SHARE THIS PAGE

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.

23 November 2019

LMA talk: thank you

A QUICK note to say thanks to everyone who came along to my talk at the London Metropolitan Archives on the 20th of November. It was very encouraging to see and hear people enjoying the recordings being played. The talk did go on a bit longer than intended, so unfortunately there wasn’t time for questions afterwards – the building has to be cleared just back of seven. If you’re not careful you’ll get locked in and then your body and soul belong in perpetuity to the Archives.

Special thanks to Kate, David and Robin for doing all the arranging work and for making me feel welcome.

11 November 2019

Recordings: November 2019 additions

RECENTLY I’VE been walking all the way round London’s perimeter to make recordings for a new sound graphic. This leaves a little time to make a few recordings elsewhere on a whim, and here are the most recent of those additions.

Stratford in east London has large pedestrianised areas around the station complex and the older of the two shopping centres. Quite often there is something to listen to: buskers, street preachers, a man who once tried to entice me into a palm-reader’s booth set up on the pavement. The other Saturday a woman was preaching about Jesus Christ as she paced around next to one of the entrances to Stratford station.

Christian street preacher Stratford  2:54

The Westfield Centre, with its elevated walkway entrance like a castle’s drawbridge, splits Stratford into its older, poorer and newer, wealthier parts. It’s full of things I can’t afford so I’m happier avoiding it. The Stratford Centre is more a poor person’s shopping centre, complete with market stalls set up inside one of its broad corridors where a couple of the traders raise cries for their goods. An entrance in the centre’s North Mall leads to a bazaar of tiny shops and cafes called Market Village.

This kind of warren has become more widespread in London in recent years. Usually they’re set up in premises which were formerly occupied by a single large shop, the retail equivalent of subdividing a house into bedsits. This recording was made while walking slowly around Market Village.

Market Village Stratford Centre  2:50

The following is a quick-and-dirty recording made using the on-board mics of an Olympus LS-14, a small hand-held recorder which is very easy to operate in a hurry. My friend Chris and me had been wandering around the South Bank and we’d made our way to Borough Market, where we encountered a busker playing tunelessly on an accordion. Next to him, a dirty-looking St Bernard dog lay on the ground rolling bloodshot eyes at the passersby. An upside-down hat was placed to collect coins, most of which were probably given out of sympathy for the dog.

Tuneless busker Borough Market  0:51

High levels of noise on the London Underground were the subject of several news stories this year (for example, see this piece in Wired) as well as a planned (but finally abandoned) go-slow action by the RMT tube workers’ trade union. But the Thameslink platforms at St Pancras station probably reach rather higher noise levels, although for shorter periods of time.

There, the trains’ wheels really grind against the tracks and the effect can be earsplitting. I can’t think of noisier station platforms anywhere else in London.

Thameslink trains St Pancras  1:05

Oxford Street attracts a lot of buskers, many of them the kind of eccentrics who’d never make it past the Transport for London selection committee which decides who’s allowed to play inside tube stations. This woman had perched a small drum machine on top of a telephone junction box near Selfridges. After a while she began accompanying its rhythm by blowing alternating notes on a child’s plastic recorder.

Drum machine busker Oxford Street  3:20

The winter months generally aren’t so good for recording around town because of the windier weather. This makes necessary some sort of protection for the microphone, such as an eye-catching fluffy windshield, which in turn makes it difficult to record discreetly.

02 November 2019

November talk at the London Metropolitan Archives

ON WEDNESDAY the 20th of November I’ll be giving a talk at the London Metropolitan Archives on the theme of London sounds past and present. In the talk I hope to offer some justification to a general audience for making and collecting sound recordings of daily life in the city.

I support the London Sound Survey out of my own pocket, and what anyone does with their time and money is their business. Nonetheless, it seems a worthwhile exercise to imagine the objections of a sceptic. One test of a good idea outside of some highly abstract or technical realm is whether it’s easy to explain to the next person you meet at the bus stop.

The talk starts at 6pm and is free to attend, but you’ll need to register online via this events webpage. The Archives are at 40 Northampton Road, EC1, in Clerkenwell – see the map below.

London Metropolitan Archives map

The building housing the Archives is a former print works and it may be easy to walk past the slightly anonymous-looking entrance. Here’s the building photographed from Spa Fields immediately opposite:

London Metropolitan Archives building

The Archives are set in what is still one of central London’s most interesting enclaves, and there are easily enough exhibits and resouirces to make an early visit worthwhile. Also, Exmouth Market is close by with its many places to eat and drink afterwards.

28 October 2019

Street Cries: October 2019 additions

HERE’S A summary of the most recent additions to the Street Cries of the World section on the London Sound Survey. It now contains digitisations of around 110 different books, musical scores, magazine articles and other publications, meaning it will soon surpass the street cries materials available on the subscription-only website London Low Life. I believe access to historical literature about street life should be freely available to everyone, not just students and academics.

From 1806 there is Darton’s London Cries for Children, published at Holborn Hill in London.

London Cries for Children 1

The illustrations were individually hand-coloured after printing, and the work looks crude and slapdash as though done in haste for very low piece-rates. It may even be that children were employed to do this. A few years later, the book was republished in the United States. The text remained almost identical, but uncoloured engravings of a better quality were used.

London Cries for Children 2

Individual actors in the theatre of London street life are prominent in Portraits of Curious Characters in London published in 1814. It seems to be aimed at adult readers since it lacks the close moral instruction found in children’s chapbooks. Below is Roger Smith, a Norfolk weaver who had to abandon his trade due to illness. He moved to London where he made a living in the streets by ringing hand-bells.

Curious Characters in London 1

The engravings are of quite good quality for what was probably intended as an ephemeral stocking-filler of a book. The descriptions of the various beggars and eccentrics are generally sympathetic. Ann Johnson, the Holborn lace-weaver, is introduced as ‘a poor industrious widow, cleanly, sober, and decent, inoffensive and honest, and quite blind.’

Curious Characters in London 2

Der Ausruf in Hamburg is the first and, to date, only example here of street cries literature from Germany. It was compiled by Christoffer von Suhr and published in 1808.

Der Ausruf in Hamburg 1

The illustrations are of good quality and online you can find single framed pages for sale. The original series had 120 illustrations, but a cut-down version of just 38 was republished in Germany in 1938, and it’s that which has been scanned and reproduced here. Facsimiles of the original set can be bought but they’re expensive. It would be interesting to see which ones were left out of the 1938 addition, and whether those choices reflected an accommodation to Nazi ideology, for example by excluding pictures of Jews or gypsies.

Der Ausruf in Hamburg 2

26 October 2019

New guestbook

A NEW guestbook has been added to the site for anyone wanting to ask a question or send a message which other site visitors will be able to read. Earlier efforts along these lines suffered from a lot of spam, so the new version has stronger features to deal with this. Here’s the link to it.

08 October 2019

Rutting season

THE LONDON Loop is a walking route which goes for 150 miles around the capital. It veers from inside to beyond the city boundaries and back again, but the Loop’s outline still looks vaguely London-shaped.

I have been making recordings along it since August 2019 and have got three-quarters of the way round so far. Some stretches are poorly signposted and others are quite overgrown, but mostly it’s easy walking. Last Saturday the Loop took me through Bushy Park in west London where stags were calling out during the rutting season, which lasts from September to November.

Each stag makes only a few brief roars at a time. He will pass the long intervals between roaring bouts in strutting slowly and tensely around the does, gouging clods out of the ground with his antlers, or else staring into the distance.

The roars sound like the loud belches that men delight in making after their dinner. When one stag turned in my direction to roar from perhaps four or five dozen yards away, the loudness of it had a physical impact, as if his hot silage-stinking breath could be felt instantly on the face.

The Royal Parks website recommends that during the rutting season visitors don’t bring their dogs with them and keep a respectful distance from the deer.

07 October 2019

The clattering bridge

LAST WEEK I was in Kingston-upon-Thames and noticed this explanatory plaque by the Clattern Bridge on the High Street:

Clattern Bridge plaque

On the north side of the bridge there’s a doorway which leads to a flight of steps going down to a path. The path runs a short distance alongside the Hogsmill river to where it joins the Thames.

Clattern Bridge

The Clattern Bridge is likely London’s oldest bridge: Wikipedia claims the current structure was built around 1175, the Londonist says 1293 – I don’t know who’s right. The bridge is still a noisy place with all the traffic of the High Street, a wavering hum of activity rather than the percussive racket of iron-rimmed wheels and horseshoes. One bridge I’ve recorded under still does clatter:

Like the Clattern Bridge, many placenames have humble, straightforward origins: School Road, Drove Road, Cow Lane, Gas Alley. You might expect there to be more bridges with noisy names, and there is indeed a Clatterin Brig in Scotland, about halfway between Dundee and Aberdeen. It gives its name to a Scottish country dance.

In Cumbria there is the Clatter Beck, crossed by Clatter Beck Bridge. It has a stony bed, so perhaps gets its name from the sound of turbulent water. This photograph of Clatter Beck was taken by David Brown and reproduced on Geograph as a Creative Commons-licensed image.

Clatter Beck, photo by David Brown

Just before it reaches Kingston, the Hogsmill passes by a sewage works, a football ground and a cemetery; the sort of mosaic of land which appeals to crows and their relatives. The calls of jackdaws are noticeable, and the collective noun for these birds is a clattering.

06 March 2019

The London Sound Survey will be preserved at the London Metropolitan Archives

AN AGREEMENT has been reached between myself and the London Metropolitan Archives to have both this site’s recordings and, eventually, the whole website itself preserved by them for the long term.

It had been my hope for quite a while for something like this to happen, but it was David Baldwin from the Archives who first broke the ice after we met by chance at a Museum of London presentation in Senate House.

I’ve since found the Archives to be friendly and helpful to deal with. A small bonus is that they’re in Clerkenwell, one of my favourite parts of London, and so there’s an added pleasure in visiting them.

Compiling the recordings and their accompanying metadata for ingest will need a bit of work but otherwise it’s a straightforward, plodding task. It’ll take more figuring out to create a duplicate copy of the website to be run on their own servers under a different URL.

02 January 2019

Street cries now being added to Pinterest

MORE OLD books and other publications are being scanned, typed up and added to the Street Cries of the World section. It’s repetitive work but I find it absorbing.

Cries of Philadelphia

Many of the drawings are also now being added to the London Sound Survey’s account on Pinterest. If you’ve come here from there, hello.

02 January 2019

Social media

Social media

10 December 2018

Recent site upgrades

RECENT CHANGES, upgrades and repairs include the following:

* A newer version of the site’s content management system has been installed. Pages should now load a little bit faster than before.

* The London Sound Survey now has an SSL Certificate to protect long-term rankings on search engines, and to allow for a store page at some point in the future.

* The ‘Old publications about street cries’ section has been given the more ambitious title of Street cries of the world and its navigation revamped to resemble an accordion menu. Both changes reflect the ever-growing amount of material that’s being presented there.

* A fault in the Old London maps section has been made good so the maps can be displayed properly again. They still need Adobe Flash to be enabled in visitors’ browers though, and a purely HTML5 map viewer will be installed in 2019.

* Three longish wildlife recordings, making up a feature about Lakenheath RSPB reserve in Suffolk, have been linked to and integrated with the rest of the site.

14 August 2018

Hiatus

AN ILLNESS in the family requires me to become a full-time carer for a while. Little or no new material will be added to the London Sound Survey during this time, although I’m able to make a few modest recordings around where I live. You can hear them on my Soundcloud account.

An album of my Thames recordings is due to be released later this year or early next year by the composer Iain Chambers. I’ll post more news on this when I know a definite release date.

07 July 2018

BBC sound effects plotted on a map

IN APRIL this year the BBC put online around 16,000 of its sound effects recordings, making them available for non-commercial use at no cost. The BBC presents the recordings in a plain-looking list here: bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk. Expressions like ‘no cost’ or ‘free’ have a certain resonance, so I examined the collection to see what could be done with it.

A large majority of the recordings are from unknown places or else are studio creations. Around 400 are from named locations in the United Kingdom, and of these I judged just over 300 to be worth presenting and reproducing here. The results range in time from 1940 to 1986 and access to them is through a simple sound map on this page:

The map took me a while to draw, but the way the red link spots are made and positioned is easy: each spot is a DIV element that acts as a link, made round-shaped with the CSS radius property.

27 June 2018

In memory of Richard Beard, wildlife recordist

I AM very sorry to report that the wildlife recordist Richard Beard died a few days ago. We first met in 2010 at the British Library Sound Archive where he was working as a part-time volunteer for the wildlife section.

For hours at a time he’d sit in one of the Archive’s small recording studios and patiently work his way through batches of nature recordings, listening and noting. Many were ones he’d made himself, for Richard was a very knowledgeable and skilful recordist, although he wore his expertise lightly. After we got to know each other a bit better, he kindly offered to share some of his London wildlife recordings with my website. The first batch appeared here in 2012 under the title of Richard Beard’s Hackney wildlife.

These were good recordings and Richard clearly knew a great deal about birdsong, so I was keen for him to contribute more. He mentioned something he called the ‘Breakfast Project’, which seemed to involve him recording birdsong quite early in the morning, and which at the time was a work in progress. Eventually he completed it, and offered me details of around 360 recordings, each made at 6 a.m. in his back garden and representing nearly every day of the year. I was both taken aback and excited at the scale of the task he’d accomplished.

After some head-scratching I suggested having a single webpage linking to and presenting around a hundred of his morning recordings, and the result was titled The Hackney year.

I was never entirely sure what Richard felt about this treatment of his work, and suspect it may have seemed austere compared to the experience of birdsong among hedges and garden fences, trees and bramble patches – all the living, untidy intricacies of Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’. If so, Richard was too polite and good-natured to tell me. His recordings made a very significant contribution to the London Sound Survey, and I will always be grateful for them.

What is lacking from this appreciation is a photo of Richard, and I can’t find one online. He cut a good figure of a man, looking as if he’d been keen on playing sports when he was younger, and with a broad, friendly face. He spoke with a gentle Cockney accent. I would guess Richard to have been in his late fifties when we first met, but he seemed younger because of his openness and lack of cynicism.

Richard didn’t only record in and around London, but he felt a strong connection to the green spaces of east London, in particular the Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes running alongside the river Lea. Much of this arose from his family having lived there a very long time, going back to at least the beginning of the 19th century when an ancestor had owned a farm near the Marshes, most likely keeping a herd of cattle grazing among the riverside meadows.

In later years, Richard and his wife Fern spent a lot of their time on the Isle of Wight, where Richard continued to make recordings. His death is a sad loss to wildlife sound recording in Britain and to all who knew him.

25 April 2018

New section on historical street cries

A NEW site section on historical street cries has been set up and you can see what’s been gathered so far by going to this page. The eventual aim will be to integrate this material with other kinds of site entries, such as recordings. The historical part of the site now has the page-top banner of ‘Sound and History’ so it doesn’t look so odd when adding stuff about places beyond London’s confines.

24 June 2017

Long in the tooth

THE FIRST proper field recording I made was in April 2008 and it featured the sounds of Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday morning. Since then I’ve tried to come up with a variety of ways both to guide the making of recordings and present them on webpages. I hope my efforts have given at least some pleasure to site visitors over the years.

The website is becoming a bit long in the tooth now, and needs to have its content management system upgraded if it’s to keep working. This will mean it going offline for around a week sometime soon while all the templates are rejigged. The audio players too will need a lot of attention to make them compatible with the ever-growing variety of tablets and smartphones.

Another long-hoped-for change will be a move from field recording to oral history interviewing. Seeking out and presenting the city’s sounds can be very enjoyable but subject to the law of diminishing returns, so that the site ends up like an obsessively detailed theatre set onto which no actors ever emerge. Time for a change of approach.

Interviews for the first oral history project begin in July this year so hopefully it shouldn’t be too long before you can start to see and hear the results.

16 January 2017

Against the wind: Rycote Cyclone windshields and a new baffle

A CONDENSER MICROPHONE has a diaphragm that’s open to the air, a backplate hidden out of view behind it, and a voltage across them. Sound waves impact on the diaphragm and make it move nearer to and further from the backplate, causing fluctuations in electrical capacitance.

In an ideal world sound waves alone would make the diaphragm move, but that’s not how it works out in real life. Sudden jolts, tapping the mic’s casing, and vibrations propagated along the cable can all produce unwelcome noises. So too can the wind and, more specifically, the turbulence in the air stream which batters away at the diaphragm. The solution is to absorb as much of that energy as possible before it can be transferred to the diaphragm, like the way a harbour breakwater is there to absorb the energy of the sea’s waves.

Any mic used outdoors needs some kind of protection from the wind. Furry windcovers are made for the mic pairs at the business ends of pocket-sized recorders. A larger mic can be mounted inside a mesh windshield equipped with a handle or stuck on the end of a boom pole: a standard arrangement for many professional field recordists.

I’m more of a hobbyist who’s become wedded to using omnidirectional mics in pairs. These can produce an appealing stereo image when used with some sort of acoustic baffle between them: this old blog post goes into more detail about that. One of the problems of this approach is that it’s not easy to protect the mics against wind because one side of them is up against your head or some head-substitute, like a wooden or closed-cell foam block.

A way around this presented itself when Rycote introduced their new Cyclone windshields. I noticed that they split lengthways into two and thought you could make an acoustic baffle out of a wooden block with one half of a windshield shell attached to each side, covering and protecting the mics under them. However, the Cyclone halves are asymmetric: the port side (relative to the mic facing forward) has the whole rear end-cap, and the starboard side has the larger front end-cap.

Rycote kindly agreed to supply me with two starboard sides, thus saving me the expense of buying a pair of complete windshields. I then set about making the baffle, starting with a wooden chopping board as the core, with most of the baffle’s volume comprised of balsa wood, given about six coats of varnish to toughen it up. This is what it looks like from the front.

The back shows (a) no great prizes for woodwork skills and (b) how the cables are carried beneath removable side blocks to exit at the rear. At its widest point the baffle is about one foot or 30cm across.

With the windshield covers removed, you can see how the mics are held in place with tool clips, and the covers are positioned with the help of metal pegs (cheap drill bits embedded and glued into the wood). Black sticky-backed foam makes for a more draught-tight surface for the edges of the Cyclone halve to come into contact with.

Tony at the Wire magazine asked if I wore it on my head, perhaps hoping for an amusing photo opportunity. No, it goes on top of a tripod. I mean, like, obviously! Here it is with some camo scrim wrapped round it at an RSPB nature reserve in Suffolk. Without the camo it looks maybe a bit alarming to birds, and several people have pointed out that it also resembles a big pair of stupendous breasts and, even though form strictly follows function, this is true. It’s not a bad thing in my view and, in fact, I’m proud to be doing my part to help redress the balance against countless consumer products which have a distinctly phallic appearance. But maybe sometimes modesty’s the better policy.

The tool clips allow a small degree of latitude in sliding the mics backwards and forwards. If they’re too far back, then the recording might suggest an acoustic hole-in-the-middle, with plenty of sound at each side but not much sense of anything happening directly in front. This seems to be happening with the first trial recordings I made in Suffolk.

The mics used on the baffle are Sennheiser MKH 8020s which have low self-noise, making them suitable for very quiet environments. Here’s a later attempt along the Thames estuary, with the mics moved forwards perhaps half an inch.

Neither of those recordings address the issue of wind, as the Suffolk one was made on quite a still day, and the Shornemead Fort one was made during blustery weather, but where the fort’s structure made an effective windbreak. The other day I saw that the weather forecast was predicting gusts of up to 37 miles per hour along the Thames estuary, so I went to Rainham to see how things would work out. It really was windy that day and only the baffle’s weight prevented the tripod from toppling over.

There is wind noise in that recording, but it’s produced more by the wind’s action on and around the baffle than on the mic diaphragms themselves. The Rycote Cyclone windshield halves seem to work well. Later, I moved the baffle to beside the long concrete wall bordering the Tilda rice factory nearby, and here the wind speed increases, perhaps by being funnelled along the wall. Close up I could see that the baffle was starting to shake and vibrate, and on that recording it began to produce brief audio drop-out where the diaphragms had likely hit their backplates. So 40mph gusts probably mark the maximum limit beyond which the baffle’s no good.

All sorts of improvements suggest themselves: carrying the rear-exiting cables beneath the surface of the wood, various ways to cut down on the baffle’s nearly six pounds (2.6kg) of weight, using Rycote lyre suspensions to deal with vibration, and making a fake fur cover to fit over the whole thing.

But, in the meantime, it is quite satisfying to have made something myself, and that does go against the grain of many hobby activities, which increasingly seem to be about simply buying the right components to fit together.

19 November 2016

Making a simple clamp for the Sound Devices MixPre-D

SOUND DEVICES are a US-based firm who make digital sound recorders. These are very expensive: even their entry-level two-channel recorder, the basic 702 model, costs around £2,700. They’re attractive and robust little machines filled with top-notch electronics ensuring extremely good signal quality. But, still, for that amount you could buy a saloon in reasonable nick and start work as a minicab driver.

Cost-conscious amateur recordists wanting to sprinkle a little Sound Devices stardust on their work can team the slightly more affordable MixPre-D with an inexpensive pocket-sized recorder, connecting the two via the latter’s line-in socket. This poor recordist’s 702 is capable of very good results. Some say the MixPre-D has the same preamps as the full-size recorders, others disagree, but I doubt I could hear the difference between the two.

Suppose you’d like to attach and detach the recorder from the MixPre-D in a quick and easy way. You could try gluing strips of velcro onto each, but this seems a crude approach. An alternative is to exploit a feature Sound Devices have built into the machine.

The upper side of the MixPre-D has two little holes for bolts for fixing on a special camera clamp, also made by Sound Devices. The clamp has to be bought separately and it costs around £130. It has to be a pretty amazing piece of kit for that much. Maybe it’s got an inbuilt talking spirit level urging you to go left a bit, up a bit, with Fenella Fielding’s voice. You can see for yourself on this webpage.

Or you can make one out of a small piece of 6mm plywood, two UNC No.6 bolts (this is a US-style thread size available from good hardware shops in the UK), some UNC No.6 nuts to make up to the bolts’ standard 50mm length, and a cheap quick-release camera clamp.

Cheap clamp for the MixPre-D

Just about all pocket-sized recorders have a camera tripod socket on their undersides, to which the quick-release plate can be screwed into. Now you can change in a couple of seconds from having the recorder securely attached to the MixPre-D to using the recorder freely on its own.

Cheap clamp for the MixPre-D with recorder attached

Total cost: about £10.

12 November 2016

A visit to the old nuclear weapons development site at Orford Ness

MY FRIENDS Iain Chambers and Kate Romano recently invited me to go along with them to Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast. It’s a long shingly spit of land, the northern end of which extends to Aldeburgh, out of sight in the aerial view below.

Orford Ness can be reached by car and then a very short ferry trip across the river Alde. It’s owned by the National Trust who run it as a nature reserve. Many people will also know it as the kind of mysterious forbidden area which might have appeared in an old film like Quatermass 2, because it’s where nuclear weapons research was once carried out. Rutted roads and crumbling buildings are all that remain of a busy scientific and engineering community.

Public access to Orford Ness is allowed during daylight hours on some days of the week: most of the year it’s limited to Saturdays only. You can look at the bunkers from the outside but you’re usually not allowed inside, in case a rusting piece of pipework falls on your head. We were lucky in being given supervised access to the insides of the bunkers, some of which are called ‘pagodas’. Here are a few of the photos I took.

Below is the outside of a pagoda. The heavy roof is supported on concrete pillars and this was to minimise damage in case of an explosion inside the building: the blast wave would be easily vented to the outside well above ground level.

Inside was rusting switch-gear and other equipment.

The pagoda seen across an expanse of wind-swept shingle.

Inside the remains of a laboratory and administrative block.

More old equipment, possibly the remains of a heat exchanger.

Inside a workshop. The more luxuriant vegetation on the right-hand side conceals a deep, water-filled trough. H-bomb casings would have been assembled here.

There was quite a lot to look at, but not much to hear. The railings of a small lookout tower hummed and whined in the brisk wind. Inside some of the bunkers and other buildings there was the occasional clatter from loose fittings on ceilings being blown to and fro. Wading birds called out. Otherwise, near silence.

Orford Ness is probably worth a visit during fine weather if you’re already a fan of bleak-looking, peripheral areas like Dungeness. The National Trust’s approach here is one of managed decay with a welcome lack of obtrusive signage.

For a livelier, though not fatal, dose of Cold War nostalgia, you might also wish to consider a visit to the bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex. I’m a big fan of those leaflets you find in hotels advertising local attractions, often with a scowling child in a pirate’s hat on the front, or a man my age pretending to be a Viking – Grimwald the Grizzled.

However, Kelvedon Hatch’s flyer takes some beating, with its lurid photo of an H-bomb explosion:

I went a few years ago and had an enjoyable afternoon. Also, keep an eye out if you’re driving there for an old-school roadside cafe nearby. It’s built to resemble a log cabin and there are few places like that left now.

19 August 2016

Audio problems for Android users

AN EMAIL ARRIVES from the United States helpfully pointing out that this site’s audio players won’t work on an Android tablet. I’ve since checked it on someone’s Android smartphone and find the same thing happening, or rather not happening.

Once upon a time the audio player, in its different visual forms, did work with Android but evidently times have changed. The only solution is for me to change all the players for a much newer version, which means redesigning and reinstalling them all from scratch. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, since the pages here are dynamically generated, meaning only the templates need adjusting, but it’ll still take a while to get everything sorted.

For those interested in such things, the now-obsolete player was called Pickle Player. I’ll be replacing it with Wimpy Player, which is made by the same company. It looks pretty versatile and should allow for playback on just about every device around.

19 August 2016

Hello to New York Times readers

RECENTLY I APPEARED in the New York Times alongside Kate Carr and Chris Watson in a piece written by Alex Marshall about field recordists. So if you’ve come here from there, hello.

Alex originally approached me a couple of months earlier and we agreed to head out to north-east London so he could watch me in action. But action perhaps isn’t the right word for what I do. There is a lot of walking from A to B but once you find something you want to record, it’s usually a matter of standing stock-still for a short while.

This was frustrating for a student documentary-maker I met some years ago and the only highlight of that outing was when I stepped on a plank with a nail sticking out of it. The nail went through the sole of my shoe, up between my big toe and the next toe, and then out through the top of the shoe. I sat down on the ground abruptly in surprise and stared at my foot. The documentary-maker sprang out of his despondent state and began eagerly filming me.

Alex made for good company as we first visited New Spitalfields Market in Leyton and then made a long walk northwards to Stamford Hill. The market sounds like this when it’s closing up and there were indeed forklift trucks hurtling about, one of them coming uncomfortably close:

It was a Saturday and the streets around Stamford Hill were full or Orthodox Jews coming out of the local synagogues. Alex took this photo of me frowning at my recorder, which he’s kindly let me reproduce here:

Me recording in Stamford Hill

A pleasant Sabbath-day atmosphere filled the streets with conversations and occasional cries of greeting in English and Yiddish. I hung around at a corner where two streets joined together in a fork to try to capture some sense of time and place:

Opportunities like that presented by the New York Times are rare, and I’m always keen to ask journalists about their jobs and the workings of newspapers and broadcasters. Earlier this year Alex wrote another sound-related article for the NYT on the European Music Archaeology Project and he told me about Republic or Death!, his Random House book on the stories behind national anthems. You can read more about the subject on his blog of the same title.

Kate Carr is due to make a live performance at Cafe Oto on Thursday 22 September, for which I’m doing a support slot. More information on the Cafe Oto website.

