THE LONDON SOUND SURVEY 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ADVENTURES MADE EARLY in life can go on to define intellectual careers and reputations. Darwin was 22 when he set off on The Beagle. T. E. Lawrence built a personal mythos from his experiences as a young officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916–18. The anthropologist Margaret Mead was 27 when her book Coming of Age in Samoa was published, while Napoleon Chagnon spent his twenties studying the Yanonamo people, sometimes introducing himself to a new village by leaping into its central clearing with his face daubed in war paint, waving a shotgun.
The Welsh-born mystic and writer Arthur Machen moved to London in 1881 when he was in his late teens, a good age for the kind of long exploratory walks which can bring on a trance-like state of fatigue. He lodged briefly in south London before moving to Turnham Green, then Notting Hill Gate. With De Quincey’s opium-powered London wanderings sometimes in mind, Machen began first to explore the north and west of the city. His autobiographical works, such as Far Off Things (1922), suggest he gathered enough thoughts on London and its hinterlands during these expeditions to inform the rest of his literary career.
Machen’s descriptions of sounds often occur in the absence of seeing what’s making them. In The Terror (1917), a part of the Welsh countryside is haunted by an eerie, distant moaning, which is later revealed as people crying for help up the chimney flue of a barricaded cottage. A Fragment of Life (1899) features a nature spirit less benign than Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, which whistles unseen at a couple walking in the fields near Totteridge. The confrontation is a foretaste of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now:
Part of H.P. Lovecraft’s acknowledged debt to Machen also lies in hearing without seeing. Well before Lovecraft’s half-human ululations emanated from somewhere below ground, Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) has Francis Leicester ingest a restorative white powder from a chemist, only to undergo a horrible physical degeneration. The process takes time, however, as his sister finds out:
“Francis, Francis,” I cried, “for heaven’s sake answer me. What is the horrible thing in your room? Cast it out, Francis, cast it from you!”
I heard a noise as of feet shuffling slowly and awkwardly, and a choking, gurgling sound, as if some one was struggling to find utterance, and then the noise of a voice, broken and stifled, and words that I could scarcely understand.
Sound in Machen’s writings can create a tunnel between the present and a different time or place. Another vignette from The Three Impostors underlines his influence on Lovecraft. A feeble-minded youth named Jervase Cradock is taken on as a gardener and suffers a fit while at his work:
In the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams (1907), the young writer Lucian begins to disintegrate mentally amid his isolation in a west London suburb and his failure to achieve the numinous prose he strives for. The memory of a storm from his childhood in Wales comes back to him repeatedly:
The storm is violent and powerful enough to overwhelm the sounds of surburban life:
Machen develops the noise of the garden gate into a symbol of his traditionalist and conservative dislike of the newly-built London suburbs. Again from The Hill of Dreams:
Lucian can try to escape what Machen later called ‘the raw London suburb and its mean limited life’ through long, digressive walks in the tangle of streets or else westwards into what might now be termed Edgelands:
Booth’s Poverty Map, compiled towards the end of the 19th century, shows some of these west London outskirts. The triangle of Shepherd’s Bush Green lies to the lower right-hand side, with Wormwood Scrubs prison standing in isolation near the top:
But these solitary journeys only make Lucian feel more cut off from humanity – the city is for him as ‘uninhabitated as the desert’. An alternative escape route offers him the possibility of communing with others, but only through a gradual dissociation from reality. One of the most striking passages in The Hill of Dreams recasts a Saturday night, possibly in or near Shepherd’s Bush, into the bacchanalia of a witches’ sabbath ‘loud with the expectation of lust and death’:
The next day the banality of the suburb re-establishes itself through the ringing of a chapel bell (‘tang, tang, tang’) and a ‘doggerel hymn whining from some parlor, to the accompaniment of the harmonium.’ Machen intends these sounds of the growing commuter belt to represent constraints on the possible range of experience. They are set up as a surface reality to be undermined later. The Three Impostors begins with life in Red Lion Square playing out with the regularity of Gog and Magog striking the hours at St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street:
In A Fragment of Life, the City clerk Edward Darnell inhabits the ‘grey phantasmal world’ which Machen claims is most people’s lot before becoming more aware of a different reality filled with ‘grotesque and fantastic shapes, omens of confusion and disorder, threats of madness’. The routine of the commuter is represented in the conversations Darnell hears on the bus from Uxbridge Road:
The customary companions of his morning’s journey were in the seats about him; he heard the hum of their talk, as they disputed concerning politics, and the man next to him, who came from Acton, asked him what he thought of the Government now. There was a discussion, and a loud and excited one, just in front, as to whether rhubarb was a fruit or vegetable, and in his ear he heard Redman, who was a near neighbour, praising the economy of ‘the wife.’
