An Outline of a Critique of Political Economy

I am old enough to remember decimalisation, which finally took place in Britain forty years ago this week. As an eleven-year-old in his first year at secondary school, who had never been abroad, it was my first taste of that slightly queasy feeling you get when you have to think in two different currencies at once. I recall the frisson as p’s and d’s mingled promiscuously in my pocket, the conversion tables on the walls of post offices and newsagents, the impending obsolescence of the eleven and twelve times tables.

But above all I am reminded of an event some ten years later: now a student at Birmingham University whose routes across the city often took in one of the alternative bookshops that nurtured the subculture. These institutions, defined negatively in that they offered what mainstream bookshops did not – a good coverage of left-wing politics, imported fiction and poetry, alternative health and non-western religion – nevertheless came to feel as if they obeyed a single organic principle.

They flourished in university towns, but not exclusively. As a teenager, I regularly visited a tiny one in Blackburn, Lancashire on my way home from school, spending money from a paper round on treats like How to Grow Your Own Marijuana, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and the latest issues of Peace News.

Nowadays, that rapprochement is almost over, the trade fragmented between Buddhist Centres, herbalist emporia, welfare rights offices, with gentrified boutiques like the London Review Bookshop virtually the only places left for readers who think of themselves of independent mind. Where now can you walk in off the street and pick up a copy of Amilcar Cabral, Alexandra Kollontai or Ernest Mandel?

The nearest to my first flat in Birmingham was in Moseley, its volumes of Gramsci and Jung always faintly perfumed with jasmine and patchouli, although, with its squeaky wooden floors and gloomy mezzanine to the rear, retaining a studious air missing from its more activist-oriented twin situated on the curve of St Martins Circus Queensway in the city centre, filled with natural light that nurtured house plants and made hand-written cards curl around drawing pins on the noticeboard.

A mile away was the Communist Party bookshop, tucked away a block or two back from the busy A38, which pretty much stuck to printed material and felt a little more intimidating and austere in comparison, although it was already livened up with the snazzy covers of Martin Jacques’ Marxism Today and Robert Natkin’s colourful abstract paintings that adorned the cover of the first generation of Verso’s translations of French, German and Italian socialist intellectuals (most of whom are hardly spoken of today).

Not that these developments left much mark on Progressive Books and Asian Arts in Selly Oak. There were fans, incense, some fabrics and posters, but I was drawn to the shelves lined with the cream paperbacks of Peking’s Foreign Languages Press editions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and of course Mao himself, alongside the darker hues of the rather more durable hardbacks that offered their Selected or Collected Works. A ramble on the web just now tells me that the bookshop was run in the 1970s by Jagmothan Joshi, General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association, a fact of which I was completely unaware at the time. When I used to visit, the proprietor was a taciturn and somewhat intense man in his late twenties or early thirties, perhaps an eternal postgraduate, whose longish hair, cardigan and brown suede shoes made me think of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Not long after I discovered it, the shop was holding a closing-down sale, offering two-thirds off all stock. I chose The Poverty of Philosophy (60p, still pencilled on the now rather faded cover), Selected Letters of Marx and Engels (also 60p), Anti-Dühring (which seems to have disappeared from my collection) and a volume of Mao’s Selected Writings that included the Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan and On Contradiction (£2). Even at marked prices they represented excellent value for money at a time when – as a glance at the back covers of other books I bought around the same time reveals – a copy of Discipline and Punish would have set me back £2.95 and Althusser’s For Marx a stomach-clenching £4.25.

And for each one, Stockhausen diligently calculated the promised discount. And what I liked about this ritual was, when he took up the Penguin edition of Engels’ Selected Works and noticed that the price printed on the back cover – for it must have been on the shelf for more than a decade – was an uncorrected 7 shillings and sixpence, without missing a beat he rapidly executed the mental arithmetic and informed me, with a hint of a smile, that I owed him 12½p.

I don’t know if this sale made the slightest difference to his fortunes as he made his way in the world following the shop’s demise. But in honouring the agreement to reduce his prices to the point at which they became almost meaningless I think he made a tiny difference to mine.

Our Future

Yesterday, the Observer, followed a long – but not, I think, distinguished – New Year tradition of asking a panel of experts to predict the future. Specifically, their brief was to identify the key developments they expected to take place in the next twenty five years in various fields, ‘from the web to wildlife, the economy to nanotechnology, politics to sport.’

What is troubling about this – and similar – projections is not their proverbial inaccuracy. An AIDS vaccine, driverless cars, the answer to the dark matter question. Who knows if and when they will arrive? The problem is their use of the first person plural.

  • ‘We will be sharing videos, simulations, experiences and environments, on a multiplicity of devices to which we’ll pay as much attention as a light switch.’
  • ‘I think we’ll be cycling and walking more.’
  • ‘We’ll learn more about intervening in our biology at the sub-cellular level and this nano-medicine will give us new hope of overcoming really difficult and intractable diseases.’