22 June 2016

The EU referendum and the silence of the streets

THE EU REFERENDUM vote is due tomorrow, June 23rd, but the campaigners haven’t made the streets resound with action, which is what urban recordists like me yearn for.

So far I’ve had one campaigner knock on my front door, and there have been a few stalls in pedestrianised shopping streets and outside tube stations. In London the Remainers are more visible than the Leavers, but they’re not much more audible. One old chap was politely trying to dish out Remain literature with all the passion of someone advertising a church jumble sale: “Leaflet sir? Leaflet madam? We’re stronger in Europe.”

Mainstream politics had more of a street presence three or four decades ago. This BBC video about the 1975 European referendum shows a different world of marches headed by Highland pipers, town hall meetings and busy walkabout schedules for politicians.

Just as today, televised debates were of great importance, but they were different in style. Last night’s BBC debate, broadcast from Wembley, had six main speakers playing a kind of conker match armed with some soundbites and their supposed credentials: “speaking as a mother and a grandmother”, “speaking as the only one here who has served in the armed forces” and so on. One Twitter wag described it as looking like the worst Kraftwerk gig ever.

Compare it with the 1975 televised Oxford Union debate, titled ‘A Question of Europe’. Each of the four speakers – Peter Shore, Jeremy Thorpe, Barbara Castle and Ted Heath – are skillful orators and have the time to develop arguments of some substance. The Liberal Party leader Thorpe puts in a particularly memorable performance at odds with his austere, headmasterly appearance, beginning around 27 minutes into the video.

Even as far back as the mid-1970s there was a detectable move away from the rough-and-tumble of the open political hustings towards the security of studio debates and ticket-only election rallies. A pivotal moment in this transition was the public mauling of the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 election campaign in Birmingham. Whilst addressing a crowd at the Rag Market in the Bull Ring, he came under intense heckling from Labour Party and other opponents which eventually overwhelmed him. The event was televised, compounding Douglas-Home’s humiliation. As he noted in his memoirs:

It produced an appearance of strain which inevitably conveyed itself to the television onlookers – I looked rather hunted and that had a bad effect. I blame myself for not studying the techniques of television more than I did.

Attempts by politicians in more recent times to return to the soapbox in the street have been rare. John Major spent part of his youth speaking for the Conservative cause outdoors near Brixton Market and, in 1992, he decided to revive this approach in Luton during the General Election campaign. There’s a Press Association photo of him looking quite cheerful as he contends with Trot Left hecklers, helped by what must surely be called the ‘Executive’ model from the loudhailer range.

Media reactions to this approach were mixed, although it evidently didn’t harm Major’s chances greatly, since he won the election. Less fortunate was the former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who oversaw Labour’s demolition by the SNP in the 2015 General Election. Murphy had tried for a down-to-earth image by going on a lengthy campaign tour with a couple of Irn Bru crates given prominence as improvised speaking platforms.

The lesson of Douglas-Home in the Rag Market seems largely to have stuck. The Rag Market itself had been a gathering place for radical and labour movement speakers since the 1830s, with some rallies attracting many thousands. The pressure for popular involvement in politics was eventually reflected in the main political parties enjoying very large numbers of members.

In the 1950s the Conservatives had around three million members, and the Labour Party one million. Today’s figures are 150,000 and 270,000 respectively. Even allowing for the fact that many may have joined for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons, such as making business contacts through a local Conservative Association, or being able to buy a drink in the local Labour Club, mass membership provided a large pool of potential helpers during elections.

Have a listen to the enthusiastic crowds in this 1949 recording from the Hammersmith South by-election in west London. Both Labour and the Conservatives flooded the constituency with hundreds of volunteers, organising marches, rallies and noisy motorcades with slogans broadcast from roof-mounted loudhailers. Below is Mark Kaufman’s photograph of a large crowd attending the hustings in February of that year:


Vocal involvement in politics was expressed and encouraged in other ways too. A common feature of popular political tracts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the effort to provide their readers with the ammunition to help them win verbal arguments or debates with friends, workmates and neighbours. Sometimes this was done in the form of a dialogue in which the main speaker would overcome a series of convenient objections from a sceptical listener. Or, the pamphlet might be written in a markedly oratorical style, as though designed to be read aloud to an audience.

The most successful political book to combine both approaches was the socialist Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, originally published in 1893. It would eventually sell over two million copies across the English-speaking world.

Blatchford begins by addressing an imaginary Mr Smith, a ‘shrewd, hard-headed, practical man’. What better kind of person to be able to convince?

Now, Mr. Smith, if you really are a man of hard, shrewd sense, we shall get on very well. I am myself a plain, practical man. I base my beliefs on what I know and see, and respect “a fact” more than a Lord Mayor. [. . .] Now I assert that if the labour of the British people were properly organised and wisely applied, this country would, in return for very little toil, yield abundance for all.

The goal of face-to-face persuasion is now limited in politics to occasional doorstepping and is absent in political writing. It survives only among Christian proselytisers and in the pamphlets and leaflets they produce. The best-known examples are the inadvertently entertaining Jack Chick tracts from the United States, and which are sometimes found in religious bookshops in this country.

You may detect a note of regret here and you’d be right. An atomised society is a difficult one to record.

04 June 2016

Last Wednesday's radio rampage

MANY THANKS are due to my friend and former colleague Eve Anderson, who on her own initiative put up some posters advertising one of my talks around Broadcasting House, where she now works as an audio engineer. (You can hear her digitising a wax cylinder on my British Library sound diagram.)

The result was a day of invitations to take part in different radio broadcasts. The BBC paid my train fare to appear on Radio 4’s Today program and you can hear the results below:

The experience was one of joining a very slick, very well-organised production line, rather like the old Generation Game where a parade of different household goods would pass before the contestants’ eyes, only you’re the hostess trolley or the Goblin Teasmade. Some atavistic urge compelled me to eat as much as I could of the free breakfast food provided in the Today program’s green room before going on air.

Later in the day I got a call off BBC Radio Essex and did a short interview with them, but before that I had the pleasure of meeting the very versatile Robin The Fog at Broadcasting House and together we recorded a short feature for BBC World Service:

It was a good, busy day followed by a talk to deliver in the evening. I fell asleep as soon as I got home.

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.

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:

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.

30 November 2015

Tim Hunkin's Novelty Automation

THE ENGINEER AND cartoonist Tim Hunkin has opened an arcade in London full of his entertaining contraptions titled Novelty Automation. It’s in former shop premises at 1a Princeton Street, just a few minutes’ walk from Holborn tube station, and well worth visiting.

I first came across Hunkin’s arcade about ten years ago when it was at Southwold on the Suffolk coast. It was a chance discovery and more than made up for the failure earlier in the day to find the visitor centre at the Sizewell nuclear power station. That’s because there isn’t a visitor centre, only a car park watched by security cameras and armed members of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary.

Since sound has an important role in all amusement arcades, I thought it might be worth recording the noises of some of Hunkin’s arcade machines now they’re in London. He kindly gave me permission to do so.

After getting some gold-coloured Novelty Automation coin tokens, I started by feeding them into the air-powered Autofrisk.

Next was Pet Or Meat, an electromechanical version of the old spin-the-bottle game where chance apparently decides the fate of a little lamb.

Inside a wire cage crouches the rabid dog of the Test Your Nerve Machine. “It’s quite loud,” warned Lizzie, who was minding the arcade that afternoon. It was, and there’s another surprise which is felt rather than heard, and which you’ll need to try for yourself.

The sonic star of the arcade is the Small Hadron Collider, a pin-table version of its Geneva cousin. Luck, or maybe quantum entanglement, was on my side that afternoon, as I managed to hit a winning peg.

There are around a dozen more machines in Novelty Automation, all of them informed by Hunkin’s satirical and sometimes mordant humour. This is a hallmark of the tradition of devising what we might call contraptions, machines whose primary function is to entertain through some form of mockery.

The target can be mechanism itself, as with W. Heath Robinson’s over-specified imaginary devices, or the ‘useless machines’ built by the scientists Claude Shannon and Marvin Minsky. Their function is simply to switch themselves off each time someone switches them on; Arthur C. Clarke described them as ‘unspeakably sinister’. Here’s a video of modern-day one in action or, rather, avoiding action:

Humorously pointless contraptions were also a feature of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and in the historical section of the London Sound Survey you can hear the sounds of a smoke-grinding machine.

 

27 November 2015

The reverberant city

SOME YEARS AGO I met a blind man at a meeting of the Lewisham Talking Newspaper. Most people lose their sight through age-related conditions, but he’d been blind from birth and led an active life, travelling abroad and volunteering on archaeological digs.

How did he use sound to find his way around town? “Reverberation off buildings, mostly.” He turned his head away slightly at what I realised might have been a tiresomely familiar question. “It’s probably a subconscious thing a lot of the time.”

Sighted people too sometimes pay attention to the reverberance of their surroundings. The long underpass which stretches from South Kensington tube station eastwards towards Brompton Road is a good example.

Children like to test the sound properties of such environments by whooping and yelling, or kicking a tin can about. Football fans raise chants in tube and train stations. This kind of singing is usually done in a minor key for some reason – maybe it’s easier. Part of the pleasure is in hearing the self or the group become more potent, and it’s probably an old habit. Cave paintings by paleolithic Europeans hint at a relationship between their number, subject matter and the acoustic properties of the caves they decorate. 

Reverberation is sound being reflected from surfaces, and so it’s affected by the shapes and sizes of those surfaces, their distance from and alignment to each other, and what they’re made of. It can be abstracted from the original sound source like the way an accent can be considered independently of the content of speech. Sound engineers do exactly this when they record impulse responses by popping balloons inside buildings and tunnels. These can be then be processed, saved and applied as sound effects to other recordings.

The Department of the Bleeding Obvious says that the built environment varies greatly across a big city like London and so you’ll hear different reverberant accents depending on where you are. To a very rough approximation it goes something like this:

Low: typical of outer suburbs like Hillingdon. Residential streets tend to be wide with the houses set well back behind front gardens, which in turn may have sound-absorbing features like hedges. The rows of houses, whether detached or semi-detached, are punctuated by gaps.

Moderate: typical of the railway suburbs which begin around the further edges of Zone 2 and the peripheral town centres like Croydon, Romford, Kingston and Enfield. Residential areas have a greater mix of housing type, including streets of terraced and semi-detached houses with only small front gardens, low-rise new-build flats, maisonettes and deck-access council estates.

High: common throughout Zones 1 and 2 where the streets are often narrow relative to the heights of the buildings flanking them. Reverberation is particularly noticeable among the Edwardian-era mansion flats and the Guinness Trust, Peabody and LCC estates with their enclosed central courtyards. It’s also the accent of much of the West End and the high-rise canyons of the City.

For an example of city centre reverb, here’s a mundane recording I made a few days ago while sitting on a bench in Red Lion Square in Holborn:

Itinerant saxophone players like the one in that recording are a lucky find, but the reverberant qualities of the streets are more often made plain by vehicle horns and the diesel engines of taxi cabs. Much of central London’s built environment west of Ludgate Circus hasn’t changed hugely over the past century and so there’s a tinge of familiarity in this recording of Leicester Square made in 1928:

I spent my earliest years in central London before my family moved out to the surburbs when I was about eight. Most of my earliest sound memories are of TV advert jingles and the theme tunes for children’s programs like The Magic Roundabout and The Banana Splits but I also recall a few reverberant sounds like the cry of the rag-and-bone man as he did his rounds, and the shouts of the market traders in Berwick Street.

Perhaps, like the blind man said, there is a subconscious effect at work. Just as our own accents are most strongly shaped at a young age, it may be that the reverberant properties of where we grow up establish preferences which persist into later years.

As a teenager, the music I liked best typically had a lot of delay: stuff like Killing Joke, Public Image, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees:

Cover of the first Siouxsie and the Banshees album

It seems stretching it a bit to claim that this had much to do with time spent in narrow streets as a small child. More likely is how such music, with its suggestions of dark, echoing spaces between the instruments, appealed as a metaphor for my desire to become independent of my parents, like the band photos of the time which showed the musicians posing as if they had nothing to do with one another.

What is left is a sense of close familiarity, like that evoked by smell, when I listen to central London. It is not a comforting feeling, but neither is it quite as unsettling as that heard by George Bone, the protagonist of Patrick Hamilton’s novel Hangover Square, written in 1939:

The wheels and track clicked out the familiar and unmistakable rhythm – the sly, gentle suggestive rhythm, unlike any of its others, of a train entering a major London terminus, and he was filled with unease and foreboding as he always was by this sound. Thought and warmth must give place to action in cold streets.

Earlier this year, London’s population was reckoned to have exceeded 8.6 million, a level last reached in the late 1930s. Despite regular horror stories of people paying good money to rent sheds or converted cupboards there is no obvious sign of demand falling. Since there seems to be little challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy that more people is necessarily a good thing in every way – are you some kind of a misanthrope? – local councils anticipate a need for more private housing, which means building upwards.

The revival of mansion-flat building is obvious along the Thames at Vauxhall but new high-density housing is being thrown up across the city, eastwards at least as far as Barking:

The reverberant accent of central London is becoming more widespread, and so too the peculiarly urban sense of lives briefly overheard but otherwise lived in private – the sound of home.

14 November 2015

New! Old! More historical recordings added

FOR THE PAST four years I’ve been adding historical radio recordings of London life to this website. It now amounts to around 90 sound files with a total listening time of over four hours. If you haven’t done so already, please check out that section and immerse yourself in the sounds of a world now moving beyond living memory.

Unfortunately this particular well has now almost run dry. There are only a few more recordings to come and then that’s your lot. However, there have been three additions in the last week to which I’d like to draw your attention.

The first is a proclamation by the Common Crier from 1939, the day after Chamberlain declared war. The Crier lists all the goods which are to be considered contraband of war.

Next, from 1936, there’s a recording of the announcement at St James’s Palace on the accession of Edward VIII. A massed gun salute from St James’s Park booms out in the background.

Finally, and in my opinion the best of the three, there’s what the BBC judged to be a ‘very good atmosphere’ recorded at night during the 1946 victory celebrations by the Thames at Westminster.

Hope you enjoy listening.

05 November 2015

Disqus comments now on blog posts and old radio recordings

COMMENTS ON blog posts are back up and running now I’ve installed the Disqus system. LiveFyre comments went haywire for some reason when I redesigned all the site’s pages a few months ago.

You can also now add comments to entries in the old radio recordings section.

04 November 2015

Sounds of 1960s Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS was the original gangsters’ paradise during its heyday between about 1950 and 1980. Not only were the hotels and casinos Mob concerns, but even gift shops were by run by the likes of Tony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro, the Chicago Outfit’s enforcer during the 1970s.

Imagine the possible life history of a single US dollar note of those times, the kind of goods and services it bought, and the hungry, grabbing hands it passed through. Seemingly inocuous souvenir EPs, like the ones featured here, would likely have provided a percentage to someone best known by their nickname.

The disc inside the sleeve pictured immediately below was made of red vinyl, with the sleeve doubling up as a mailing envelope so you could post it to your friends and family back home. It’s a great idea for a souvenir.

Front sleeve cover of early 1960s Las Vegas souvenir EP

The second EP, which dates from around the same times, lists more venues on the cover than seems possible to cram onto the disc itself. The back cover blurb promises that you’ll hear the Keno lottery numbers being called and ‘the sound of the jackpots crashing and spilling out, and the bets being called at the various tables’.

Front ans back sleeve covers of early 1960s Las Vegas souvenir EP

Sound, of course, is integral to the immersive, euphoric and disorienting experience which casinos create. As long as you can hear the clatter of a jackpot being paid out somewhere then there’s hope – or so you’re supposed to believe. Not featured on either disc are the kind of top-rank entertainers you’d have got to see and hear for just the price of a two-drink minimum charge: Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley performing at the New Frontier when he was just 21.

Perhaps our own fleshpots of Blackpool and Margate produced their own more homely equivalents of these intriguing pieces of vinyl ephemera.

30 October 2015

Five fundamental stances in recording

DIFFERENCES IN THE practice of sound recording are usually thought of in terms of technique and subject matter. Studio recording is contrasted with field recording. Interviews occupy a realm separate from wildlife sounds. A recordist expands their repertoire by getting a contact mic to make audible the vibrations racing through solid objects.

Ways to change your recording approach include things like investing in new kit, travelling more widely or thinking of different subjects to record. Such decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re influenced by established traditions in recording, the demands of work, and one’s own personality and preferred ways of dealing with people and the environment.

A while ago I tried a rough summary of these influences and their role as parameters, like switch settings, from which more precise decisions cascade:

The fundamental issue in recording is the relationship between the recordist and their subject.

The relationship which actually emerges in real life might not be the one which you set out to achieve. Things don’t always go according to plan. But at the level of intentions at least there exist what I’ll call stances, which are relatively stable and enduring ways of working and thinking about recording.

Here I’ll describe five possible kinds of stance: observational, self-reflexive, collaborative, transformative, and data gathering.

OBSERVATIONAL

The observational stance is involved in most of what’s described as field recording. Its goal is to record sounds which would occur anyway if they weren’t being recorded. It then processes and presents them so that there is an explicit correspondence between the finished recording and the original sound source.

Sounds of the Serengeti, LP from 1970

The logic of the observational stance demands efforts to ensure that the flow of information is one-way, from the subject to the recordist. It also tends to push recordists towards obtaining the highest fidelity or sound quality they can manage.

Almost unique to the stance is an interest in auditory arrays where there is no single focus of interest and which are comprised of many independent sound sources, as with the recording of urban and rural soundscapes.

SELF-REFLEXIVE

The self-reflexive stance is taken when the recordist is the subject. Obvious examples include audio diaries, many podcasts, aides memoire made on voice recorders and mobile phones, and solo musicianship.

Scene from the play Krapp's Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett

The flow of information is that of a feedback system, as the recordist monitors their own sounds and speech. There is a single focus of interest in the auditory array.

COLLABORATIVE

To a first approximation, most recorded and broadcast sound is made in the collaborative stance. The subject is aware of the recordist’s presence and the act of recording involves some form of consent, either tacit or explicit. Examples include studio recording, oral history interviews, and news gathering.

Alan Lomax, ethnomusicologist, on the right

Information flows between the recordist and the subject in a two-way interaction. Typically there’s a single focus of interest whether the subject is a lone individual or a collective entity like a band.

TRANSFORMATIVE

Recordings can be made without the intention to represent their original context, meaning or nature. They may be changed beyond recognition by processing or else be given new meanings, not easily predictable from their origins, by contributing to larger creative works. The transformative stance is commonly adopted by foley artists, sound artists, and experimental musicians.

Score for part of Messiaen's 'Oiseaux Exotiques'

Information flow most closely resembles a feedback system when the creative goal is precisely defined in advance.

DATA GATHERING

The data gathering stance is taken in scientific and engineering research where the reproduction of sounds is not the primary goal, but rather the identification, sorting, or quantification of elements within a sound signal. Examples of such work include speech analysis, machine learning, and research into animal communication and biodiversity.

Spectrogram depicting a brief segment of human speech

The flow of information is made explicit in experimental designs, with sounds often representing a dependent variable and attempts made to control for confounding factors.

This simple scheme isn’t exhaustive: the post isn’t titled the five fundamental stances in recording. They surely don’t comprise mutually-exclusive domains. But I think it might be a useful way of thinking about recording, because it requires taking a step back from the immediate details of our habits to consider how we intend acting in the world.

17 September 2015

What will cities sound like when they're filled with electric vehicles?

A MOVING MOTOR VEHICLE unavoidably makes noise in three main ways. First, the sound of the engine and exhaust. Second, the swish of air over the vehicle. Third, the noise of the tyres on the road surface. There are also the possibilities of sounding the horn and playing music with a one-kilowatt subwoofer in the back, but these are optional extras.

The second and third factors are significant for vehicles moving at high speed. Tyres make a noise by simultaneously compressing and releasing innumerable tiny air pockets trapped between the tarmac and the rubber, as if the vehicle were rolling along a strip of bubblewrap. Smoother road surfaces are less noisy but offer less grip in the wet.

But traffic doesn’t move particularly fast in cities. Transport for London figures for 2012 show that average speeds on major roads across London were slightly under 20 mph, and around just 9 mph on major roads in central London. This leaves the noise of engines and exhausts as the major factor in urban traffic noise, excepting countries where high accident rates provoke drivers to sound their horns a lot.

Urban traffic produces a lot of rumbling noise from around 200 Hz right down to the infrasonic frequencies which we can’t hear and which most mics are only weakly responsive to. You can see this in a spectrogram showing the two channels of a stereo recording I made beside west London’s busy Cromwell Road:

The traffic was pretty loud, but there’s nowhere outdoors in London where you can’t hear traffic rumble. It’s like the sound equivalent of atmospheric haze and it’s there because low-frequency sounds are much better at travelling long distances than high-frequency ones.

A pure tone of a bassy 100 Hz has a wavelength of nearly 3.5 metres which can bend around obstacles like walls and buildings. One of 2000 Hz has a wavelength of just 17 cm, small enough for the human head to start creating the acoustic shadow which helps our sense of hearing locate where sounds are coming from. Higher-frequency sounds can also be attenuated outdoors by the atmosphere itself, depending on its temperature and humidity.

The motors of electric vehicles don’t make much noise at all and you might expect cities to become a lot quieter once they’re a popular way to get from Acton to Balham. It’s curious to think how, within the lifetimes of many people alive today, petrol and diesel vehicles might end up largely confined to museums or doing laps at nostalgic ‘internal combustion fairs’. You can imagine earnest talk of how much more soulful the petrol engine was and how the world has turned into one big padded cell devoid of all danger and excitement.

Marta Santambrogio’s Fuzzy Logic Project looks forward to a future where electric cars compensate for their relative silence by playing music, turning traffic into a ‘moving orchestra’:

The Fuzzy Logic Project notes optimistically that A recent European law states that new models of electric and hybrid vehicles will have to make a noise by 2019: a great design opportunity! Manufacturers have already begun fitting noise-making apparatus, such as the Nissan Leaf’s ‘vehicle sound for pedestrians’ and this exciting jet-like swoosh from Harley Davidson:

Unfortunately, a close reading of the European Union directive mentioned by the Fuzzy Logic Project suggests tight constraints which won’t leave much room for cars playing tunes like ice cream vans. Article 8 of Regulation (EU) No 540/2014 requires that manufacturers start fitting an ‘Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System’ or AVAS to all hybrid and electric vehicles from 2019. The kind of sound is further defined in Annex VIII:

The sound to be generated by the AVAS shall be a continuous sound that provides information to the pedestrians and other road users of a vehicle in operation. The sound should be easily indicative of vehicle behaviour and should sound similar to the sound of a vehicle of the same category equipped with an internal combustion engine.

The reasoning behind this is obvious enough. Electric vehicles need to make a noise otherwise pedestrians will be at greater risk of being run over by them. Trams already deal with this by ringing bells frequently along their routes (although residents in Edinburgh’s posh West End district successfully lobbied last year to have them silenced). Many people crossing the street already seem to have quite poor situational awareness, either through the miracle of alcohol or the irresistible Insect-o-cutor glow of a smartphone screen, so they’re going need all the help they can get. This rules out the use of novel sounds.

The dismaying conclusion is that the London traffic of the future may sound like the present, only more so, given that the city’s population will continue to grow. The best that can be hoped for is that manufacturers will reproduce fake internal combustion engine noises minus the lowest frequencies which carry the furthest, although this may clash with the widespread perception of bass tones as somehow giving you more for your money and, particularly for men, conveying an impression of potency.

More on the possible future sounds of London in another blog post soon.

14 September 2015

Forthcoming Tower Bridge concert: interview with Iain Chambers

ONE OF THE most popular recordings on this site is the sound of Tower Bridge being lifted from inside one of its two towers, made as part of a series. Each road section is balanced by a huge counterweight, and as the road section slowly lifts the counterweight sweeps back into a brick-lined space called a bascule chamber.

You can’t stand inside the bascule chamber while this happens otherwise you’d get squashed by the counterweight, although admittedly such an end would have a certain cinematic extravagance to it: “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die”. But there are two gantries high up inside the chamber where you can stand out of harm’s way and from there I made the recording. Here’s the view from the gantry:

This is how the recording turned out:

As soon as I heard the descending bass tone near the start, putting me in mind of Krzysztof Penderecki’s composition Kosmogonia, and then the unhurried, grand and impersonal procession through the bridge’s mechanical duty-cycle, I knew I’d got a second helping of good fortune after the people running Tower Bridge had kindly agreed to let me record there.

The lucky streak continued when the composer Iain Chambers contacted me last year asking if he could use the recording as the basis for a musical performance. I’d already heard and enjoyed some of his work and so was very happy for him to press ahead with this. Iain’s hard work since then is about to reach fruition with two public concerts inside one of Tower Bridge’s bascule chambers on the 26th and 27th of September as part of the Totally Thames festival. I should let you know now that they’re both sold out but they will be recorded live with a view to some form of public release.

I caught up with Iain recently to ask him some questions about the concert and his work in general. He’s on the right in the picture below, with the sound artist and musician Robin The Fog on the left, who that day was putting together a feature on the concert for BBC World Service:

You’ve been preparing for these concerts in Tower Bridge for the best part of a year now. What exactly have you been doing during that time?

I started off by listening to your recording of Tower Bridge lifting and thinking: ‘This sounds like brass players at various points’. That was my first thought, that it would be a piece for field recordings and brass players. The problem I had early on is that essentially the recording you made is a complete thing. It’s a piece of music with a start. a middle and an end. The main thing I struggled with was trying not to mess it up, because I’d be very happy just listening to the recording on its own. I thought first of all, given a captive audience and some brass players, I’m going to score out and transcribe what the bridge is doing. I listened to the recording and transcribed it for trombones and brass, literally just playing what the bridge is doing.

At one point I was going to go down the route where the bridge and the brass were doing the same thing at the same time, so it would be completely synchronised. But I’m glad I moved away from that and thought what I actually want to do is use the harmonic language of the bridge, just the notes it plays, as the palette for the brass. I like working with creative restrictions where you find something and you don’t mess with it, you use that as the restriction.

So the frame for this was the notes that the bridge played. For the vast majority of the piece that’s all the brass are allowed to play, only the bridge notes. We begin with the recording of the bridge itself exactly as it was, gradually the brass is introduced playing sympathetically with it. Then there’s a section where it’s a bit more musique concrete, so I’ve worked with the recordings a little bit, and changed the pitch perhaps or applied a bit of effects.

Essentially it’s not the raw field recording any more, it’s slightly removed from that, and there’s a melody which comes through which I subsequently realised it sounds a bit like a Górecki symphony but that was accidental! The brass would have come back in and then they get their own solo. There’s two trombones and two trumpets, all players from the Docklands Sinfonia. They carry on with the restricted palette of bridge notes and then there’s a big peak where they modulate away from the bridge, a break for freedom of the brass.

It actually sounds like what I imagine Victorian brass music to be like, and I didn’t do this deliberately either. Then they gradually come out of that and the bridge comes back in and closes the piece down.

How many musicians and vocalists are we talking about in total?

For that piece, Bascule Chambers, there’s four brass players and a conductor, all from the Docklands Sinfonia. Prior to that the brass players will have played a fanfare with the same configuration, and in between those pieces there are two more for the soprano Catherine Carter. The first is John Cage’s Aria, which I think he would have quite enjoyed hearing in this space because there’s a lot of offstage sounds.