‘I don’t know how she does it. Look here; what do you think we had yesterday? Breakfast: fish-cakes, beautifully fried—rich, you know, lots of herbs, it’s a receipt of her aunt’s; you should just taste ‘em. Coffee, bread, butter, marmalade, and, of course, all the usual etceteras. Dinner: roast beef, Yorkshire, potatoes, greens, and horse-radish sauce, plum tart, cheese. And where will you get a better dinner than that? Well, I call it wonderful, I really do.’
Although a conservative, Machen suggests that revelation is within the grasp of anyone who wants to reach for it, rather than being the preserve of an elite of adepts. Darnell, after all, belongs to the lower middle class. In The London Adventure (1924), Machen recalls how a Salvation Army funeral service in Lower Clapton had rediscovered for itself the ancient patterns of call-and-response, and so people of ‘very indifferent education’ were capable of creating a ‘remarkable and impressive’ occasion.
In Machen’s world-view, what’s old is generally good, and what’s new is usually disagreeable and inferior. Not only do the new suburbs and vast late-Victorian cemeteries obliterate the precious countryside and its half-buried hamlets and taverns, but the London of the 1920s sounds worse than that of the 1880s. From Far Off Things:
Part of Machen’s legacy is a way of writing about London by trying to re-enchant it. Few people now can summon up the same belief in the existence of a mystical reality alongside the everyday physical facts of pavements and buses. What survives into recent psychogeographical writing is the elegaic stance, the intense interest in the past, and it is significant that this has found a new resonance as London undergoes another spasm of rapid and profound change.
ADDENDUM: For a rejection of the argument that Lovecraft was influenced by Machen in his treatment of sound, see this post on the Tentaclii blog. In my opinion the parallels between sound-themes in The Three Impostors and Lovecraft’s work are too strong to be coincidental. But it is clear from the examples given on Tentaclii that Lovecraft’s use of ‘hearing without seeing’ was indeed established before he encountered Machen’s work in the early 1920s.
ANYONE WHO ENJOYED Tom Bolton’s last book London’s Lost Rivers is in for a treat with his latest investigation Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighbourhoods. Here’s part of a review I’ve written about it:
You can read the whole thing on the Caught by the River website.
On Monday 2nd February I’ll be in conversation with Tom at a Caught by the River evening in The Social. Also on the bill are films by Paul Kelly, St Etienne and William Raban, and a reading by Michael Smith from his book Dark Waters.
Looks like a good night for anyone interested in the Thames and London, and all at one of the best bars in the West End. Hope to see you there.
THE OTHER NIGHT I made a presentation at Sound and Music’s Creative Data Club in Somerset House. It was titled Some aspects of sound data in field recordings and historical accounts – if only I’d come up with something more pithy like, I don’t know, The Larch:
The two other speakers were Jon Little from Kew Gardens and the software developer Stef Lewandowski. Jon talked us through Kew Gardens’ impressive-looking smartphone app which uses iBeacons to help guide and inform visitors. Stef demonstrated examples of his work, including a real-time visualisation of the ‘internet of things’, rendering visible all the different devices nearby and their activities.
These displays of imaginative technical knowhow reminded me that I should sign up to Code Academy. Many thanks to everyone at Sound and Music for their help and hospitality, and to everyone I met that evening.
Next month’s Creative Data Club is on Thursday 19 February, starting at 6pm. It’s free, but if you’re thinking of going along then it’s an idea to register.