What is it about the future tense that makes ‘we’ so attractive? Switch it to the present or the past and the universality it seems to imply would look distinctly forced. Is it not possible that some people might benefit or suffer from these changes more than others? Will the shining rays of the world to come strike us all at the same angle?

Why is it that these predictions always seem to invoke an undifferentiated ‘we’ when the disappearance of social division and inequality is not one of them?

Playing with Chekhov

I recently came across an old notebook in which I scribbled a holiday diary of sorts. As usual it petered out quickly into merely practical memos (addresses, phone numbers, train times) but it began well – as these things often do, with the enforced captivity of a transatlantic flight as inspiration. In this case, it was en route from Amsterdam to Washington DC that I read Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with Lapdog’ (in David Magarshack’s translation), and felt compelled to record my responses.

The dog plays only a minor role in the story. G, a late thirties’ serial adulterer, is in Yalta, his curiosity excited by a new arrival, a lady with a lapdog. He sees her first walking along the promenade as he sits in a restaurant. And then again, and again. Always ‘followed by the white pomeranian’. ‘No one knew who she was, and she became known as the lady with the lapdog.’

The narrator tells us a little about his marriage and his attitude towards women, which is disrespectul, and yet he is drawn to female company, as women are to him. He is seized with the desire to seduce her, and his chance comes when she happens to sit at the next table in a restaurant in the park. The dog provides useful pretext to talk to her, for G first attracts its attention, and in fact she speaks to him first: ‘He doesn’t bite,’ she said and blushed. She says she’s bored in Yalta and G makes a droll remark that gently chides her statement as a somewhat ridiculous cliché.

That’s what one usually hears people saying here. A man may be living in Belev and Zhizdra or some other God-forsaken hold and he isn’t bored, but the moment he comes here all you hear from him is “Oh, it’s so boring! Oh, the dust!” You’d think he’d come from Granada!

She laughs. We learn her name, A, and she’s quite young, only two years married, although she doesn’t know what her husband’s job is. G is attracted to her youth – only recently ‘she had been a schoolgirl like his own daughter’; to her ‘diffidence and angularity’ evident in her laughter and her conversation with a stranger. G concludes that is is the first time she had found herself alone in the company of predatory men.

He gets off with her, but the time comes for her to return home to S__ and they both seem to agree that they will never see each other again. But G is unable to get her out of his head and in December he tells his wife he is going to St Petersburg, but instead goes to S__ where he takes a room in a hotel and, having learnt A’s address, observes the house from the street. He hears her playing the piano, and even sees an old woman appear at the front door with the lapdog. But he can’t risk announcing his presence, and returns to his hotel, deciding to go to the theatre that evening to the first performance of The Geisha Girl. And of course A is also there, with a man he supposes is her husband. During the interval he takes advantage of her husband’s absence to approach her seat in the stalls. She hurriedly leaves the auditorium and they steal a few tense, intimate moments on a narrow staircase. She implores him to leave immediately, but promises to visit G in Moscow.

And she does. Every few months, she leaves P__ to visit her Moscow gynaecologist (so she tells her husband, who believes her and doesn’t believe her), takes a room at the Slav Bazaar, dispatching a porter with a message for G when she arrives.

The story concludes with an account of one of these secret meetings. (On this occasion, he doesn’t receive her message till the following morning, and he goes to the hotel after dropping his daughter off at school). She bursts into tears, wanting so much the secrecy to end, while G glances at himself in the mirror – reflecting on his advancing years and realizing that he had fallen in love for the first time in his life. And Chekhov leaves us on the threshold of a complicated future.

Then they had a long talk. They tried to think how they could get rid of the necessity of hiding, telling lies, living in different towns, not seeing one another for so long. How were they to free themselves from their intolerable chains?
‘”How? How?” he asked himself, clutching at his head. “How?”

And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin; but both of them knew very well that the end was still a long, long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.

If we rewrote this story and moved it closer to home, with a title like ‘Lady with Laptop’, how would this work? The opening scenes could take place in Rothesay. G would be from Glasgow. A from a small town outside Edinburgh: Musselburgh perhaps.

A would certainly attract some comment if she appeared in Rothesay, sitting down in parks, restaurants, opening up her laptop and typing away. Certainly it would provide a useful ‘way in’ for a predatory male such as G to initiate a conversation.

The laptop, like the dog, could fade into the background once it had served this purpose (maybe reappearing – like the dog – once more, as G stalks outside her Musselburgh home, and catches a glimpse of it through the window?). But it would be good to introduce a twist.

