I just spent a week dog sitting in Amsterdam, by the Vondelpark. As I took the dogs on their walks I enjoyed how we synched up our paces: three dog steps to my one. I then started to notice the other beats around me – from the ticking kitchen clock where I was staying, to the cycles, birds, dogs and traffic crossing blips. I took my field recorder one of our walks to capture those sounds for this little ‘sonic postcard’. Think of it a bit like a piece of music, four beats per bar.
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If 2020 was all about lockdown and fear, then 2021 for me was all about release and hope. Of course, the pandemic is not over yet and controls may be needed for years. But with vaccines available (here in the UK, at least), it was a year when we could cautiously re-enter the world and reactivate our cities.
This is a recording of six of the bells at St Mary Le Bow church (also known as the ‘Bow Bells’) ‘ringing up’ before embarking on a quarter peal at the City of London’s Festival of Bells on 31 July 2021. The purpose of the ‘ringing up’ was to raise the bells from hanging loose mouth down, to being brought to balance up like a cup in readiness for change ringing.
I found the enveloping sound so powerful and moving: like an ecstatic release from the dull sadness of lockdown.
The pandemic had left the City eerily quiet. Not only had it been abandoned by commuters and tourists; but bell ringers had also stayed away due to the danger of Covid contagion in cramped bell towers (I’ve written more about this in Chiming During the Pandemic which was my sound of 2020). The Festival of Bells 2021 was promoted as a celebration of London reopening. It took place soon after the last legal restrictions were lifted and people could return to offices. The aim was to get as many of the City’s bells to ring as possible. One of the organisers, Trisha Shannon, told me how she had started the day unlocking bell towers, resetting stopped wall clocks and taking down calendars hanging open at March 2020.
St Mary Le Bow was the first church to perform change ringing that day; and by extension also the first since the start of the pandemic. There’s a famous saying that to be a true Londoner you have to be born within earshot of Bow Bells. It’s why I think of the bell tower as the sonic centre of London. And it’s why the sound felt to me like a reactivation of the City’s soundscape from its heart.
I spent the close of 2021 with my parents in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. I went out onto the beach one windy evening to experiment with my new contact microphone. This piece includes sounds from a fish-hut flagpole and Maggi Hamblin’s ‘Scallop’ – a giant steel scallop shell sculpture bearing the words ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes opera. I’ve combined them with piano riffs I recorded a while ago.
I’ve been visiting Aldeburgh since I was a child and the beach holds so many memories for me. Not so much of events; more of states of being alone there. I’ve tried to capture something of that here.
It has been an immense joy to work on ‘Rebel Dykes: the podcast’ these past few months. It’s a one-off feature about a remarkable community of outsider lesbians living in London in the 1980s, the work of amazing film-makers and curators to present this lost history, and why this all matters so much. (Now also available on Spotify!)
I was approached by Paul Green about producing something back in June. He had recently launched Bijou Stories: a project to create a LGBTQ+ history through collaborations between artists and communities. He had seen the Rebel Dykes documentary film at BFI Flare in March and was blown away by it. When I saw it, so was I! It’s a marvellously entertaining punk portrait of dykes living outside mainstream society and disapproved of by other feminists and lesbians. It appealed to my own rebellious streak and felt startlingly fresh and inspiring. (If you haven’t yet seen it, you must! It’s currently on general release and available on BFI player.)
Paul and I met with Siobhan Fahey, the woman behind the Rebel Dykes history project and the producer of the film. She had also been wanting to commission a podcast, so we agreed to make it a joint production.
The challenge for me was to produce something significantly distinct from the film which depicts the 80s Rebels so brilliantly (and has gone on to win multiple awards). Instead, I focused on the fact that this was a community whose stories might have been lost. That was the reason why Paul had developed Bijou Stories. And it’s what had originally motivated Siobhan – herself an 80s Rebel Dyke – who had been astonished that their history seemed to be being overlooked by academics and film-makers.
It also turned out to be the driving force behind the Rebel Dykes art and archive show held in London’s Gallery Space Station 65 over the summer. As Atalanta Kernick, one of the co-curators, said to me:
I believe that lesbians we’re separated from our own history, culture and iconography. And if you don’t know where you’ve come from, it’s hard to know where you’re going.
Her words rang so true when I spent two days in the gallery interviewing visitors. Many of the younger people knew nothing of the stories and imagery from the 80s. In fact, some had never spoken to an older lesbian before (yes, really). I was privileged to be able to capture their powerful, moving responses to the exhibition and their sense of relief and excitement at seeing imagery of people like themselves.
Working on the podcast and interviewing people (Siobhan, the film directors, exhibition curators, visitors and artists) was an incredible journey for me. I learned so much not only about the 80s Rebels (including fabulous stories that are not in the film) and the rich body of art from that period; but also about the new generation of Rebel Dyke artists (yes, the rebel spirit lives on!); about how three people who had never made a feature film managed to produce something so good in their spare time with no funding; about the challenges of curating a massively ambitious show during lockdown; about how the gaping hole in lesbian representation in films and exhibitions affects us all; and about how meaningful it is to discover the stories, history, culture and imagery of your people. It’s all in the podcast – and more!
There was something very healing and uplifting about the gallery show, where I spent a lot of time over the summer. It served both as a mirror on an under-represented community, and as a space where lesbians and queers of all ages could congregate and make new friends. And after the isolation of lockdown it’s what we all so badly needed.