The next piece is a new one I’ve written called Three Poems which has three river-related poems set in very different periods for the soprano Catherine Carter alongside boat-based field recordings which I’ve been working with. There are foghorns, you hear the creaking of a cabin and underwater recordings of boat engines as well. I wanted to write a piece which didn’t support harmonically the singer in any way, which is generally the opposite of what you do. I wanted it to be the melody with the soprano and field recordings, and just see what happened in that space which has a lot of environmental sounds going on at the same time.

On that theme, you must have listened and performed in many different concert spaces and environments. How does the bascule chamber compare with them and what kind of challenges and opportunities has it presented?

It most closely resembles a very large church or a cathedral. It’s brick and there are no soft furnishings at all, very hard echoes. There’s a two to three second reverberation time which you quickly get used to. If you’re up close you can hear someone talking but if they move about 15 to 20 feet away then it’s very difficult to hear them because there are so many reflections going on in there. And there’s the sound of boats going past, slightly above your head, and road traffic above your head as well.

So it’s got that same sort of ambience as a religious space, plus it’s got that separation from the world which you get when you got into a city church, for instance. You’re in the city but you’re not in the city at the same time. This has exactly that as well but with these river-based sounds, road-based sounds and occasionally gulls, cormorants and people as well which you hear from this weird vantage point where you’re below the action but still engaged with it.

One thing I wanted to do in all of these pieces is to encourage the audience to treat the environmental sounds they’re hearing as part of the concert. All the pieces work with the sound of the space deliberately. The brass fanfare is designed around about forty percent silence so the decay of the brass sounds through the space, coloured by the space, with all these off-stage sounds as well.

Is this in the tradition of musique concrete and is that a tradition which has developed seamlessly or are new generations continually discovering it for themselves?

Some of the pieces in this concert are more in the tradition of musique concrete than others. It also feels to me like there’s a lot of goodwill towards the sort of obsolete devices which were used for musique concrete. I’m part of Langham Research Centre and we’ve witnessed first-hand when we’ve used tape machines and sine-wave oscillators and things like that it gets a particularly kindly response from audiences who feel we’ve lost some things as we’ve progressed into digital culture, and those technologies had good things about them which we should continue with if we possibly can.

It’s pretty perverse to use that technology to make music but groups like Howlround and Langham Research Centre both use tape because of the richness of the sound and also the fact it’s got personality which is variable. The machines have personalities and they are not reliable. You turn them on on a particular day - it will do something different. You could say digital technology also responds differently now and then but not in anywhere near as interesting a way.

Is it also more appealing from the performer’s point of view , because you’re giving the audience something more interesting to look at than somebody pressing buttons on a laptop?

Absolutely. It looks like they could be doing their tax return for all you know. With tape you’re physically seeing sounds going round and some of that connects much better with what you’re hearing. I think people like that and, with Howlround for instance, using very long tape loops, it extends into the audience space blurring the lines between where the stage is and where the audience is sitting. It’s invading that space with the medium of sound, which is a brilliant thing. I also think people are embracing field recording, and that must partly be due to the digital revolution because it’s easier to make longer recordings and make them available. There are a lot of good things about where we’re at with digital culture but there’s no law saying we have to favour one over the other. Both can co-exist.

After Tower Bridge, what have you got planned next?

Almost the day after I have to start work on a 25-minute piece for German radio made up out of the obsolete industrial sounds of Germany. They’ve commissioned a hörspiel [radio play] for which my first question to them was, Do you want any speech in the program to be in English or German? They very seriously replied to me, We prefer there to be no speech at all. Coming from a BBC background that was music to my ears, literally. So this is going to contain no speech, it’ll be the obsolete sounds of Germany which have been recorded by a pan-European project Work With Sounds that’s trying to document the vulnerable or endangered sounds of the whole of Europe country by country.

Anything else?

With Langham Research Centre we’re doing a couple of interesting things. One is a concert piece about and around the work of Nikola Tesla. He was influential in so many ways and we can all agree he invented radio, not Marconi, and so to us he’s a really fascinating figure. There are lots of nice human stories about him. When he was in his dotage in the Waldorf Hotel in New York he was obsessed with pigeons to the point where he allowed one or two of them to live in his room and were his real companions towards the end. I think this will be premiered in the summer of 2016.

The other thing we’re doing is a response to Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold for Radio 3, which is going to be with Peter Blegvad who we’ve worked with quite a lot. That’s going to be a radiophonic drama in which we go on a journey with our protagonist, a never-ending train journey, so we’re going to use the sounds of trains going through history up to the modern day and using the train in culture as a reference point as well. That’ll mostly be made on tape.

More news and details of Iain’s work can be found on his website.

27 August 2015

London runs on war and rumour: Chaucer in the House of Fame

ALL-SEEING IS usually taken to mean the same thing as all-knowing and, until quite recently, it was thought to be the prerogative of the Biblical God. But people can be ambitious. In the late 1780s Jeremy Bentham proposed a new design of prison called a Panopticon, the design of which would allow the governor and staff to see everything the inmates did. It would be, wrote Bentham, a ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example’.

More obscure are early anticipations of systems in which everything can be heard. A blog post I wrote a while back alluded to Charles Babbage’s theory of the persistence of sound and its influence on Charles Dickens. The theory is foremost a moral one: the sound of everything we say and do becomes attenuated but never entirely disappears from the atmosphere, and so will be there on the Day of Judgement as evidence of our conduct. It’s explained in Chapter IX of Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise.

Before that, another Panauditon had been dreamt up by William Baldwin in his 1552 novel, Beware the Cat. The narrator drinks a magic potion which allows him to hear everything happening within a hundred-mile radius of London. This overwhelming experience ends badly.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame was written while he was still living in London at the end of the 1370s. It’s an allegorical poem in which the narrator falls asleep and dreams that a giant eagle carries him to the realm inhabited by Fame, personified as a goddess. It’s where all the utterances ever spoken float up to and linger, particularly those concerning people’s reputations. In Middle English, ‘fame’ denoted reputation in general, whether it was good or bad, and was etymologically related to acts of speech similar to what we understand as ‘hearsay’ [1].

This would have been a topical subject for Chaucer’s audience. The act of scandalum magnatum, meaning the defamation of the King and his ‘magnates’ so as to produce discord, had been established by the First Statute of Westminster in 1275. Against a backdrop of political intrigue and popular discontent, the definition of ‘magnates’ was clarified in 1378 to include peers, prelates, justices and various named officials [2]. This post is concerned with the different ways sound features in The Hall of Fame, and particularly how they might have been influenced by Chaucer’s life and experiences in medieval London.

The poem is over 2,000 lines long and you can find a version in Modern English as a PDF via the eChaucer site. A slightly livelier rendering can be found on Richard Scott-Robinson’s eleusinianm site. Three sound-relevant sections of the poem are examined here in the sequence they occur. In the first, the giant eagle tells the poet about the nature of sound and why it travels upwards. In the second, the poet encounters Fame and hears great multitudes petitioning her about their reputations. In the final section, Chaucer describes a vast wickerwork structure in which everything that’s ever said is gathered together and can be heard.

TRAVELLING BY EAGLE

The dream begins with the poet finding himself in a glass temple containing brass tablets on which is engraved the Aeneid. A huge eagle then appears to snatch the poet up in his claws before flying off. Whilst in flight the eagle lectures him on the nature of sound and how it inevitably rises to the House of Fame:

Sound is nothing but broken air and every word that is spoken, loudly or softly, wisely or obscenely, is by nature just air. When men pluck harp strings, whether heavily or gently, with this stroke the air breaks as it does when men speak; so now you know what speech is. Now if you throw a stone into water, you know how one circle causes another, propagating outwards by the others’ movement, multiplying until the disturbance reaches the surrounding banks. In the same way, every word, spoken loudly or softly, first moves the air nearby, which in turn moves air that is further away. So in the air, my dear brother, every parcel stirs up the next and bares speech upwards, magnifying and amplifying until it reaches the House of Fame – take it in all seriousness or in fun.

The eagle’s chummy familiarity (at one point he addresses the poet as ‘Geoffrey’) suggests he may represent someone known to Chaucer and his well-to-do circle, underlining the theme of reputation. An educated audience would also likely have recognised the allusion to the Roman philosopher Boethius’s theory of sound waves. The part about sound rising might also be drawn directly from Chaucer’s own experience of living in the city.

Chaucer was born in London around 1343 and spent his childhood at the family home between Thames Street and the Walbrook stream, near where Cannon Street station is today. 14th-century records describe it as a ‘tenement’ but this was meant in the old sense of a property holding. Chaucer came from a wealthy background and the home was a substantial one, likely consisting of cellars, a large main room or hall plus kitchen at ground level and upper rooms called ‘solars’ [3]. These may been reached by stairs and a wooden gallery encircling the main hall [4], and we can imagine the gallery providing a good vantage point for the young Chaucer to eavesdrop on adult conversation rising from the hall.

What is known for certain is that, between 1374 and 1386, Chaucer lived above street level while working as a customs official, responsible for the important commodity of wool. In anticipation of starting the job he took out a lease from the city authorities for an apartment above the Aldgate and was living there when he wrote The House of Fame.

Despite London losing around half of its population during the Black Death of 1348–50, the city would have been a thriving mercantile and administrative centre during the time of The House of Fame. The poll tax of 1377 counted just over 23,000 lay tax-payers in London [5], suggesting a total population of as many as 40,000 with a density equivalent to modern-day inner London boroughs like Hackney and Kensington & Chelsea. The sounds of the streets and the ceaseless daytime traffic through the Aldgate would certainly have risen to Chaucer’s lodgings, pressing on him most during time spent alone. The eagle may be alluding to Chaucer’s solitary home life when he again assumes familiarity with the poet:

Wherefore, as I said, Jupiter considered this and also, good sir, that you have no knowledge of love directly; for when your work is done and your accounts are complete, instead of rest and entertainment you go home to your house and sit quietly at another book until you look completely confused; and you live thus, like a hermit, although you are no celibate.

IN THE PRESENCE OF FAME

After the eagle has set him down safely, the poet climbs a hill at the top of which he finds ‘a building that was so beautiful that no living man could possibly have the ability to describe it adequately’, although Chaucer has a good try. It is made of beryl and gold, and filled with musicians and shouting multitudes:

And in each of the towers were various rooms filled with ballad-singers and storytellers; I heard Orpheus playing sweetly and precisely on a harp, and lesser harpers sitting at his feet. There were all sorts of musicians, many thousands, playing flutes, horns and bagpipes, teaching love serenades, merry dances and bloodcurdling calls to war [. . .] I came across many people shouting: ‘Gifts, gifts, keep them coming! God save the lady of this domain, our own gentle Lady Fame!’ and they all poured out of the hall, jingling coins and money. And some were kings in fine clothes and there were heralds calling the praises of rich folk.

Crowds of people ‘from every region of the Earth’ swarm forward to petition the goddess Fame, who is equipped to see and hear everything around her:

And there I saw a greater wonder still, looking into her eyes; but I did not count them all, for she had as many as there are feathers on a bird, or on the four beasts that honour God’s throne, as John wrote in the Apocalypse. Her hair, wavy and curly, shone like burnished gold and she had as many ears and tongues as there are hairs on a beast.

The requests range from everlasting renown to complete obscurity, and Fame variously grants, refuses or delivers their complete opposite in an unpredictable way. Her decisions are broadcast around the world by Aeolus, the god of the winds. A ‘rabble’ ask that, although they’ve all led lives of indolence, they be remembered as being loved madly by women. But they’re out of luck:

‘Death on you!’ she cried, ‘every one of you, you indolent swine! You idle wretches! Do you hanker after such deceit? Men should hang you!’ Aeolus leapt up with his black trumpet and let out a sound that travelled the world and was so full of cruel jokes that everybody began to laugh and shout at these rogues’ expense.

Chaucer places one significant limit on how arbitrary Fame can be in her rewards and has her refuse the request of a group of traitors to be remembered well. Otherwise the sounds of crowds and music, heralds’ proclamations and petitions from groups are magnifications from events in city life with which Chaucer would have been familiar. An account from 1417 of Henry V’s victory parade through London shows how extravagant these could sometimes be.

LONDON IN WICKER

The poet is left with unanswered questions. During their flight together, the eagle had promised he would be shown how utterances, once in the House of Fame, become physically embodied in the forms of those who spoke them. On explaining that he hasn’t yet seen this, a helpful stranger leads the poet to a valley where a vast wicker structure, sixty miles long, revolves ‘as swiftly as thought’ with a great roaring noise like a stone being hurled by a siege engine. This sound detail is significant because it links the workings of the House of Fame with warfare.

Chaucer would have had first-hand experience of artillery pieces like trebuchets at the siege of Reims in 1360, where he was captured and ransomed by the French, and during later military expeditions under the leadership of John of Gaunt.

Trebuchets were among the most impressive machines of their time and it is hard to imagine what else might have sounded like them. Chaucer’s job of supervising the collection of wool duties in London would have given him an acute understanding of the importance of such revenues in funding armies and their siege engines, and how in turn warfare contested England’s access to the wool markets of continental Europe.

From his vantage point, the poet sees how wicker house is ‘full of things hurrying’, suggestive of rodents swarming around the Thames wharves and warehouses, and from it new sounds can be made out, not only ‘loud creakings’ but also voices:

[. . .] and it had as many entrances as there are leaves on the trees during the summer and on the roof could be seen many thousands of holes to let out the sound. And throughout the day and night these doors were left wide open; there was no porter to admit or bar the passage of conversation and there was no rest in that place nor any time at all when it was not brimful of news – news of wars, of peace, of marriages, of journeys, of delays, of death, of life, of love, of hate.

The eagle returns and lifts the poet inside the wickerwork so he can finally know what happens within the House of Fame.

But such a throng of people as I saw roaming about was never seen before, and never shall be; for certainly there cannot be this number on the whole Earth, not of all the creatures that Nature has ever formed; for I hardly had a foot’s breadth of space to stand up in, and every person that I saw was whispering secretly into his neighbour’s ear, or else spoke openly like this: ‘Don’t you know what has happened?’

All the truths and lies ever uttered exist in a state of competition within the House of Fame, before combining in synthesis and escaping to the wider world. It is a house in the sense that it is a single, unified structure, but in all other respects a metropolis: London as a combined rumour mill, information centre and war machine.

In recent years there’s been debate among scholars as to how London influences Chaucer’s works against earlier claims of its absence [6]. I hope I’ve shown how Chaucer’s own experiences of living in London, both in his lodgings above the Aldgate and at large, inform The House of Fame. But it also illustrates the primacy of the spoken word, of gossip, dispute and rumour as representing the essence of city life in medieval thought. This was a world in which the social metaphors of eavesdropping and being close to or distant from others were much more strongly grounded than today in the physical realities of proximity and being within earshot.

In attempts to study and even simulate the sounds of the past a distinction can be made between what I call the easy and the hard problem of sound history. The easy problem involves the realm of artifacts and animals: the acoustics of buildings, musical instruments and machinery, the layout of the streets, the presence and numbers of livestock. Many such issues can be abstracted away from their social context. But the hard problem is always a social one because it asks who was saying what to whom.

1. Flannery, M. (2012). John Lydgate and the Poetics of Fame, Boydell & Brewer.
2. Plucknett, T. (1956). A Concise History of the Common Law, Little, Brown and Co.
3. Benson, L., Pratt, R., & Robinson, F. (1986). The Riverside Chaucer, Houghton Mifflin.
4. Brewer, D. (1978). Chaucer and His World, Eyre Methuen.
5. Saul, N. (2008). Fourteenth Century England: Volume 5, Boydell Press.
6. Butterfield, A. (ed) (2006). Chaucer and the City, DS Brewer.

07 July 2015

Website spring-cleaning

YOU’RE SUPPOSED to redecorate your home every five years, according to popular wisdom which probably emanates from Dulux’s marketing department. Websites, however, do indeed show their age quickly.

I mourn the end of simpler times when anyone could put up a site about UFOs from Antarctica and, with a cheap program like HoTMetaL, stamp their personality on it by sticking pink text over an acid-green background. More grounded individuals could produce hobby websites rivalling those of big organisations in their design and functioning. That’s become harder to do for all kinds of reasons: commercialisation, mobile devices, the carousel of technical advances and user expectations.

That said, I was starting to get fed up with aspects of the London Sound Survey’s appearance and so have spent the past fortnight rejigging the dozens of templates which make up the site. The new look is slightly wider and hopefully less claustrophobic than before. Each page now has a more extensive range of navigation links and better access to the text-only versions for blind and visually-impaired visitors. An obsolete plugin has been stripped out of several sections, making audio playback more reliable.

Later this year I’ll be making a big change to the site’s content management system. In the long run this should pave the way for some new features.

02 June 2015

The White Lady of Camberwell and other London characters

MOST PEOPLE SIT on the port side of the top deck of a bus when they have the choice. That way you have a better view of the shop fronts and of pedestrians as they pass along the pavements below.

Sometime around the end of the 1990s I was on a number 45 (probably) from Blackfriars heading south down Camberwell Road. Something outside caught my attention; in fact, impossible not to notice. It was a woman dressed entirely in white, with a white face and white hair.

As she and the bus drew level I could see from the set of her features that she was a black woman who had applied some kind of heavy make-up all over her face. Her white hair looked matted as if a chalky paste had been painstakingly worked into it. Everyone on the port side of the top deck was looking at her. This was my only sighting of the White Lady of Camberwell.

The other day I came across a photograph of her on a Facebook local history group, but I’ve no idea where they got it from.

The White Lady of Camberwell


She’s hasn’t been seen for some years now. According to some posts on the East Dulwich Forum, her name was Alison, she had a gentle manner, spoke in a polite, child-like voice, and had been traumatised by some kind of serious assault. There’s a recording on the Survey of a preacher at Elephant and Castle who was known locally as the ‘Lady in White’ but they’re not the same person.

Memory plays tricks, especially when distinctive people and events are concerned, but it does seem that very visible eccentrics like the White Lady of Camberwell are becoming rarer in London. Here are some of the others I remember seeing about town.

THE TRAFFIC LIGHT TIMER

I saw him once during my late teens standing on King Street, Hammersmith in the small hours. He was a short man in late middle age, dressed in the shabbily respectable fashion which even then was a relic from earlier times. He held a clipboard in one hand and a pocket watch or stop watch in the other as he looked intently at a set of traffic lights. As the lights went through their colour changes he wrote something down on a piece of paper attached to the clipboard.

A few years ago there was a discussion about him on the Robert Elms Show on BBC Radio London. He’d been seen all over London. No-one knew his name but it was claimed that the Traffic Light Timer was a former civil servant who’d suffered a nervous breakdown.

WEST LONDON’S TRAMP WITH A CART

I first saw him shortly after I’d left school and got a job in an off licence in Turnham Green, west London. He was a tall, well-built black man, very raggedly dressed, who was walking slowly down the road. He pulled a small flat-bed cart behind him, like the sort used by railway porters. The cart was piled high with junk and a line of cars was being held up by him. Some beeped their horns but he paid them no attention.

The pop artist Peter Blake, who lived in Chiswick for a while, recalled the Tramp with a Cart in the course of TV interview, perhaps on Arena or something like that. Blake said the tramp would sometimes square up and adopt a boxing stance to those drivers who got out of their cars to berate him. The last time I saw him was in the back garden of a semi-derelict house near the Hogarth Roundabout. The fence had been smashed down so you could see him sitting in the garden beside a small bonfire he’d built. He seemed relaxed as he roasted something long and slick-looking on an improvised spit.

THE JOKE-TELLING BEGGAR OF CAMDEN

He was an old Irish beggar, short and slight of stature, who made money by accosting people in the Camden Town area and telling them jokes before asking for money. Night-times must have more lucrative for him as he worked the queues at venues like the Underworld and the Dublin Castle. I managed to record him in Camden during 2010 but I haven’t seen or heard of him since.

THE SHIRTLESS ITALIAN MAN

This is someone I’ve never come across but was told about recently by my friend Nick Hamilton. The Shirtless Italian Man has been seen in many different places around London for several years. He walks around briskly in a pair of Bermuda shorts, almost always bare-chested with no shirt or other top on. In the coldest weather he may wear a t-shirt but that’s it. He often carries a bulging shopping bag in each hand and has curly hair arranged in something like a mullet.

Public interest in such people is widespread and often sympathetic. Which London characters do you remember?

ADDITION: Thanks to @frozenreeds on Twitter, who found out the origins of the photograph of the White Lady of Camberwell above. It appeared on the Walworth Saint Peter blog in this post from 2014 and was taken by Lorraine Atkinson.

25 May 2015

The trouble with sound maps

A SOUND MAP nearly always consists of a Google Map on a webpage sprinkled with little placemarkers. The placemarkers are like a randomly-shuffled index and when you click on one, an audio player appears in a popup box. They have no preferred sequence, they usually aren’t sorted into categories and they are not reached through the unfolding of a taxonomic hierarchy. They’re just there, meaning a geographically accurate depiction of where the recordings were made to within a few tens of meters.

Sound maps are pretty useful in giving access to large numbers of recordings made over a wide area. With projects like Radio Aporee and Cities and Memory that area can extend to many countries. They’re also the obvious way to depict the dispersal patterns of sets of recordings where that’s of relevance to the recording agenda, as with the 12 Tones of London stats-driven project on this site.

However, if you think that sound maps are the final word in presenting recordings of places then take a look at Tapan Babbar’s new website Sounds of Mumbai. This includes a clickable sound map but, most of the time, it’s wisely consigned to the background. What makes Sounds of Mumbai stand out is its impressive use of photography. As each recording plays, a photograph of the place or event fills most of the screen and this makes all the difference.

Sounds of Mumbai website screenshot


A purist might claim that field recordings are best experienced while lying blindfolded in a flotation tank, but I found the only slightly distracting elements to be the jiggling levels meter wrapped around the central play button, and the forward and back buttons which wobble impatiently when the cursor hovers on top of them. Auditory attention seems to face competition from fast-moving images rather than static ones.

The site has only thirteen recordings and it’s most likely meant as a portfolio entry demonstrating Babbar’s skills as a web designer. But I was left feeling dissatisfied with parts of the London Sound Survey. Imagine how much better the Thames Estuary section would work if its recordings were heard in conjunction with full-screen photographs showing the marshlands and windy expanses of the Hoo Peninsula, or the low-tide prairies of mud and sand at Shoeburyness.

FROM SOUND MAPS TO SOUND GRAPHICS

For the past year and a half I’ve been trying to turn away from sound maps towards sound graphics. A sound graphic is defined here as a webpage main content block in which the positions of sound-playing elements or links are meaningful but do not show with any precision where the recordings were made, or else represent values unrelated to location.

One reason for this was the relative success of the Waterways diagram, which in turn hitches a free ride on Harry Beck’s schematic of London’s tube network. Other reasons are to do with what I see as the limitations of sound maps in general and how life can be more fun when you escape their confines.

First, sound maps hog a lot of page space while leaving little room for graphical ingenuity. This wouldn’t matter so much if Google’s street map layer was absorbing to look at – but it usually isn’t. In contrast, the alternative aerial photographic view can be endlessly fascinating, to the extent that site visitors may lose interest in listening to recordings altogether.

Second, a sound map immediately elevates a recording’s location to being its most salient feature. But this may not always be the most interesting or useful thing to know about the recording, and it may not be the most important source of difference among a set of recordings.

Third, the map layer imposes the need for audio placemarkers to be located precisely and for the spatial relations between them to be geometrically accurate. This obviously creates problems for recordings whose locations are only known vaguely or not at all, or else for a series of recordings made at different times in the same place. But it imposes other constraints which can be illustrated by returning to the example of Beck’s tube map.

Consider how much more convenient and attractive Beck’s design is compared to a geographically-accurate version. The difference isn’t simply about the design rules Beck imposed on himself, how the line orientations were limited to just four different angles, or how all the tube stations had to be equally spaced. It is that Beck’s map foremost embodies a series of propositions about the tube network rather than being an analogue of its geographical layout.

They’re things like It’s eight stops to Covent Garden or You have to change at Bank. Everyday navigation consists of more kinds of propositions: distances estimated as travel times, turn left when you reach the Dog & Duck, the quick route versus the scenic route, places best avoided. It seems unlikely that mental maps resemble the AA Guide or the London A-Z.

Sound graphics have the potential to tap into such forms of knowledge as well as depict different kinds of measurement, including categorical groupings, cyclical time, the ordinal levels of first, second, third and so on, log ratios, and simple counts. Here are the ones I’ve come up with since late 2013 with brief notes on how and why they were put together.

NOVEMBER 2013: RICHARD BEARD’S HACKNEY YEAR

Richard is a wildlife recordist who, in 2013, was living in the borough of Hackney. He’d been getting up early each morning for a year to make recordings from a fixed point overlooking his back garden. He very kindly offered to share them with this site so we settled on a selection of a hundred recordings spaced evenly throughout the year.

Screenshot of Richard Beard's Hackney Year webpage


The obvious answer was to structure the links to the sound files in calendar form, but this wasn’t doing much for the wow meter. Thinking about the mutability of time and distance yielded a better solution in the form of the solar year and the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The main graphic was made using a 30-day trial download of a 3D modelling program, and then overlaid with an HTML image map. Each blue Earth has a hotspot which, when clicked, loads an individual webpage with the appropriate sound file and its metadata into an iframe at the top of the graphic. Here’s the link to the Hackney Year.

This simple method is described at length in a blog post from 2011. It’s a handy technique when all the recordings for a particular project have been provided at the same time. However, additions involve making a new underlying graphic each time, uploading it, and amending the HTML code. This can become a chore so it’s not the best method for an open-ended project.

APRIL 2014: ANDRE’S LONDON

Early in 2014 the recordist Andre Louis and myself agreed to create a page for some of his work. Andre lives in west London and is blind. Blind people don’t have supersenses to compensate for the loss of sight, but they do pay more attention than most sighted people to what they can hear, smell and feel. I am always struck by the precision with which Andre listens. He will pick out sound details in the environment and infer meanings from them which I might simply not detect.

Knowing that this would be an open-ended project, and not being able to predict Andre’s future movements or preferences, meant that the sound graphic had to encompass the whole of London. Andre had written a short piece about why he records in London and what it means to him, so I rendered this as a block of Braille in the shape of the city. The individual Braille dots could act as placemarkers linked to the appropriate recordings. Here’s the link to Andre’s London.

Screenshot of Andre's London webpage


To avoid the hassle of changing both the graphic and the underlying HTML each time Andre added a new recording, each placemarker dot consists of a DIV element targeting an iframe at the top of the graphic. When a new recording is added to the site’s content management system, a new dot is created automatically and its position set using inline CSS with the left and top values taken from fields in the content management system entry. This is a lot quicker than updating an image map, although professional web designers will argue that inline CSS is a Bad Thing. They have some good reasons for doing so but, on the other hand, it works.

JUNE 2014: THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Being too old and too weird to get ahead at the British Library I decided to take voluntary redundancy. I’d been there for 15 years and felt contradictory emotions of disappointment and relief as the leaving date approached. A Library-related project would serve as a form of closure. I made a bunch of recordings around the building in public areas, inside the reading rooms and in staff-only nooks and corners. Colleagues came up with some useful suggestions of sounds worth capturing.

I originally thought of arranging the recordings on a geometrically-accurate diagram of the Library building, but then remembered how verisimilitude in art can be cheesy, just like those ultrarealistic airbrush paintings from the 1980s of nubile female robots holding cocktails. Better to represent it in a stylised way which would draw more on an idea of working there, as well as exploring the vertical dimension in sound. This had interested me for a while, particularly in the ways that large buildings tend to reproduce a class structure based on elevation.

