasant part of central London. It’s not just the record-breaking pollution levels and its role as a magnet for some of Europe’s most talented pickpockets. Oxford Street has a fundamental malaise, more apparent towards St Giles Circus in the way that a stick of celery goes rotten from one end first, but extending westwards and complemented rather than dispelled by the gold-digger bling of Selfridges.

Over the past few years I’ve gathered a number of recordings from along Oxford Street. The general soundscape is one of loud, slow-moving traffic becoming most intense at the midway junction of Oxford Circus. The sounds of footsteps and snatches of conversation arise from dense, hurrying crowds which become most packed around the entrances to Oxford Circus tube station. There, in the warmer months, loudspeakers mounted above ground play recorded messages reminding people to take bottles of water with them when travelling on the tube.

The big department stores predominate west of Oxford Circus. Eastwards there are smaller shops, the flyblown Plaza shopping centre and, in the past, the infamous box shops that took over vacant premises for a week at a time. In them, a man with a microphone headset would tell onlookers how each brown cardboard box in a big pile before him contained some covetable item like a games console which could be theirs for just ten or twenty pounds.

Sceptics demanding to see inside the boxes first might find themselves deftly knocked off balance by a stockily-built assistant who had been hovering at the box shop’s entrance. He’d immediately help the questioner back to his feet, patting down the back of his coat or jacket with slightly more force than necessary: “You alright?” – this being delivered with a blank, stillborn facial expression. Predictably, the boxes either contained useless ballast to give them heft or else goods which didn’t work.

The box shops are now gone. What remains becomes cheaper and tattier as Centrepoint looms larger. Outlets selling trainers and cheap High Street clothing brands to youths give way to discount sports clothes shops, which in turn make way for sellers of tourist souvenirs which even visitors from Mongolia must realise are dated and tacky: t-shirts reading ‘Good girls go to Heaven but I went to London’ and baby-faced dolls in policemen’s and beefeaters’ costumes, each in its own chloroform-filled perspex killing tube.

The west-to-east wealth gradient of Oxford Street mirrors that of London as a whole, an example of fractal-like self-similarity revealing itself at different scales. The eastern end of the Street seems about the right environment for the man who sells bottles of perfume from a small shop unit. He keeps up a stream of sales patter all day:

Oxford Circus is the Street’s pivot and a vortex of uncaring humanity to which eccentric preachers are pulled. The most famous was Stanley Green, who’d patrol between there and Marble Arch. The photograph below, taken in 1977 by Andrew Denny and reproduced from Wikimedia, shows Green with his famous ‘Less Protein’ banner. Green would occasionally call out the banner’s slogan as well as handing out leaflets expounding his ideas on diet.

Andrew Denny's photograph of Stanley Green carrying his 'Less Protein' banner

Green died in 1993 and his banner eventually found its way to the Museum of London. Some years later attention began to focus on a new character at Oxford Circus known widely as the ‘Sinner or Winner Man’, real name Philip Howard. Howard sometimes used a battery-powered PA to help propagate his war on sin, as in this 2006 photograph by Gaetan Lee, again reproduced from Wikimedia:

Gaetan Lee's photograph of Phil Howard preaching

Howard seems to have grown more fanatical over time in his preaching style, and was accused on one occasion of following someone a short distance whilst haranguing them. In 2006, Westminster Council succeeded in having an Anti-Social Behaviour Order slapped on him to prevent him using his PA. Despite searching for the Sinner or Winner Man several times since 2008, I’ve yet to find him and would guess he’s either given up or is trying to save people from damnation somewhere else.

Howard must have been reasonably lucid in some ways, since the unaided voice alone would struggle to be heard at Oxford Circus. Fairly recently I came across a group of seven or eight men there from a sect describing themselves as the Black Israelites. Each member took it in turn to declaim a different facet of the Black Israelite theology. As you can hear, they’re sometimes indistinct against the backdrop of traffic:

The men also displayed a large placard made from corrugated cardboard onto which had been stuck an assortment of religious-themed images with notes handwritten alongside them in marker pen. The Black Israelites originated in the USA and, like the white British Israelite movement in the early 20th century, their beliefs seem to hold some potential for anti-semitic and racial nationalist thinking. If so, this a rare public expression in London of black nationalist sentiment, which usually limits itself to calls for unity and coded grumbling about the mzungu (a Bantu word for white people) on pirate stations like Galaxy Radio.

Given its estimated 180 million visitors a year, Oxford Street presents good earning opportunities for buskers. They’re usually heard west of Oxford Circus rather than east, where any music being broadcast is typically of the recorded kind, often playing loud enough inside shops to be audible from the opposite pavement. What’s interesting is how the buskers are often more eccentric or unusual than the generally sanitised kind who make it past the selection committee to perform The Deerhunter theme inside tube stations. Take, for example, the odd, warbling style of this saxophonist:

This man seems to roam outside London as well, as I’ve read descriptions which match his style and appearance from places like Guildford and Stevenage. A more recent face on Oxford Street is this human beatbox:

A couple of weeks ago I came across a whippet-thin young man playing a pavement drumkit comprised of pots, pans and a big plastic container:

He’s able to keep this up for long periods at a time, which might explain his lean frame. On the particular day I came across him there was also a Roma Gypsy violinist, a man playing a steel drum and a Scotsman in a kilt with the bagpipes between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch. That doesn’t seem much for a half-mile stretch, but it is fairly typical.

Perhaps the buskers work out among themselves how widely spaced their pitches should be. Or perhaps someone unseen works it out for them and demands that dues be paid, in keeping with the spirit of Oxford Street.