Wednesday, November 11, 2009

London Sound Survey

London Sound Survey is an ambitious and 'growing collection of Creative Commons-licensed sound recordings of places, events and wildlife in the capital'. You can, and probably should, spend a lot of time there listening to some very evocative, and well-recorded London soundscapes. Current favourites of mine are recordings of buskers including a child playing the accordion for money on the London underground, and a Saxophonist playing the Girl from Ipanema against a background of sirens in Old Compton Street. There's also the sound of a riot in progress on May Day 2001.

Unfortunately we don't have sound recordings from the past, a gap which London Sound Survey seeks to fill by including some written descriptions of historical London sounds, such as this account of a London market from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861):

'A bootmaker, to 'ensure custom', has illuminated his shop-front with a line of gas, and in its full glare stands a blind beggar, his eyes turned up so as to show only 'the whites', and mumbling some begging rhymes, that are drowned in the shrill notes of the bamboo-flute-player next to to him. The boy's sharp cry, the woman's cracked voice, the gruff, hoarse shout of the man, are all mingled together. Sometimes an Irishman is heard with his 'fine ating apples', or else the jingling music of an unseen organ breaks out, as the trio of street singers rest between the verses'.

Here's a couple of other descriptions of London noises I have come across which London Sound Survey might want to add. The first is from Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, set immediately after the First World War:

'For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,— one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June'.

The second is a description of Deptford Market from Geoffrey Fletcher's The London Nobody Knows (1962):

'Saturday morning is the time to see the human element at its richest in Deptford, and in the crowded High Street are all sorts of buskers and street entertainers whose presence gives additional character to the street: an organ grinder, perhaps, whose instru­ment is more properly termed 'a street piano' (there is still one firm left hiring out the' pianos' in London, near Saffron Hill: look for the pictures of Edwardian beauties on the panels of the organ), one-man bands, sellers of Old Moore's Almanack and so on. Today, a couple of stocky, red-faced men take their stand under the railway bridge - one plays an accordion and the other sings 'The Mountains of Mourne'. Appropriately, too, for Irish ideas are not lacking in Deptford - witness the large pub charmingly named The Harp of Erin and here today at the Catholic Church a gaudy Irish wedding takes place. As the bride and groom assemble on the steps, they are joined by their families and friends, the women in pale blue and the men in navy-blue suits. All wear large pink carnations, and the men's faces, each creased in a wide grin, are all red from the application of yellow soap. Small boys, also in blue suits and with even shinier faces, cross their legs uneasily, and the accordion plays 'The Meeting of the Waters'... '

1 comment:

Ian said...

Hello there, once again many thanks for mentioning London Sound Survey - I'm indebted to you. It is quite something that you are able to produce a stream of consistently good posts on not one, but two blogs. I struggle to write above a slow speed.

The issue of availablity of past sound recordings is an obstacle that couldn't easily be overcome, hence a focus on written accounts.

The earliest field recordings from the 1890s tend to be either ethnographic, made in the colonies of various imperial powers, or of official events removed from everyday life.

Actuality sound recordings and the voices of ordinary people were approached with a cautiousness by broadcasters like the BBC that didn't have a counterpart in contemporary (although often silent) film recordings of fairs, street scenes and the like.

Between those times and now falls the 70-year-long shadow of mechanical copyright, which poses all kinds of problems for someone with limited time and resources.

News organizations like ITN have endless interesting footage, but the previews are muted, and they want to sell what they've got, not give it away. The BBC has some fascinating recordings beginning around the mid 1930s, of things such as the work songs of Dorset quarrymen, but they seem to sit tight on them.

For the time being, written accounts are the easiest way forward, helped a lot by Project Gutenberg - what a shame there isn't a sound recording equivalent of that.