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.

26 October 2009

When smashing windows is a sound action

THE OTHER DAY I watched some workmen smash in the old windows of a block of flats they were gutting and renovating. They looked like they were enjoying themselves. Here’s a short clip of a window being broken from a sound effects library:

The spectrogram shows an interactive cascade of at least thirty discernible impacts as individual glass shards and fragments hit the ground and each other.

Spectrogram of a window being smashed

When the noise is part of the motivation, breaking windows becomes a sound action. In Clive Bloom’s excellent book Violent London: 2,000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts, there’s an example quoted from the East Ham Echo describing an anti-German riot during the First World War:

In one case the ‘Echo’ representative saw a few people gathered round a [allegedly German-owned] shop which soon swelled into a muttering crowd. A policeman or two tried to disperse the people, but a stone thrown caused a cheer to ring out. The next minute stones innumerable were being hurled at the house and the police were powerless to stay the bombardment. To the accompaniment of more cheers, pieces of glass smashed on the pavement . . .

A few years earlier in 1910, Suffragettes launched a major window-smashing campaign in central London as a response to Parliament’s refusal to extend the vote to women. Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in her diary:

The hour that followed will long be remembered in London. At intervals of fifteen minutes relays of women who had volunteered for the demonstration did their work. The first smashing of glass occurred in the Haymarket and Piccadilly . . . [but] before the police had reached the station with their prisoners, the ominous crashing and splintering of plate glass began again, this time along both sides of Regent Street and the Strand

The Daily Mail reported breathlessly:

From every part of the crowded and brilliantly lighted streets came the crash of splintered glass. People started as windows shattered at their side; suddenly there was another crash in front of them; on the other side of the street; behind – everywhere.

Many of the frequencies produced by breaking glass are highly directional and pull attention immediately to where the action is happening. It can’t be ignored and the message is: Now we can do this.