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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.

Searching for unearthly sounds

Posted by IMR on 16 October 2012

GETTING A READER’S pass for the British Library costs nothing, and once you’re in you have access to an impressive array of electronic resources. One which has been demanding my attention recently is the British Newspaper Archive.

It’s vast and you could spend hours, no, days, reading adverts for Holloway’s Miracle Pills and accounts of hauntings and murders. Eventually you’ll want to try a more focused search.

The phrase ‘unearthly sounds’ is one we’d expect to find in sensationalist Victorian journalism. ‘Unearthly’ at first had the meaning of heavenly and otherworldly but this changed during the course of the nineteenth century. Examples from the British Newspaper Archive show how the use of ‘unearthly sounds’ moved from invoking the sublime to the humorous and absurd.

‘Unearthly sounds’ was used in its original, sublime sense by the London Standard in September 1836 when describing the Norfolk and Norwich Festival:

The performance began with the anthem, composed for the coronation of his present Majesty, in which ‘Rule Britannia’ is so skilfully interwoven. The care and attention bestowed in getting up of the chorus was very visible in the precision with which the points were taken up, and the fortes and pianos attended to. The choral anthem was finely done. The unearthly sounds of the trombones, and the subdued tones of the chorus, were splendidly contrasted.

In March 1853, Charles Dickens’s journal Household Words carried a short article by Edmund Saul Dixon describing a visit to Hermit Island off the coast of Africa. Here ‘unearthly sounds’ isn’t used in the heavenly sense, but it does suggest the sublime in its ability to inspire awe.

It began at nightfall by the solitary cry of a cormorant, rapidly responded to by one, two, or more successive voices; and immediately after all was dark, the cavern and the rocks around it re-echoed with intermingling cries of wailing, groaning, sighing, sobbing, bursts of laughter, and plaintive lamentations, all proceeding (we suppose) from flocks of birds which we could not see, but which hovered, invisibly, like phantoms, in the air. [. . .] It was Pergaut’s idea that these unearthly sounds were caused by night-birds that were either attracted by the lights we burned, or were irritated by our intrusion into the grotto which they were in the habit of using as their roosting-place. From whatever voices it really did proceed, the mysterious music of the cavern made so strong an impression upon my imagination, that at this very moment while I am describing it, after the lapse of several years, I can fancy that I hear it still.

Dixon may have been trying to appeal to Dickens’s own interest in the dramatic uses of sound. Although the piece was published, and part of it syndicated, Dickens privately considered ‘Hermit Island’ to be ‘a wretched translation from a wretched original’.

In April 1855 a Morning Post journalist saw the potential of unearthly sounds for bathos in the build-up needed before a drop to the mundane. A household in Seed Hill, near Halifax, had been suffering the attentions of what was initially thought to be a poltergeist.

Mr S. Routledge, dyer, of Seed-hill, had, during the whole of the preceding week, been haunted by strange and unaccountable noises, but which always appeared to be in and about the passage. [. . .] A joiner was engaged to thoroughly examine the house to ascertain if any mechanical apparatus had been fixed whereby, with the aid of galvanism or other scientific means, the strange unearthly sounds might be produced, but all was in vain, for notwithstanding these exertions, the invisible one still continued its ‘rappings’.

The cause was revealed to be an act of defiance by the servant girl, Catherine Haley. She had been banging doors and the barrel of a washing-machine with a stone to frighten the housekeeper, whom she didn’t like.

The bathetic use of unearthly sounds continued in a humorous account of an 1857 court case reported by the Morning Chronicle. A former army captain had been turfed out of his lodgings at the Queen’s Head Inn, Norfolk, because the landlord objected to his bizarre behaviour.

The witnesses called for the defendant deposed to the fact that, while in his shirt alone the plaintiff had leaned out of the window, danced about the room with a lighted candle in his hand, which he caused to approach the bed and window-curtains in such dangerous proximity as to create alarm for the safety of the house and its inmate [. . .] Coupled with this, strange and unearthly sounds were heard to proceed from his bedroom.

