The London Sound Survey

I first discovered The London Sound Survey when Ian Rawes – the site’s inventor – mentioned a recording he had made in a carwash on the phonography group message board. ‘What a great sound to record’ I mused to myself and clicked through to hear it. I was astonished to find not only the car wash recording, (made in New Cross) but many others besides, all housed in a crisply designed site, suggestive of both neutral officialdom and the warmth of something well-made. In this article The Londonist dubbed The London Sound Survey ‘a beautifully crafted labour of love,’ and this was definitely the sense I had on that first afternoon as I dispensed with whatever else I was meant to be doing and spent several happy hours perusing the site instead. There is so much to hear and consider there; from the sound of an angry grey squirrel, to historic accounts such as this one by George Gissing from 1889, describing the soundscape at Crystal Palace.

After increasingly finding myself on The London Sound Survey website exploring various maps, reading with interest historic accounts of sounds in the capital and discovering the work that Ian does with deafness research UK*, I decided to get in touch with him. The result is that we have exchanged – in the model of the fantastic ear room project – 5 questions each. You can read my answers over on The London Sound Survey blog, and Ian’s answers to my 5 questions are presented here. It is always enormously helpful for me to understand how other sound practitioners work, and I was especially interested in what Ian had to say about the London Sound Survey. I do hope that after reading this you will follow the Londonist’s advice and bookmark the site immediately to ‘spend an hour or two over the weekend luxuriating in the sounds of our city.’

1. What was your motivation behind setting up London Sound Survey and what creative decisions did you make about how the site should be organised?

The main motivation for it was the wish to have a hobby, to spend time outside the day job on creating a project of my own. I’d wanted to do something on the theme of London, my home town, for a few years.

But I found it a hard subject to get a handle on. A lot of writings on the city that I’d come across were enjoyable to read but they weren’t always very convincing. Often they were very partial and specific accounts dressed up as somehow representing the real spirit of the city. I’d taken statistics classes for a few years at nightschool so thinking of patterns emerging from large numbers of observations came more easily than thinking of narratives. I also felt a neutral and impersonal approach like that was a way to meet London on its own terms.

After the ‘London’ and ‘Survey’ bits came the ‘Sound’, thanks to starting a job working with archival sound recordings. That really expanded my horizons and helped develop and focus what had only been vague ideas before. Other recordists had done their bit filling the shelves with the minidiscs and open-reel tapes and CDRs documenting the subjects they’d been interested in, so I thought I could have a go at doing something similar online.

The site’s recordings are organised into different categories and that was something that needed done at the beginning, because it seemed a good idea to break a large task down into smaller tasks, and also because categorisation is basic to how our knowledge of the world works. The root distinction is between sounds which are made on purpose; and those that aren’t, or where there isn’t a shared focus of auditory attention in the scene, like a busy pub with lots of conversations going on at once. They make up the ‘sound actions’ and ‘sound maps’ sections respectively.

There’s also a wildlife section, which was added later, and strictly speaking ought to be part of ‘sound actions’, as animals have their own agendas too when vocalising, but it’s more user-friendly for it to be a distinct section. I was a bit nervous about having wildlife recordings at all, because standards among wildlife recordists are generally very high indeed. But then I decided, stuff that, everyone’s got to start somewhere.

The ‘historical’ section is another grid-like display, only you click on cell numbers to read extracts from old books and journals describing London sounds. The categories are like those in the sound actions section, and adding entries is a pleasant way of spending a wet afternoon when you can’t go out with your recording gear.

I actually could have got across most of that a lot quicker by saying: it all consists of lists in one form or another, so people can find things easily, make lots of selections in quick succession, and make the sort of serendipitous discoveries that they won’t come across so easily from typing words into a search box.

2. What are you discovering or finding through the process of maintaining a regular blog as part of the London Sound Survey?

I’ve only been recording for the last two years, so I don’t have a big store of knowledge to draw on when writing posts.

