A trip to the BFI

You may remember my mentioning the soundtrack I was working on for the BFI and the Wellcome Library back in April? The silent versions can be seen below, and the soundtrack which I have been working on is now completed.

The week before last I travelled to the BFI to see/hear my work being synchronised to this silent footage. The footage was exported into Final Cut Pro from some master tapes by Doug, who is producing the DVD release on which “Bathing & Dressing, Parts 1 & 2” will feature.

It is amazing how the sound being even a fraction of a second out of sync with the images can cause a problem; the timings which put things either in or out of sync are extremely tiny. In “Bathing & Dressing Part 1”, we anchored the soundtrack to its correct place in the end by carefully watching the section where an old nappy is thrown into an enamel basin and moving the soundtrack around until the sound occurred exactly in sync with that action. I had recorded that sound several times while creating the soundtrack, and when editing the sounds in Adobe Audition, it took a long time to get the dull thunk of a wet towel landing in an enamel basin into exactly the right place.

The second part of the film was slightly harder to synchronise, as there were less percussive action/sound moments to work with. I got some great feedback from Tony on my use of voices throughout the soundtrack, and he seemed amused to hear that I had especially purchased enamel basins for producing the work.

“Is your whole house full of things you have bought specifically so that you can record the exact sounds of them”?
“Yes it is”.
And this is true.

I truly do not know how I could have created the soundtrack for “Bathing & Dressing Parts 1 & 2” without my enamel basins. For me their textures are so descriptive of the context in which the film was originally made, that working with any other kind of vessel would have been inappropriate. A modern bathtub simply cannot sonically tell the same story of materials and resources (or lack thereof) that an enamel basin can.

A modern bathtub tells a story of plumbing and sanitation which is not at all in line with the unsanitary conditions of 1930s London – the reality which the film itself addresses and aims to improve. George McCleary writes in 1935 that “the cleaning up of our towns is far from complete, and there is still a great deal to be done in slum clearance and rehousing”. I felt that to use a modern bathtub with its attendant sounds would not correctly evoke the historic context of the film. In contrast, the enamel basins and the jugs of hot water used in the soundtrack testify to the housing conditions McCleary describes, referencing a world of shared taps, rudimentary plumbing, and crowded living quarters. To my mind the enamel basin is also somehow symbolic of doing the best that one can, in less than optimal circumstances; it points to the optimism of this particular era in healthcare, and to a can-do attitude towards disease prevention and the creation of more wholesome living environments. The spirit of this idea is best summarised in McCleary’s assertion that “fortunately for the human race, maternal care if properly instructed can do much even under the most unfavourable conditions”. The enamel basin and the little tray of cleaning apparatus used throughout the film symbolise the important role that the administration of “mothercraft” can play in reducing infant mortality, and I felt it was crucially important in the soundtrack that we should hear them.

McCleary recognises that good, hygienic practices at home will only go so far towards preventing infant mortality, and that even the best “mothercraft” is compromised when cities and houses are squalid and dirty:

Much may be hoped also from the new movement for slum-clearance and rehousing – a reform that is long overdue. It is not surprising that overcrowding and deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia go together, for in crowded tooms infection spreads readily from one person to another. What is surprising to those who, as doctors, health visitors, or in some other capacity, are familiar with the housing conditions in the poorest parts of our large towns, is that the mortality from these diseases is not higher. In such conditions, mothercraft, however devoted and efficient, works at great disadvantage.

…it was not possible to record inside a slum, but there is a layer of sound throughout my soundtrack which was collected inside a derelict building, with the same rattling windows and bare floorboards as the space in which the original film was made.

For me, working on this film has been a profound learning experience. I especially enjoyed sharing the film with mothers and hearing their responses to it, and learning about the contexts in which the original silent film was created and presented to the public. I also thoroughly enjoyed researching for the soundtrack at the British Library. The DVD will not be released until next Spring, but I will be presenting sections of it this October at Bath University in a talk about my work, and there are some clips online to give you some sense of the texture of the soundtrack.

I hope that my work on this project will help draw audiences closer to the world addressed by the film, and that I can find further projects which will allow me to explore social history and culture more deeply, through sound. Thanks to Doug for synchronising my soundtrack, and to Tony Dykes at the BFI and Angela Sayward at the Wellcome Library for the opportunity to work on this; there will be further announcements and information here as the release date for the DVD gets nearer.

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