The proles often labour in basements or at ground level, where post rooms and delivery bays have to be situated, while senior executives bag themselves offices with impressive views on the higher floors. It’s not quite that straightforward at the Library, but there are big differences in sound and appearance between the Library above ground and its huge basements. Here’s the link to the British Library sound graphic page.

Screenshot of the British Library sound graphic webpage


Using CSS relative and absolute positioning makes it easy to assemble all the individual elements. The graphic has audio players directly embedded within it, rather than using links and an iframe, and the one I used was the HTML5-based Pickle Player. (This has recently superseded by an update in the same firm’s Wimpy Player.) It costs money but it’s a one-off payment and there are several reasons why it’s worth the cash. It’s easy to install, a content management system can spawn endless different instances of the player as required, and it’s completely skinnable. You can only use one player skin per webpage, but making the skin mostly transparent allows variety with background images in container DIVs.

FEBRUARY 2015: LONDON UNSEEN

Thinking about how Andre and other blind people must rely strongly on sound to help build their knowledge of places, I thought it would be an idea to make some sound graphics with almost no useful geographical information. You’d have to listen to guess where you were. The array below presents 36 recordings made in a grid pattern. The distances between them are given as walking times in minutes, and each recording was made while facing north, the aim being to help the listener orient themselves. Here’s the link to the London Unseen page.

Screenshot of London Unseen webpage


CSS relative and absolute positioning again plonk player instances in the right spots. Also, it’d make a nice tea towel.

APRIL-MAY 2015: EDGELANDS

I’ve always loved visiting the kind of semi-derelict and apparently unclaimed areas which exist around the edge of the city. Knowing how they’re impermanent and that, somewhere, a developer wants to ‘realise the vision’ of turning an expanse of rough ground into a theme park, can add a pre-emptively elegaic sense to such explorations. The aim was to make collages of sound recordings and pictures along with fragments of maps, with the latter being presented in ways that would render them fairly useless as detailed navigational aids.

Four different areas now have their own sound graphics and they present a record of experiences, including the act of looking at paper maps and having to refresh one’s visual memory by doing so repeatedly, rather than definitive accounts of those places. Here’s the link to the Edgelands section.

Screenshot of an Edgelands webpage


CSS transforms make possible the slow fading of one image into another, with different time values set for each image pair.

These examples show, I hope, some of the potential in thinking in terms of sound graphics. It’s another approach to consider alongside all kinds of possibilities for organising and presenting sound recordings on webpages, not least simply writing well about them.

I’m never satisfied for long, and beyond the fun had mucking about and experimenting with these graphics, there remains the sense that something more is needed.

The fundamental issue in recording is the relationship between the recordist and their subject. When that changes, everything else follows.

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.

08 February 2015

Arthur Machen: the sounds from beyond the veil

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.

Arthur Machen


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:

Still, she felt it was no good bothering her head over what couldn’t be made out or explained anyway, and she was just settling down, when one Sunday evening it began all over again, and worse things happened. The whistling followed them just as it did before, and poor aunt set her teeth and said nothing to uncle, as she knew he would only tell her stories, and they were walking on, not saying a word, when something made her look back, and there was a horrible boy with red hair, peeping through the hedge just behind, and grinning. She said it was a dreadful face, with something unnatural about it, as if it had been a dwarf, and before she had time to have a good look, it popped back like lightning, and aunt all but fainted away.

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:

I shrieked with terror, and Professor Gregg came running; and as I pointed to Cradock, the boy with one convulsive shudder fell face forward, and lay on the wet earth, his body writhing like a wounded blind-worm, and an inconceivable babble of sounds bursting and rattling and hissing from his lips; he seemed to pour forth an infamous jargon, with words, or what seemed words, that might have belonged to a tongue dead since untold ages, and buried deep beneath Nilotic mud, or in the inmost recesses of the Mexican forest.

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:

He remembered one night at home when such a sound had roused him suddenly from a deep sweet sleep. There was a rushing and beating as of wings upon the air, and a heavy dreary noise, like thunder far away upon the mountain. He had got out of bed and looked from behind the blind to see what was abroad. He remembered the strange sight he had seen, and he pretended it would be just the same if he cared to look out now. There were clouds flying awfully from before the moon, and a pale light that made the familiar land look strange and terrible. The blast of wind came with a great shriek, and the trees tossed and bowed and quivered; the wood was scourged and horrible, and the night air was ghastly with a confused tumult, and voices as of a host.

The storm is violent and powerful enough to overwhelm the sounds of surburban life:

He leant back again, picturing the wet street without, the rain driving like fountain spray about the gas lamp, the shrilling of the wind on those waste places to the north. It was strange how in the brick and stucco desert where no trees were, he all the time imagined the noise of tossing boughs, the grinding of the boughs together. There was a great storm and tumult in this wilderness of London, and for the sound of the rain and the wind he could not hear the hum and jangle of the trams, and the jar and shriek of the garden gates as they opened and shut.

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:

He looked out into the grey street, and it stood a symbol of his life, chill and dreary and grey and vexed with a horrible wind. There were the dull inhabitants of the quarter going about their common business; a man was crying “mackerel” in a doleful voice, slowly passing up the street, and staring into the white-curtained “parlors,” searching for the face of a purchaser behind the India-rubber plants, stuffed birds, and piles of gaudy gilt books that adorned the windows. One of the blistered doors over the way banged, and a woman came scurrying out on some errand, and the garden gate shrieked two melancholy notes as she opened it and let it swing back after her.

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:

Now, however, when the new year was beginning its dull days, he began to diverge occasionally to right and left, sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlors of eighteenth-century taverns, that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new “publics” on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind; sometimes there was a wooden fence by an old pear-orchard where he sat and gazed at the wet desolation of the market-gardens, munching a few currant biscuits by way of dinner.

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:

Booth's Poverty Map


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’:

He had passed through the clamorous and blatant crowd of the “high street,” where, as one climbed the hill, the shops seemed all aflame, and the black night air glowed with the flaring gas-jets and the naphtha-lamps, hissing and wavering before the February wind. Voices, raucous, clamant, abominable, were belched out of the blazing public-houses as the doors swung to and fro, and above these doors were hideous brassy lamps, very slowly swinging in a violent blast of air, so that they might have been infernal thuribles, censing the people. Some man was calling his wares in one long continuous shriek that never stopped or paused, and, as a respond, a deeper, louder voice roared to him from across the road. An Italian whirled the handle of his piano-organ in a fury, and a ring of imps danced mad figures around him, danced and flung up their legs till the rags dropped from some of them, and they still danced on. A flare of naphtha, burning with a rushing noise, threw a light on one point of the circle, and Lucian watched a lank girl of fifteen as she came round and round to the flash. She was quite drunk, and had kicked her petticoats away, and the crowd howled laughter and applause at her. Her black hair poured down and leapt on her scarlet bodice; she sprang and leapt round the ring, laughing in Bacchic frenzy, and led the orgy to triumph. People were crossing to and fro, jostling against each other, swarming about certain shops and stalls in a dense dark mass that quivered and sent out feelers as if it were one writhing organism. A little farther a group of young men, arm in arm, were marching down the roadway chanting some music-hall verse in full chorus, so that it sounded like plainsong. An impossible hubbub, a hum of voices angry as swarming bees, the squeals of five or six girls who ran in and out, and dived up dark passages and darted back into the crowd; all these mingled together till his ears quivered. A young fellow was playing the concertina, and he touched the keys with such slow fingers that the tune wailed solemn into a dirge; but there was nothing so strange as the burst of sound that swelled out when the public-house doors were opened.

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:

By degrees in the houses opposite one window after another leaped out a square of light, now and again a figure would shape itself against a blind and vanish, and to all this semi-theatrical magic the runs and flourishes of brave Italian opera played a little distance off on a piano-organ seemed an appropriate accompaniment, while the deep-muttered bass of the traffic of Holborn never ceased.

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:

And the carriages were of graceful form, and the servants of those days sometimes wore gorgeous liveries; and scores of those brilliant equipages followed on one another in an unending dazzling procession. That was the old way; now there are some “Snorting Billies” that choke and snarl and splutter as they dodge furtively and meanly in and out of the Park, like mechanical rabbits bolting for their burrows.

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.

29 January 2015

Vanished City: London's Lost Neighbourhoods by Tom Bolton

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:

Vanished City is at its most vivid when describing the individuals and communities who lived in these now-liminal places. We meet obscure figures like Thomas Venner, the leader of the Fifth Monarchists cult, and the mudlarks William Smith and Charles Eaton, who made cack-handed forgeries to be passed off as antiquities found at low tide, complete with spelling mistakes (both were illiterate). Somehow they escaped prosecution. Better-known names like Dan Leno, Alexander Pope and Joseph Grimaldi also appear and Bolton’s marshalling of information gives their lives precise geographical context. Bolton reserves short shrift for the writer Thomas Burke, sometimes needy and indiscriminately friendly in his other London writings, here nailed as ‘absurdly melodramatic’ in his accounts of the East End’s Chinese in Limehouse Nights.

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.

29 January 2015

Sound and Music's Creative Data Club

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.

11 January 2015

Out of town: Whittlesey Straw Bear festival

WHITTLESEY IS A small town in the drained flatlands of north Cambridgeshire, not far from Peterborough. Every year in January it hosts the Straw Bear Festival as the revival of an old custom in which a man is clad in straw and paraded around town, visiting every pub on the way.

The celebrations began this year on Friday the 9th of January and ended on the Sunday when the straw costume is set ablaze. To add to the Wicker Man feel, a band plays while this is going on, although there’s no king-for-a-day inside – just as well, as I was downwind of the smoke.

I took along my little Olympus LS-14 recorder as an afterthought and recorded the finale:


It was a blustery day and so, despite having a small furry whatsit covering the recorder’s protruding on-board mics, there’s a fair amount of wind rumble present.

As the man says at the end, Happy New Year everyone!

12 December 2014

The Bird Tree

EACH GROUND-FLOOR maisonette had a back garden with a brick wall round it and a back door. From the walkways and open stairwells you could see over the walls and speculate if the state of any garden matched what you knew about the people.

One was a mess and the family responsible were believed to be a bit simple. Another belonging to an elderly couple had a tiny lawn with two identical shrubs planted in exact spots on either side. The husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and told us in a tearful moment that his wife was a cold woman. But most of the gardens didn’t hint at any such secrets.

The one on the corner by the play area had a small tree growing perhaps ten feet high. What you could see above the wall from ground level was a ball-like mass of dense leaves resembling a bay tree. Most times of the year loud chirping came from an unseen mob of sparrows inside. Residents called it the Bird Tree.

The Bird Tree was not popular. The sparrows would make a racket from an early hour during the warmer months and sometimes people threw things at the tree to make them shut up. This only worked for a few minutes, then they’d all be at it again.

I’d been to a talk by the BBC nature recordist Chris Watson where he told those present how, as a youngster, he’d miked up the bird table in his parents’ back garden and from a distance recorded what went on.

Surely something like that could be done with the Bird Tree to put the listener among the sparrows. You could imagine them scuttling and hopping around the twigs like the powder monkeys inside a galleon, firing broadsides of chirps at human and feline enemies.

The Bird Tree was a soundmark, a portmanteau hatched by the Vancouver-based World Soundscape Project in the 1970s. They defined it as:

A term derived from ‘landmark’ used in soundscape studies to refer to a community sound which is unique, or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community. Soundmarks, therefore, are of cultural and historical significance and merit preservation and protection.

Many soundmarks that people notice in their immediate neighbourhoods probably aren’t of much cultural or historical significance at all: a phone junction box that makes a rattling noise, a squealing metal gate, the barking dog in a scrap yard. That doesn’t mean it’s not a useful term.

Vague plans to run a mic up inside the Bird Tree came to nothing and its owners eventually cut it down. Either they too had become tired of the sparrows or else were fed up with clearing away all the objects thrown at the tree.

09 December 2014

Down with noise: first impressions of Sennheiser MKH 8020 mics

DURING THE SUMMER I blew . . . I mean, wisely invested a pile of money in a pair of Sennheiser MKH 8020 mics. They’re low-noise (10dBA), high-quality mics and at just three inches long are ideal for headworn use as well placing on each side of a homemade acoustic baffle like the Block.

The DPA 2006C mics I’d been using proved too noisy, even at 16dBA, for very quiet environments such as moorland, marshland, and the insides of buildings when not a lot’s going on.

Scholarly discussions on forums such as Gearslutz concluded that the MKH 8020s are equalised for the free sound field, meaning a hypothetical environment where there’s no sound reflection, but which I understood to approach something like ‘outdoors’, especially those challenging moors and marshes.

The mics are also known to be resilient to humidity and that’s possibly why they’re favoured by some nature recordists, for example the Australian Vicki Powys, and recordings like this one of a thunderstorm in New South Wales helped swing it:


Coldhams Common is a flat expanse in Cambridge consisting of sports pitches and rough patches of grassland. It’s bounded by busy roads on two sides, a railway line to the west and housing to the north. Cambridge’s diminutive airport is to the north-east. This morning I went to the Common and set up the Block baffle with the 8020s clamped to it, each one inside a mic foam and Rycote furry windjammer. Here’s a panoramic view of the recording spot with the middle facing east:

Panoramic view of Coldhams Common, Cambridge


The recording is pretty mundane stuff and no roll-off or other equalising has been applied:

 


The compression used by Soundcloud’s streaming format reduces the dynamic range of what you can hear. With the original 24-bit, 96kHz WAV file the relative loudness of the rumbling traffic is striking. This, of course, is often the case with recordings made using omnidirectional mics. Perhaps it’s also to do with hearing such sounds outside their original context. When we’re in situ our brains may screen out much of the intensity of traffic noise because we’ve become so habituated to it. But the MKH 8020s do seem to have a very powerful low end. There’s some nice detail with the fainter, higher-frequency sounds.

If the mics are equalised for the free field, how might they get on in a diffuse field full of reflecting surfaces? Someone told me that the reverberation times inside Earls Court Exhibition Centre are so long that you can still hear Bob Monkhouse’s voice if you listen carefully enough.

This time the MKH 8020s went on each side of the Block using a stereo bar, the mic clamps that were supplied with them, and a couple of wooden risers made from dowling:

Composite picture showing Sennheiser MKH 8020 mics in use inside Earls Court Exhibition Centre


This recording was made early in the day and you can hear a few different activities going on in the main hall, as well as tube trains passing below the Exhibition Centre:

 


I’m quite happy with that. As with the Coldhams Common recording, the mics could maybe do with being moved forward an inch or two relative to the Block to avoid the sense of something lacking in the middle. But the mics have plenty of oomph and wonderful detail with no really noticeable noise. So far so good.

The question remains as to whether it’s worth spending all that money just to save 6dB of noise over the DPA 2006Cs, which are otherwise very good mics. Perhaps the overall gain should be set lower to begin with and then the mic noise won’t be noticeable. Or, perhaps listeners should be trusted to show some tolerance for a certain (i.e. unknown) level of hissy broadband noise.

The matter of gain or volume levels I first heard raised by the recordist Jez riley French at a talk in Soho a couple of years ago. He made the point that fledgling recordists often produce work where the levels are too high, rather than expecting listeners to adapt to lower volumes. This is a mistake I make from time to time and it’s a good principle to be reminded of: let quiet sounds be quiet.

However, when you disseminate work via the internet the listener has instant control over volume levels, and I bet no other playback context encourages restless fiddling as much as surfing the web does. If something sounds too quiet, even momentarily, the listener can compensate for that with the slightest effort.

Broadband noise is similar to something many older listeners (including me) grew up with: analogue tape hiss. We might tolerate it, although few are probably nostalgic for it. Meanwhile, an ever-growing cohort of listeners have had their expectations raised by digital recording methods.

The relict formats which intrigue them have lower signal-to-noise ratios than modern technology but they also produce warm-sounding forms of distortion which have become signifiers of authenticity or, as with radio futz, immediacy. Broadband noise doesn’t convey either of those qualities and for that reason I prefer to reduce it where I can.

05 December 2014

The Block: making a simple stereo baffle

OVER THE PAST few months I’ve been doing up my flat prior to moving. I don’t really have any great insights to share from that time except: you can do almost anything with bonding plaster (a huge bag of which is only a fiver), everyone should own an SDS+ drill, and those rated tradesmen-type websites are rubbish.

The DIY mindset is contagious and quickly spreads to unrelated tasks, so I took some time out to make a stereo baffle. The idea of a baffle is to help create a convincing stereo image by sticking a sound-absorbing barrier between two mics, typically ones with an omnidirectional pattern. The first person to do this was Alan Blumlein in 1931, and you can read more about him and stereo images in general on this blog post from 2012.

The established design for stereo baffles nowadays is called a Jecklin Disc after its inventor Jürg Jecklin. In its most recent specification, the Disc must be 35cm in diameter and made from a wooden or other solid core, covered on both sides with a sound-absorbent material, typically closed-cell foam. The mics are then positioned on either side of the Disc so there’s a gap of 36cm between them. At least one firm sells Jecklin Discs online but most people seem to make their own. Here’s a photo from the SEA Nature Sound Workshop of Mike Wall demonstrating his own set-up, reproduced here from Flickr under the terms of its Creative Commons licence:

Mike Wall demonstrates his Jecklin Disc setup at the 2013 SEA Nature Sound Workshop


Mike’s Disc array looks to be smaller than the standard spec and the use of two Rycote windshields is a good move for outdoor work. However, I wanted to make something a bit different and began by sawing a £3 wooden chopping board to make a 25cm square:

Sawing a wooden chopping board to make the core of an acoustic baffle


Then I paid Pentonville Rubber to cut me some closed-cell foam tiles to the same dimensions so I could glue layers of them onto the sides of the wooden board, making a block some 17cm thick, roughly the width of a human head. I screwed a camera sliding clamp onto one side and the Block was ready to go.

The Block acoustic baffle in use outdoors


The Block’s sliding clamp means it can be fitted onto the tripod in a few seconds. A photographer’s stone bag fits onto the tripod’s legs and holds the Sound Devices MixPre-D preamp and whatever pocket-sized recorder I’ve got that still works.

You can see that the Block holds the headworn setup I’ve been using since I began compiling the Waterways sound map. This simply consists of a Beyerdynamic headband with two mics attached using plumber’s jubilee clips. A foam and a furry windshield then go on top of each mic.

This way I can use the mics in headworn mode or, if I want to make a longer recording, I can put them on the Block instead. One of the drawbacks of wearing mics on your head is that they’ll pick up any sound you make: breathing, stomach rumbles, and so on. It becomes hard work after about four or five minutes and having drool coming out of your mouth because you daren’t swallow isn’t a good look. Especially if you’re a bloke. And you’re recording in a park. By yourself.

Fortunately, the Block is there to save you from such embarrassment. Also, it lets you monitor what you’re recording over headphones, which you can’t do when you’ve got a mic in its furry pelt covering each ear. I’m not one for monitoring my recordings much, preferring to get home and listen to what’s in the box, but that’s because I’m an amateur.

Talking of parks, here’s a test recording I made using the Block with two DPA 2006C mics in my then-local neighbourhood green space:

 


I think it sounds alright – pretty much the same as having the mics worn on the head.

 

04 December 2014

Thanks to everyone at the Marlborough and the Social

LAST MONTH I did a couple more play-and-tell evenings under the banner ‘London’s Lost Worlds of Sound’: one at the Marlborough in Brighton and the other at The Social in London’s West End.

It’s always very encouraging to know I’m not the only person who gets excited about old field recordings, so many thanks indeed to everyone who came along. As has now become custom, I took a picture of the audience at the end of each show. Here’s the Brighton contingent:

Audience at the Marlborough pub and theatre in Brighton


. . . and some old and new faces at The Social:

Audience at The Social bar in London


Special thanks to Sarah Angliss for organising things in Brighton and to Carl Gosling of The Social.

I love talking on the subject of old recordings but it’s particularly rewarding getting to talk with people in the audience. Among other things, I learned that scaffolders used to have the habit of quickly warming up scaffolding poles with blowtorches, and this caused the poles to make a hollow droning sound.

If you’d like me to give a talk where you work, study or socialise, then it’d be good to hear from you. Drop me a line through this site’s contact page.

11 August 2014

The London Sound Survey as a full-time concern

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.

 

21 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.

24 April 2014

Up with the lark: soundCamp in Rotherhithe, May 3–4

SUNDAY AFTER NEXT, the 4th of May, is International Dawn Chorus Day. This started out at a Birmingham nature reserve in 1984 and it’s grown in scope ever since.

Londoners can get involved too, thanks to an ambitious and exciting project that weekend called soundCamp, run by Grant Smith with the help of Maria Papadomanolaki and the Stave Hill Ecological Park in Rotherhithe. It bills itself as a listening event but this errs on the side of modesty.

Included will be live streaming radio broadcasts, listening walks, workshops and panel discussions. The LSS’s very own wide-awake wildlife recordist Richard Beard will be there and I’m meant to be doing something too.

Stave Hill is an artificial hill built in 1985 from excavated earth and rubble and it’s in the exact middle of the map below:


The hill provides good views from the top and it’s the kind of vantage point which people are naturally drawn to when marking important calendar events. I remember a big crowd swarming up it to see the solar eclipse of 1999 and watch the edge of the moon’s shadow rush across London. Here’s a picture of Stave Hill thanks to the Geograph project:

Photograph of Stave Hill


The ‘camp’ part of soundCamp means exactly that: people will be camping overnight on Stave Hill to catch the sunrise at 5.27 on Sunday morning. If you don’t fancy spending the night under canvas then you’ll need to plan your transport options carefully. The nearest Overground stations are Surrey Quays and Rotherhithe, but the trains don’t start running until around 6.45am on Sundays. The N1 night bus runs from central London to Surrey Quays.

SoundCamp looks to be one of the most imaginative sound-related projects in London this year, and it’s great to see such a strong emphasis on participation. Get involved and hope to meet you there.

12 March 2014

Coming this April: Field Studies 2014

FIELD RECORDING, UNLIKE photography, tends to be a solitary habit. This is necessarily so, since you wouldn’t want to inflict the demands to move and breathe quietly or maintain a monkish silence on your friends for very long.

But there’s no reason why learning about field recording shouldn’t be a social activity. Being an auto-didact all the time has its drawbacks and, besides, it’s just enjoyable to meet people who share the same interest.

A good opportunity to learn from and meet your fellow field recording and sound art practitioners is due this April. Field Studies is a workshop-based course being run by Joseph Kohlmaier of Musarc, an interdiscplinary research unit at London Metropolitan University.

The course is now in its fifth year and past tutors have included the likes of Christina Kubisch, Brandon LaBelle, Lee Patterson, Marc Behrens and Helen Frosi. All have made significant contributions in their own areas and know what they’re talking about.

This year, classes, talks and workshops will be given by Sam Auinger, Claudia Molitor, Akio Suzuki, Melanie Pappenheim and others, with David Toop (below) giving the keynote speech.

David Toop


The course runs from the 14th to the 17th of April at the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design in Whitechapel High Street. The cost for non-students is £350, which compares pretty well with immersive courses in other disciplines.

Full details. including how to book yourself a place, are on the Field Studies website.

29 January 2014

Hello and welcome to Mail Online readers

THE EVER-POPULAR Waterways sound map has just got itself featured in the science section of the Daily Mail’s website.

If you’ve come here from the Daily Mail link, then hello and welcome. There’s two things I want to point out from the off: first, I run the London Sound Survey in my spare time. It’s got nothing to do with my day job. Second, I pay for it all out of my own pocket because it’s my hobby.

As a youth I was always stumped by the ‘What pastimes do you have?’ question on job application forms. Did going down the pub and listening to records count? Nowadays I’ve at least got that bit worked out.

The article gives a pretty good description of what the sound map is like. It took me just over a year to make all the recordings and it was time pleasantly spent. Hope you enjoy the results.

14 January 2014

Consuming Sounds: a shopping centre odyssey this February with Points of Listening

SALOME VOEGELIN AND Mark Peter Wright are two well-respected sound artists and researchers based at CRiSAP in the London College of Communication. They’re responsible for an exciting new series of talks, workshops and other activities under the title Points of Listening.

It was a real pleasure to be asked to run the second session on Wednesday the 12th of February at 3.30pm. It’ll be a public event to which everyone’s welcome. Keep an eye on the Points of Listening blog for for full details of venue location, times and how to book your place. You can also keep up to speed with what’s happening via Facebook.

I’ve decided to focus on the sounds of shopping centres. All right-thinking cultural commentators like to take an ostentatiously dim view of such places (there’s a good example of this in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital when he visits Bluewater in Kent) but it’s one that’s evidently not shared by the huge numbers of people attracted to them.

Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London

Shopping centres are among the most significant 21st-century urban gathering places. There are interesting contrasts to be heard between the latest ones which function as well-integrated top-down systems, and the older ones where the public are left more to their own devices.

Here’s the official blurb:

Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement was seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from a distance.

So wrote Charlotte Bronte after visiting the Great Exhibition of 1851. Today’s global exhibitions are the capital’s shopping malls, and the goal of managing public behaviour within them exists just as it did in Bronte’s time. How is such top-down control manifested through sound, and what can be heard when that management becomes less certain and less focused?

Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey will be leading a listening exploration of two very different locations: the Elephant and Castle shopping centre and Westfield Stratford City, with time en route and afterwards for discussion. Westfield Stratford City is London’s newest and largest shopping centre and it forms a major hub in a part of the city already well advanced in its redevelopment.

By contrast, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, built in 1965 and now scheduled for demolition, has taken on many unforeseen uses. These include becoming a de facto community centre for the Colombian diaspora, as well as the growth of a surrounding hinterland with its open-air market and the occasional unlicensed minicab office.

Participants are welcome to bring along discreet, pocket-sized recorders or binaural microphones. But thoughts and impressions jotted down with pencil and notebook will be just as valuable as recordings. Please also bring an Oyster Card topped up in advance to allow you to travel to Zone 3. Bulky, eye-catching equipment like DSLR cameras or microphones housed in blimp-style windshields should be left at home.

Suggested reading in advance: Anna Minton (2009), Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city.

Hope to you see there and then!

06 January 2014

Sensing Cities back on Resonance 104.4 FM from this Friday

LAST YEAR I met Maria Papadomanolaki for the first time in London. She’s a sound artist and researcher based at CRiSAP in the London College of Communication, and she was kind enough to interview me for her radio series Sensing Cities. A new set of broadcasts is due to begin this Friday on Resonance 104.4 FM and so I’m pleased to pass on this announcement from Maria.

Sensing Cities is a series of interviews curated by Maria Papadomanolaki and broadcast on London-based arts radio station Resonance FM 104.4. The show investigates the themes of urban exploration and narrative through the use of sound, writing and new media art.

It aims to create an initial understanding of the processes behind artists and specific projects and to raise questions about perceiving, creating and narrating place, be that fictional, real, internal or external. Sensing Cities brings together different creative approaches that engage with personal or collective memory and history, transience, listening, recording, sensing, voice, words, walking and locative art. Past interviewees include Viv Corringham, Daniela Cascella, Dan Scott, Iain Sinclair, Francesca Panetta, Tom Wolseley, Olivia Bellas, Joel Cahen and Ian Rawes.

A new cycle of interviews (episodes10–13) will begin on Friday, 10th of January, at 5:00 to 5:30pm on Resonance FM. The conversations expand the show’s focus on the urban by further exploring notions such as storytelling, contemplative listening, participatory and locative practices.

More information about the show as well as links to audio from past episodes can be found at sensingcities.wordpress.com.

03 January 2014

Sounds in poetry: 'Adlestrop' and 'Death of a Naturalist'

JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS I found a pile of books in the street, including a large volume of Samuel Johnson’s writings (a good find) and A.N. Wilson’s After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World.

