‘Greetings, Future Listener’: The London Sound Survey

We were very excited recently to incorporate a large donation of field recordings from the London Sound Survey at London Metropolitan Archives. Founder Ian Rawes has been documenting the everyday sounds of the capital for over a decade and the resulting collection is an astonishing body of work capturing contemporary London in all of its colourful, chaotic glory – from street preachers to beggars, from marathon to carnival, all life is here. To commemorate the arrival of the collection, Paul Skinner, one of our team of volunteers (and a sound recordist himself) sat down with Ian to find out more about this remarkable project. Their conversation covers all manner of topics, including the genesis of the London Sound Survey, the ever-changing nature of the city’s soundscape, tips for aspiring field recordists and of course the recent release of Thames;  the vinyl LP of Ian’s recordings made at various locations along the great river. 

Tip of the iceberg – the London Sound Survey front page

PS: Can you tell us about the London Sound Survey and give us a brief history of the project?

IR: The London Sound Survey is a predominantly website-based project in which I collect and present recordings that me and other people make in and around London, and it also presents quite a lot of historical materials which are related to the history of sound in London and increasingly further afield. Many years ago I wanted to do a website about London, about the aspects of London that appealed to me most, which tended to be the more humble down-to-earth things traditionally associated with the city, such as street markets, junk shops, old man’s pubs, canals, odd places and so on. A kind of ‘worm’s eye view’ of the city. I started working at the British Library Sound Archive in about 2004 or 2005. That was a storemans job, officially called the Vault Keeper at their old depot off City Road in Micawber Street. I became curious about much of the material that I was handling – what was on these tapes? You could read the tape box covers and there were some surprising things. There was somebody who recorded the sounds of foghorns around Britain. There was a very strange character from Bradford who had recorded the sound of all the bus journeys it seemed you could take in Yorkshire, and he would write very meticulous notes on the back of each tape box. And I began to think that I too could make recordings of London…

Some particular chance discoveries – from handling crates of CDs and other things – encouraged me towards field recording. One was a series of recordings called ‘The Time of Bells’, made by an American anthropologist called Steven Feld. And this man had a brilliant job, by the sounds of it. He was paid to go around the world recording bells in different geographical and social contexts. Nothing very dramatic happened in any of the recordings, but they were done well and had a very realistic stereo image, so when you listened to them over headphones it gave the strong sense of actually being in these places that Steven Feld had visited. He wore a very small pair of microphones on his head and each was encapsulated in what was called a “headband windshield”. This particular method of recording had been patented by an American sound engineer called Lenny Lombardo. I was very impressed, so I saved up and bought a pair of these mics from Lenny. And the first proper recording I made – well, the first recording outside the house – was to put them on and wear them to the cornershop, where I then bought, a newspaper, a pint of milk… And there were all, you know, voices and so on in the shop, the rattle of this aging refrigerator and so on. I went back home, listened to it and thought ‘Wow! That’s pretty good!’

The next more adventurous recording was to go to Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday morning, this was April 2008. It was really lively there, all the traders had different cries. There was an old man who had a tray supported by a strap round his neck, like a cinema usherette, and he was selling what were claimed to be Duracell batteries. And he had a very interesting cry, which you couldn’t really make out, but he had a wonderfully weathered voice. There was a group of Christian evangelists at the north end of Petticoat Lane, who were singing while one of them banged a bongo drum. So, there were all sorts of things happening. That really got me hooked, and I began to make recordings in these sorts of noisy, lively public places. The London Sound Survey came into being a year later – when it went online, it had two or three hundred recordings of street markets, street preachers, political demonstrations, chanting football crowds – anything that was noisy and public. It was mostly about voices, and later the remit expanded to include things called ‘sound maps’. Instead of just recording rather precise verbal signals, I also started recording the atmospheres of places. And I think those two approaches, specific focus and atmospheres, were what dominated the site for a long time. 

PS: You’ve recently donated a large portion of the archive to the London Metropolitan Archives. What inspired that decision?