One possibility is that she herself is writing a story. So while Chekhov’s story privileges G’s point of view – and it is his transformation from adulterer to genuine lover that is its focus – this reworking would offer a glimpse of A’s version of the affair as it appears in the story or diary she is writing on her laptop. Or perhaps she’s posting updates to a blog or social network account of which G, but not the reader, is totally unaware.

Not Biking but Hiking

In a previous post I drew on a much-quoted passage from George Orwell – the miscellaneous catalogue of what he thought were ‘characteristic fragments of the English scene’ which included that line about ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings’. It wouldn’t be quite so well known, perhaps, if John Major hadn’t used it in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1993, changing ‘biking’ to ‘cycling’, presumably to make sure we didn’t confuse these old maids with Hell’s Angels.

And then last night I started reading Stuart Maconie’s Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England (2009). I’m not sure why. I guess books about Englishness are my version of car crash TV. There is something compellingly baffling about the way journalists, travel writers and cultural critics talk about Englishness as if it were a remotely meaningful concept. You won’t find its equivalent anywhere else. The French obsessing over francaisitude or an Italian crisis of italianità? Even the Scots only talk about Scottishness in order to disown it. In fact if there is one thing that the English do have in common, it is an uncontrollable urge to talk about Englishness, something they never define, just illustrate with lists which they trade with each other like marbles or cigarette cards.

Anyway, Maconie writes just two pages before he cites Orwell. And then he makes the following remark:

Orwell actually had his maids ‘hiking’, which sounds oddly transatlantic; Major’s misquotation is the one that has passed into legend.

This rather took me aback. Had I got it wrong? I surely wasn’t the only one. I hunted out my copy of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume II: ‘My Country Right or Left’ (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968). There on page 57 it was unmistakable: ‘biking.’ It is the only edition I had and the library was shut so I couldn’t check further. But what is Maconie’s authority for ‘hiking’?

Comparative web searching produces surprising results. On Google, ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion’ yielded 1,120 hits, while ‘old maids hiking to Holy Communion’ gave 258. Google Books scored 122 and 3 respectively. ‘Biking’ was a clear winner, but why so many for ‘hiking’?

It would seem that the culprit is an electronic version of the essay, available online from K1 Internet Publishing based in Vienna. Like many electronic books – especially unauthorized ones – it does not specify the source document. Even in the single paragraph in which this line appears I spotted at least three more variations from the Secker and Warburg edition. Is this a case of careless editing by the team that digitized it? Or is it – unlikely as it may appear – an ur-text that deserves wider recognition? Somehow, I don’t see the – notoriously litigious – Orwell estate giving out prizes any time soon.

House Music

David Toop’s latest book, Sinister Resonance, subtitled ‘The Mediumship of the Listener’, makes much of a remark by Marcel Duchamp: ‘One can look at seeing; one can’t hear hearing.’ What I heard – or think I heard – at Instal 2010(Tramway, Glasgow) the other night seems to suggest otherwise.

Earlier in the year, the House Project began with two sound artists, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Eric La Casa, being invited into four Glasgow homes, and the householder asked to play their favourite music, to identify their favourite room and to talk about their acoustic environment while a roving microphone, as it were, went exploring. They were also asked to comment on the recordings when they were played back to them on headphones. You can listen to the original recordings made at the time here. (See also this blog post by a guinea-pig for their next project).

But we heard almost none of this during the live performance. On stage were three musicians and two actors, listening to carefully edited and co-ordinated versions of these recordings played to them through headphones. The actors seemed to be responding to a spoken-word track, repeating the voices word-for-word as far as they could. The musicians seemed to be responding to a track consisting largely of ambient sounds, mimicking with their instruments (a prepared guitar, a saxophone and a basic drum kit) the sound of doors opening and closing, floorboards creaking, toilets flushing, the music playing on the stereo. Occasionally, excerpts from the raw field recordings were played through loudspeakers, as well as some spoken word samples taken from elsewhere.

It is quite hard to describe, and may well sound like a recipe for disaster. But it made sense. It was intriguing, unpredictable and often funny–though it’s true some of the humour came from the foreign accent (real or feigned) of one of the actors that meant his performance sounded at times like a routine by Peter Sellers or Sacha Baron Cohen.

It was also unsettling because of the way it turned conventional relationships on their head. For example, this was not free improvisation. The actors and musicians were not just following some previously discussed guidelines; they were effectively realising a score. But a score that took the form of recorded sounds rather than notated paper, and one revealed to the performers – for the first time perhaps? – in real time, so that what we witnessed was a cross between an aural test and sight reading.

The ‘score’ did seem to allow enough latitude, though, to make us think again about hearing and listening. About how they are, even at their most passive, still activities – improvisations, even (to cite Toop a second time) – which involve fluctuating levels of attention, changing focus and depth of field. Damn, I’ve resorted to visual metaphors again. Perhaps the only way you can avoid them is to, well, listen to people listening.