Wilson says Edward Thomas’s 1914 poem Adlestrop is an attempt to fix in memory a fragment of pre-war England:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The presence of sound turns this from a slide into a loop to be played over and over, like in Malcom Le Grice’s 1970 short film, Berlin Horse:


What other poems use sound to help spin the memory loop? On Twitter, Craig Ennew recommended Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist:

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Many thanks for that example, Craig. Does anyone know of any others?

13 November 2013

Sound and the Law: Sounds you must and must not make

A POPULAR PIECE of wisdom for those being attacked or mugged is to shout Fire! instead of Help! That way more people are supposed to come out and look for what’s going on, although it’s maybe not such a good idea if someone’s pointing a gun at you.

Shouting Fire! in a crowded theatre is a different matter and in the US it’s become a metaphor evoking the act of inspiring unnecessary panic in general. The term arose from the judge’s summing-up of the case of Schenck v. United States 1919 in which leafleters who’d urged men to dodge the draft were prosecuted.

For a long time our own laws had little to say about false warning cries, despite the 1856 stampede at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall in which 15 people were killed. The Fire Services Act 1947 comes close in Section 31:

Any person who knowingly gives or causes to be given a false alarm of fire to any fire brigade shall be liable on summary conviction to [. . .] imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months.

Later, more stringent penalties were introduced under Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 for any fool communicating a bomb hoax.

Luckily the law places much more emphasis on what sounds you shouldn’t make rather than specifying those you should. This post digs around the statute books to find examples of both.

NUISANCE NOISES

Local laws hedging noisy activities, such as metal-working, to within daylight hours have existed since the Middle Ages. The setting-up of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 soon led to standardised definitions of noise nuisances which applied across England and Wales.

The amended Metropolitan Police Act 1839 describes these nuisances at length in Section 54:

Every person shall be liable to a penalty not more than [level 2 on the standard scale], who, within the limits of the metropolitan police district, shall in any thoroughfare or public place, commit any of the following offences; (that is to say,)

[. . .]

12. Every person who shall sell or distribute or offer for sale or distribution, or exhibit to public view, any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language to the annoyance of the inhabitants or passengers;

13. Every person who shall use any threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned;

14. Every person, who shall blow any horn or use any other noisy instrument, for the purpose of calling persons together, or of announcing any show or entertainment, or for the purpose of hawking, selling, distributing, or collecting any article whatsoever, or of obtaining money or alms;

15. Every person who shall wantonly discharge any fire-arm or throw or discharge any stone or other missile, to the damage or danger of any person, or make any bonfire, or throw or set fire to any firework;

16. Every person who shall wilfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant by pulling or ringing any door-bell or knocking at any door without lawful excuse, or who shall wilfully and unlawfully extinguish the light of any lamp;

And it shall be lawful for any constable belonging to the metropolitan police force to take into custody, without warrant, any person who shall commit any such offence within view of any such constable.

A near-identical list of misdemeanours appears in the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 applying to the rest of England and Wales. The Act is still in force and can be resorted to by local councils.

For decades those Acts appeared sufficient to place some boundaries around the urge of every male urchin to turn their neighbourhood into a mini war-zone thanks to the magic of fireworks. The importation of powerful and excitingly unpredictable Chinese fireworks starting from around the late 1980s led to the Fireworks Regulations 2004 which imposes limits on how loud fireworks can be:

1. No person shall supply, or offer or agree to supply, any category 3 firework which, when used, produces a maximum A-weighted impulse sound pressure level exceeding 120 decibels when measured in accordance with paragraph (2) below.

2. For the purposes of paragraph (1) above, the sound pressure level is to be measured –

a. at a horizontal distance of fifteen metres from the testing point at a height of one metre above the ground; and

b. using a sound measuring device which conforms to type 1 of BS EN 61672 with a free-field microphone.

Suspicions that law-makers are out to stop young people having fun arose the previous decade with the widely-mocked repetitive beats Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Somehow the Act avoids handling the word rave within inverted commas, much as you might imagine an elderly dowager would remove a dog turd from the croquet lawn with a pair of sugar-tongs, but the sense of a slight forensic pause before uttering the word still seems implicit:

63. Powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave.

1. This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose –

a. such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

b. “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.

Further satisfaction came a few years later for those who thought the era of raves and free festivals embodied the worst excesses of unbridled bacchanalia. Regulation 4 of The Stonehenge Regulations 1997 prohibited solstice-celebrating crusties and Druids from:

erecting or using within the site of the monument any apparatus for the transmission, reception, reproduction or amplification of sound, speech or images by electrical or other means unless the sound emitted is audible to the user only.

Several statutory instruments are available to local councils for the more mundane tasks of dealing with raucous and thoughtless residents. Section 77 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 defines when a burglar alarm starts being irritating rather than useful (20 minutes if sounding continuously), and lays down the conditions under which council officials can force their way into someone’s home to turn it off.

DAMAGING NOISES

The recognition that high levels of noise at work could pose real and cumulative dangers to people’s hearing came relatively late. The Factories Act 1937 lists numerous hazards from poorly-secured trapdoors to unacceptably high levels of humidity, but makes no mention of noise.

Much progress has been made since. Regulation 4 of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 tells employers to begin to take action if their workers are exposed to constant noise of 80dBA with peak levels of 135DbA. It imposes absolute limits of 87dBA and 140dBA respectively.

Concern with the harmful effects of loud and persistent noise has even been extended to farm animals. Schedule 3D of the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2002 gives protection to chickens, up to the point of their demise at least:

The sound level shall be minimised. Constant or sudden noise shall be avoided. Ventilation fans, feeding machinery or other equipment shall be constructed, placed, operated and maintained in such a way that they cause the least possible noise.

POWER TO THE PARKIES

The keepers of London’s Royal Parks had all the powers of police constables under the Parks Regulation Act 1872 until they were absorbed into the Metropolitan Police in 1974. Even so, they didn’t have quite the same scope of authority assumed by the Viz comic character the Parkie, who was only happy when doing things like putting up signs reading No ball games in the tennis courts.

Many parks regulations place limits on noise-making and give special attention to activities like busking and soapbox oratory. Royal Parks police can, under the the Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2012, prevent people from operating ‘amplified noise equipment’, which includes loudspeakers and megaphones.

With a bracing climate comes stern rules and, in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, you must obtain written permission before playing any kind of musical instrument or, bizarrely, making a sketch or painting. The Forestry Land Byelaws (Northern Ireland) 2013 forbid shouting, singing, and playing a musical instrument if someone deems it a nuisance.

As if sensing there’s some kind of competition going on, Section 9 of the London Cable Car Order 2012 gets in on the action by stipulating that:

(1) A person on the cable car system must not –

(a) sing; or

(b) use any instrument, article or equipment for the production or reproduction of sound,

to the annoyance of any person on the cable car system except with written permission from the operator or an authorised person.

SOUNDS THAT MUST BE MADE

Nearly all the sounds that the law says must be made refer to warnings to help prevent collisions and other accidents. Numerous railway orders applying to individual level crossings and light railways have much the same wording as Article 11 of the Level Crossing (Coldagh) Order (Northern Ireland) 1998:

An audible warning device shall be provided on or adjacent to each left hand side traffic light signal post on each approach to the crossing. Facilities shall be provided to reduce the sound output of these devices and any reduced sound output of these devices shall operate between 23.30 hours and 07.00 hours approximately.

Life gets more interesting at sea. The Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1989 require that a vessel of 12 metres or more in length carry a whistle and a bell. A vessel 100 metres or longer must carry a whistle, a bell and a gong – that’s almost a folk group.

But just because you’ve got a whistle to hand doesn’t mean you can sail aboard HMS Ramrod tooting it whenever you like. As Article 12 of the Dockyard Port of Plymouth Order 1999 states:

A whistle shall not be used within the limits of the Dockyard Port except –

(a) in accordance with the Rules contained in Schedule 2 to this Order;

(b) as a signal of distress;

(c) to prevent collision;

(d) in any condition affecting visibility;

(e) to test the whistle, provided that permission to do so has first been obtained from the Queen’s Harbour Master.

Shouting for help works on the assumption that you won’t have to do it for very long and someone’s near enough to hear, whether you use the fire ruse or not. In remote places shouting isn’t the best strategy because you’ll quickly become tired or, if you’ve fallen and injured yourself, you may not have the strength to begin with.

Wise hill-walkers and mountaineers carry whistles with them and the internationally-recognised distress signal is six short blasts in quick succession, repeated at one-minute intervals.

The serious business of rescuing people from accidents in mines has its own pattern of signals laid down in the Escape and Rescue from Mines Regulations 1995. One blast on a whistle or ‘other audible device’ means help wanted, two for halt, three for retire, four for advance, and five to call attention.

31 October 2013

Sound and the Law: What are the limits on recording?

EARLIER THIS MONTH, an official directive was issued covering the use of the internet and mobile phones in Tajikistan. It has the title Ethics Code for an e-Citizen and, among other things, seeks to dissuade citizens from talking loudly on mobile phones in public and from disseminating ‘unpleasant sounds and unprintable words’ via electronic means.

In the United Kingdom, a number of laws place specific limits on what sounds you can get away with making, and where and what you can record. Pragmatism mostly rules and thankfully there are as yet no uplifting goals like the ones in the Tajikistani directive, such as the hope that ‘positive thinking, positive communication, and positive action should prevail in virtual space’.

This blog post digs up some of the potential legal limits which field recordists might encounter. Those of us recording the sounds of urban environments in particular might run into problems similar to those besetting photographers, with overzealous officials and others claiming that recording in such-and-such place is illegal, that it infringes someone’s human rights, and so on.

There’s also the growing habit of bringing words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘security’ into play as an attempt at shut-up-and-do-as-you’re-told, but as we’ll see there are few situations in which such claims have any legal, let alone rational, substance.

WHERE YOU WILL GET INTO REAL TROUBLE FOR RECORDING

Criminal law in the United Kingdom places few explicit limits on recordists. One example of a very definite stricture is Section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which makes it illegal to:

use in court, or bring into court for use, any tape recorder or other instrument for recording sound, except with the leave of the court.

Under section 34C of the Prison Act 1952 you’re also in trouble if you’re one of those reprobates who:

takes a photograph, or makes a sound-recording, inside a prison, or transmits, or [who] causes to be transmitted, any image or any sound from inside a prison by electronic communications for simultaneous reception outside the prison.

The Act helpfully defines what a sound recording is:

“sound-recording” means a recording of sounds on any medium from which the sounds may by any means be reproduced.

Neither photographs nor, for obvious reasons, sound recordings are described as possible espionage activities in the Official Secrets Act 1911. Section 1 of the Act instead describes information-gathering for hostile ends such as making:

any sketch, plan, model, or note which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy; or [passing] any sketch, plan, model, article, or note, or other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.

Over the years a changing of list of ‘prohibited places’ has been developed in law from the terms of the Official Secrets Act where photography and, in later definitions, digital recording of all kinds could involve breaking the law.

For example, the Official Secrets (Prohibited Places) Order 1994 adds a number of nuclear installations, including Sellafield, Capenhurst and Harwell. Military bases are also off-limits. Schedule 17 of the Communications Act 2003 defines the premises of communications providers as prohibited places too:

For the purposes of the Official Secrets Act 1911 (c. 28), any electronic communications station or office belonging to, or occupied by, the provider of a public electronic communications service shall be a prohibited place.

WHERE PROPERTY OWNERS OR THEIR STAFF MAY OBJECT

More and more of what appear to be public spaces are, in fact, privately owned. Shopping centres, many newly-built squares and plazas, and that slender corridor of possession between the side of a building and the row of brass studs set into the pavement are all private property. Under civil law, property owners have the right to tell you to stop recording within their premises or on their land.

They can ask you to leave if you don’t comply too, but they can’t prevent you recording sounds emanating from within private premises if you’re standing outside in a public place. For a good overview of the legal ins and outs as they affect photographers, see this section on Mike Slocombe’s urban75 website.

By the same token, photographers should be able to take pictures of buildings so long as they’re standing on private land. In practice it doesn’t always work out this way, as a video from the London Street Photography Festival shows:


The impression you may get from the encounters in the video is of security staff who don’t know much about the law and who may be worried about losing their jobs if they’re not seen to be doing something. But there’s always the chance of someone who simply wants to assert themselves or alleviate the boredom of a long, uneventful shift.

What they can’t do at all is demand that you hand over your recorder or delete files from it. Even the police can only do the former, and the latter not at all. However annoyed you may feel, first make sure that you really are in the right and, second, don’t swear, whine, lose your cool, or start jabbing your finger at them. Life’s easier in the long run if you’re calm and polite while you stick to your guns.

HUMAN RIGHTS AND MINDING YOUR OWN BUSINESS

The law on privacy is rather vague, and much of what is set down applies not to individuals, but to organisations. For example, Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provides general protection for the privacy of an individual’s home and family life, and their personal correspondence, and this obviously extends to recording what people say among themselves.

In a similar spirit, the CCTV Code of Conduct (revised 2008) from the Information Commissioner’s Office recommends that operators generally shouldn’t record conversations:

CCTV must not be used to record conversations between members of the public as this is highly intrusive and unlikely to be justified. You should choose a system without this facility if possible. If your system comes equipped with a sound recording facility then you should turn this off or disable it in some other way. There are limited circumstances in which audio recording may be justified, subject to sufficient safeguards.

But both these aim to govern the behaviour of organisations towards individuals, not the behaviour of individuals themselves.  In 2008, the then Home Office minister Tony McNulty confirmed in response to photographers’ queries that:

There is no legal restriction on photography in public places, and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place.

If you’re a lone field recordist simply pursuing your hobby then you’d have to go to unusual and creepy lengths to fall foul of the law on privacy grounds. If a recordist persistently followed someone around to record everything they say, they could have an injunction brought against them on the grounds of harassment. This constitutes an outer limit to ‘no presumption of privacy’ and one which you’d hope no-one reading this intends pushing.

Otherwise what governs your behaviour will be a matter of personal belief, most likely an application of the Golden Rule to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. For example, I don’t home in on private conversations and record them at great length, whether it’s people on the bus or sitting outside a pub, and certainly would not allow through anything which might help a stranger identify them. It’s a different matter when someone’s broadcasting their voice loudly with the aim of being heard by people they don’t know, such as with soapbox speakers.

If you want to see an example of a position worked out with both moral and legal implications in mind, the BBC’s editorial guidelines on privacy are worth reading.

Lastly, an intricate set of rules in the Telecommunications Act 1984 applies to recording telephone conversations, both on the public network and on more limited systems such as a company’s internal phone lines. The general gist of this, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and related laws, is that it’s okay if you record a phone conversation you have with someone else, even without their consent, provided you don’t make the recording available to a third party. More extensive and detailed rules apply to organisations.

WHAT COPYRIGHT DOES AND DOES NOT APPLY TO

Despite the universality of copyright, many still have only a hazy idea of its scope. For example, I’ve come across people who believe that they can string two or three words together and then copyright that combination, as used in a company name or other venture. Not so.

Such flaky opportunism might extend to the belief that copyright automatically applies to utterances. Again, this isn’t correct. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 makes it clear that any kind of performance needs to be both original and established in a fixed medium before it can be copyrighted, for example by writing it down:

Copyright does not subsist in a literary, dramatic or musical work unless and until it is recorded, in writing or otherwise; and references in this Part to the time at which such a work is made are to the time at which it is so recorded. (Chapter 1, Section 3)

Field recordists have much more reason to be cautious around copyrighted music. Suppose you’re recording outdoors somewhere, and from a nearby house can be heard the muffled sounds of Cypress Hill’s Another Body Drops. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act allows some limited exceptions with copyrighted works in general, such as for news reportage and what’s termed incidental inclusion. But Section 31 of the Act underlines the stringency with which this applies to musical works in particular:

A musical work, words spoken or sung with music, or so much of a sound recording [F1or broadcast] as includes a musical work or such words, shall not be regarded as incidentally included in another work if it is deliberately included.

Proving whether an inclusion is truly incidental or not might seem too much trouble for a copyright holder, but bear in mind any legal action resulting will occur in the sphere of civil law, where the standards of proof needed by whoever’s bringing the action are lower than those needed in criminal law.

In practice, rights holders have enough on their plates with worries about counterfeiting and mass filesharing. It’s not so much that, in your two-minute recording of a residential street in Lower Sydenham, about 15 seconds of Cypress Hill can be discerned. It’s more what you intend to do with the recording. The worst that’s likely to happen if you’re simply making the recording freely available through your own blog is a snotty cease-and-desist message from a solicitor. Whether you then choose to obey its terms or reject them is up to you, but it’s a bad idea simply to ignore it.

If in doubt, get advice. Look for a legal practice with a focus on intellectual property and see if you can at least get a free half-hour consultation – many firms will offer that service.

27 September 2013

Permanent present

Burdett-Coutts memorial, Victoria Park, Hackney

 

25 September 2013

Some changing frequencies of sound-words across 200 years of English fiction

NOW’S A GREAT time to be alive if you love searching for patterns in data. One among many examples of this is the Google Ngram Viewer. It can hurry through a database of several million digitised books to generate a plot of how the popularity of a word or phrase changes over time.

Last year I wrote this post about sound descriptions in 19th-century newspapers, made possible by using the British Newspaper Archive. It was striking how the journalists of those times used a rich and wide vocabulary to describe sound, much more so than you’d come across in today’s newspapers.

To see whether this pattern is confirmed across English literature in general over the past two centuries, I drew up a list of a few dozen sound-related words and made Google ngram plots for them. At first it seemed to confirm those suspicions. Virtually all such words showed a marked decrease in frequency during the 20th century.

But this was partly an artefact of the database selected: British English. This includes non-fiction works, such as technical books and other pragmatic works. It’s possible that such books tend not to have many sensory descriptions and that their numbers have increased over time relative to fiction.

So, with the English fiction database selected instead, I made a quick survey of the fortunes of 45 sound-words. A more complex pattern emerges, with some words becoming more popular and others less. Of course, you could easily expand that list five-fold, spend a year investigating the contexts in which the words were used, and get yourself a Masters degree. But this is just a blog post.

SOUNDS OF THE MASSES

The words din, uproar, racket, clamour (plus the American clamor) and hubbub often apply to mass noise-making entities such as crowds, flocks and herds, or to collections of machinery, such as inside a factory. Din shows a slight decrease since the early 19th century, clamour and uproar decline markedly during the 20th century, hubbub shows a gentler decline, and racket enjoys a surge in popularity towards the middle of the 20th century before declining. There is a confounding factor with racket‘s other meaning as a criminal or shady enterprise, perhaps linked with Prohibition and illegal gambling.

Google ngram for din, uproar, racket, clamour, hubbub

WAR, INDUSTRY AND THE ECONOMY

Bang, boom, clatter, and clang generally suggest loud or short-lived percussive and explosive sounds. Rumble is more ambiguous and can apply across many domains: thunder, distant gunfire, squadrons of aircraft, traffic and so on. Unsurprisingly these all increase during the Industrial Revolution. Boom shows peaks towards the end and just after the First World War, and during the Second World War. It also has obvious other meanings connected with the economy and sales.

Google ngram for bang, boom, clatter, clang, rumble

FROM THE BIOLOGICAL TO THE MECHANICAL

Buzz, hum and honk originate as sounds usually made by people and animals but progressively apply to mechanical sounds. Honk, once the habit of geese, shows a marked increase in usage with the advent of the motor car. Whirr applies to fast-moving mechanisms and also has a visual aspect, suggesting something so rapid that it can’t be seen clearly. Rattle is confounded with the noun but also shows a decline from the early half of the 20th century, perhaps reflecting audible changes in how machines function and are put together.

Google ngram for rattle, whirr, buzz, hum, honk

SONOROUS METALLIC SOUNDS

Chime, tinkle, jingle and clink all increase in frequency over the last two centuries, with tinkle showing a later decline, perhaps because modern writers find it a little too pretty. Peal shows a dramatic slump in popularity, presumably matching the church’s loss of pre-eminence.

Google ngram for peal, chime, tinkle, jingle, clink

FEAR, ANGER AND ENTHUSIASM

Sound-words for unrestrained vocalisations have generally done well over time, although shout and roar have declined somewhat in popularity since the mid-20th century. Yell shows a peak during the Second World War, followed by a drop, and then a steady increase. This perhaps reflects a shift in the word’s popular usage from the context of conflict towards signifying exuberance. Scream‘s dramatic rise since about 1970 suggests a darker turn in fiction towards horror and individualised violence.

Google ngram for shout, yell, scream, shriek, roar

MISERY AND ECSTASY

Groan, moan and whine pick up in popularity towards the end of the 20th century, with the first two probably enjoying sexual connotations which they hadn’t had in earlier fiction. Wail has shown little overall change since the 1880s, and bawl is at its most popular during the early and mid-20th century.

Google ngram for groan, moan, wail, whine, bawl

VOICES OF ANIMALS AND MEN

One of the best ways for a sound-word associated with animals to thrive is to encompass some human sound or to expand to take in a mechanical sound, as with honk earlier or, too recent to show up in the results, tweet. Grunt, howl and bellow can apply both to human and animal vocalisations and so enjoy sustained popularity. So too does bleat, although this has always been less common throughout the last two centuries. Neigh, however, is something only horses do and predictably it has steadily declined along with the importance of horse-power in daily life.

Google ngram for howl, neigh, grunt, bellow, bleat

ONOMATOPOEIC WORDS FOR ANIMAL SOUNDS

What are generally thought of as onomatopoeic animal sound-words are in fact somewhat formalised and can vary considerably across languages. Pigs in the English-speaking world are said to go oink oink but their Japanese equivalents sound like boo boo. The pattern is one of general decline over the last century for woof and baa, although the latter shows a curious surge during the Second World War period – why might this be? Moo holds steady during most of the 20th century before a decline towards the end. Oink appears too rare to discern any meaningful trend, and miaow (and the American meow) is alone in becoming more popular, perhaps as cats become the pet of choice for urbanites living by themselves.

Google ngram for oink, woof, baa, moo, miaow

THE RISE OF RHYTHM

Variations in the frequency of melody and harmony track each other closely, suggesting that they’re often mentioned together in the same books. In the early 19th century, treble is more popular than bass but this reverses by the latter part of the century and the gap has grown wider ever since. The most striking feature of the ngram is the rise of rhythm to pre-eminence from the 1930s onwards, reflecting fundamental changes in the style of popular music.

Google ngram for rhythm, melody, bass, treble, harmony

 

16 September 2013

Ships' Opera at the Thames Festival

ONE OF THE measures of a successful artist these days is how good they are at logistics. This reflects a shift in emphasis from making beautiful objects to delivering clever or impressive projects.

Stop squeezing that tube of Payne’s Grey for a moment and wonder how you’d go about assembling a small flotilla of tugboats and lightships, then have them steam all the way from the mouth of the Thames estuary up to the Pool of London. When they arrive, they perform a 40-odd minute musical composition using their horns, bells and hooters.

Just in case a few trogolodytes still don’t notice there’s something unusual going on, you’ve arranged for HMS Belfast to fire blank rounds from its forward gun turret.

This was the spectacle laid on last Saturday as part of the Thames Festival. The performance was titled 1513: A Ships’ Opera and you can read more about it here. I recorded most of the show from the Thames path with a pair of Shure WL-183 mics stuck on my head and the results turned out okay. Here is an an eight-minute section:


I’m not entirely sure if that’s the best eight minutes or not but it is fairly representative. At times there seemed to be a faint similarity to some piece or other by the composer Jonathan Harvey, but mostly it was like a pastiche of the kind of serialist music which has never achieved popularity.

Not everyone’s attention was held for long and the majority of spectators stood still and listened for between five and ten minutes before getting itchy feet and drifting off. Play them something they know!

But others lapped it up. An American next to me cried out in delight This is crazy! while his son attended to his smartphone.

Like anyone frustrated by life, I claim the right to imagine a better alternative if only I ran things. For starters, the ships would have played recognisable tunes but badly in a deliberate way, like how the comedian Les Dawson used to play the piano:


The Ships’ Opera was good fun though. What lingered in the mind was a sense of grandeur from all the loud sounds echolocating the layout of the surrounding city.

16 September 2013

London Sound Survey recordings to be archived at the Museum of London

EARLIER THIS YEAR I approached the Museum of London in the hope that they’d be interested in archiving the London Sound Survey’s recordings.

Agreement on acquisitions isn’t always something that institutions can do straight away, and someone may have to make a case for it to a panel. Last Friday confirmation came from the Museum that they were willing to start archiving this site’s recordings.

They’ve made a start by gathering the metadata for the sound files. It’s early days yet, though, and I’ll have to meet them again to discuss and learn what the possibilities might be for how the recordings are used and how the public would get access to them.

07 September 2013

Quiet please #2: Peabody estate, Victoria

ABBEY ORCHARD ESTATE, owned by the Peabody Trust, is tucked away behind the Westminster Abbey end of Victoria Street. Like many Peabody estates in London, the flats are organised into blocks identified by letters: L block, M block and so on. The blocks are laid out on three sides surrounding a central courtyard which only pedestrians can get in and out of.

Until recently, the courtyard was surfaced with tarmac and, along with the lettered blocks, it has a tidy but spartan aspect faintly suggestive of a workhouse. Flowerbeds and raised patches of turf have now been added but this old sign remains attached to a wall:

Peabody Estate sign forbidding various noisy activities


The sign is probably of post-war vintage given its simple, plain appearance. The reference to roller skates doesn’t help much as their popularity in Britain goes back to Edwardian times. The sign assumes two concentric spheres of concern. First, the interests of adult residents in not having to hear the noisy games of children echoing in the courtyard. Second, the interests of all residents against bothersome outsiders.

The Abbey Orchard estate was built in the 1880s as part of a slum clearance drive to transform a district known as the Devil’s Acre. A mid-19th century account paints a glum picture of it:

It is in these narrow streets, and in these close and unsalubrious lanes, courts and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggles with filth and wretchedness, where vice reigns unchecked and in the atmosphere of which diseases are generated and diffused.

In contrast, the Peabody estates were intended as havens of modest respectability. Each estate had a resident superintendent to collect rent and enforce rules of conduct, and the first tenants had to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sign has to be read within that enduring context: itinerant traders and buskers were not the kind of people the Peabody Trust wanted hanging around their properties.

The flats themselves have small rooms by modern standards but they’re otherwise well laid-out and fairly easy to keep warm in winter due to their thick walls. On each landing there’s a rubbish chute, and the clanking of the chute flap being raised and the rattling of tins, bottles and other refuse as they tumble down into large paladin bins is a distinctive soundmark of the estate.

14 August 2013

Extra! Recordings of English newspaper sellers

ONE OF THE features of the Great Sonic Extinction is that the disappearance of a once-widespread sound may not be noticed much until some years later.

Sometimes the realisation comes from an exception that proves the rule, like the fee-charging cash machine in your local corner shop with its dial-up modem. The duty cycle of bleak tones as the modem seeks a connection reminds you how it was years since you heard that at home.

The cries of newspaper sellers were common signifiers of the bustle of urban life but they’ve declined greatly with the advent of free papers, among other factors. So I was very intrigued when Paul Byrne approached me at the Caught By The River stage in Oympic Park in July.

Paul told me he had a curious promotional flexi disc consisting of newspaper sellers’ cries and would I like to have it? The package arrived from him last Saturday. Inside was a poster folded into sixths. On one side was printed a collage of newspaper front pages, on the reverse some text including details of where and when the recordings were made. They’re nearly all from 1989 and feature field recordings of newspaper sellers from several English towns and cities.