IR: Well, I had thought that some of the material might be of interest to people in the future. Even mundane recordings, with the passage of time, can become more informative and interesting. I mean, just imagine if you could go back to the 18th century and listen to just any old street scene in London, however mundane – it would surely be interesting. So, perhaps people in the future would feel the same way. There’s only so much a private individual can do to preserve their recordings. Perhaps when I’m older I might give up the website, or I might have no money, or I might fall ill or be hit by a bus. Even if it were fully paid up for ten or fifteen years, changing web standards may eventually make parts of the site unusable for visitors. So for long term preservation, it’s best to give your recordings to people who specialise in that kind of thing, such as London Metropolitan Archives. I found also that the approach adopted here was a very friendly one, giving the idea that the people here would be pleased to get the recordings, rather than that the archive was doing me a big favour by taking them off me! I thought ‘that’s the way forward for archives’!

PS: Yeah, friendliness counts.

IR: It sure does. It certainly did for me. But it’s very hard, I think, for archivists or anybody else interested in historical preservation, to predict what people will be interested in in a hundred years’ time. If you look, for example, at the BBC archives, the kind of stuff that they put aside for safe keeping in the 1940s and 1950s, there is an overwhelming emphasis then on the voices and activities of the great and the good of the age and there’s very little interest in what might be called social history. Nowadays I think tastes have changed somewhat. We are not so interested in hearing about Lord Lugard or Lord Curzon talking about the situation in Abyssinia (although I do think that’s important and should be preserved), but we’d like to know about, I don’t know, what life was like in the docks in London, or what it was like to work in the laundry, or something like that. 

PS: As you say, digital formats are so difficult to preserve in the long term. Even physical formats aren’t forever so an ongoing archive that can maintain this is essential.

IS: It is. Digital formats – particularly highly compressed ones – do seem very vulnerable to obsolescence. There used to be a digital format called RealPlayer. That was not just the format, that was also the actual audio player. And that was commonly used on websites. People would use RealPlayer or RealAudio files to present pretty compressed, easily streamable audio files online. And not just hobbyists, big concerns like the BBC used, I think, RealAudio. Now they just don’t work and I don’t know if anyone can really be bothered much to try and translate RealAudio files into something we can listen to today. So you just don’t know. A lot of people have been predicting the end of mp3s. I think they’ll be around for a while yet because of their convenience, but eventually they will surely go as well. 

PS: Can you tell us about the new LP Thames – what made you choose the locations and the recordings that make up the LP, and the fact that it doesn’t follow a conventional sound map from the centre outwards, it goes back and forth. What was the thinking behind that concept?

IR: There are eight recordings and I think six or seven of those were made long before any idea of an album came up. The idea for the album wasn’t my own – it was suggested to me by [the composer and sound artist] Iain Chambers, who offered to release an album of my recordings. I cannot remember if it was him or me who suggested that the theme of the Thames be used, but I did have some good recordings that I’d made inside Tower Bridge and also in some places along the Thames estuary, and it seemed logical that these should all belong together on a record. Now, there is one limitation on this and listeners will note that there is nothing further west of Tower Bridge on it and that’s not inverted snobbery of any kind. The river is posher as you go further west, it’s true, but it’s also blighted by aircraft noise. The flight paths as you approach Heathrow get very noisy as you go towards what used to be called the Arcadian Thames – the old Thames of Syon Park and Palladian mansions and Richmond Hill and so on. It should really be a very attractive part of the city, but it is really under the thumb of really oppressive aircraft noise. So I haven’t gone there to record. Also the range of activities you encounter is not as great as along the estuary, which seems to be on a bigger, grander scale altogether. The estuary had until fairly recently an oil refinery. It has big gravel and sandstone quarries. All kinds of activities happen along it. And there are also natural habitats as well where you get things like marsh frogs and wading birds and so on. You don’t really get that in London or to the west of it so much.

PS: And in terms of the sequencing, how did you approach that?

IR: Well that was more just for what sounded good together, rather than following a geographic course, say from the centre out to the sea for example, which would surely be a more logical and obvious choice to adopt. But when you put things in that order it didn’t sound like such a good sequence. The two sides are meant to be complementary to one another, for example, the first track on side A is inside the Bascule Chamber which is a kind of brick-lined void [beneath] Tower Bridge. So side A track one is the North Bascule Chamber and side B track one is the South Bascule Chamber. So the tracks are complementary across the two sides as well as being complementary in sequence. I hope that when listened together it makes for a pleasing combination.