 

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Twelve hours later I’m still being stalked by this film. The Mexicans Are All Right I think it was called. A withering portrait of self-absorbed adults from the point of view of two adolescents, if I have understood correctly. In one scene – surely a fable in which the audience is meant to recognize itself – one of the adults realizes her Third World employee had been enjoying some sneaky glimpses of her adulterous romps while he should have been working in the garden. She’s unsettled by his expression and challenges him. ‘That’s not a look,’ he says. ‘It’s my face.’

Whatever. I woke this morning from the richest dream-world I had been in for a long time. I was briefly flung together with a former partner. We were both so concerned not to give in to our old feelings, there were some tender caresses and a strip of flesh, but mostly we circulated independently during what seemed to be a holiday reunion weekend. We were out and about, catching performances at a festival of some sort, then returned to a house our friends had rented. Or perhaps it belonged to the parents of one of them. There was some uncertainty about the sleeping arrangements. Nervously, I bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in months and smoked one. I went out and came back as it was getting light, a little drunk and dripping wet, frantically trying to locate my bag so I could put on some dry clothes, in the end finding only a shirt that wasn’t quite long enough to be decent.

The epilogue featured me sitting on some steps in warm sunlight. I was in the centre of a small town, among people I knew, taking photographs of their children, and some poorly-dressed kids I hadn’t seen before, who unexpectedly walked into shot. ‘Street arabs,’ I called them, hoping they would not miss my irony.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Hampshire Town?

In an appealing article on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Don Paterson speaks up in favour of a more direct, personal response to the poems, against some of the more forbidding works of literary critics. Yet he lets slip a rather extensive knowledge of their Elizabethan context which he then seems to assume his reader shares. As if we’re all clued up on the names and addresses of Shakespeare’s known associates. ‘The trouble,’ he says, ‘is that it’s impossible to read the sonnets without speculating on identities.’

Well not for me. But then again I know as little about Tudor England as I do about…

Quite why I resolve the momentary dilemma of having to choose just one thing from the vast gunny sack of my ignorance by lighting on modern Basingstoke is something of a mystery. Perhaps the home of the Automobile Association and the Macmillan publishing firm ranks quite high in the list of British placenames that proverbially suggest a certain comic mediocrity. And for those who would say that it’s not too difficult to imagine Basingstoke if you haven’t been there, that a quick visit to a small library or a well-aimed search query should reveal its essential features if not its deepest secrets, I would refer them to my birthplace. In twenty years I acquired a high level of psycho-geographical mastery of its back streets, playing fields, waste grounds and cul de sacs. But of most of the neighbouring towns and villages I saw little beyond the main roads that passed through them, oblivious of the unexpected turns and confusing junctions that would have no doubt greeted those strangers who dared to alight from the bus, overtaken by a sudden impulse to explore the unknown.

The nearest I’ve been to Basingstoke was during the few summer months I spent in Reading in 1979, lodging with a Ukrainian couple near Cemetery Junction. Twice, I think, some friends with a car drove me to a country pub off the A33 and a bracing walk on a day that may or may not have resembled the one the author of Sonnet 18 had in mind when he penned its first line.

Listening to Britain

I remember as a kid taking enormous pleasure out of prodding a sleeping body and discovering what kinds of noises I could provoke, like the odd groan or whistle, then getting up close for an earful of a rumbling tummy or restless fingers. Imagine if you could do that with a whole country, I thought, prowling round it like Gulliver in Lilliput, bending down to listen to its secrets.

Well now you can. I have just been idly plucking feathers from a Google Map and listening to the sound escape. I started off drinking coffee at Heathrow,Terminal Three. Then I caught the sound of dogs in suffolk and arctic terns in Shetland, overheard bikers outside a cafe on the A4074 and someone opening a garage door on the Black Isle. I went on a ghost train in Blackpool and a boat cruise in Cardiff Bay. I waited for Prince Charles in Todmorden before baling hay in Gloucestershire.

This is the UK Sound Map, a fascinating new project run by the British Library, which invites people to contribute short field recordings that together will form ‘a permanent public record of everyday sounds.’ Launched in July 2010 as a pilot study in the Sheffield area, it now welcomes submissions across the United Kingdom. Boosted by some favourable publicity (notably a plug on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in August), it has received nearly a thousand contributions so far, including some from me. I’ve particularly enjoyed those of olyerminefelixbadanimaledirolrockscottage and the ubiquitous, eavesdropping mythalatte.

Audioboo

Contributors must sign up to Audioboo. Of the several sites that host user-submitted sound recordings (such as freesoundMySpaceBandcampSoundCloud or the Internet Archive), Audioboo is one of the easiest to use and the only one, to my knowledge, that allows you to submit material direct from a mobile device. With the growing popularity of smartphones that offer not just the ability to record sounds but also a wi-fi or 3G internet connection that allows you to upload the recordings you have made, this seems an obvious choice.

