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.

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.