There were two clear flexi discs bonded onto the poster. One of the discs has a playing time of over six minutes and below you can see it on the deck waiting to be digitised with the help of a CEDAR noise reduction system and the expert attention of sound engineer Nigel Bewley, to whom thanks is also due for the photos.

First newspaper seller flexi being played


There’s a particularly fine series of calls beginning around 5:18. They’re the epitome of a street seller’s cry, being forceful, resonant and hard to decipher. The second flexi is much shorter.

Second newspaper seller flexi being played


Many thanks indeed to Paul for donating this wonderful find to the London Sound Survey. In lieu of putting up all the recording location details, how many newspaper titles can you make out from the recordings and what are they?

11 August 2013

Quiet please #1: Lincoln's Inn

THE CITY OF London is usually thought of as a financial district but it also has a large legal enclave around and to the west of Ludgate Circus.

The Inns of Court and barristers’ chambers suggest continuity with the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, in architecture as much as the educational paths of many of their inhabitants. Perhaps the importance of precedent in law adds to a culturally conservative brake on the development of modern office blocks there.

Lincoln’s Inn is one of the most attractive parts of the legal City. Anyone can walk in during the daytime, although the surroundings may give you the impression that you’re only there on sufferance. On a wall is this sign warning potential noisemakers to behave themselves:

Photo of anti-noise notice on a wall in Lincoln's Inn, Holborn


This must be one of the most authoritative anti-noise notices around. Not only will you do as you’re told, but so will the porters and the police. I’m now keeping an eye out for other examples of similar signage around London. Any tip-offs will be very gratefully received.

19 July 2013

All systems go

SOME GOOD NEWS on the LP front. Me and Nick got the second batch of test pressings recently and they sounded just fine.

We’ve given the go-ahead for the initial run to be pressed and we may have them by late August. But expect the official release to be in September, as there’s no point in having it sooner while potential buyers might be away on holiday.

A whole bunch of site sections are under development in the background, online but not get-at-able until they’re ready. At the moment I’m beavering away on the pages for the demographic recordings project, now titled 12 Tones of London. The first batch of recordings for all twelve council wards is now complete.

Also rattling along the pipeline is the start of a new series of sounds and photos of some of London’s more grotty places to stay, plus a presentation of recordings made at, in and under Tower Bridge.

Media whore corner: I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by Clive Thompson of Wired magazine so there might be something on the London Sound Survey in their next issue.

18 June 2013

London Sound Survey LP progress report

NICK HAMILTON AND myself received a batch of six test pressings a couple of weeks ago for the forthcoming London Sound Survey vinyl LP, titled These Are The Good Times.

The quality wasn’t up to much with very noticeable clicks and pops all in the same places on every test pressing. The volume levels were also very low across all the tracks. We’re not exactly aiming for the ket-heads and nitrous oxide gulpers of the gabba squat-rave scene, but even so the listening experience was more like a seance. Was there anyone there? Hard to tell.

We’ve told Disc Manufacturing Services about these problems and are awaiting a new set of test pressings. I’ve seen proofs of the sleeve artwork and they look fine.

Quite a few people have now expressed an interest in the LP and want to know when they can get their hands on one. If all goes well, the release should be around late September. Thanks for your patience.

28 May 2013

What does London really sound like?

LAST YEAR THE musician David Byrne visited London and made some field recordings around town. Locations included Southwark cathedral, a street market and the Greenwich foot tunnel and a few other places besides.

Here’s a feature about his London recordings which includes a picture of him holding a shotgun mic. Plug the mic into something, David, it’s more popular! He’s quoted as saying:

I went out during the day and recorded sounds that I thought might be useful and evocative. It turned out that most of the sounds – even the church organ in Southwark Cathedral – seemed to converge around a common rhythm. It’s a bit too good to be true – that every large city should have its own rhythm, but here it is.

Byrne’s claim that London has a fundamental rhythm of 122.86 bpm could be generously described as a poetic truth. The most common rhythmical sound outdoors in the city is footsteps, the individual rate of which is usually between 80 and 100 steps a minute. But it doesn’t matter since we expect artists like him to be provocative and entertaining rather than spend years gathering data or testing hypotheses to destruction.

DEFINING A CITY’S SOUNDS

There’s an obvious appeal in hoping for some underlying theme among the confusion of countless urban auditory scenes. It’d certainly be nice to know immediately something of significance about what’s going on everywhere. On Des Coulam’s excellent Parisian field recording website Soundlandscapes there’s a similar thought expressed by the wildlife recordist Ludwig Koch:

There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris.

This must be true for some parts of Paris, but it also seems likely that there will be others which don’t sound very different to their equivalents in Lyon or Toulouse. If people’s voices are excluded, they may not be easily distinguished by ear from many cities throughout the industrialised world. Economic development tends to reduce the variety of public sound environments at the same time as it multiplies what you can choose to hear in private.

Let’s set aside the issue of comparisons and consider if it’s worth asking what the characteristic sound profile of a single city might be, a bit like how astronomers have tried to discover the average colour of the universe. This is the sort of question which journalists like to ask – so, what exactly is the sound of London? – and one which Byrne astutely foresaw.

Unfortunately, it’s also ill-posed. First, any measure along a single dimension, such as London’s average sound frequency being x-number of hertz, doesn’t contain much information of interest. What understanding could such a fact lead to? Second, differences in what’s sampled and how will produce wildly different results. You can’t record everything.

EVERYONE FORM INTO GROUPS

I think a better approach is to use sound as another way of knowing more about the nature of the city, rather than as an end in itself. Where and what to record is then guided by ideas and tentative predictions. Here’s the thinking behind a new project for the London Sound Survey website.

1. There is significant geographic and demographic variation across London. These differences exist at many scales, but the administrative level of council ward represents for the researcher a reasonable trade-off between precision, availability of data, and feasibility of sampling.

2. In public spaces such as streets, parks and elsewhere, council wards will sound different to each other according to the demographics of who lives in them and the geographic features of population density, housing type, or what proportion of a ward is taken up by features such as roads, housing and gardens.

3. There is enough structure in the geographic and demographic differences between council wards to allow them be organised into groups according to similarity.

4. Within each group, a single ward can be identified as the one which is the least dissimilar to all other group members and which can be treated as if it were the most representative. What’s heard in that canonical ward should predict what’s heard in the group’s other wards at a level significantly higher than chance.

The colourful map below shows what happens when you take 2011 Census data from over 40 topics for all London’s 620-odd council wards, and put them through a statistical sorting technique called cluster analysis.

London separated into 12 demographic clusters


Some market research companies compile consumer profile databases, like Experian’s Mosaic, which sort households into categories. You can buy the data in map form to find out the proportion of different household types by area. But it costs thousands of pounds to access what is, after all, the work of professional statisticians and market reseachers.

If you’re a modestly-paid but enthusiastic amateur like me, you can save money by trying to devise your own classification scheme with the help of 2011 Census data and a statistics program like NCSS 8. The Census topics chosen include the average age of each ward’s residents, the percentage of households not owning a car, the percentage of households in which English is the main language, unemployment rate, percentages for different occupational and ethnic groups, population density per hectare, and basic land use data.

A DISSIMILARITY SPACE ODYSSEY

The exact cluster analysis method used is called partitioning around medoids. A medoid can be thought of as the most typical or average member of a cluster and it’s a real datapoint too, in this case an identifiable council ward, rather than a statistical artifact like the fabled family with 2.4 children. Each medoid-ward on the map is marked with a little white spot. Recording efforts can then be focused on those places alone.

Imagine the cluster as a solar system in which dissimilarity rather than gravity is the governing force. For example, Twickenham Riverside ward in south-west London is the medoid for the bluey-green cluster which has most of its members in that part of town, along with some offshoots around Hampstead and elsewhere in north London. It’s the sun of that particular solar system.

Several other wards swarm close to it in dissimilarity space like the inner planets. Muswell Hill and Chiswick Riverside are two of them and they share the same shade to show how un-dissimilar they are to the medoid. Cluster members don’t have to be geographically close to one another, although it’s not surprising to look at the map and see how some clusters predominate in particular districts – birds of a feather.

A paler shade of blue-green shows that we’re now out among the gas giants of the cluster. East Sheen is an example, probably because that ward has a greater proportion of parkland among other factors. Richmond Riverside is yet paler, and statistically it’s further out again. A low population density may once more be decisive, but still there’s a tenuous demographic pull keeping it from escaping the bluey-green cluster altogether and into another, such as the yellow-green cluster covering much of Bromley and some other suburbs.

LONDON IN TWELVE PARTS

The analysis works out which wards belong together in their respective clusters by weighing up all the data fed in. But it can’t determine by itself what the overall number of clusters should be. That has to be set by the researcher and I’ve plumped for twelve. It’s another trade-off, this time between a realistic number of wards to record thoroughly and having enough clusters so that not too many unlikely candidates get shoehorned into them. It also helps not to exceed how many colours can be easily distinguished within a cluttered array.

Without going into detailed descriptions of each cluster, it’s encouraging to see at a glance how they make some sense if you’re familiar with London. There’s the light blue cluster tightly organised around the centres of cosmopolitan wealth in Kensington, Chelsea and Knightsbridge. Tower Hamlets, with its large Bangladeshi population, low average age and high proportion of council flats among its housing stock accounts for all but one of the magenta cluster (the outlier is St Pancras).

Visible too are the different kinds of suburb which most Londoners know exist: the orange ladder of poorer working-class wards climbing up the Lea Valley, the west and north-west London suburbs in red with their many economically middling-to-affluent Indian and other Asian households, the yellow and yellowy-green suburbs with their older, White British populations, differing from each other through class-related indicators like occupation type.

A few wards fit so weakly into their clusters that they’ve been given a dark grey colour, booted out and exiled to the equivalent of the comet-haunted mysteries of the Oort Cloud. Mark them well: Childs Hill, New Addington and the optimistically-named Heathrow Villages, among others. Such singular places now appear more interesting and perhaps worth visiting with the recorder.

The twelve wards which are most representative of their clusters, according to the data I’ve fed into the model, are: Queensbury (Brent), Bowes (Enfield), Lower Edmonton (Enfield), Hainault (Redbridge), Ickenham (Hillingdon), Twickenham Riverside (Richmond-upon-Thames), Highbury West (Islington), Abingdon (Kensington & Chelsea), Boleyn (Newham), Camberwell Green (Southwark), Cavendish (Hillingdon) and Mile End East (Tower Hamlets).

They’re where I’ll be recording much of the time from now on. Many issues arise from a study like this, which is what makes it an interesting prospect. But this post can end on the enigma of south London.

Slightly over a third of London’s wards are found south and east of the Thames, but only one canoncial ward crops up there: Camberwell Green. The expected number should be four. This could be a chance effect, but the odds of that hover close to the threshold of significance of one in twenty or less.

So, what might be different about south London and how far back in history must the explanation go?

18 May 2013

These Are The Good Times album cover

HERE’S A LOOK at the cover of the forthcoming London Sound Survey vinyl LP. Nick Hamilton of Vittelli Records and myself spent a Saturday afternoon on the Old Kent Road taking the pigeon photos.

I had to lie on the pavement with the camera while Nick stood guard and topped up the box from time to time with more fried chicken, which the pigeons couldn’t get enough of. I had been hoping to snap two or more of them doing a tug-of-war over a chicken bone, but you can’t have everything you want in this life.

London Sound Survey LP cover


The album is away being pressed right now on 180-gram vinyl, so it’ll feel as good and substantial to handle as its twenty-two tracks will be to listen to.

The reverse side of the cover looks like an old-school LP with a track listing and two short essays, one by me and the other by Ed Baxter, station manager of Resonance FM, who’s written his piece in a personal capacity.

So what’s ‘These Are The Good Times’ mean anyway? Is it supposed to be ironic or something? You’ll have to be patient and get your hands on a copy to find out. Release is due for the latter half of June.

27 April 2013

When sounds don't play on Safari

SEVERAL PEOPLE HAVE kindly written in recently to say they’ve had problems playing the recordings on this site. What they all have in common is that they’re using Macbooks and iPads running Safari, which is installed as the standard browser on those devices.

I don’t own any Apple products and this has hindered attempts to investigate what’s going on and why. A month or two ago there was another problem caused by a new version of the Flash player used by Google Chrome. Luckily that seems to have been self-corrected by a subsequent update.

But the Safari problem remains and it goes like this:

* Most of the sound files on this site are playable.

* Some are not. They tend to be larger files (usually above 4 MB) but not always. Other factors, such as bitrate and what software was used to encode them, don’t seem to make any difference.

* The aggravation occurs independently of the kind of HTML5 audio player used. I’ve tried Pickle Player, UbaPlayer, audio.js, and the unadorned HTML5 audio element.

* It also happens when using Safari for Windows, suggesting it’s the browser which is to blame, not the device. But Safari will be installed overwhelmingly on Apple products.

* It makes no difference whether the sound files are embedded in a webpage generated by the site’s content management system or in a simple, static HTML page written in Notepad.

* Sometimes it helps to refresh the page, at least on my friend Nick’s son’s iPad.

* I don’t know what else to do except hope that a future version of Safari works better.

It’s becoming more important to keep an eye on how well audio players work as mobile devices surge in popularity. Those with smallish collections of recordings might sensibly opt to set up a Soundcloud account and embed its players on their own blog or website, leaving the issues of device and browser compatibility to Soundcloud’s developers.

But if you want to keep the sound files on your own share of a server, then you could do worse than look at audio.js to begin with as it’s very easy to install.

04 April 2013

Street noise and the taming of Victorian London

WITH THE HELP of the Times Digital Archive it’s possible to gain a rough idea of how upper and middle-class reactions to street noise changed during the 19th century.

At the beginning of the century objections to street noise from Times editorials and letter-writers tend to be framed in moral terms. In the latter half of the century, the idea that noise has a special impact on intellectual labour becomes more commonly expressed. This may reflect a rise in a Galtonian form of class consciousness. That is, the belief that social stratification reflects differences in intellectual capacity and that civilised life depends on the most intelligent classes having full freedom of action.

The letters also reveal a great deal about the street sounds of everyday life in London, even when allowing for a degree of exaggeration on the part of their writers.

Attempts to control noise in London go back to local laws in the Middle Ages when clamorous trades involving metal-working were subject to curfews. Street vendors’ cries were often celebrated in poems as emblematic of the city’s commercial spirit, but Hogarth’s 1741 engraving The Enraged Musician shows them interfering with a specific line of work:

Hogarth's The Enraged Musician

One of the earliest complaints in the 19th century is about noise in theatres because too many lower-class people who don’t know how to behave are being let in. This letter is from the Times dated 6 October 1808:

It really grieves me to observe every body fretting at the stupidity of our dramatic exhibitions. Will you permit me to suggest a remedy, and assign a cause? It arises from what I will term the composition of the audience. Every man knows what are the ingredients; a pit, composed two-thirds of cooks and chambermaids, and the other third of their associates; a first row of boxes, principally of ladies, indulgent, and a little disposed to call in question the judgment of the author or audience [. . .] The quality becomes less and less brilliant as we ascend, till we arrive at the galleries; there, Mr. Editor, are the heaven or hell of every author!

The writer proposes an easy solution: stop selling cheap tickets, which in any event threaten to bankrupt the theatre. Blame is therefore split between the lower orders, whose behaviour is to be expected, and the theatre owners, who should know better. The theme of noisy theatres resurfaces in 1828 with a brief spate of correspondence on the subject and after then it largely disappears from the letters pages.

The blameworthiness of commercial interests is stated more clearly in a letter from ‘A Middlesex Magistate’ in November 1815 about noisy taverns:

The interest of the brewer and his adjunct spirit-dealers, is simply to get rid of the largest possible quantity of their beer and gin. [. . .] [this] is effected most successfully in a place adapted for low company, and no other. There the sot may swill liquors from morning to night, without other witnesses than his fellows; and noise and rioting provoke excessive drinking, and administer to the brewers’ gains, without impediment.

As the 19th century progressed and Britain escaped from the Malthusian trap with productivity surpassing population growth, London’s inhabitants multiplied six-fold. The sustained response by elites to what Thomas Carlyle called the threat of ‘swarmery’ and the disorder flowing from it was a full-on program of behaviour modification designed to domesticate the lower classes. The conclusion of Jerry White’s book London in the Nineteenth Century is that these efforts were largely successful on their own terms.

However, social engineering on that scale wasn’t conceivable to the Times editorial writer of 1817. In this extract, he describes two separate realms: the court of law, where noise can and should be suppressed, and the street outside, where it cannot and should not:

The trials of the riots were continued yesterday at the Old Bailey, and produced several convictions for larcenies. The process of the elder Watson took place last, under the Cutting and Maiming Act, who was very properly acquitted, and recommended to be so acquitted by the Counsel for the Crown, on account of the insufficiency of the evidence to prove the malicious disposition of the prisoner. Upon Watson’s acquittal, we learn that a loud expression of satisfaction burst forth from several persons in Court, which was severely and justly, as is usual in such cases, reprehended by Mr. Justice PARK. Surely the decorum and decencies of our Courts of Law, which are our strong refuge of liberty, should be observed, or else law and order had better be abolished by act of Parliament.

When the noise in Court had subsided, a fresh burst of huzzaing and clapping broke forther in the streets, as soon as the news of Watson’s acquittal was known; and here one might have more doubt about the learned Judge’s competence to interfere in a summary way: undoubtedly he would have a right to abate or remove a nuisance, or to suppress any obstruction whatever to the proceedings of the Court; but yet, to send a man to prison, without previous notice, for making a noise in the King’s highway, might appear to be a somewhat compendious exercise of law.

Greater efforts to control street noises were made later that year when church services were threatened by the blowing of coachmen’s horns:

Complaints having repeatedly been made to the Lord Mayor of the annoyance occasioned by the noise of the stage-coaches driving through the streets during divine service on Sundays, which was at times so great as to render it impossible for the officiating ministers in the different churches to make themselves heard, his Lordship issued strict orders that no coaches should ply within the city at certain hours, on pain of being fined for every such offence. This mandate, for a time, had the desired effect; but, after awhile, the practice was renewed; upon which the Clergymen of the different parishes wherein the nuisance was felt the most, made an application to the Bishop of London upon the subject, and the latter immediately wrote to the Lord Mayor requesting his farther interference. A number of coachmen were, in consequence, symmoned to appear at the Mansion-house; and the several complaints having been stated, the Lord Mayor reprimanded them severely for their improper conduct, and said he was deteremined that the well-disposed part of the inhabitants of the city of London should not be disturbed in their devotional duties by the noise and rattling of coaches.

But little was done about such nuisances when the rituals of worship were not directly affected. In 1819 ‘Castigator’ from Gloucester Place complained about ‘the perpetual clangor of the horns used by the drivers of the Paddington stages, in their passage through the New-road, to announce their departure for the city’. Even worse, the coachmen were ‘not content with blowing as they pass, they are pleased to wait for a full quarter of an hour at the ends of the contiguous streets in perpetual succession, there to play most stunning solos’.

The authorities could only do so much, and some noise complaints betray a sense of impotence in the extravagant remedies put forward. In 1825 a resident of Goswell Street was driven to a high level of fury by the noise and fecundity of stray dogs:

It is my lot, Sir, to live near a poor and crowded neighbourhood; and notwithstanding the miserable spectacle which every where presents itself, I am shocked in seeing it aggravated by the filth, noise and contagion of innumerable cur dogs . . . This ignorance of breed has filled our streets with hosts of ugly and useless curs, who remain in the undisturbed possession of their owners, not being worth stealing, propagating, to the great scandal of the ‘Society for the Suppression of Vice,’ their filthy species in the most indecent and unbounded manner in all our highways. I am inclined to think this carelessness of the owners, if not primary, has a strong tendency to hydrophobia, to say nothing of the infernal noise and filth of such vermin.

The writer goes on to suggest that parish relief be withdrawn from dog owners and that all strays be rounded up, killed and their hides turned into dog-leather, which apparently is the most waterproof of all.

The themes of public disorder and immorality were raised later in 1825 by ‘An Inhabitant of Islington’:

Permit me through the medium of your journal to notice, for the information of the Middlesex Magistrates, what is taking place once or twice a week at Highbury Barn Tavern, and which has become a most intolerable nuisance. On Monday week, a very numerous party was at the tavern, when from an early hour in the evening, and through the night, the most disgraceful scenes were there exhibited, (and in the public road) of intoxicated men (and even women) fighting and rioting to such an extent, as to render it impossible to walk near the place with respectable females; and last night the confusion, the whole afternoon and evening, was such as to render it unsafe for foot passengers. On passing the Barn at about half-past 11, in my way home, I saw at the door of the tavern near a dozen persons engaged in a general combat, knocking down indiscriminately whomsoever might be unfortunately near them. The noise accompanying this and other drunken affrays is beyond measure.

The most explicit connection between noisy disturbances and sin was drawn in 1828 by ‘An Old Under Sheriff’ outraged at the increasing scale of the entertainments laid on at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens:

In my letter inserted on the 9th of October last, I considered the moral nuisance of Vauxhall, under its present management, and observed that the noise of the exhibition of the battle of Waterloo could only be compared to the cannonading pf a town, and infinitely surpassed any inconvenience which has been felt from the fireworks; that this noise, protracted as it was to a very long period, conveyed through an extensive and thickly-populated district the exact effect of artillery and platton firing; and that while the industrious were this prevented from sleeping, the sick were more seriously distressed, and the dying forbidden the consolation of departing in peace. [. . .]

It is now understood that the battle of Waterloo is to be succeeded by the battle of Navarino, and of course that nocturnal disturbance of the ensuing season will in no way yield to that of the last, while the same disgusting orgies of lust and drunkenness which have long characterized this place within, and rendered it a terror to the neighbourhood without, will of course go on, to the utter scandal of our common Christianity.

This time the complaint was met with several unsympathetic rebuttals. One, pointedly signed ‘A Young Under Sheriff’, described it as ‘pious twaddle’. Not everyone disliked occasional loud noise.

Three years earlier, a letter even tried to recruit street noise into the service of morality. ‘F.C.’ condemned the habits of the ‘gaming gentry’ in the gambling dens of St James’s, urging that churchwardens be given the same powers to drive out their clients through public shaming as they were able to do with the ‘inmates of bad houses’. But there was a fall-back plan if the first one didn’t work.

I would recommend the churchwardens to get all the hurdy-gurdy men in the metropolis to go to each gaming-house, and cause them to play, alias, make as much noise as they could, as a means of annoyance, to disturb the gentry at their amusement.

I have heard of one Savoyard, who made a practice of going daily to King-street, St. James’s, where he stationed himself, and certainly did not spare either his lungs or his guitar. This had such an effect on the players, who had the distraction of play to contend with, that they rose in a body, and went from that house to another. The bankers were obliged to give the cunning Savoyard a quietes to induce him to desist. This quietus he daily receives, and he exacts from others large sums in the same way.

This indulgent attitude towards immigrant street musicians did not become the norm. A letter from June 1828 was among the first in the Times to identify street music as a growing problem.

As your columns are ever open for the statement of abuses, I beg to call your attention to the increasing number of itinerant musicians who infest the streets of the metropolis. Whether this evil be permitted by law or not, I will thank you or some of your numerous correspondents to inform the public; if it be not, why do the parish officers permit it to the excrutiating amount to which it has arrived at present, affording facilities (by the idle crowd that surrounds the performers) to pick-pockets, occasioning delay to all apothecaries’ boys and useful messengers, endangering equestrian passengers, tormenting all peaceable inhabitants, and annulling the privilege of every man’s house being his castle, for no garret or cellar can ensure him one moment’s tranquillity, ‘’from rise to set of sun’’ (ay later), from the all-pervading sounds of grinding organs, squeaking bag-pipes, hoarse clarinets, or worse than all, cracked parchment drums, announcing the performance of some monkies swinging upon slack ropes, white man dancing on his head, or black man balancing a tobacco pipe on his nose!

Immigration to London from continental Europe grew during the 19th century and the numbers of German street bands and Italian organ-grinders became a bellwether provoking well-publicised annoyance. A campaign against street music counted among its supporters Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, the mathematician Charles Babbage, and sections of the press. This eventually led to the passage of the Street Music (Metropolis) Act in 1864.

However, a flurry of letters in the summer of 1869 suggests that the thoroughness with which the law was applied depended on differences in tolerance on the part of individual policemen. This example filters its writer’s sense of exasperation through a languid humour:

I live in Lincoln’s-inn-fields, which ought at night to be one of the quietest places in London, for it consists almost entirely of offices which are deserted as soon as the work’s day is done. But there must be something about a quiet place which irresistibly tempts a certain class of people, perhaps by the suggestive force of contrast, to make a row, and there are sometimes more strange and horrible noises to be heard here in one hour than I at least ever heard in any other part of London in a week, except, perhaps, the Zoological Gardens [. . .] The place, however, is comparatively free from one terrible nuisance – few organ-grinders are, like Orpheus, so enamoured of their art as to play to an audience composed chiefly of stones, and I was considerably astonished to hear last night, between eleven and twelve o’clock, the unmistakable preliminary tune-up of a hurdy-gurdy. ‘‘M.D.‘s’’ bitter cry at once occurred to me. There, beyond all doubt, was one of the ‘‘abominable noises’ by night which he protests against, and, as I walked to the window, great was my amusement and edification to see that there, too, was his ‘‘tacit policeman’’ calmly surveying the scene, and apparently enjoying the contemplation of the organ-grinder’s malice or folly, and the probable sufferings of all sleeping mortals within ear-shot, with as lofty a relish as if he had been a god of Epicurus.

The tone adopted by ‘M.D.’ of Harley Street, writing a few days earlier, shows a greater strain on the nerves. Not only are the police failing to do their job properly, but the racket of night-time London has a particular impact on the intellectual class of professional men and decision-makers. M.D. sees that his interests and those of his class are identical.

The police should be made to keep our streets quiet during certain hours of the night. No attempt at this is made at present. The night policemen walk tacitly up and down, while every house in the street is being roused by the most abominable noises, without their making the slightest attempt at checking them. It might not unfairly be asked that people should have a chance of sleeping from 12 o’clock till 8; but in the name of all that is sane, let them have the possibility of sleeping from 2 o’clock till 8.

There is no such chance now. No one interferes to stop any amount of noise in the night and early morning. A party of cats may hold an uproarious concert in the middle of the road without even a ‘‘hiss’’ from the policeman to disperse them. Two ‘‘cabbies’’ may career down the opposite gutters, and hold a conversation across the road at the top of their voices. A train of scavengers’ carts may be driven down the streets, rumbling like thunder, while the driver in the last cart holloas his jokes to the man in the front. In some districts it is thought necessary to create the most infernal noise about 5 o’clock in the morning by setting a host of garrulous old men to scrape and stone the roads at that pleasant hour. On Sunday mornings the paper boys are allowed to bawl with all their might. At any hour of the night a fool in love with concertina may disturb a whole neighbourhood with the noise he pleases to think music; and no interruption is given to any number of drunken rollickers who choose to sing and holloa up and down our streets and squares.

I have said nothing of the early organ-grinders, collectors of hares’ and rabbits’ skins, sellers of watercresses, the inevitable dustman, the rows attendant upon balls and receptions, or a hundred other sleep preventers, too painfully familiar to those who turn in their beds between 12 and 3 o’clock in the morning, their brains fagged and excited by work – Parliamentary, scientific, judicial, professional, it matters not which, or even by those unavoidable and wearying pursuits of social life which we call ‘society’.