Audioboo has been designed for the spoken word, and this means it has a number of limitations as a repository of field recordings. The first is sound-quality. While you can also upload sound recordings made on any number of sophisticated devices if you transfer them to a computer and use the standard web interface, most submissions to Audioboo seem to be made on smartphones. Although it does seem possible to connect a good-quality stereo microphone to, say, an iPhone (I’ve never tried but the Blue Mikey and the Alesis ProTrack both claim to solve the problem), in general most use the built-in mono microphone that was designed for phone calls and voice memos. Not only is it low quality it is also quite hard to protect from the sound recordist’s enemy number one, wind noise (but, as a post on the Sound Map’s blog helpfully points out, you can reduce this with the judicious use of a sock).

The second major limitation is the way Audioboo does not provide the means for users to describe their files. You can give them a title, provide tags, link them to images, and locate the place of recording on a map. But anyone used to submitting images or audio to, say, YouTube or Flickr or SoundCloud, will be frustrated that you can’t write a little something about, for example, when you made the recording (it only records the date and time you uploaded it), the circumstances, the equipment you used, the sounds themselves and what they might be if not immediately recognizable. There are two ways round this problem. You can comment on your ‘boo’ in your own voice in the recording itself (for a good example listen to auralexplorer‘s reflections on a field behind her old house). Or you can use the commenting facility on the website. But either way this information doesn’t form part of the data record itself, and therefore does not appear (not even in abridged form) when you come across the boo on the map or when it is embedded in a third-party website, when it might look like this:

You would need to click on the (invisible) link on the Audioboo logo to be transferred to the boo’s original page to get any contextual information about this recording

The tagging feature is useful. Anyone wanting their audioboo considered for inclusion on the UK soundmap should simply include the ‘uksm’ tag. This means anyone can browse the list of submissions. But many users also add other tags – as the soundmap blog has recommended – that help people find recordings with a specific theme or context (such as football or horses or seaside or night). To search by location, the best place to start is the map itself, although you have to drag and zoom in and out to get somewhere in particular. (The search facility has not worked the times I have tried, so I can’t tell how it handles queries by placename or postcode).

Whose everyday?

But what of the recordings themselves? The British Library seem to have taken the decision to be as unprescriptive as possible. Beyond an injunction to ‘record your everyday surroundings’, it says very little. It does tell us that the recordings will form the raw material for a research project (in association with the Noise Futures Network) that will engage with ‘artists, industry, educational bodies and policy makers’. But that is all.

This lack of prescription only increases the weight of expectation carried by the name of the project itself. Even though the project relies, exclusively it would seem, on unsolicited contributions, one might expect it to strive for a certain level of comprehensiveness and consistency. If I bought an OS map that left blank all the ground above 500m I would have good reason to ask for my money back. What would be an equivalent omission on a sound map? A map in which most of the contributions came from North London or one which featured only barking dogs or market traders would not, I assume, be considered a success. A sound map of the ‘United Kingdom’ – and one, moreover, co-ordinated by a publicly-funded body such as the British Library – cannot avoid being judged in terms of its ‘representativeness’, even though no such claim is being made, and even though there could be no way of objectively measuring it.

So how ‘representative’ of Britain are the sounds submitted so far? Are there too many recordings of some and not enough of others? Whose ‘everyday surroundings’ are being documented here? Some tentative – and necessarily subjective – observations follow.

Firstly, and perhaps unavoidably, some ‘found’ sounds are much harder to record than others. In some cases, to make a recording – even discreetly – would be considered rude or impractical. This no doubt explains why recordings made in relatively anonymous public places (stations, shops, streets, parks and so on) predominate over those made in more personal, private arenas (such as birthday parties, weddings, funerals, meetings, changing rooms, nurseries) or in circumstances in which the would-be sound recordist may be otherwise engaged (jogging, cycling, driving or operating heavy machinery). And there may be places where any kind of recording is pretty much ruled out – prisons, courtrooms, detention centres come to mind – though I’m sure it won’t stop some people trying.

Secondly, one has to consider the demographic of a smartphone user; perhaps more specifically a smartphone user who is sufficiently geeky (and sociologically-inclined) to make field recordings, upload them and tag them. It would probably be safe to say that such a group is not as diverse as the population as a whole. And no doubt this is one reason why the soundmap so far has many more recordings of trains, restaurants, festivals and supermarkets than it has of buses, betting shops, benefit offices and hospital wards.

Britishness

But there is a third factor that might be said to reduce the chances of the sound map capturing the rich variety of British soundscapes, and this is harder to pin down.

