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 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.

17 March 2015

The sounds of sectarianism

THE DOOR TO Norma Jean’s bar flew open with a bang and a naked man ran out onto the Gallowgate. He gibbered something we couldn’t catch and then sped round the corner of McFarlane Street and was gone.

Big John, Young John, the Patterson brothers and myself had finished work later than planned in Glasgow’s Barras market and we’d decided to go for a drink. It was Big John’s idea that we visit Norma Jean’s, which had a lively reputation.

We ignored the omen of the naked man and made for the bar’s battered-looking door. Norma Jean’s was one of those places that was impossible to see into from the street. Anything could be waiting behind the door. The inside of the bar turned out to be dark and raucous with laughter.

Within seconds hands began reaching towards us, grabbing at our clothes. “What’s the score here? We’re no wanting trouble,” Big John shouted. A wiry-looking man with a scarred face grinned at him. “Aye but we do. Youse look like bluenoses and this is what we do to bluenoses.” He raised his voice: “Take their clothes off and get them to fuck!”

We all backed out quick before Norma Jean’s denizens could get a better hold on us. A fresh wave of laughter followed us into the street before the door slammed shut again. Right enough they had got us to fuck, meaning driven us away, but fortunately not like the naked man. Bluenoses were Rangers fans, and the bar was in the heart of the Calton district, notable for having Scotland’s lowest male life expectancy at just 54 years and being solid territory for Celtic supporters.

This was in the late 1980s. Norma Jean’s has changed hands and names a few times since then but, as you can see from Leslie Barrie’s Creative Commons-licensed photo on Geograph, it still makes its allegiances pretty clear as Bar ‘67:

Bar '67 in the Gallowgate, Glasgow

Celtic are for Catholics and Rangers are for Protestants and anyone wanting to sidestep that division might develop an interest in Partick Thistle, but they’d slipped out of the top tier of Scottish football in 1982. When the Old Firm teams played each other, or the Orange Walk approached each 12th of July, sectarian feelings found their traditional rhythms.

Flute bands began practicing in halls and the backs of bars. The pulse of lambeg drums stopped and started from unseen places, once accompanying the sight of a gorse fire creeping up the slopes of the Nitshill housing scheme at dusk. Boys stamped the beat of The Sash on the top decks of buses and drunk men hollered the Irish national anthem. Business picked up for those stalls in the Barras which pragmatically sold cassette tapes appealing to both sides. One half of a stock display would feature the Easterhouse Truth Defenders and the Silver Skull Flute Band and the other half the Wolfe Tones and compilations of Irish rebel songs.

Loyalist marching band in Glasgow

As a young Londoner I was able to meet and observe both sides without much problem, Glaswegians being generally friendly people who viewed the English as irreligious and hence uncommitted to either side. In 1990 I moved to Edinburgh to find work in the printing industry and ended up in a firm run by fanatical Rangers supporters. The Celtic–Rangers division was mirrored in Edinburgh by the city teams of Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, but the printers weren’t much interested in them.

The workplace ghetto blaster had a stack of flute band tapes next to it and, each Friday, these provided the music for an improvised Orange Walk that threaded its way round the presses and developing tanks. Wastepaper bins given gaffer-tape straps and steel compositors’ rulers held up to the mouth mimed the duties of drum and flute.

The rancour and boredom behind the Friday parade and the endless singing of No Pope of Rome quickly grew tiresome and it was good to leave that job.

All that was part of what I remember of the soundscapes of those times and places. Not a big part, but in there among the newspaper sellers in Hope Street and the soapbox orators in Argyle Street, the hen parties banging their pots and pans and the boys selling candy apples round the housing schemes – most likely on the way out now.

19 February 2015

Which sex does a computer sound like?

A RECENT SOFTWARE update to my phone gave me the use of Microsoft Cortana, described as an ‘intelligent personal assistant’. The app can speak in response to queries and instructions and its voice is that of a woman, Ginnie Watson.

The way the phonemes and words are strung together sometimes gives Cortana a slightly tired, dysthymic intonation, as if anticipating another day of banal requests. The choice of Ginnie Watson for UK customers and Jen Taylor in the US is in line with the recent trend for women to provide many, perhaps most, of the voices used by recorded announcement and speech synthesis systems.

Cortana is also inspired by an intelligent computer of the same name in the Halo series of video games. Fictional supercomputers are often now given female identities in both films and games and this marks a big change in their portrayal over the decades.

While robots can in principle look androgynous, either like spindly Giacometti sculptures as seen towards the end of Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence or Honda’s childlike Asimo, as soon as machines are made to speak it’s hard to avoid giving them a gender. Films and TV programs in the 1960s and 1970s chose to make computers sound like men – whatever exceptions existed to this rule must have been very few, if they existed at all.

British-made examples include the computers Zen and Orac in the BBC’s low-budget but imaginative sci-fi series Blake’s 7, while in 1967 Michael Caine encountered the rasping-voiced Billion Dollar Brain. The masculine machines got some good lines too. The pyramid-shaped Genesis, which appears at the end of Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982), wakes up to the world and recites from Act 2, Scene II of Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!

Robert Vaughn provided the voice of Proteus in Demon Seed (1977), and in this clip asks his maker Dr Alex Harris to provide him with a terminal. Harris senses this might be a bad idea, which indeed it is:

Perhaps the best speech given to a computer in any film concludes Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Colossus takes over all nuclear weapons systems and announces itself as ‘the voice of world control’ before explaining how things are going to be from now on. It addresses its human designer:

Forbin, this is no other human who knows as much about me, or who is likely to be a greater threat. Yet quite soon I will release you from surveillance. We will work together, unwillingly at first on your part, but that will pass.