I like most writing the posts which focus on a literary subject, like how Charles Babbage’s theories of sound influenced Charles Dickens, or the continuity in sound themes across some of Orwell’s novels. The next one is going to compare sound in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent with James Thomson’s London poem The City of Dreadful Night. I want to write something about Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as well, but I think that’s quite a challenging one.

To be honest, I get more annoyed with myself if I don’t keep up with the recordings or the historical extracts. The blog needs more effort put into it.

3. Are there any projects or artists who particularly inspired The London Sound Survey?

Yes, there are several. One book on auditory perception I read left a major impression – Albert Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound. I use ‘auditory scene’ on the website to refer to a soundscape. That’s partly because I didn’t actually know what a soundscape was at first: I thought was a kind of slow-moving atmospheric musical composition, like something by Brian Eno. But it’s also a tribute to Bregman, whose book was one of the big landmarks in perceptual psychology.

Later I came across R. Murray Schaffer’s 1973 LP The Vancouver Soundscape while unpacking a crate of albums at work. It was obvious it was quite different to the cheesy London sound effects LPs I’d encountered before – there are some really poor ones from the 1960s and 1970s with voice actors pretending to be costermongers and so on. The Vancouver Soundscape was serious, detailed and ambitious; it helped clarify my thinking.

The first field recording website I visited was Aaron Ximm’s Quiet American, another lucky find. There was a series of recordings people had sent to him from all over the world, called One Minute Vacations, and from that I learned how even fairly brief recordings could capture a strong sense of place. There were also valuable recommendations on what sort of microphones to use, which I’m glad I followed.

4. Do you find that regularly recording sounds has changed the way that you listen to the world around you?

I don’t think my ears have become more sensitive, but it somehow feels easier to switch into a state of being aware of different sound sources in different places at once, and perhaps also distinguishing between them. It’s like listening in a more relaxed way, soaking it all up.

But I’ve definitely become more sensitised to jet aeroplane noise, and certainly find it more intrusive and unwelcome than before. It was great when the volcano in Iceland stopped all the flights!

Learning about different acoustic phenomena and the names for them means I keep an ear open for them now. I like flutter echoes at the moment, and keep a little mental list of where good ones are to be found, usually in alleyways with high surrounding walls. I’d like to develop a fuller grasp of the real texture of everyday speech. When you see actual conversations transcribed, it’s always surprising how many false starts and changes of direction there are, all the ers and ums. Dialogue in films and novels is nothing like it, and after talking with someone your brain seems to discard all the clutter, only leaving a general impression of how fast or articulate the speaker was. But there’s something appealing about the clutter, maybe a sense of the thoughts underneath going on.

When I come across the field recording-based compositions by people like Mark Peter Wright and Will Montgomery, I can appreciate how well able they are to listen to their subjects. Mark does great work with elemental sounds involving wind and water, subjects I have little luck with, and brings out a great deal of depth in what he’s recorded. Will gets more inspiration from urban and machine noise. One piece of his he composed from recordings made around the Elephant and Castle, which is a grimy, built-up part of London, and there’s a bit in it which always makes the hairs on my neck stand up. Somehow it’s like when you push an intercom button in a block of flats, and there’s no answering voice, but you know someone’s listening. I can’t work out how he did it.

Kurt Vonnegut believed you never stop learning how to read, and maybe it’s the same with listening.

5. What has been the most surprising thing that you have discovered about the London soundscape?

Probably how much of life is lived privately. A lot of sounds in suburban residential areas come out of houses through open windows or over garden fences and hedges: people doing the washing up, playing music, watching the telly, kids jumping up and down on trampolines in back gardens, adults arguing. There’s very little street life in most parts of London.

Also, how widespread birdsong is. Traffic noise is everywhere, the only place you can escape it is underground. But birdsong and calls are present nearly everywhere.

London Sound Survey – London life recorded

We support the medical charity Deafness Research UK

*This reminded me very slightly of the Deaf Silence and Sound project I did as part of The Missability Radio Show, since it was about using sound recordings as a way of helping to facilitate understanding between people with different hearing abilities.

One Response to The London Sound Survey

  1. Pingback: Klangschreiber » London Sounds (Podcast)

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