The identification of high social standing with intellectual excellence had been set forth earlier that year in Francis Galton’s influential book Hereditary Genius:

The general plan of my argument is to show that high reputation is a pretty accurate test of high ability; next to discuss the relationships of a large body of fairly eminent men – namely, the Judges of England from 1660 to 1868, the Statesmen of the time of George III, and the Premiers during the last 100 years – and to obtain from these a general survey of the laws of heredity in respect to genius. Then I shall examine, in order, the kindred of the most illustrious Commanders, men of Literature and of Science, Poets, Painters, and Musicians, of whom history speaks.

Another letter-writer from September 1869, signing himself ‘A Hater of Noise’, doesn’t identify himself with the governing class, and indeed may have been a clerk or accountant. But he perceives a gulf between himself and the itinerant traders who disturb him, suggesting that much of their noise has no purpose, which may well have been the case:

I live in what is called a quiet street. My occupation demands fixed and sometimes strained attention, and moderate quiet is almost a necessity. Yet the best hours of the day are invaded by the hideous bawling of hawkers of vegetables, fish, &c. From towards noon to the early afternoon, during which time, it is presumed, these animated nuisances are renovating themselces for fresh energies, the noises in a measure cease; then come the shrill voices, old and young, ragged and torn, with their walnuts, watercresses, &c., until such time as the clock gives warning to discontinue work for the day. I believe I am but stating the case of thousands who are similar sufferers to myself, to say nothing of sick persons, to whom these noises must be little less than agony.

As far as my own observation extends, this hawking is not demanded by the public. I have watched costermongers and other hawkers pass the length of whole streets without finding a single customer. That the trade is miserably bad is proved by their repassing the same street, a fact of which I am only too vividly cognizant.

I would, therefore, risking the displeasure of the kind-hearted who might want to know why people should be prevented getting an honest living, ask, through your columns, that something be done to protect those who get their living by, truly, the sweat of their brows from others who do so by the noise of their voices.

Towards the end of the century the forces of order had established a permanent and mostly constant control over street life in the central areas inhabited by London’s wealthiest citizens. Intrusive noises were increasingly described by Times letter-writers as arising from failures of organisation and technique rather than morality. One letter, dating from 1890, even argued for the return of the horns which had been vexatious several decades before:

May I suggest one desirable addition to the noises in London streets? Walking home after dark the other night, I head the sound of a horn announcing the approach of a four-horse coach, which was still some hundred yards distant. As I have no ear for music, I rather enjoyed a sound which suggests Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller. As I approached Kensington, I suddenly became aware of the approach of a ponderous vehicle emitting sparks and driving at reckless speed through a crowded thoroughfare. It had passed me in a second, gratifying me, I confess, by the momentary thrill of excitement and the vague suggestion of possible adventure and heroism. The only means by which notice was conveyed to the vehicles in danger of collision was the shouting of a fireman. When a man is hanging on to a machine going ten miles and hour, with the wind whistling down his open throat, he can hardly be a very efficient herald. In fact, I do not think that I heard the shout before I heard the rattle and saw the sparks. Now, I wish to ask whether our firemen could not be provided with some instrument, whistle or horn, which would be heard so far in advance as the bugle of the guard on the coach? It is more needed because the fire-engine has to go at greater speed, and is a greater source of danger in a crowded street. A distinctive signal of any kind would clear the way more quickly and certainly, and would surely be a great improvement upon the vague, unassisted yell.

Other debates revolved around the desirability of asphalt paving versus newer road surfaces such as hardwood blocks, or the need for Post Office coaches to have india-rubber tyres. In 1895, a letter addressed from a member of the Athenaeum Club framed the issue in almost domestic terms:

Your leader of to-day on the preventable noises of London, and the nuisance they often occasion to peaceful inhabitants, induces me to ask, through your columns, whether it would not be possible for the vendors of milk to accomplish their work in the small hours of the morning without disturbing the neighbourhood. At present the combined noises produced by the rattling of the cans and the shouts of the men in charge of them causes serious inconvenience to many, and to invalids must occasion positive torture. I would suggest, as a partial remedy for the nuisance referred to, that the bottoms of the cans should be encircled with india-rubber, which would at least deaden the sound caused by mutual contact.

With the triumph of order from above, it was now expected that the model of conduct within the homes of the wealthy could at last be laid out across the city’s streets.

22 March 2013

Here soon: the London Sound Survey vinyl LP

A VINYL LP featuring 25 recordings from the London Sound Survey’s virtual vaults is due to be released in the next few weeks. My friend Nick Hamilton has been the driving force behind this and it’ll be the first release on his new Vittelli label. The tracks are now being mastered by Graham Lambkin.

It’s good to have a fresh pair of ears review your own work and, to be honest, Nick’s done a better job of selecting and ordering the tracks than I would have. The album is provisionally titled To the future listener, greetings until something better comes up.

Records have played an important part in my life, both for work and pleasure, and I can’t tell you how exciting it feels knowing there’ll soon be one of my own material. Vinyl is now a niche market, but an enduring one.

Watch this space for more news.

12 March 2013

Crossing the Thames at Woolwich

SOME YEARS AGO there was meant to have been an attempt by an estate agent to rename Battersea as South Chelsea. People like that need strangling, but this is probably an apocryphal tale along the lines of Streatham being passed off as St Reatham. If it was true, it would be the second instance of a district with a single root name being split in two by the Thames. The other is Woolwich.

Woolwich proper lies south of the Thames and if you don’t live there you may nonetheless have visited because you had to collect a parcel from one of the area’s many industrial estates. North Woolwich is on the other side of the river and consists of housing and patches of ex-industrial land waiting to be redeveloped into ‘luxury flats’ or yet more glass office buildings.

Linking the two across the Thames is the Woolwich ferry and the Woolwich foot tunnel. The tunnel is 100 years old and just over 500 metres long. The lifts at each end don’t work but there are surprisingly few stairs leading down, so the tunnel must lie just under the riverbed.

Entrance to the Woolwich foot tunnel, north side


Few people seem to use it. The tunnel dips down on a gentle slope towards the middle before rising again, so you hear other pedestrians about a minute or two before you see them. Its isolation and gloomy appearance made me alert and a little wary.

Woolwich foot tunnel


A man walked past keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. I made this recording in what I guessed to be the tunnel’s mid-point:


The person approaching must have had a portable radio or else was playing music on a phone. The acoustics down there are tricky and I don’t consider this to be a particularly successful recording because it doesn’t sound like how I remember it.

Back above ground there was a queue of vehicles waiting to drive onto the Woolwich ferry. The ferry is free to use for both drivers and walkers. On board you can wander around the spartan lower deck or sit on hard wooden seats: survivors from the age of tea urns and enamelled tin mugs and do-as-you’re-told, like finding out that your old PE teacher is still alive.

The tone of the engines is unvarying and there’s almost no sense of being in motion. A safety announcement precedes each crossing:


The thought of What if? comes rarely but it’s as well to be reminded of the cold strength of the tidal river, once revered as creator and destroyer.

11 March 2013

Site update: Flash-only audio player for now

THE RECENT UPDATE to Flash player version 11.6.602.171 has clobbered this site’s HTML5/Flash hybrid audio players in Google Chrome. They just won’t work now and the company responsible for the software which builds them aren’t responding to support requests. Perhaps they’ve gone out of business.

This is a nuisance because various estimates of worldwide desktop browser usage put Chrome at number one. Therefore I’ve switched the players on the London Sound Survey back to their original Flash-only type. If you’re using any of the main browsers, you’ll be able to listen once more without difficulty.

It’s not so good for mobile devices. Neither iPads nor Android devices have native Flash support and, although there are ways round this, none of them seem straightforward. The best bet in the long term is to wait for Firefox to overcome its aversion to the MP3 format. It should be a lot easier to make custom audio players by styling the HTML5 audio element with jQuery and CSS without needing to integrate a Flash fallback player.

According to the Mozilla Developer Network, ‘Firefox will soon support the [MP3] format, but only when a third-party decoder is available.’

Better late than never.

11 February 2013

Sounds of disaster in peacetime London

AS SOCIETY BECOMES wealthier and better organised, so the sounds of the urban environment grow less varied and dramatic. This mostly reflects developments for which we ought to be grateful.

Town criers and many other kinds of public announcement were made all but redundant by the spread of literacy. Street lighting has lessened the difference in activity between day and night. Improvements in medicine and air quality have made much rarer the sort of coughing which Orwell described in the early 1930s:

The man in the corner had a coughing fit once in every twenty minutes, so regularly that one came to listen for it as one listens for the next yap when a dog is baying the moon. It was an unspeakably repellent sound; a foul bubbling and retching, as though the man’s bowels were being churned up within him.

The forces of order have also reduced the risk of such mishaps in London as collapsing buildings, serious fires, riots, accidental explosions and lethal stampedes. Here’s a short list of some of the noisiest peacetime disasters to have afflicted London.

COLLAPSING BUILDINGS

At six o’clock on the morning of 16 May 1968, Ivy Hodge struck a match to light her gas cooker. Unknown to her, a faulty pipe had been leaking gas into her kitchen, and the resulting explosion knocked her unconscious. It also blew out a load-bearing wall from Hodge’s 18th-floor flat in the newly-built Ronan Point tower block in east London. A cascade of concrete panels demolished each flat below in turn until an entire corner of Ronan Point had collapsed. Four people were killed.

Ronan Point


Seventh-floor resident James Chambers described what he saw and heard:

Our bedroom wall fell away with a terrible ripping sound. We found ourselves staring out over London. Our heads were only a matter of two feet from the eighty-foot drop. The room was filled with dust, and showers of debris and furniture were plunging past us.

The risks inherent in how Ronan Point had been built were unknown at the time, and it complied with all the existing regulations and codes of practice. Building collapses in earlier centuries were often due simply to shoddy work or when the structure was overwhelmed by hordes of excited people. Samuel Johnson’s satirical poem London, written in 1738, suggested that such collapses were a common enough feature of the sound environment:

Here malice, rapine, accident, conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead

One such falling house appears in Hogarth’s Gin Lane to symbolise social disintegration:

Hogarth's Gin Lane


A collapse of a viewing stand occurred at the last state-sanctioned beheading in Britain. Lord Lovat, Chief of Clan Fraser, had supported the Stuart side during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. After the Rebellion’s defeat he was captured on a island in the middle of a loch, and executed at Tower Hill in April 1747.

Public executions were always met with intense excitement in London and it is unsurprising that more people than was wise were allowed to swarm onto a viewing platform. The platform gave way, killing twenty.

Such accidents weren’t new even then. In January 1583, a crowd of spectators had clambered onto makeshift scaffolding in Southwark to watch a bear-baiting tournament at Paris Garden. Their combined weight was too much and eight lives were lost.

EXPLOSIONS

The kind of gas explosion which triggered the collapse at Ronan Point became less common once relatively odourless town gas had been phased out by 1977. Many of the worst accidental explosions in London throughout history had, unsurprisingly, involved carelessness with gunpowder.

One of the earliest recorded incidents took place in January 1650 near the Tower of London. 27 barrels of gunpowder blew up while being stored by a ship’s chandler, flattening a tavern and dozens of houses. Fireworks factories also made unpredictable neighbours. A fireworks arranger named Madam Coton lost her husband when their home and workshop blew up in Westminster in 1854.

Undeterred, she had the house rebuilt and continued in her trade until July 1858, when another explosion sent rockets and roman candles flying through the streets, setting ablaze another fireworks factory nearby. Madam Coton later died of her injuries.

Only primitive precautions existed in the nineteenth-century when gunpowder and other explosives were transported around London by barge, with the vessel having to fly a red flag. Barge crews still had to warm themselves by an open fire in the cabin, and this unfortunate combination caused an explosion in October 1874 which demolished Macclesfield Bridge on the Regent’s Canal.

The barge Tilbury had been carrying five tons of gunpowder along with barrels of petroleum. At just before five o’clock in the morning, the barge exploded, destroying the bridge and two nearby houses completely. Windows were shattered up to a mile away and, to the cries of people running out of their homes in alarm, were added the screeches and howls of terrified animals in the London Zoo.

STAMPEDES

It would be nice to think that Londoners are a worldly bunch. Not the sort who’d lose the plot just because some shop had a sale on with beds for £30 and leather sofas for £45.

It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true. The October 2005 opening of the Edmonton branch of Ikea in north London led to a near-stampede with fights breaking out and a man stabbed at a nearby petrol station. This YouTube video captures some of the highlights:


More serious stampedes must be terrifying. London has never experienced anything as bad as the Khodynka Tragedy in Russia in 1896. Vast crowds had gathered in Moscow for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, encouraged by the news of free gifts for everyone present. They were to include a sausage, a pretzel and a commemorative cup each. Then a rumour sprang up that there weren’t enough to go round, and a stampede followed in which nearly 1,400 people died.

In London in 1322, a crush of people waiting for alms at the gate of the Black Friars’ Priory ended with more than fifty deaths. But a more common cause of stampedes in London has been some threat, real or false, which people have tried to flee. Cries of ‘fire’ in packed public buildings feature in the most notorious cases.

A false fire alarm at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1807 killed eighteen. Another at the Royal Victoria Theatre on Boxing Day 1858 led to fifteen deaths. Six died and thirty were injured in 1856 at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall when someone cried ‘fire’ among a huge crowd who had come to hear the young Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. It was believed that the cry had been made deliberately to create panic, but the culprit was never found.

07 January 2013

Reverberation and Authority

THE GREAT AND Powerful Oz manipulated his voice to give it the authority of reverberation:


Oz set the tone for disembodied beings in series like Star Trek and its British derivative Space: 1999. The reverb voice is ideal for telling viewers you’ve slumbered for thousands of our years but can now feel again and live again, before getting the hots for a crew member.

The trope works because the listener already associates reverberation of speech with power. Journalists reach for tired phrases like those ringing condemnations and ringing denunciations which reverberate throughout the land. It contains the idea that the speech reverberates because it’s as if it were made by someone speaking inside a large stone-walled building. You only get to make such speeches if you’re important, and to be important means people listen to you and take heed.

Reverberation is the sound of a stampede of echoes in a confined space, each separated by around one millisecond or less. The time it takes the reverberation to fade away depends on the size and shape of the confining structure and what it’s made of.

Acoustic engineers can record impulse responses: the characteristic responses of different spaces to sound. Impulse responses can then be mathematically modelled and applied to audio signals to give them the reverberant qualities of a garage, a concert hall or a mineshaft.

These are three simulations of the impulse responses of an 18th-century salon, the Scala opera hall in Milan, and St Nicolaes church in Amsterdam:


The last of the three sounds slightly unusual, with a kind of frothy hiss to the reverb’s decay. Here they are plotted as spectrograms:

Spectrograms of three different impulse responses


Blind people use the reverberant qualities of streets to help build mental maps of the environments they’ll become familiar with. They can also make and attend to impulse responses of their own by tapping their canes.

The reverberance of a street tells you something about its status too, at least here in London. Many thoroughfares in central London are narrow and flanked by high buildings. The sounds of car horns and the noisy engines of motorbikes and hackney cabs take on a quality that you don’t hear in the suburbs, where buildings are lower and roads wider. The financial district of the City of London has this effect even more strongly because of its tall office blocks. Perhaps that’s the sound signature of all financial districts worldwide.

Financial institutions are now strong enough to play games with governments, so it seems appropriate how their part of town has taken on the mantle of reverberant authority. Meanwhile politicians opt for conversational tones on breakfast telly sofas. The age of the formal stance in speech is now almost over, like the dignified way people posed in old photographs.

In a BBC recording from 1937, a new Lord Mayor is elected at the Guildhall. This extract has an official called the Common Crier begin the proceedings. Note how he pauses between each utterance of oyez! to allow the reverberation of his voice to be heard:


The effect doesn’t work outside the environment which produces it. This man was preaching in Brixton with the aid of a battery-powered PA and he’d turned up the reverb effects dial. But he has no more authority than Oz did once the curtain was pulled back:


Reverberance is not a charismatic quality that people carry around with them wherever they go, like you can a deep voice. It is part of its setting and the assumption is that the speaker has the right to be there.

The power of reverberance accords with the conservative belief that authority is immanent in institutions.

25 December 2012

London on Christmas Eve

LONDON’S AT ITS best between Christmas and New Year. The streets are quieter and that pleasantly slow-moving melancholic mood you get when you’re hungover pervades everything. Christmas Eve gives a foretaste of that as the shopping frenzy peters out, so it was a good time to roam the streets with Soundman binaural mics lodged in the earholes.

Buskers are an easy subject to record if you can find a good one. But many now perform to backing tracks delivered by battery-powered PAs, and that can sound worse on a recording than in real life. Because London attracts tourists from all over the world, street entertainers must also search for universally recognised themes without local nuance built on simple humour and sentimentalism.

Steel drums emerged in the Caribbean as a way to get round the colonial authorities’ restrictions on what instruments could be played in public. Using a shallow steel drum to play Sleigh Ride is about as pragmatic as it gets, but it’s still got a good sound. This man was performing alone on the Hungerford footbridge:


The best coffee in London is to be found in Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants. For the next best you may as well try Bar Italia in Soho, assuming you were weaned off the breast without upset and don’t crave the milky concoctions of Costabucks. The atmopshere was relaxed that afternoon, with customers wishing the staff a happy Christmas as they left:

 


Echoes of an older and more robust city culture were heard in the morning at Smithfield meat market. Every Christmas Eve, Hart’s the butchers hold a meat auction and by eleven o’clock a good-sized crowd of people was filling the street outside. The butcher and his assistants stood at two large open windows as they held up mighty lumps of maroon-coloured steak before heaving them down into the crowd.

Meat makes people happy. The crowd jostled, each trying to squeeze and squirm their way closer to the front, but all grinning and shouting, hands raised up to grab at the bloody missiles thrown by the butcher – a primordial scene!

 


One of the best things about recording with binaural mics is that you can often be part of the event rather than a bystander, as you would be if you were toting a camera. Get some bins in your ears and enjoy yourself. Happy Christmas and best wishes for 2013.

19 November 2012

Beware the Cat: auditory overload in the 16th century

BEWARE THE CAT is a short novel written in 1552 by William Baldwin, a poet and printer’s assistant who lived in London. This scholarly article from 1979 claims that Beware the Cat is the first substantial and original work of prose in the English language, and therefore the first novel. (You’ll need a subscription to JSTOR to read the whole article, but the first page is open to all.)

The novel has a complex structure consisting of three interlinked stories which are related by one Master Streamer. Streamer is a bit daft and naive, like Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, and Baldwin has some fun making him stumble over complicated-sounding words in the spirit of ‘I won’t have you casting nasturtiums about me’.

Streamer hears tales from Ireland about talking cats and becomes obsessed with the idea of being able to decipher the secret speech of animals. He goes to great lengths to capture different animals around London (St John’s Wood is mentioned as a hunting ground), and combine bits of them to make magic pills and potions.

Initial tests work well. Despite streams of snot coming from his nose ‘as I never saw before, nor thought that any such had been in mans body’, Streamer finds he can recollect in detail everything he’s experienced over the past twenty years. He also believes he can hear a cat calling out someone’s name so, later, the dosage is upped.

[ . . .] I put into my two nostrills two troisiques, and into my mouth two losenges, one above my tounge, the other under, and put off my left hose because of Jupiters appropinquosion, and laid the fox tail under my foot and to hear the better I took off my pillows, which stopped my ears, and then listened and viewed as attentively as I could; but I warrant you the pellicils or filmy vein that lieth within the bottom of mine ear hole, from whence like veins carry the sound to the senses, was with this medicine in my pillows so purged and parched, or at least dried, that the least moving of the air, whether struck with breath or with living creatures, which we call voyces, or with the moving of dead, as winds, waters, trees, carts, falling of stones, &c. which are named noises, sounded so shrill in my head, by reverbrations of my final filmes, that the sound of them altogether was so disordered and monstrous that I could discern no one from other, save only the harmony of the moving of the spheres which noise excelled all others as much both in pleasance and shril bigness of sound as the zodiac itself surmounteth all other creatures in altitude of place, for in comparison of the basest of this noise, which is the moving of Saturn by means of this huge compass, the highest whistling of the wind, or any other organ pipes (whose sounds I heard issued together,) appeared but a low base, and yet was those an high treble to the voice of beasts which as a mean the running of rivers was a tenor, and the boyling of the sea, and the catracts or gulf therof a goodly base, and the rushing, rising, and falling of the clouds a deep diapson.

This perception of the music of the spheres leads to an imaginative passage in which Streamer becomes aware of the sounds of everything happening in a hundred-mile radius:

While I harkend to this broil, labouring to discern both voices and noises a sundre, I had such a mixture as I think was never in Chaucer’s “House of Fame,” for there was nothing within an hundred mile of me down on my side (for from so far but so faither the air may come becaue of obliquacion,) but I heard it as well as if I had been by it, and discern all voices, but by means of noises understood none. Lord, what a doo women made in their beds; some scolding, some laughing, some singing to their sucking children, which made a woeful noise with their continual crying, and one shrewd wife, a great way off (I think at St. Albans), called her huband cuckold as loud and shrilly that I heard that plain, and would fain have heard the rest, but could not by no means for barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wailing of cats, rumbling of rats, gagling of geez, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, gagling of ducks, singing of wains, ringing of panns, crowing of cocks, sowing of sockes, cackling of hens, scrapling of pens, heeping of mice, trulling of dice, curling of frogs and todes in the bogs, churking of crickets, shutting of wickets, scritching of owls, fluttering of fowls, routing of knaves, snorting of slaves, farting of churls, fisling of girls, with many things els; as ringing of bells, counting of coins, mounting of groins, whispering of lovers, springling of plovers, groning and pinning, baking and brewing, scratching and rubbing, watching and shrugging, with such a sort of commixed noises as could adaf any body to have heard, much more me, seeing that the peanieles of my ears were with my medicine made so fine and stiff, and that by the temperate heat of the things therin, that like a tabbar dried before the fire, or els a lute string by heat shrunk, never they were incomparably amended in receiving and yeilding the shrilnes of any touching sounds.

The reference to the House of Fame alludes to Chaucer’s description of sound as like concentric circles rippling across a pond, and which eventually travel upwards so that every sound ever made converges in the fantastical House of Fame. But, like Dr Morbius taking the Krell brain boost in Forbidden Planet, sensory omniscience doesn’t go well for Streamer.

While I was earnestly harkening (as I said) to hear the women, minding nothing els, the greatest bell in St. Botolph steeple, which is hard by, was tolled for some rich lady that then lay in pasing, the sound therof came with such a rumble into mine ear, that I thought all the devils in hell had broken loose, and where come about me, and was so afraid therwith that when I felt the foxtail under my feet (which through fear I had forgot) I deemed it had been the devil indeed; and therfore I cried as loud as ever I could, “The devil, the devil!” But when some of the fellows, raised with my noise, had sought me in my chamber and found me not there, they went seeking about, calling to one another, “Where is he ? I cannot find M. Streamer.” Which noise and stir of them was so great in mine ears, and pasing much common sound, that I thought they had been devils indeed which sought and aked for me; therfore I crept close into a corner and hid me, saying many good prayers to save me from them; and becaue that noise was so terrible that I could not abide it, I thought best to stop mine ears, thinking therby I should be the less afraid. And as I was there about, a crow, which belike was nodding asleep in the chimney top, fell down into the chimney over my head, when fluttering in the fall made such a noise that when I felt his feet over my head I thought then the devil had he come indeed and seized upon me; and when I cast up my head to save me, and therwith touched him, he called me knave in his tounge after such a sort that I swooned for fear, and by that I was come to myself again he was flown from me into the chamber roof, and there he sat all night.

These passages are remarkable for their intense focus on sound. The idea of knowing everything’s that’s going on seems prescient of modern-day ambitions to acquire total information to feed into statistical models, of mass documenting projects like Google Streetview, or the existence of perfect information in an idealised marketplace.

Wanting to hear everything going on can become a dream of control. During the time of Beware the Cat, Catholics were viewed as a potential enemy within, and the need to know more about them and what they were saying led to the efficient spy networks of Sir Francis Walsingham just three decades later.

19 November 2012

Jez riley French in Soho

LAST FRIDAY IN Dean Street, Soho, there was an Association of Motion Picture Sound talk given by Jez riley French. Pretty much anyone with an interest in field recording must have heard of him, and quite a few will own one of the hydrophones or contact mics which he makes and sells at very affordable prices.

I’d had a rotten tooth tugged out earlier that day, and was coasting along on the last of the dihydrocodeine pills a friend had kindly donated. One thirty-mig capsule dulls the ache, and two will put you on the cover of the Val Doonican Christmas album. The viewing theatre in the media production house was dark and seemed to be lit by infrared lamps, like the ones which keep the pies warm in Greggs.

Jez riley French has a nice way of speaking and I recommend you go and hear him if you get the chance. He’s very down-to-earth and informal and, with decades of recording experience under his belt, he has nothing to prove. We were treated to some fantastic, otherworldly recordings he’d made with contact mics, hydrophones, and electromagnetic coils. Putting a contact mic on a handrail in a stairwell sounded like Captain Nemo at the organ aboard the Nautilus.

Another contact mic recording tapped into a secret world of wire-borne sounds made by the wind and the day’s rising heat on a fence in Australia:

  fence at blackheath, NSW (extract) by JezrileyFrench

Jez described himself modestly as an amateur who’d been lucky enough to make a living doing what he loves. His work is eclectic and he’s interested in other media as well, such as photography, but he avoids the label of sound artist: “Don’t get me started on sound art!” He made some other points which stuck in the mind.

Modern ears, he claims, are becoming lazy for all sorts of reasons, including the prevalence of dynamic range compression in recorded music, telly adverts and so on. People don’t have to try to listen much now and recordists just starting out are not immune to this effect. Jez helps run wildlife recording workshops, and he says that a common mistake is for the recordist to set the levels too high for natural scenes which should be quiet and so demand some effort on the listener’s part.

I was surprised to hear Jez say that you therefore don’t necessarily need mics with very low self-noise (i.e. sub-16dBA) to make good nature recordings. It is almost an article of faith among nature recordists to use the lowest self-noise mics they can get which can cope with cold and damp conditions outdoors. But both he and the recordist Chris Watson do a lot of their work with DPA 4060s, which are rated at around 21-22dBA. You just don’t have the levels too high, and listeners won’t hear the hiss.

He ended by saying that he was spending more time simply listening and less time recording. You need to know when not to worry about hitting the record button. This does have a kind of resonance. More and more we seem to want to mediate our experiences of the world through some kind of device. But I hope Jez riley French doesn’t stop recording altogether.

After the talk we filed out in dribs and drabs onto Dean Street. Friday night: voices shouting, conversations, a huddle of excited media types queueing to get into Black’s, lone men in nylon hillwalking jackets clutching at the sense of purpose in their cameras. A street dealer came up to me and said softly: You look like a man who’s looking for something.

Hello to Tim and Martin, if you’re reading this. We met that evening at the talk.

08 November 2012

Coming up! Second batch of vintage BBC radio sounds

ONE OF THE most talked-about features on this site is the modest collection of actuality recordings from the 1930s and 1940s. Nearly all of them were originally made by the BBC, and it’s with the kind permission of BBC Worldwide that they appear here.

I dig out the recordings on their original 78rpm transcription discs, and it’s pretty obvious that most haven’t been played in decades. As far as I know none have been digitised before, with the exception of the Columbia London street noises disc from 1928.

There’s real satisfaction in bringing each recording back to life as an electronic Lazarus and letting them all be heard for free by anyone, because they’re part of our common heritage.

The good news is that BBC Worldwide have approved a second batch and this is what you’ll be able to hear over the next few weeks:

1. V-E Day celebrations, 1945. Street musicians recorded outside the Rose Restaurant in Soho, performing a cheeky song about Hitler with banjo accompaniment.