Even when the first two factors are taken into account, there is something extra that inclines contributors to select particular sounds over others as worthy or appropriate to record and submit to a ‘UK Sound Map’. One thing that makes it harder for the map to be representative of the UK is, paradoxically, the influence of powerful common sense notions what is ‘typically British’.

Now, we all know that these notions are vigorously contested. They are tossed around in every debate on citizenship and immigration. Certainly they are quite varied and subject to change. Take George Orwell’s attempt in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941) to capture ‘the English scene’, which here, not unusually, stands in for a somewhat larger entity (his population count would suggest that the ‘we’ embraces the Scots and Welsh too):

Are there really such things as nations? Are we not 46 million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Notice how easily this list could be translated into recordable sounds. Most of them, however, are not readily available to the roving smartphone user of today, which shows how dated these attempts to nail Britishness often are. You only have to place it alongside this one from Hanif Kureishi (responding to a similar list offered by T S Eliot) in a report on Bradford written for Granta magazine in 1986.

If one were compiling such a list today there would have to be numerous additions to the characteristic activities of the British people. They would include: yoga exercises, going to Indian restaurants, the music of Bob Marley, the novels of Salman Rushdie, Zen Buddhism, the Hare Krishna Temple, as well as the films of Sylvester Stallone, therapy, hamburgers, visits to gay bars, the dole office and the taking of drugs.

This vision is old enough to feel dated in its turn. But if nostalgia is an essential part of Britishness then it’s not surprising that Orwell’s list seems to have greater resonance. At least with certain conservative politicians, like John Major who quoted from it in a speech in 1993 – though he had the women ‘cycling’ rather than ‘biking’, presumably in case we imagined them in leather jackets and crash helmets.

Could we say that the same preference prevails among the contributors to the UK Sound Map? Apart from the preponderance of a wide variety of nature sounds (birdsong, the sea, wind, and rain), in terms of culture it does seem that the British soundscape is closer to 1941 than 1986. A little more up-market and hi-tech perhaps but just as monocultural. Of the many clips that feature people’s voices, there are almost none in a language other than English.

But perhaps more decisive is what the two lists have in common. Despite their glaring differences, they both imagine Britain from the point of view of a consumer or passer-by. Even Orwell’s clogs and lorries are heard by a bystander rather than the people wearing or driving them. Similarly, the sounds of the map are overwhelmingly those associated with leisure outside the home.

The sounds of the workplace – especially those off-limits to the public (factories, call centres, farms, offices, warehouses) – are almost entirely absent, as are those of the family home (another kind of workplace for some). It’s why the occasional samples of, say, typingcavity wall-fillingteeth-brushing and ironing stand out so much.

It would seem that a call for contributions to a national map inclines people to think of sounds associated with public spaces – with public transport easily the most popular category. This is not just a question of convenience. It’s as if only these sounds could qualify as being nationally significant. Perhaps most people only feel ‘British’ (if they do at all) when rubbing shoulders with strangers when out shopping, commuting or attending large-scale cultural events.

The map’s basic guidelines encourage contributors to think of ‘what your home, leisure and work environments sound like’. Can it be that this inclusive category of the ‘everyday’ (in which all three have their place) is trumped by the rather more discriminatory filter of ‘Britishness’ (dominated by just one of them)?

All these exclusions are perhaps unfortunate, but they are not inevitable. Consider them as a challenge. But the only way you’re going to really break the habits that are beginning to surface in the map is to hand out recording devices to a lot of people who would never dream of contributing to such a project. I wonder if their sounds might be the most interesting of all.

Improv

L’homme a deux oreilles, l’oreille animale et l’oreille idéale (Victor Hugo).

This afternoon I went to see the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. They were playing live to a series of short films by Hans Richter, one of the lesser-known artists associated with the Dada movement, though arguably one of its best chroniclers. I have owned a hardback copy of his Dada: Art and Anti-Art since I was seventeen. With Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music, which I must have acquired around the same time, it became a kind of bible on which I swore an oath of fidelity to the avant-garde. We have had our ups and downs over the years, but we’re still together, which must count for something.

They introduced me to a whole continent of strangeness whose existence I had until then only suspected, although the authorial voice in both books was perhaps a little too mild-mannered for their subject matter. And this came back to me when talking to someone after the screening. She said she expected something a bit more risky and unconstrained from the ensemble. At least that’s what the word ‘improvised’ suggested to her.

And I can see her point. At the end, the band took questions from the floor, and most of them were about how they rehearsed and planned and organized their improvisations. One film, they decided, would be accompanied by mainly long notes; the next by short. For another they chose to use ‘conduction’ in which one member of the group used various signals to convey rhythm and pitch to the others.

Maybe by lifting the veil on their working methods, they gave the audience too much information, making the performance sound more constrained in retrospect than it actually was. From where I was sitting, that collective discipline of listening and responding to others was almost infectious, but it didn’t stop the music feeling unpredictable.

