Steam Sounds – for my Pops

My Pops – more than anyone else in the world – has fostered my geekery for trains, I SPY books and random obsessions, and it is his birthday today, so this post is for him.

I spent the day last Saturday working on a feature that will be included in the April series of The Hub; this particular feature is focussed around I SPY on a Train Journey, and includes sounds and information from the amazing Didcot Railway Centre, in Oxfordshire.

I haven’t gone through all of the audio I recorded yet, but at least one of the sounds I collected – the sound of the roaring fire powering locomotive engine number 5322 – will be appearing in my concert performance next Saturday at Sonic Art Oxford. It was the loudest fire that I have ever heard in my life and it had an indescribably epic intensity. I’ve never been that close to a fire that is powerful enough to pull tonnes of metal and steal along a track and the experience was very inspiring, if frankly also terrifying. I got a pass to ride up on the footplate of the train, which meant I was up beside the driver and the fireman, close to where the action happens in a steam engine. The experience made me realise that I have never lost my childish attachment to the joy of steam engines. Apparently I am not alone in this; Thomas the Tank Engine is one of the star attractions at Didcot Railway Centre.

However what I find now is that I have a different perspective from when I was a youngster, re: the sound of steam engines and trains. Firstly, I am really aware of the sounds of steam engines as rapidly disappearing sonic phenomena. Heard mostly in the context of nostalgic tourist attractions, steam engine sounds have gone from being part of the everyday soundscape to rarefied museum exhibits, in a relatively short space of time. The sound recording of a train journey by Phill Harding that I experienced at the Audible Fields event was very different in all its aural elements to the sounds that I recorded last Saturday, yet both are linked in my imagination to sound, to listening, to travel, and to the whole imaginative context of TRAINS.

I am also now aware of the draw of the sound of trains and related transportation for other sound artists. For example, there is an amazing sound-recording of a turn of the century trolley on the fieldsepulchra blog that Michael Raphael runs, and I noticed that near the start of the piece Silent Cities on the Forgotten Ithaca blog, there are some lovely (train?) horns. I am not sure whether a ‘trolley’ is the US equivalent of a tram or what kind of engine makes the horn sound on Silent Cities, but I find these sounds remeniscent in some way of the sound of steam trains and evocative of specific places and the daily sounds of commute and travel that characterise them. I also love the way that train horns feature in Nicholson Baker’s book, A box of matches, and how he describes the train horns as being a ‘chord’ of ‘eternal mournfulness.’ According to Nicholson, the ‘out-of-tuneness of the triad is part of its beauty.’

I thought a lot about train horns after my visit to Didcot Railway Centre. Positioned as it is on some sidings cordoned-off from the mainline, it is in immediate proximity to a contemporary railway line and the engines of FGW and Virgin trains periodically speed by, making a loud horn noise. The sound is distinctly different from the toot of a steam-powered engine, but it seems to be a form of mimicry or to have derived in some way from this earlier sound. However I find the steam-powered toot to be a far more resonant sonic creature; slower and containing more reverb. I expect this is because it is a sound formed physically in the chambers and spaces of the steam engine, rather than being an electronically-processed sound. Does anyone know how contemporary train horns work?

I wonder what the steam engine days mean for people who live near the Railway centre at Didcot, as the sounds of the horns and the amazing chuffachuffachuffa sound of the pistons going full pelt seem to travel for miles around.

I was also reminded at Didcot of the incredible sequence of sounds that are used at the start of my all time favourite Spaghetti-Western, Once Upon a time in the West. Apparently Ennio Morricone saw an avant-garde music performance involving a ladder that was rigged up to a lot of microphones, and this gave him the idea to work with heavily amplified natural sounds while working on the soundtrack for Serge Leone’s masterpiece. Building on the ideas of Cage, Morricone’s approach led him to create that incredibly tightly-choreographed sequence of sounds – the dripping ceiling, the buzzing fly in the gun barrel, the creaking windmill – that opens the film. When the freight train eventually does arrive in the station, we are given a shot of the undercarriage of it, and a loud, mechanical roar. I love this sequence of image and sound and I think it sets us up to immediately understand how central the railroad is to the plot of the film.

There is an incomplete version of that opening here.

I also found myself reflecting on how the first piece of Musique concrète – “Étude aux chemins de fer” – (literally, Railroad Study) was composed entirely from recordings of steam engines. Some of Pierre Schaeffer’s ideas about composing by manipulating sounds in a direct or ‘concrete’ way are important to me in the context of my own work, which is also largely composed in this way. You can hear Schaeffer’s composition created completely from train sounds here.

So I had all this in mind as I tramped about on the rails, appreciating the smell of coal and a certain kind of engine grease which attends all train-related industrial museums*; ideas concerning modernity and sound, contemporary sound practise, the entire sound-recording context of ‘train recordings’ and some more pressing personal questions such as what to record for my radio feature, and what to record for my rendition of Alvin Lucier’s Gentle Fire next Saturday.

The attached recordings are some of the best pickings from amongst around 3 hours of audio. I liked the toot sound so much that when I saw this whistle for sale the next day, at Mudchute farm’s gift shop, I knew I had to get it.

*I have noticed that the type of grease used for industrial, wool-related mechanisms such as those used at Coldharbour Mill and Filkins Mill does not smell the same as the engine grease used on locomotive, but it does possess a related industrial, nostalgic quality – a fact evoked by the way that on the Filkin’s Mill website, the first line reads ‘The smell of wool oil and the clack of the shuttles welcome visitors who tour our traditional 18th century woollen-mill set in the beautiful English Cotswolds

2 Responses to Steam Sounds – for my Pops

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » Sunday’s Numbers

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