2. Victory celebration, 1946. Arrival of the Royal Barge at Westminster at 10pm. Described as a ‘sound picture’.

3. Bertram Mills Circus, 1946. Actuality recorded during a performance by Bertram Mills Touring Circus with live music, two stunt horse-riding acts including the Bakers and the Cumberlands. Exciting atmosphere with crack of whips, applause.

4. Guy Fawkes celebrations in Camden, 1947. Children sing and ask for penny for the guy.

5.  South Hammersmith by-election 1949. Canvassing and speeches by candidates, mayor and returning officer.

6. Coronation Eve: London sounds and scenes, 1937. Kensington Gardens: keepers shouting ‘All out’, the usual evening warning before locking gates. Admiralty Arch: cries of programme, seat and periscope sellers – ‘Don’t forget your periscope, a bob each’.

7. Festival of Britain, 1951. Short tracks without commentary. Children at turnstiles, Festival bell, Eccentrics’ Corner with matchstick mandolin and smoke-grinding machine making odd noises.

8. Street musicians: 1947. Four short tracks recorded in the West End, including one busker playing a home-made xylophone.

9. Railway Rhythm, 1947. Inside the Clapham Junction signalbox. Block bells indicate when a train is about to enter a section. Each bell has its own note and the signalman knows the tone of each.

10. Shophar, 1948. Ancient synagogue horn played by M. Roth, the Beadle of the Central London Synagogue.

11. Evacuation of civilians, 1940. A woman evacuee describes how she was sitting quietly in a shelter when a 500 lb. bomb descended on her house. Went to a school five minutes away where she saw her friend, her friends mother and sister killed. 400 people killed in the shelter that day. Grief almost overcomes this speaker.

12. Battle of Britain, 1940. The comments and reactions of a typical family group watching an air-battle over the Kent- Sussex border. Recorded near Crowborough, Sussex. “First one I’ve seen . . . plenty of Spitfires about . . . going down in flames . . . six Spitfires or Hurricanes . . . that’s it blowing up down there”. Ominous drone of planes, increasing and decreasing throughout; some gunfire.

Plus a couple of recordings left over from the first batch which haven’t yet been uploaded.

05 November 2012

The resurgence of religion in London

MOST NATIONALITIES ARE more religious than the English. So you’d expect the sounds and sights of religious observance to become more common in London when many people move here from abroad, as they have in recent decades.

Districts like Peckham, Woolwich and Tottenham now have substantial numbers of West African residents. Their churches occupy a range of buildings from the humblest industrial and shop units to former bingo halls and cinemas. On Sundays and many nights of the week you can hear live music and the impassioned shouting of their pastors from within as you pass by.

Catholic churches have had their congregations boosted by Poles and other East Europeans. My nearest Catholic church is (I think) St Saviour’s in Lewisham High Street, and it always looks full up during Mass. People of Bangladeshi and Pakistani descent make up a sizeable chunk of the under-20s in Newham and Tower Hamlets. The proposed West Ham mosque is unlikely to have any problems in the long run filling its hoped-for capacity of 9,500.

Most of these changes involve the repurposing of existing premises or else building new ones. In a cool climate, belief is usually expressed indoors and the impact of increased religiousness on the auditory scenes of street life has not been very great so far. Christian proselytisers are still the most numerous in public, with some adopting modern idioms like this rapper who I recorded recently in Seven Sisters Road:


An example of the more traditional style of singing hymns in the street was used by this man and his companions in Wood Green:


His language is Spanish with a Latin American accent. After the recording was done I spoke to him briefly, and he was very friendly, shaking my hand and asking me had I found Jesus? I had to answer truthfully and say no, I hadn’t, and wished him all the best, heading off before he could get going in full salvation mode. Both of us have found our own ways of dealing with the impersonal fact of the city.

16 October 2012

Searching for unearthly sounds

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.

16 October 2012

MacFerret listens to London

THREE RECORDINGS HAVE arrived at the London Sound Survey’s Soundcloud account courtesy of Aberdonian recordist Peter Jeffels, a.k.a. MacFerret.

Last month he made a flying visit to London and fortunately came equipped with an Olympus LS3 recorder and some Soundman binaural mics. He made this recording, using the LS3’s internal mics, of the organ at Southwark Cathedral:


One of the more acoustically interesting walking routes in central London is to start at Villiers Street by Charing Cross, head over the Hungerford Bridge to the South Bank, and then continue eastwards along the Thames. At Hungerford Bridge Peter recorded a busker playing the mandolin, with the pops and bangs of a firework display in the background:


Fountains generally don’t make good subjects for field recording. The constant and unpredictable changes in the water’s form look beguiling and can raise hopes that, somehow, the sounds produced must also hold the attention. In fact, all that’s usually captured is a slab of broadband noise.

When the fountain stops and starts, though, and other sounds in the environment can be heard, the results become more interesting. Here Peter was recording by the fountains in Battersea Park:


Peter writes that he’s due back in London in December and will be aiming to get some more recordings made. I look forward to hearing them and, in the meantime, thanks very much for sharing these sounds.

16 September 2012

Sound, hallucination and the moment of epiphany

SEEING THINGS WHICH aren’t there doesn’t bother people as much as the prospect of hearing voices in their heads.

Having visions in a metaphorical sense is now part of prevailing management orthodoxy; rather more Powerpoint slides must have been titled Realising the Vision than Obeying the Voices.

Even accounts of religious and supernatural experiences don’t seem too personally embarrassing when they’re limited to the visual sense. But claiming to hear God’s voice invites ridicule – it’s alright to be shown the Promised Land, but not so good to have an internal talking satnav telling you how to get there.

The 1960 film Inherit the Wind is a fine Hollywood courtroom drama. It’s based on the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey trial’ in which a Tennessee high-school teacher ended up in court for telling his pupils about Darwin’s theory of evolution. The teacher’s defence attorney, Henry Drummond, is played by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March acts the part of Matthew Harrison Brady, who’s helping the prosecution.

In this scene, Brady messes up by admitting he thinks God speaks to him personally:

DRUMMOND The Bible is a book. A good book. But it’s not the only book.

BRADY It is the revealed word of the Almighty. God spake to the men who wrote the Bible.

DRUMMOND And how do you know that God didn’t spake to Charles Darwin?

BRADY I know because God tells me to oppose the evil teachings of that man.

DRUMMOND Oh. God speaks to you.

BRADY Yes.

DRUMMOND He tells you exactly what’s right and what’s wrong?

BRADY Yes.

DRUMMOND And you act accordingly?

BRADY Yes.

DRUMMOND So you, Matthew Harrison Brady, through oratory, legislation, or whatever, pass along God’s orders to the rest of the world! Gentlemen, meet the Prophet from Nebraska!


Voices in the head are believed to threaten personal responsibility in a way visions can’t. Their commands might be too explicit and unambiguous to ignore or disobey. In 1981, during the second week of his trial, the serial murderer Peter Sutcliffe claimed he had heard the voice of Jesus during his work as a gravedigger:

I was digging and I just paused for a minute. It was very hard ground. I just heard something – it sounded like a voice similar to a human voice – like an echo. I looked round to see if there was anyone there, but there was no one in sight. I was in the grave with my feet about five feet below the surface. There was no one in sight when I looked round from where I was. Then I got out of the grave. The voice was not very clear. I got out and walked – the ground rose up. It was quite a steep slope. I walked to the top, but there was no one there at all. I heard again the same sound. It was like a voice saying something, but the words were all imposed on top of each other. I could not make them out, it was like echoes.

If Sutcliffe had invented this episode as a way to claim diminished responsibility, it didn’t work. The jury found him sane and he was convicted of thirteen counts of murder.

According to the American psychologist Julian Jaynes, hearing voices was once a universal part of human mental life. Jaynes’ landmark 1976 book was titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and in it he expounded the theory that people in early societies had no awareness of their thoughts as belonging to themselves. Instead, thoughts were perceived as coming from elsewhere: the voices of ancestors or deities.

Years later Chris Frith, a neuropsychologist based in London’s brain-science intellectual quarter around Russell Square, began putting forward a similar-seeming explanation for schizophrenia. Frith believes the brain needs a mechanism to orient and delineate our mental experiences so that we know our thoughts come from ourselves rather than from others, and in schizophrenics this mechanism works poorly or not at all.

As with most mental phenomena, there is likely to be a continuous spectrum of difference between the relentless auditory hallucinations of very ill people and those occasional experiences in which sounds of non-human origin seem to have a clear and intended message for the listener. In folklore, Dick Whittington got as far as Archway in north London before he heard the Bow Bells speaking to him: Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London.

Church bells occupy a special place in English folk art which perhaps primes listeners to expect to hear them as having intentionality. Not only were the complex patterns of change-ringing developed in England in the 17th century, but church bells were often baptised and given individual names. The bells in Kipling’s Mandalay also carried the message to return:

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

The same motif occurred to the British politician Enoch Powell after India gained independence in 1947. Powell, whose ability and powerful ambition had propelled him to a professorship in Ancient Greek at the age of 25, had dreamed of becoming Viceroy of India. When this possibility evaporated, Powell became despondent. He later recalled than he’d been lifted from this state when he heard church bells in Oxford urging him to return to political life.


Powell is remembered today foremost for his 1968 speech warning that immigration and anti-discrimination legislation would lead to communalist violence. One might not expect Powell and the Jamaican reggae producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to have a lot in common, but both claimed to have had moments of epiphany inspired by sound.

In the sleeve notes to his compilation Arkology, Perry describes what led him to move to Kingston and his first music job working for Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd:

They had a project to develop Negril, and I get a job down there throwing stones, and I get an overload from throwing stones down there for two weeks. I started making positive connection with stones, by throwing stones to stones I start to hear sounds. When the stones clash, I hear like the thunder clash, and I hear lightning flash, and I hear words, and I don’t know where the words them coming from. These words send me to Kingston. Kingston means King’s Stone, the Son of the King. So I go up to King’s Stone, because the stone that I was throwing in Negril send me to King Stone for my graduation.

As with Powell and the Oxford bells, it may be that Perry is dramatising what was a more gradual process of stock-taking and decision-making. The two men also shared the understanding that personal presentation is something to be worked on.

09 September 2012

London voices: outline of a new sound map

HERE’S A MOCK-UP of a forthcoming sound map. The idea is to record people’s voices in public, and then try to create a pattern of samples which represents the city’s overall demographic profile. This means a balanced sex ratio and some attempt at least to capture class and ethnic variations of accent and, indeed, language.

All the quotemark icons are grey to begin with. An icon will turn black when the pointer hovers over it, and when you click the icon an audio player will load into the blue speech-bubble shape. Visited icons will turn red, orange, yellow and blue: a visual reward to encourage site visitors to listen to more recordings on the map (I hope). The shades and colours have no meaning beyond suggesting variety.

London voices sound map


Icon size roughly matches differences in local population density – but you’ll have guessed that already. Yes, I know Ilford’s not in south-west London!

Most sound maps aren’t pre-planned in detail and they work like unstructured lists to which more items are added as time goes by. A map of London voices starts the other way round when the goal is to depict demographic patterns through sound.

29 August 2012

One-track mind

ONE OF THE biggest changes in London over the past few decades is how the focus for what’s new and fashionable has shifted from the west to the east.

Biba, Seditionaries, Better Badges, Kensington Market, the Clarendon, the Hammersmith Palais and Acklam Hall are long gone and Rough Trade moved to Brick Lane five years ago. Camden has quit London altogether for the globalised grunge dimension which seemingly stands beyond time, space and style.

East London is now the venue for spectacle and, as spectacles go, the Emirates Air Line cable car system is pretty impressive.

Picture of cable cars at North Greenwich


This is what it sounded like last Monday standing directly under the cables by the North Greenwich terminal:


Recordings of transport-related sounds were one of the two main areas of interest for amateur recordists in the post-war period, the other being birdsong. In the 1960s Argo released dozens of LPs featuring steam engines going about their business. Trains in Trouble was one of the more arresting titles.

All of the Argo Transacord series had obsessively detailed notes on the backs of their sleeves. Those for Trains in Trouble describe how several of its tracks are out-takes from film sound recordings. The trouble starts when the directors want locomotives to go up inclines too fast or do something else beyond their capabilities. The tone is disapproving, What do those film types know about trains, eh?

Before going to North Greenwich, I tried following the example of earlier generations of amateur field recordists by heading off to record steam engines at the Epping Ongar Railway open day at North Weald station in Essex.

This is a volunteer-run preservation railway with some steam and diesel locomotives at its disposal. The day got off to a good start with a ride from Epping station to North Weald on an old AEC Regent (I think), a predecessor to the better-known Routemasters:

Vintage double-decker bus at North Weald


The bodywork of the bus quivered as the engine revved, amplifying the noise like a giant green tea-chest for a skiffle band’s double bass. Older vehicles like that hint at the way they’re put together by the sounds they make.

At North Weald station the railway society were running their trains to a strict timetable. Maybe they ought to take over some of our bigger railways, too. The Pitchford Hall was pushing its set of three carriages from North Weald to Ongar and then pulling them back again.

Picture of the Pitchford Hall locomotive at North Weald


This recording is the best minute-and-a-bit out of several recording attempts made that afternoon. The Pitchford Hall is surprisingly quiet for a steam engine: the deep rumble in the background is from an English Electric diesel locomotive.


One old fella saw what I was up to and we began talking. He explained he’d been an amateur recordist in the 1960s and had used a Philips open-reel recorder. Primitive compared to what you can get today, he said. I wouldn’t mind an open-reel machine.

Many of those at the Epping Ongar Railway open day were too young to remember steam trains in regular use on the railways, and you can’t be nostalgic for something you don’t have first-hand memories of. Steam engines are just more charismatic than modern trains.

 

28 August 2012

Yeah, yeah, industrial estate

BOTH SIDES OF the Thames estuary offer some good walks and on the Essex bank there’s a promising-looking path going eastwards from Purfleet to Grays.

If you’re from London, it somehow seems natural to start nearer the city and work your way towards the sea, just as most people prefer the left-hand side of the bus when they sit upstairs. But the path is quite hard to find at the Purfleet end and you’re probably better off starting at Grays near the Wharf pub and heading westwards.

The path takes in a pragmatic, industrialised landscape which is under continual development. Few signs of the past remain, with the exception of St Clements church in Thurrock near the Riverside industrial estate. On the map below it’s to the right of the centre:


The church and its graveyard are tiny compared to the surrounding factory buildings owned by Procter & Gamble. The photo below shows only a small part of the setting. Out of view to the left is an enormous blue building of roughly cubic proportions. Behind are masts and powerlines.


During the week there’s constant noise from the factory and this makes the church appear unreal, like the island which materialises on the surface of Solaris:


Further upstream near Purfleet a gas freighter made an impressive rumbling while moored at a jetty. The children’s shouts were from a row of houses overlooking the estuary:


Yeah, yeah, industrial estate has to be one of the best song choruses ever and of course it’s by The Fall:

 

13 August 2012

Rudyard Kipling and sonic warfare

SOME KIND OF sporting event in east London seems to have passed without incident. Among the many security measures put in place, including ground-to-air missile batteries and high-speed powerboats, was a sonic projector called the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD for short.

The BBC had a report on it back in May. The LRAD can project a ‘piercing beam of sound’ in a directional way to control or disperse crowds, and it has the potential for use as a non-lethal weapon.

Interest in sonic weapons recurs every few years and there’s a boyish enthusiasm to it. Part of the appeal must lie in vague thoughts about building one of your very own. Here’s a Fortean Times piece on sonic weapons from 2001, and a more scholarly article from 1999 by Jurgen Altmann entitled Acoustic Weapons – A Prospective Assessment: Sources, Propagation and Effects of Strong Sound.

A smaller sonic weapon can be seen at the Customs & Excise HQ in Gravesend when they have their annual open day. It’s an ugly device with a pistol grip attached to a box bearing sixteen inch-wide speakers. It doesn’t look like it’s meant for self-defence either. Customs seized the sonic gun from some unnamed miscreant and it’s now displayed alongside many other intriguing contraband items.

A sonic weapon appears in Rudyard Kipling’s 1912 science fiction story As Easy As A.B.C. where it’s used to intimidate crowds. Kipling imagines a post-democratic future in which an organisation called the Aerial Board of Control rules the world with fleets of airships.

Dissidents in Illinois stage a rebellion to try and re-introduce democracy. The Aerial Board of Control send their airships to Chicago to quell the protests, which they do in a languid and disinterested way, reminiscent of the British imperial civil service which Kipling so admired. His choice of Chicago may be a reference to its powerful labour movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The crowd’s chanting can be heard by the narrator from his perch in an airship as it floats over the city:

Once there was The People – Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People, and it made a hell of earth!
Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, oh, ye slain!
Once there was The People – it shall never be again!

In response, the airships deliver a terrifying sound-and-light show:

‘They seem fond of that tune,’ said De Forest. ‘I should let ‘em have it, Arnott.’

‘Very good, sir,’ said Arnott, and felt his way to the Communicator keys.

No lights broke forth, but the hollow of the skies made herself the mouth for one note that touched the raw fibre of the brain. Men hear such sounds in delirium, advancing like tides from horizons beyond the ruled foreshores of space.

‘That’s our pitch-pipe,’ said Arnott. ‘We may be a bit ragged. I’ve never conducted two hundred and fifty performers before.’ He pulled out the couplers, and struck a full chord on the Service Communicators.

The beams of light leaped down again, and danced, solemnly and awfully, a stilt-dance, sweeping thirty or forty miles left and right at each stiff-legged kick, while the darkness delivered itself – there is no scale to measure against that utterance – of the tune to which they kept time. Certain notes – one learnt to expect them with terror – cut through one’s marrow, but, after three minutes, thought and emotion passed in indescribable agony.

We saw, we heard, but I think we were in some sort swooning. The two hundred and fifty beams shifted, re-formed, straddled and split, narrowed, widened, rippled in ribbons, broke into a thousand white-hot parallel lines, melted and revolved in interwoven rings like old-fashioned engine-turning, flung up to the zenith, made as if to descend and renew the torment, halted at the last instant, twizzled insanely round the horizon, and vanished, to bring back for the hundredth time darkness more shattering than their instantly renewed light over all Illinois. Then the tune and lights ceased together, and we heard one single devastating wail that shook all the horizon as a rubbed wet finger shakes the rim of a bowl.

‘Ah, that is my new siren,’ said Pirolo. ‘You can break an iceberg in half, if you find the proper pitch. They will whistle by squadrons now. It is the wind through pierced shutters in the bows.’

I had collapsed beside Dragomiroff, broken and snivelling feebly, because I had been delivered before my time to all the terrors of Judgment Day, and the Archangels of the Resurrection were hailing me naked across the Universe to the sound of the music of the spheres.

The final sentence draws an obvious parallel with the extremes of sound and silence described in the Book of Revelation, and perhaps also to the climax of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, first performed in 1900. Two years after the publication of As Easy As A.B.C. the First World War broke out, and with it the greatest intensities of man-made noise yet produced on Earth, among which Kipling’s son John died in 1915.

31 July 2012

Public talk at In The Dark, Wapping, Thursday 2nd August

LAST THURSDAY THERE was an excellent talk given by Mark Vernon at In The Dark’s Invisible Picture Palace in Wapping.

Mark’s theme was found sound and he played us some of the things inadvertently left on the tape cassettes and open-reel tapes he’d scoured from Glasgow’s flea markets over the years. I particularly liked his account of a sound artist who posted himself a voice-activated recorder which was left switched on prior to despatch.

This coming Thursday (2nd of August) it’s my turn to hold forth at the Invisible Picture Palace on London sounds and some of pleasures and pitfalls of urban sound recording. Many thanks to Nina Garthwaite for inviting me to speak. Here’s a map showing you how to get there (the ‘A’ marks the spot):

The Invisible Picture Palace is in the grounds of the Wapping Project, which is a converted pumping station. It’s about ten minutes walk from Wapping tube station and the talk begins at 7pm. Hope to see you there!

25 July 2012

Field recording and Philip Larkin on poetry

ON THIS SITE’S About page there are a few paragraphs which try to rationalise the existence of the London Sound Survey. Among them are these sentences:

Listening to a recording of the sounds of a place or event gets the imagination working and recreates some of the sense of being there. It feels like a worthwhile end in itself simply to share those experiences with whoever’s willing to listen [. . .] I hope the results will eventually be archived in a durable form so that someone decades hence might make use of them.

The poet Philip Larkin put it much better:

Some years ago I came to the conclusion that to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.

What Larkin called his ‘working definition’ of a poem is taken from his 1964 essay Writing Poems, although it was one he’d thought of earlier in his writing career. By the time of the essay Larkin judged it to be under-powered:

As a working definition, this satisfied me sufficiently to enable individual poems to be written. In so far as it suggested that all one had to do was pick an experience and preserve it, however, it was much oversimplified. Nowadays nobody believes in ‘poetic’ subjects, any more than they believe in poetic diction. The longer one goes on, though, the more one feels that some subjects are more poetic than others, if only that poems about them get written whereas poems about other subjects don’t. At first one tries to write poems about everything. Later on, one learns to distinguish somewhat, though one can still make enormously time-wasting mistakes. The fact is that my working definition defines very little: it makes no reference to this necessary element of distinction, and it leaves the precise nature of the verbal pickling unexplained.

Many of the best-known recordists return time and again to the mother-lode of sounds found in the natural world. Other subjects yield poor results: fountains almost never sound as good as they look, rush-hour traffic is banal, wind-noise on the mic is unlikely to make a compelling focus. But what is known to work and not to work must amount to little compared to everything that possibly can be recorded. So much remains to be explored.

Perhaps there are also implicit rules, like the ones of pictorial composition which exist independently of subject matter, and which determine if the arrangement of sounds within a recording is satisying or not. These can be discussed and argued over, but how one makes the choice of what to record is harder to pin down. Larkin thinks it’s a mystery when it comes to deciding what to write poems about:

This means that most of the time one is engaged in doing, or trying to do, something of which the value is doubtful and the mode of operation unclear. Can one feel entirely happy about this? The days when one could claim to be the priest of a mystery are gone: today mystery means either ignorance or hokum, neither fashionable qualities. Yet writing a poem is still not an act of the will. The distinction between subjects is not an act of the will. Whatever makes a poem successful is not an act of the will. In consequence, the poems that actually get written may seem trivial or unedifying, compared with those that don’t. But the poems that get written, even if they do not please the will, evidently please that mysterious something that has to be pleased.

This is a more interesting question than the one of motivation in general. For amateur recordists it likely comes down to straightforward pleasure, beyond which the reasons become opaque and the hunt for them seems less compelling than finding new sounds in the world.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

12 July 2012

The man who heard the flowers scream

HEARING WHAT LIES beyond the threshold of everyday awareness has been a staple of horror fiction since at least the time of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1948 the author Roald Dahl made plain its dramatic potential:

There is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear. It is possible that up there in those high-pitched inaudible regions there is a new exciting music being made, with subtle harmonies and fierce grinding discords, a music so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it.

Dahl revisited the theme of making audible the inaudible and sublime in his short story The Sound Machine, included in his 1953 collection Someone Like You. In it, a botanist develops a recording device to capture the voices of plants. Among other things he hears the sound of flowers screaming as they’re cut.

The Sound Machine went on to appear as an episode in Tales of the Unexpected, memorable for its pleasingly louche signature tune. Here it is from YouTube:


In Western literature, the hidden sound of the world can probably trace its roots back to Pythagoras’ concept of the Music of the Spheres. Reworked in modern times it serves to uncover the workings of an amoral and indifferent universe.

09 July 2012

Motorcycle Wall of Death

SUNDAY BEFORE LAST I went to see and hear the Wall of Death motorcycle stunt attraction at Belair Park in Dulwich. It was part of Carter’s Steam Fair, which makes a point of featuring old-style fairground rides.

The Wall of Death has to be one of the best things you’re likely to witness at a fairground. It uses a wooden barrel-like structure perhaps 30 feet/10 meters or more in diameter. The top is open to allow spectators to watch the action inside as the motorcyclists circle and pick up enough speed to ride along the walls at right angles to the ground.

Here’s what it sounded like:


It’s the first recording on the site which I’ve applied dynamics to. 3:1 compression starting at -12dB was selected in Sound Forge and it brings up the voices of the spectators and performers. A lot of people don’t like the increasingly widespread use of dynamic range compression in music, but in this case I think it makes the recording sound more like how I remember the event.

This photograph of a Wall of Death stunt rider is by the Flickr contributor SeaDave and is reproduced here under the terms of its Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 licence:

Wall of Death photo by SeaDave


If you want to check out the Wall of Death for yourself, then you can visit Carter’s Steam Fair at Clissold Park this coming weekend, July the 14th and 15th, or at Boxmoor Common in Hemel Hempstead on July the 20th through to the 22nd.

26 June 2012

Casanova in London

IN 1763 GIACOMO CASANOVA travelled to London and began renting rooms in Pall Mall to be near St James’s Palace. With this beachhead established, he could start screwing around in Covent Garden and Soho.

His memoirs were translated by the Welsh mystic Arthur Machen and they can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Wikipedia has this public domain image of Casanova, a red chalk sketch by his brother Francesco:

Chalk sketch of Giacomo Casanova


If you’re hoping for some Fanny Hill-style smut then you’ll be disappointed. Only someone with an academic interest in Casanova is likely to work their way through more than a few chapters. Sensory descriptions are rare and the writing style follows the usual she-said-this he-did-that convention of the times. However, there are a couple of sound references which are worth drawing attention to.

Banning non-religious music on a Sunday might seem surprising at first for an era usually thought of as disorderly and licentious:

When I left Soho Square I went to St. James’s Park to see Lady Harrington for whom I bore a letter, as I have mentioned. This lady lived in the precincts of the Court, and received company every Sunday. It was allowable to play in her house, as the park is under the jurisdiction of the Crown. In any other place there is no playing cards or singing on Sundays. The town abounds in spies, and if they have reason to suppose that there is any gaming or music going on, they watch for their opportunity, slip into the house, and arrest all the bad Christians, who are diverting themselves in a manner which is thought innocent enough in any other country. But to make up for this severity the Englishman may go in perfect liberty to the tavern or the brothel, and sanctify the Sabbath as he pleases.

Moralistic restrictions on behaviour evidently could be imposed, so long as powerful interests were able and willing to mobilise the necessary forces. But Casanova also tells of how the collective voice of Londoners had to be obeyed by those of even the highest social standing:

After a long discussion on politics, national manners, literature, in which subjects Martinelli shone, we went to Drury Lane Theatre, where I had a specimen of the rough insular manners. By some accident or other the company could not give the piece that had been announced, and the audience were in a tumult. Garrick, the celebrated actor who was buried twenty years later in Westminster Abbey, came forward and tried in vain to restore order. He was obliged to retire behind the curtain. Then the king, the queen, and all the fashionables left the theatre, and in less than an hour the theatre was gutted, till nothing but the bare walls were left.

After this destruction, which went on without any authority interposing, the mad populace rushed to the taverns to consume gin and beer. In a fortnight the theatre was refitted and the piece announced again, and when Garrick appeared before the curtain to implore the indulgence of the house, a voice from the pit shouted, “On your knees.” A thousand voices took up the cry “On your knees,” and the English Roscius was obliged to kneel down and beg forgiveness. Then came a thunder of applause, and everything was over. Such are the English, and above all, the Londoners. They hoot the king and the royal family when they appear in public, and the consequence is, that they are never seen, save on great occasions, when order is kept by hundreds of constables.

Such are the English, and above all, the Londoners – does you proud.