In any case, while you might be able to legislate the shape of a performance, you don’t have control over the audience. The man sitting two seats away from me snored throughout, though with such a pleasing range of timbre and such comic timing, I began to wonder if he wasn’t a member of the ensemble after all.

And for the first half hour or so, the orchestra was joined, unofficially (of this I was sure), by a small infant, who did his or her best to imitate the staccato woodwind or tremolo strings. His mother – with a courage that I doubt I could have matched – remained in the auditorium long enough for the annoyance of some listeners to become audible, adding a ostinato of faint sighs, snorts and sucking of teeth. After disappearing through the exit doors close by, she bravely returned twice, though the child was not silent for long. The second time, I heard someone behind me whisper – just a little too loudly perhaps – ‘For fuck’s sake!’ But once they were gone for good, there were moments in some of the quieter passages, when you could hear an abbreviated cry echoing in a corridor far away.

That’s improvisation.

Keynotes, Signals and Soundmarks

Today (Sunday 18th July) has been designated the first World Listening Day. An initiative of the World Listening Project it aims to ‘to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology.’

The date was chosen because it is the birthday of R Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer who founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in the late 1960s. His book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977) was a path-breaking attempt to create a vocabulary and analytical framework for thinking about – and listening to – the everyday sounds around us. He defined features of the soundscape such as the keynote (background sound, often emerging from the natural environment), the signal (foregound sound, designed to attract attention), and the soundmark (unique and of special significance to the community).

I found some fascinating observations here. I was particularly taken by the idea that the tonal centre of soundscapes dominated by the buzz and hum of electrical equipment varies according to the frequency adopted by the country in question (eg 60 Hz in North America, 50 Hz in Europe, ie. B natural or G sharp).

But his argument is so closely tied to a narrative of disappointment and decline (from rural idyll to urban alienation), Schafer comes across as a bit of a prematurely grumpy old man (the book was first published in his 40s) who is not prepared to appreciate the rich complexity of the sounds of the city.

There are some exceptions. For instance, he does seem to have succumbed to the romance of railroads. And he can’t quite bring himself to condemn the drone – a keynote of industrial soundscapes and yet valued by ancient musics and religions. But when he asks: ‘If we must be distracted ten or twenty times each day, why not by pleasant sounds? Why could not everyone choose his or her own telephone signal?’ – you doubt that he welcomed the ringtone revolution when it eventually came.

The project’s study of Vancouver was documented on a double LP released in 1973, and subsquently re-issued on CD entitled Soundscape Vancouver with addtional recordings made in the 1990s, allowing listeners to register changes in the city’s soundcape over the intervening twenty years.

While a concern to salvage sounds which are disappearing no doubt continues to motivate those engaged in soundscape research, many of them also have an ear for emergent sounds. Not just new sounds or new combinations of sounds that transform the soundscapes we inhabit but sounds which only become clearly audible through the use of new recording techniques. The Interpreting the Soundscape CD curated by Peter Cusack (and included in a special issue of Leonardo Music Journal) – which may serve as a useful introduction to more recent work – includes underwater recordings of the North Atlantic, amplfied insect sounds, and the electromagnetic signals emitted by security gates.

User-Generated Content

Such field recordings remain the province of specialists. But with the wider availability of portable recording equipment (built in to laptops and smartphones) and means of distribution (via email, phone messaging and online public repositories), people are capturing the sounds they hear around them more than ever before. Including myself, though I am fairly new to the game. Three online repositories I have used include:

  • The Freesound Project: field recordings make up a large part of this vast repository of user-contributed sounds. The recordings are often high-quality, you can add geo-tags, and with many uploads furnished with detailed descriptions and useful keywords it is easy – and fun – to search. If you want to listen to station announcements or an indoor badminton court or a hospital trolley or someone passing through immigration at O’Hare airport or (hell, why not) next-door neighbours having sex, this is the place to go. But the interface is forbidding and uploading files is not for the faint-hearted. Those who take online social networking for granted may find it annoying that you can’t flag recordings as ‘favourites’ or ‘share’ them with a single click, and there is no embedded player.
  • SoundCloud: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material uploaded to this site which is dominated by music, but try browsing (moderated) groups such as Binaural Recording or Field Recordings. The quality of recordings is high, you can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ tracks easily, and a mobile app allows you to listen (but not upload files) away from your computer.
  • Audioboo: field recordings form a very small proportion of the material submitted here and searches for those tagged ‘fieldrecording’ yield only a handful. You can ‘favourite’ and ‘share’ and geo-tag boos easily. With its mobile app you can upload recordings made on smartphones, which seem to form the vast majority and are consequently of low sound quality, and most of them resemble voicemail messages left by mistake. But I do like this bumble-bee and this sumptuous aural panorama from a Tokyo rooftop.