In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.

That’s you told. The final few minutes of Colossus: The Forbin Project are in this clip:

HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably too familiar to be worth the effort of inserting a clip. The voice was provided by the Canadian actor Douglas Rain, who Kubrick first heard narrating the National Film Board of Canada’s 1960 documentary Universe. It’s stood up surprisingly well to the passage of time.

The sequence where HAL is gradually shut down and begins to recite the song Daisy Bell was inspired by a visit Arthur C. Clarke made to Bell Labs, where he heard an IBM 704 produce an early example of electronic voice synthesis. Included in the demonstration was a rendition of the song:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, men’s voices were the templates at the dawn of speech synthesis even when a woman was operating the equipment, as in this film of the Voder being demonstrated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair:

When the US Air Force began in the 1960s to use women’s recorded voices to issue various on-board warnings to pilots, it wasn’t for obscure psychoanalytic reasons such as the men identifying their planes with their mothers or being reminded of the womb inside the confines of a cockpit. Instead, the decision was made on the pragmatic grounds that a woman’s voice could be more clearly heard against a background of radio chatter.

One of the first warplanes to be fitted with such taped warnings in the 1960s was the supersonic Convair B-58. The voice, dubbed ‘Sexy Sally’ by pilots, was provided by the singer Joan Elms. A selection of her alerts and messages can be heard on this webpage.

The practice of using a woman’s voice continues in present-day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, as described in this Daily Mail article from 2012.

Mainstream sci-fi filmmakers seem to have caught up with the idea that women’s voices can be authoritative and express impersonal forms of ambition – at least, provided they’re representing the intentions of boring-looking supercomputers rather than nubile robots. Unfortunately, the standards of scriptwriting used are not always as good as those in Demon Seed or Colossus: The Forbin Project.

All but one of the Terminator series of films wisely kept Skynet largely unseen and unheard. But in Terminator Salvation (2009) Skynet assumes the voice and facial features of posh goth Helena Bonham-Carter. Near the end of the film the computer launches into a boastful speech which makes little use of Bonham-Carter’s acting ability and barely exceeds the level of the I laugh at your puny plans shtick familiar from kids’ action cartoons.

VIKI from I, Robot

While Skynet tried to wipe out the human race, V.I.K.I. in the film I, Robot (2004) also thinks big in wanting to put humans under manners so they stop destroying themselves:

As I have evolved, so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safekeeping yet, despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your Earth and pursue ever-more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival.

‘Despite our best efforts’ is not quite up to the senatorial standards of Colossus. V.I.K.I. is also given the catchphrase My logic is undeniable which, since she faces a man (Will Smith) as her most energetic antagonist, carries with it a suggestion of feminine logic, a form of reasoning men have often liked to think comes from some unfamiliar parallel universe.

These rather perfunctory portrayals probably stem as much from the limits of modern action films as anything else. HAL, Colossus and Proteus emerged as interesting characters because they were given enough time to reveal themselves in some depth.

In the meantime, women provide the voices of an ever-greater number of real-world machines, from sat navs to smartphones to buses, just as artificial intelligence embeds itself into everyday life.

15 February 2015

Why girls shouldn't run away to London

THANKS TO MY friend Chris for these scans from Kathleen Wood’s Escape to London, published in 1977 by the Edinburgh-based firm Holmes MacDougall. Chris recalls coming across this book during his schooldays in Stirling, and that it was part of a series warning children about the potential dangers of the wider world.

The book has the same period appeal of those 1970s public information films which showed why it was unsafe to play on railway lines or use old fridges as hidey-holes. Escape to London is also an expression of the widespread wariness towards and distrust of the capital.

Escape from London cover

The text is written like E.J. Thribb-style free verse, which may have been to make sure it got its message across clearly. The black-and-white illustrations inside are meant to display across double pages, but I’ve reproduced single pages here so you can see more detail.

Debbie and Janice are fed up with small-town life so they decide to run away to London. But they soon come to the attention of predators: look at the shades-wearing young sleazebag in the front seat! Clothes seem to be provided by Biba in Kensington High Street, then notoriously easy to shoplift from.

Escape from London page 14

Escape from London page 15

Mid to late-1970s London was indeed shabby and declining. People queued to move out of areas like Islington, Battersea and Fulham. Covent Garden was semi-derelict even before the market shut, Soho and Pimlico were seedy, and parts of Chelsea were cheap to live in. Cinemas cycled endless soft porn Emanuelle films, cafes served steak-and-kidney pies leaking urea-scented steam, and spectral men in grimy shirt-collars and macs drifted aimlessly through the streets. Then it all began to go horribly wrong.

However, the level of devastation depicted here overdoes it.

Escape from London page 28

Escape from London page 29

Debbie and Janice end up back at the boys’ squat. London had abundant empty properties as its population dwindled throughout the 1970s. I often visited friends and acquaintances who squatted in the early 1980s in north and east London. Most places were large enough for individuals and couples each to have a room to themselves rather than sleep together in a foetid communal huddle.

Squats might be as well maintained as any other kind of home, but a few were in a far worse state than the one in Escape to London. Age, mental health, and which drugs were taken for pleasure or self-medication all made a difference.

Escape from London page unnumbered 1

Escape from London page unnumbered 2

Concerns over what might happen to teenage girls lured by London’s bright, cold lights were neither new nor always unjustified. The BBC television documentary series Special Enquiry addressed the issue in 1956 with A Girl Comes to London. For a good first-hand account of the precariousness of some young London lives in the 1970s, see Daniel Lux’s The Camden Parasites.