One of the Tower Bridge Bascule Chambers. Photo by Jez B of Flickr

PS: How do you prepare for making a recording, and what decisions go into choosing what sounds you capture? I read in the past that you started off editing recordings and now you just choose to record in locations that are interesting, so you don’t have to edit?

IR: Yes. It’s pretty hard, I think, to find interesting sounds. Initially you pick all the low hanging fruit as it were – the football crowd, the street market, churches, all those sorts of things. After a while you start to run out of them or they become more difficult to find. So I think a big part of the preparation is just trying to think what to record, and on the website some of that is dictated by the need to construct web pages rather than discs of recordings or just an array of recordings. The website has quite a strong graphic element to it so I like to somehow feel constrained to thinking of series or themes of recordings which can be represented visually as well as audibly. So they have to make an attractive looking web page that people will want to explore and click on different bits and compare. That’s what I hope people will do. Whether they actually do that I’m still not sure. But some of the graphic schemes have worked quite well. Sometimes the ideas come very quickly and sometimes slowly or they’re second best to some other idea which seemed really good but proved to be impractical.

PS: So was there any further preparation? Did you know what to expect when you got there or did you think about what time of day to record?

IR: Oh, yes. Well I mean there’s all kinds of quite dull things you have to prepare for, like transport and how far you have to walk and so on. Is the spot that you want to go on reachable? I think the big issue for urban and near-urban recordists is what will be noticed and what won’t be noticed. If you are recording in busy situations it is useless to go along with a mic in a big windshield looking like you’re from a film crew or something. Amazingly I’ve seen people offering urban sound recording workshops in which they illustrate the course with precisely that – someone looking very serious with a pair of huge headphones on and a big windshield blimp. It is much better in busy situations to use very discreet microphones so you don’t look like you’re recording. Even given that some people out there are very good at reading people’s behaviour and if you act and move in a very slow deliberate way when you’re making recordings there are people out there who will spot that. They won’t know what you’re up to, but they’ll know that you’re up to something.

PS: You talked about moving around earlier in the first recordings. Do you tend to walk and record or stay static?

IR: It depends really on the environment. Some places and some situations are much better to walk around. Let’s give a familiar example – the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Now you could stay in a static spot to record the Lord Mayor’s Parade go by, but here are the problems with that. First off, you’re then at the mercy of the people around you and it would be your luck that there’s someone with a really loud voice close by or someone with a braying irritating laugh or something like that. The solution is to walk, not with the parade but against its direction of movement. That way you pack in more variety within a given space of time and you’re not at the mercy of particular individuals in the crowd. So that’s an obvious case, but there are some environments where the changes of timbre and activity are rewarding to record I think. Let’s consider some of the narrower streets in the City or the little alleyways you get in the West End. You’ve probably been down Gerrard Street in Chinatown. You could walk along there and there are some strange little alleys with little shops in them. There’s all sorts of variety that would occur during the course of such a walk. So it makes sense to make a walking recording. I also think you have to be able to walk quietly. You should wear clothes that don’t make any noise. There is a kind of strange sound recordist walk – I’m sure it looks a bit odd. But it does look very deliberate and I think for that reason people tend to get out of your way when you do it without them having to ask them, which is really useful! 

PS: So you’re not present in the recording itself, although with that type of recording the listener is still conscious that you’re present because you’re guiding the movement – as opposed to a static recording.

IR: Yes. I’ve read some debate about whether you should include traces of yourself in your recording or not. And I’m not really sure which way to fall on it. Some people criticise the idea of the disembodied recordist that doesn’t make any sound. I don’t think those criticisms have any substance whatsoever. To me it just demands more skill not to get yourself in your recordings. To control your breathing, to move quietly, and so on. It’s a bit like taking photographs and making sure your thumb is not over the lens or that you’re not constantly getting glimpses of yourself in reflections in windows. Anyway, it’s supposed to be about the environment and the city, not about me, you know. I would rather that you listen and made up your own mind. Use your own imagination, triggered by sounds, to picture this place in time.