If Freesound is the best place to search for recordings, SoundCloud is probably the best way to share them, and if you have an iPhone (preferably with a third-party attachment that will allow you to use a decent microphone) and want to share some audio immediately, then Audioboo is essential. I have not used SoundTransit or ipadio. The London Sound Survey has made a useful comparison of all these services.

While these repositories are not much more than searchable databases, they do offer ways of easily finding sounds related to a common location or theme, through the use of tags and keywords or (more formally) by creating ‘sample packs’ (Freesound) or user groups (SoundCloud).

But field recordings are often made for (or made use of by) specific projects, which give rise to a more systematic presentation of material. For example, they might be a contribution to a sound map, or document a soundwalk, or form part of a series of sonic postcards.

Sound Maps

A sound map may be something you draw yourself, as a way of focusing your attention on what you can hear around you, following these guidelines, for example.

But sound maps may also be collaborative projects in which users are invited to submit recordings tagged with the location in which they were made, and which are then linked to an online map. Typically, these projects are city-focused, such as those for Barcelona (uses Freesound), the Basque CountryLondonMadridMontrealSeoul (uses Audioboo) and Vienna (uses Audioboo). Soundcities is wider-ranging, as the name suggests, but many clips are very short.

More ambitious and systematic is the British Library’s UK Sound Map(uses Audioboo), currently restricted to the Sheffield area, but with plans to extend across the whole country later this year. Dizzying in its global scope (and randomness) is the Radio Aporee: Maps project, which has made a special appealfor contributions of recordings made today so as to create a mosaic of audio snapshots for World Listening Day.

There are other location-based showcases of field recordings that (so far) have not linked them to online maps, although this would seem to be an obvious development. For example the various ‘favourite sounds’ projects in LondonChicagoBeijing and elsewhere. Or the fascinating collection in Mexico’s Archivo Sonoro (like this recording made in Viveros metro station, Mexico City).

Soundwalks

What is a soundwalk?

The soundwalk is a practice of focused listening in which one moves through an environment with complete attention to sound. Any environment, at any time of day or night, can provide space for soundwalking. Sometimes the walks are guided by a written or verbal instruction (a “score”) and sometimes not. The participants may walk blindfolded, or stand still, or move in response to the soundfield. Sometimes the walker activates the soundscape – “playing along” with the sounds – using the voice, musical instruments or objects encountered along the way. On occasion the walks are recorded and other times they are simply free form ambles through sound filled places. The walks are usually followed by an informal conversation about the experience.

This definition is provided by City in a Soundwalk which invites people to follow its suggestions for soundwalks in New York City or offer proposals for more.

There are useful guidelines for undertaking a sound walk on the Urban Sound Ecology website which hosts recordings of such walks in Toronto and plots them on city maps, as part of its ‘research initiative dedicated to exploring, examining, and understanding the sonic spaces of Canadian cities.’ They are now also working on a Vancouver map.

For more general reflections on the subject, the new Soundwalking Interactionswebsite may be worth keeping an eye on.

Soundwalks are usually local initiatives that are not widely publicized, but many are being organized for World Listening Day (follow this comment thread for more details).

And I’m not sure they need to be always on foot. A simlar spirit informs the annual invitation to complete a circuit of Birmingham (England)’s circular No 11 bus route and document the experience.

Sonic Postcards

Sonic Postcards is the name of an education project in the UK pioneered by Sonic Arts Network (now part of Sound and Music). Its aim is ‘to encourage pupils to engage with their sound environment and be creative with ICT.’ The website showcases the results of each school project (usually with several postcards from different pupils) and includes the results of exchanges with schools in China, Switzerland and Catalonia.

But sonic postcards would be a good name for any short recordings, often produced in a series over a period, but not tied (as most contributions to sound maps or documentations of soundwalks are) to capturing the sounds of public places. They might be more interested in sounds of more personal significance – to the individual or community who heard or made them – and exhibit a kind of intimacy that the other forms of presentation lack. Freed from what can sometimes be a curse of trying to be ‘representative’ of a place, they are more likely to give us sounds which are interesting for their own sake.

For this reason, I enjoy Headphone Commute’s sound postcards, which often have tiny stories attached to them, such as the one featuring a busking violinist at Grand Central Station or the close-up of a dog… drinking.

And while these postcards are issued on a seemingly ad hoc basis, there are other similar series which gain impetus from self-imposed rules, such as Taylor Deupree’s 2009 project, One Sound Each Day (with recordings, for example, of him making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in July or misting the houseplants in December).

Or the One-Minute Vacations created by the quiet american. Try out some ‘voodoo ice cream’ in Benin and then join the football crowd in the San Siro stadium in Milan (from Year Five).

Happy World Listening Day!