October 4, 2012 2 Comments
“…how do we listen to sounds never before noticed, sounds long vanished or sounds that are not sounds, exactly, but more like the fluctuations of light, weather and the peculiar feeling that can arise when there is a strong sense of place?” (Toop, 2007: 112)
This blog-essay is about everyday soundscapes, what causes them, how they can be charted and why and how they disappear.
The drop forge in the valley
“I remember lying in bed at night and listening to the drop forges drifting across the valleys.” (PoS 2012)
So recalls Martyn Ware, a founding member of the first incarnation of Sheffield’s electro-pop pioneers The Human League. Ware accounts for the percussive influence of Sheffield’s then remaining heavy industry upon their early dystopian music, a musical transcription of the pounding of the city’s foundries’ drop forges which is particularly to the fore in their early song ‘Almost Medieval’ (1979). To this stentorian beat Phil Oakey narrates the tale of an unsettling journey back in time to the pre-modern era, thus:
“step off the tarmac, there’s no stagecoach speed limit
Behind the office swings the man on the gibbet…”
The point is made clear at the outset, for the League the past was grimmer (and grimier) than we might like to think, and everything was different there. In this early version of the world all the modern certainties are gone, and everything is degenerated. It is also sensorially different – it is a world of alien sights, smells and sounds. This is a “small world, dimly viewed through cataracts.”
I too caught a brief aural glimpse of Sheffield’s dull industrial thud when I first arrived here a decade ago. Early, on still summer mornings, already half awoken by vicious sunlight streaming through thin curtains, I would be fully roused by the kicking into life of the last remaining drop forge down in the valley. In response I bought blackout curtains and secondary double glazing. But still this behemoth found its way to me, the sheer force of this power press’s vibration through the neighbourhood’s ground and onward into the fabric of my home and the soft tissues of my head. After a couple of summers of annoyance the forge closed and eventually its structures were demolished. The site now sits empty and weed ridden, a scrub-gap between the local KFC and B&Q.
Listening again to ‘Almost Medieval’ a few weeks ago got me thinking about the soundscapes of my own past, and of their unattainability. The Human League portrayed their imagined trip back in time as considerably less than pleasurable. But it is the alien quality of the experience (rather than its repulsion) that intrigues me the most. In response to the song I recall a soundscape experienced from my childhood bedroom. A sound finding its way into that room via the windows. A particular set of sounds – cars ascending a gentle rise, driving up the valley in which my suburban home was situated. A particular car and engine tone, a particular interaction of rubber on tarmac, a particular reverberation of that sound within the funnel of the valley. This was all delivered into my bedroom until we got secondary double glazing (and a few years later proper double glazing – the old ‘crittall’ metal single glazed frames having finally been removed). On the arrival of these enhanced interfaces, those sounds faded from the sensory experience of being in that room. Only on summer days with the windows open would that outdoor soundscape tentatively venture inside again.
The impossibility of reclaiming soundscapes
So, I started wondering whether – if I went back to that house now and opened the window – would I hear that soundscape again?
I don’t think I would, and here’s why, a combination of reasons:
1) As we age our hearing capabilities change. The range of our hearing recedes. Only the truly young can hear into the high pitch spectrum. So, if I went back now there are acoustic fractions of the soundscape that I simply could not register anymore, no matter how much I might want to.
2) Cars have changed. So have their engines and the petrol inside them. Lead free fuel burns differently, engines are more powerful and the gentle rise is now achieved in lower gear than that prevalent in my childhood.
3) There are more cars. There would be more traffic noise. A more complex set of sounds than the lone small car that I nostalgically imagine drifting past my window.
4) The arrangement of gardens has changed. Many of the front garden trees have been removed to create car ports. Those that remain are bigger. Back gardens are now more paved, and the pigeon lofts at the top of many of them when I was young have decayed into nothing. All of these factors would result in a different echo profile for the car-sounds within that valley.
5) Extension of the surrounding suburbs has reduced the proximity of that street to the countryside, resulting in fewer birds and their song (and less variety of those birds that are still there).
So, those sounds, and the environment that combined to produce and propagate them, have gone. Travelling in space to the place where those sounds once were will not achieve rediscovery of that soundscape, even if the double glazing is removed, or the window flung open. These then were the sounds of the Seventies, a product of a moment in time and its physical (and human) parts.
Sound and the Seventies
I recall also that there was a portion of that childhood soundscape that came only at night: Concorde’s sonic boom as its shot overhead Atlantic-ward. Unlike the gentle rumble of suburban traffic noise, the arrival of the sonic boom with the launch of Concorde’s supersonic trans Atlantic service from 1976 proved to be a very public, and hotly debated, development in the national soundscape, and noise pollution came to be THE pre-eminent environmental issue for much of that decade, before declining subsequently to its more recent ‘cinderella’ status.
During the late 1960s a number of developments co-incided to raise noise’s profile. Concorde and the ‘threat’ of supersonic aviation was one. The ‘great’ motorway building phase was another. In turn these developments led to new laws focussed on control of construction site noise, occupational noise exposure and principles of compensation for land blighted by these new noise-bearing transportation schemes. Meanwhile technical standards and controls started to appear by which the permitted noise emissions of vehicles and other machines came under control. Noise – for a while – was a very hot political topic.
