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.

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.