Paul Skinner and Ian Rawes at the London Metropolitan Archive’s Sound Studio

PS: Can you tell us a bit about the sonic nature of the recordings you choose and their potential geographic or historical importance? For example, the refinery sirens are amazing, but also have a historical angle as well.

IR: Well that was double bubble. I didn’t know the refinery was due to be closed when I made the recording. I didn’t even know the refinery made the particular noises that are in the recording, which is an eerie, almost whale-like, wailing sound made by the sirens. I thought I was just going to record the kind of deep powerful rushing sound made by the gas flares as they are burnt off. But it was the World Cup that day, the 2010 World Cup, England v Germany match. And I think the siren was being sounded really to cheer on the England team. Didn’t do them a lot of good – people will know that Germany won in a very decisive way. So I guess that’s of a particular time. I didn’t know then that the Coryton Refinery was due to be shut down, but it was, and many of its workers have now scattered throughout the oil producing countries of the world. Some have gone as far afield as the Gulf states and so on. So inadvertently that became quite quickly a recording perhaps of some small historical significance. I would guess most of the time I would hope that the sonic quality comes first because that’s immediately rewarding. I’m not being paid for doing this, so I guess I’m entitled to give my own pleasure foremost consideration, and the satisfaction of my own curiosity about the city. I have to be honest and say I think that comes first but I hope that as a byproduct that things of some social or historical significance are captured. 

Now, sometimes I do try and think of [historical significance] foremost but there is always the worry that you thought of a very worthy subject, but when you actually go there it’s just going to sound really boring. A case in point – yesterday when I had to come in to London I went down to the Borough and I was early for my meeting, so I went a bit further and got off the train at Elephant and Castle, because I know the area has been redeveloped and I used to live near there – I lived in a bedsit in the 90s for about a year. I used to go to the shopping centre a lot and I quite like the kind of scruffy market that extends around the outside. [Now] there’s an enormous new development of housing, virtually all private, which is springing up behind the railway station and extending right along the New Kent Road. And it’s all very new and clean looking, and much of it is still under construction, but it made me think that this is not the only really big area-based development that is going on in London. There are others; the south bank of the Thames between Waterloo or Vauxhall down to Wandsworth is being transformed very quickly. There are enormous private flat developments there. And very startling some of them look as well. Sort of silvery spaceships that have plonked themselves down – quite mysterious looking. This is the new London. This is not the world of the neighbourhood and people chatting over the garden fence. This is the world of people being polite to one another in the lift or on the stairs but then going back behind doors and getting on with their own very private lives. And this I think is becoming a more and more common way of living and a more common general form of architecture. London’s population is estimated to rise to as much as maybe ten million by 2035, that’s the most recent figure I’ve come across. And that’s a big change. The London I grew up in as a kid had a population of only about six and a half million. In those days, the 1970s, it was falling. People were moving out. Now hordes of people are moving in and most of it’s probably going to have to happen within the Green Belt and that means building upwards and more flat living. Here and there you see little plazas set aside, supposedly for the recreation of the inhabitants. It seems perhaps a bit early to say whether they will be used and whether a new sense of community will arise in these places. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t. But it seems a significant new environment perhaps to go along and make recordings in.

PS: It sounds like even though the population is rising, conversely human voices are being taken out the soundscape. 

IR: Yes. It’s a private world. Why would you talk in the street? I think more and more people direct their voices only towards those they already know. Think, if you go to a shop you don’t have to talk to anybody. You can go and use an automated machine which sort of talks to you. I went to one in Marks and Spencers and it said ‘Hi, I’m Eleisha”. So real human interaction is going to be replaced with a simulation. If you wanted to live like a hermit it would be really easy now in the heart of London to live like that. You could have all your food and other things delivered to you, pay all your bills in an automatic way. You might even be able to work from home. If you wanted you could interact with no one at all for weeks on end. It doesn’t sound like a very cheery prospect, but it may be that more and more people head, not towards that end, but certainly towards greater privacy and greater anonymity. Things which of course are not new in London at all but I think perhaps an acceleration of that trend.

Thanks to both Ian and Paul for such a fascinating conversation. The London Sound Survey website can be found here and you can listen to extracts from Thames here. Both are highly recommended resources for the whiling away of a pleasant afternoon… 

Photo by Benjamin McMahon