White Noise
Made in White City

Remembering London

A cassette tape, a dial-up modem, a Crazy Frog ringtone: as sounds define increasingly small periods of time, these are already the noises of the past. And the field recordist in the city is the canary in the coal mine – there to record what they hear, but also to warn of impending changes.

The Cities and Memory project is a global sound map. But it doesn't simply remember: it reimagines. Each recording is paired with a piece of sound art composed from the original, nudging people listen anew. Founder Stuart Fowkes shared five favourite London recordings from the site.

WORDS - Stuart Fowkes

In a world in which we are all carrying high-end audio recorders with us as well as cameras, it remains a source of some surprise that the sounds of a city are nowhere near as available to us from a distance as its sights. Try finding a picture of the London Eye, as compared to finding a recording of its sounds. 

You can point out the “pics or it didn’t happen” visually-dominated culture of the last ten years, or that taking a point-and-click photo is a hundred times easier for most people. Equally, listening to field recordings or soundscapes is almost the equivalent of slow cooking next to fast food, for the time commitment it involves compared with flipping through a photo gallery. But there’s more to it than this. 

If I ask you what London looks like, ninety-nine in a hundred people will speak of Buckingham Palace, the London Eye or the view of Tower Bridge. But if I ask you what London sounds like, you’re more likely to zoom in close on the sounds that make up the much more mundane fabric of everyday life, like the way the train doors and announcements sound on the Underground, or the bustle and noise of Borough, Camden or Brixton Market.

Defining city soundscapes often takes us away from the big sights of a city. The sounds that tourists notice first, or that citizens treasure most, are most closely related to the everyday – and what we experience as quotidian is usually also that which is most easily ignored or lost. 

This everyday sound is most obvious in London when you consider the Underground. Instantly familiar to anyone who has visited the city, it is not only distinct from other metros around the world, but also changes character as you travel across stations, just as London is divided into distinct villages above ground. 

This pair of tracks from Great Portland Street puts on display the sounds of an tube train arriving onto the platform and the echo of “mind the gap,” with the recomposed version bringing out the percussive elements of the train wheels as its focus.

One of my favourite places to record in London is Brixton. It's the very cliché of the cultural melting pot we hear so much about, but with so much going sonically it’s hard not to recommend: steel drum bands, the beautiful street market, and here the sounds of a passionate street preacher on Electric Avenue – all fire and brimstone until she is transformed into something even more unnerving in Tim Waterfield’s reimagined version.

Having disregarded the iconic sights of London as sonically uninteresting, there is one we cannot skip over in any survey of the city’s sounds: the booming chimes of Big Ben. When the chimes are silenced for planned maintenance work in the near future, millions will know about it instantly for the gap it leaves in their lives. These two sounds capture Big Ben chiming four o’clock, an impressive and instantly familiar sound even when the recording was captured on a mobile phone as here. The reimagined version by Alex McHattie, part of our Oblique Strategies project, blends Big Ben with the Hamleys toy store at Heathrow airport. 

London's museums reveal some fascinating soundscapes among their exhibits. One of my favourites, the Royal College of Surgeons, is tucked away on a side street, but packed with incredible exhibits from medical history, and some interesting sonic features, such as this commentary on open heart surgery, transformed into an uneasy and unsettling ambient piece by Canadian artist Eric Powell.

Finally, we head to Covent Garden, home of street performers and retail therapy. It’s one of London’s gaudiest tourist spots, and undoubtedly one of the defining soundscapes of the city for visitors. Our field recording starts with tourists getting directions from a local, and ends with a typical musical busking performance outside on a pretty atypical instrument, a lap steel guitar. The recomposed sound imagines station announcements in 12 different languages, from German and Arabic all the way through to Klingon, to celebrate the diversity of this great city.

There is no defining soundscape, no single truth to this vast city. We must, though, be aware that London’s sounds are in danger of becoming as homogenised as its high streets. London is in desperate need of recognition for its idiosyncratic sounds, and a blue plaque system would be most welcome in turning the background noise down and the focus up on some of the most significant. Tucked away in London’s little villages, in its bustling markets and among its most famous sights are hundreds of different soundscapes waiting to be discovered every day. All we have to do to hear them is to start listening. 

Photo: VictorHuang / iStock.

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