The plaintiff’s account supplies the necessary come-down:

The plaintiff on his part explained his conduct in the bedroom by alleging that finding it very hot and close he had resorted to the readiest means of ventilating it, by opening the window and waving the door; and as to the unearthly sounds, they were nothing more or less than these produced by the operation of cleaning his teeth and gargling his throat, and the noise consequent on moving about and unpacking his goods and chattels.

The case, which excited a good deal of merriment, resulted in a verdict for the defendant on both issues, accompanied by the belief of the jury that the plaintiff has done nothing which was unbecoming an ‘officer and a gentleman’.

An account of a woman falling down a well in Kent was published by Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in July 1863. The humorous potential of unearthly sounds takes a more callous turn.

A curious circumstance occurred at the quiet little village of Lower Eythorne one day during the past week. The well, situated in the centre of the village, was the scene of the sensation. It appears that a woman, about in the prime of life, from some cause evidently unknown to any one but herself, opened the lid of the well and jumped down – a distance of 180 feet. The water and chill, however, soon drew forth cries and groans from the now repentant woman, and the unearthly sounds attracted the attention of one of her own sex, who, going to the mouth of the well, feelingly inquired, ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Thrown down a rope,’ was the answer from the depths below. Assistance was procured, the rope lowered, and immediately afterwards the ‘immersed’ was drawn up.

Unearthly sounds had become those made by foolish or unimportant people. In 1877, the London Standard reported how a deaf-and-dumb man named George Rowley had tried to steal a sugar basin from a house.

The Assistant Judge sentenced him to be kept in penal servitude for seven years, and then to be under police supervision for seven years. As soon as the sentence was interpreted to the prisoner, he indulged in some unearthly sounds, which the interpreter said implied curses on the head of the judge for the sentence passed upon him.

In 1882 The Era published a self-consciously John Bull-ish review of a performance of Liszt’s Hungaria:

The greatest novelty of the evening was a new ‘symphonic poem’ entitled Hungaria, by the Abbe Liszt, whose eccentric orchestral works have so frequently caused discussion in music circles [...] Hungaria, Herr Drüseke tells us, is intended to symbolise the Magyar struggle for freedom. All we can say is, that if the sounds given forth in the ‘symphonic poem’ were really heard in the Hungarian struggle, it was a wonder that the enemies of the Magyar race did not run away sooner, for we can hardly imagine any human beings of any race or colour who could listen without terror and dismay to such unearthly sounds. [. . .] For it is the peculiarity of Liszt, in his ‘symphonic poems’ – so utterly destitute of ‘symphonic’ style, and so foreign to all ideas of poetry – to place his passages in those portions of the particular instruments where the most disagreeable sounds can be got. For example, the violinists are always capering and scraping nearly up to the bridge, where the tone is apt to resemble the forlorn wail of the amorous cat upon the tiles at midnight. If he has a passage for the bassoon, it is where the tone reminds one most naturally of the sigh of a prize pig at a cattle show.

By the end of the century, unearthly sounds had become an appropriate description for the braying of donkeys. The Illustrated Police News of July 1896 gave an account of costermongers parading their load-hauling beasts in Herne Hill.

The uninitiated who were in the neighbourhood of the athletic grounds at Herne Hill last week might well be excused for imagining that they had unwittingly wandered into the vicinity of a large and flourishing menagerie. Even at the railway station could be heard the faint rumble of unearthly sound, and as one came near the grounds this rumble changed to a higher key, and, blended but not harmonised, rose a most appalling series of shrieks and groans, punctuated at intervals by what sounds like fiendish laughter. On passing the gates, however, the mystery was dispelled. In the centre of the railed-off ground, round which the bicycle track runs, were donkeys, not one or two, but a score or more, and as their proud owners led them round they jumped and plunged, and then, finding all attempts to get away were useless, they tried to imitate the language that their masters use occasionally, and this was the cause of all the disturbance. The costers, as they led their charges round, talked to them gently, and when they found that this unaccustomed method of treatment was no good, they did not hit them, but reserved their energies for suitable repartee to their friends who, from outside the barriers, kept up a flow of scathing remarks, which were of a more or less personal nature.

The journalist goes to extravagant lengths to evoke the sensation of the event’s sounds for his readers. This and other accounts from Victorian newspapers show how a broad audience expected a richer descriptive language for sound than that existing today.

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