I have a copy of a 1971 book, The Assaults on our Senses by John Barr. Evidently Mr Barr had already made something of a career out of chronicling the way that the modern world was dragging everything to hell, his previous work having been titled Derelict Britain. Barr’s 1971 book attempted a sensory engagement with environmental problems as they were then framed in public consciousness. First, he presented sight and squalor offending that dominant sense. Then he moved on to hearing, and the offence of noise. In doing so he drew a distinction between ‘noise on the ground’ and ‘noise in the air’. In his discourse upon aviation noise Barr was very much ‘of his time’, with anxieties about the imminent introduction of Concorde’s transatlantic flights, the feared impact of its sonic booms upon dairy herds and human mental health to the fore. Evocative campaign groups, long since gone, are name-checked in his book: the British Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (founded 1966), the Anti-Concorde Project (1967) and the UK Federation Against Aircraft Nuisance (1968).
But for Barr:
“Not even the thunderclaps of super-sonic airliners in the 70s will displace ground-level noise as the most continuously irritating, physically and psychologically damaging, ingredient of Britain’s urban climate” (71)
Barr draws a bleak picture of a world drowning in sound, of industrialists rubbing their hands with joy at the productive clamour of their workshops, and of a cacophony of cars. But amidst this assault on noise, Barr momentarily falters, acknowledging the habituation of most to the everyday sounds of life, and chillingly depicts the horror of pure silence, the sensory deprivation of a sound-proofed chamber in which a subject is left alone with only his heart beat, breathing and the movement of his eyelids as acoustic companion. Even Barr concedes that sometimes, some sound may be better than none at all.
But like Barr, most of the debate (and legislation) about noise, as originally and influentially framed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still focuses resolutely on noise as ‘pollution’, noise as something undesirably and that threats to the tranquillity of silence. This approach remains evident in the urban noise mapping required by EU derived ambient noise mapping laws – the map as a register of zones requiring action (‘acoustical planning’) to reduce ambient noise and thereby improve human qualities of life.
Silence, and the individualisation of soundscapes was often what these laws and policies espoused. And here I think of Richard Sennett, who portrayed evidence of a widespread retreat from the public realm in his The Fall of Public Man (2003). Whilst he used the notion of individuals retreating into their homes and shutting out the ‘public’ world outside metaphorically, as symptomatic of a wider retreat from living with a public realm, we can actually take this image literally. There was a physical retreat, an attempt to block out the world beyond the private realm of the home: this was the rise of double glazing in the 1970s.
Yes the double glazing craze was partly driven by energy efficiency (the 1973 energy crises certainly focussed the minds of homeowners on their spiralling fuel costs), and a vague sense of being ‘modern’ via home improvement – but there was also much made of the new technology’s ability to muffle the home against the noise of the outside world too. It is no coincidence that the raft of compulsory purchase laws made in the early 1970s, and their calibration of compensation principles for homeowners afflicted in the wake of new motorway schemes and airport expansion often offered up double (sometimes triple) glazing as their recompense: the victim fortified indoors in the face of an unstoppable march of concrete laying outdoors.
Thus, modernism’s project aspired to a technocratic control over soundscapes, ambient sound as an unwanted by-product of unstoppable progress, an externality, something to be channelled, muffled, designed out by the technocrats, the planners and the lawyers.
Yet in recent years due to a congruence of technology and aesthetic sensibilities, some ambient soundscapes have come to be seen as a resource to cherish, a facet of place to characterise and/or an engine of regeneration (the vibrant consumerist ‘buzz’ of the plaza anyone?). Alongside the established ranks of the motorway scheme’s acoustic engineer and the ‘noise policing’ of Environmental Health Officers we now see poets, ‘sound-artists’ and other enthusiasts attempting to valorise ambient soundscapes. Notable projects have included The London Sound Survey , the British Library’s UK Soundmap project and the Positive Soundscapes Project. These initiatives (and many others) create a strange mesh of acoustic science and aesthetic poetics.
There is a conservationist sensibility to the fore here – born of a realisation that soundscapes can be lost for ever. And this sentiment can come to the surface now, because technology enables us to have a realistic stab at capturing soundscapes in a meaningful way. Smartphone apps, social media and digital recorders enable collaborative archival ‘capture’ of samples of soundscapes for posterity, with linking of those samples to maps via geo-coding enabling an interactive place-sound (and time) based interrogation of the aural archive.
Perhaps when they are grown up, my kids will be able to salve their adult nostalgic yearning for the lost soundscapes of their youth by logging into one of these archives and re-living the sound-moment courtesy of a passing enthusiast’s carefully executed and geo-logged sampling of the local sound-world outside their bedroom windows earlier today.
Barr, J. (1971) The Assaults on our Senses, Sphere: London.
PoS (Port of Sheffield) (2012) The Port of Sheffield Digital Trail at http://www.theportofsheffield.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/PoS_Booklet_final.pdf
Human League (1979) ‘Almost Medieval’, Reproduction, Virgin: London (Song). Available as a rather odd mash-up of various 21st century ‘knights and castles’ films, 1979 performance footage of the Human League performing the song and shots of office life and buildings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKTngFdEueQ
Sennett, R. (2003) The Fall of Public Man, Penguin: London.
Toop, D. (2007) ‘To move with sound’ in: Carlyle, A. Autumn Leaves: sound and the environment in artistic practise, Paris: Double Entendre (reference via Taing, Z. (n.d.) ‘Sonorous City – London Soundscape Project’ at: www.zaitang.com/…/ZaiTang_KandKleeElecAcouEssay.pdf)
Interior View of the Old Duff-Norton Plant (Allegheny Drop Forge), 1925 Otto Kuhler (1894-1976) via http://www.bornoffire.org/exhibition/getart_gallery.cfm?ID=32