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.

05 December 2010

What are the earliest sounds you can remember?

AN EMAIL ARRIVES from Helen Frosi of SoundFjord about a new project by the artist Stijn Demeulenaere called Soundtracks.

Demeulenaere is asking people to post him their handwritten recollections of sounds, and he makes some interesting points in the preamble:

[W]hen we remember the important moments of our lives, we never remember the sound. Our mind just doesn’t work that way. We can close our eyes and picture the moment before us. But when asked to do the same with sound, things become more difficult. Sounds work in a much more insidious way, and when asked to remember a sound, to recreate it in our heads, we have to rely a lot more on our imagination, our crosslinks between feelings, thoughts and memories to attempt to hear it again.

This seems about right for many instances of auditory memory. Although I can summon up a mental image of what my parents looked like, I cannot directly recall the sounds of their voices. Yet I would surely recognise their voices if they’d been recorded on tape and played back (sadly they haven’t). An auditory memory is there but it can’t be pulled into consciousness without the presence of a matching cue.

It’s hard to know if one’s earliest sound memories in particular really consist of faint analog traces of the sounds as they were originally heard, or are formulaic reconstructions built around knowing that a particular sound event took place. These are the earliest sounds that I think can remember:

– Cooing of pigeons lured to the kitchen window-ledge with breadcrumbs;

– The rag-and-bone man’s cry which drew out the syllable of ‘bone’ and always sounded remote;

– The hollow, metallic-sounding rush of a sewer beneath a grille in Green Park;

– A recording of sleigh bells issuing from unseen speakers while visiting Father Christmas at a department store;

– Newspaper vendors with loud voices yelling a long strange word beyond understanding: Starnoostane-e-e-erd!

– Discordant noises made by buskers with accordians. At the time I knew something was up, but only later grasped it was because they couldn’t play. For many years beggars hired accordians for a daily fee as props to help avoid trouble with the police.

Music is the one sound type which goes against what Demeulenaere’s saying about auditory recollection. It’s not hard to bring to mind old tunes that you haven’t heard in decades. The first popular tunes I remember being aware of were Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Benny Hill’s Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, and Lieutenant Pigeon’s Mouldy Old Dough.

But before those were some pieces of music that were regularly played on TV. Kids’ programs were usually on first when broadcasting began at something like 11am. First, there was a tantalising build-up to the magic of moving images with the trade test card, accompanied by something sounding like Tijuana Brass, but for licensing reasons probably wasn’t.

Next, an oddly stirring tune played while transmitter information was displayed. It felt like something significant was about to happen. The tune was Perpetuum Mobile by Michael Roberts, who worked for the ABC television company in the 1960s and composed string music as a hobby.

Perpetuum Mobile is on the British String Miniatures CD by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and you can buy it here from Amazon. Almost straight after came the continuity announcer’s voice, followed by the Thames Television ident set to Johnny Hawksworth’s Salute to Thames.

This was an amazingly over-the-top and brazen fanfare that lasted a good couple of minutes. A short version of a few seconds was used for the rest of the day’s viewing:

Hawksworth based the opening on Battersby and German’s 1896 song Who’ll buy my lavender?, which in turn evokes the old street-seller’s cry of ‘Who will buy my sweet lavender?’ The Thames ident music matches those syllables faithfully.

Other street cries had also made their way into popular songs from time to time, and Ralph Vaughan-Williams worked the melody of the violet-seller’s ‘Who will buy my violets?’ into A London Symphony, composed in 1914.

An elderly violet-seller used to be seen around central London into the early 1970s. Did the old duck have a ruddy complexion, twinkling eyes undimmed by age and a kind word for everyone? No, she had a foul mouth on her, ready to give abuse to all who refused to buy her violets, so you can guess how she spent most of the day. There was probably a sad story behind all that, but she was feared nonetheless.

What are the earliest sounds you can remember?