I was thrilled that a recording I made last September of St Paul’s Cathedral’s bells was shortlisted for Sound of the Year 2020! It’s a newly launched ‘celebration of everyday sound (not music) in all its forms’, presented by the Museum of Sound in partnership with The New BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
I spotted the awards on social media in January and thought my recording would be worth entering for what it said about the impact of coronavirus on London’s soundscape. You can listen and read about it in my post Chiming During the Pandemic. In a nutshell, it’s of just six of the Cathedral’s bells quietly ‘chiming’ for the Sunday 11.30am service using an ‘Ellacombe apparatus’. I made the recording because I was amazed at how different it sounded to the usually exuberant twelve bells rung by ringers rotating them full circle on wheels – a sound we listen to on The London Ear. Not only were the bells strangely subdued and slow but also there was a striking lack of surrounding noise in the half-abandoned City. I made contact with the person who was chiming that day who told me about the sense of lonely disconnectedness he felt from within the bell tower. I was very moved by this as it seemed so much a condition of our Covid times.
The shortlist was featured on Radio 3’s Late Junction show last Friday where they announced the winner. Alongside my recording were ones from the Clap for Carers in London, the Women’s Strike in Poland (against the tightening of anti-abortion laws) and the Black Lives Matter protests in North America. Mine didn’t win, but it was wonderful to hear it played on live radio. The chief judge, composer Matthew Herbert, commented that the judges were impressed how it captured ‘a very particular moment when a kind of stillness emerged in our cities’. The presenter Verity Sharp described it as a ‘metaphor for a socially isolated year’. The ultimate honour of Sound of the Year 2020 went to two hugely powerful Black Lives Matter recordings: one of demonstrators in Vancouver and the other of half-comprehensible snippets from intercepted police radio communications during protests in New York. You can listen to the feature on BBC Sounds until 1st May.
When I’m not producing audio for Tickertape Productions, I devise and lead Dotmaker Tours alternative London walks. What links the two ventures is my fascination with sound. For several years I have been leading a Sunday morning walk that’s all about sound and listening: The London Ear. Here’s a piece I wrote for Dotmaker Tours about an interesting change to the City’s Sunday soundscape as a result of the Coronavirus restrictions.
Update: I entered this recording for Sound of the Year 2020 and it was shortlisted for the top award! Read more here.
Spectral frequency analysis of the bell ringing in stereo (top line for the left channel, and the bottom line for the right). Each vertical column represents a separate chime, and the brick shapes represent the frequencies of the bell’s different notes and harmonics.
The sound I have missed most since coronavirus broke out is that of church bells change ringing. When the country went into lockdown the ringing stopped as services were suspended. But even after they were resumed most ringers stayed away because of difficulties social distancing up a bell tower.
I came into the City of London on Sunday 6th September 2020 because I’d heard that St Paul’s Cathedral bells were back in action. Before the pandemic, I’d often bring people to the courtyard to listen to them ringing for 11.30am Eucharist, as part of The London Ear guided walk. The full twelve bells would create an immense noise as they rotated back and forth on wheels operated by ringers pulling ropes. All the reflected sound, overtones and passing traffic would make it hard to discern the notes being rung according to ‘methods’ (a bit like mathematical formulae for the changing sequences of bell strikes). The whole effect was spectacular, uplifting and a little disorienting.
With those memories in mind, my experience that Sunday morning felt surreal. Instead of the usual sea of sound, I heard just six bells quietly chiming the changes. For the first time, I could follow the patterns of notes. Church bells are carefully tuned to produce a ‘strike tone’ – the note that we perceive – and a range of harmonics (see image above of the spectral frequency analysis). I found my ear latching onto the harmonics hovering spookily a minor third above each bell’s strike tone. Apart from the occasional build up of buses there was little ambient noise to distract; only footsteps, chatter and the occasional bicycle wheeling across the courtyard. I spent most of my time just listening and taking in the strangeness of the situation. I did though make this short recording for my personal collection.
I since contacted the Cathedral’s Guild of ringers to find out what was happening. They explained the bells were being chimed using the Ellacombe apparatus attached to bells 3-8 (or what I would think of as bells F to D). It’s a mechanism that makes it possible for just one person to perform change ringing. They do this by pulling on ropes in a fixed frame to operate hammers that strike the insides of the bells which remain static throughout. I gather that in the past the Guild used the apparatus to chime for the early morning service each weekday; and in more recent (pre-Covid) times for the 8am service on Sundays. Since the pandemic, they have been using it for all real-life Sunday services (when the rules permit).
The person chiming the bells that Sunday morning was Leigh D Simpson. Here’s what Leigh had to say about his experience:
In many ways chiming feels like any performance. Apprehension is supplanted by concentration: that sort of concentration where time starts to drift and other concerns fade away. Having worked as an organist these sensations certainly felt familiar, but chiming brings its own character. Bells are so much more audible than other instruments and the bells of St Paul’s even more so, but my experience is entirely disconnected from any “audience”. Hidden behind the walls of the ringing chamber I might have an audience of thousands, or of none.
After nervous glances at the clock it’s time to stop. The loneliness intensifies. The walls that divide me from the world used to be a welcome home for our band of ringers but now it is only I. The sound of the bells fades into a vacuum.
I was very moved by the sense of lonely disconnectedness he describes. It feels so much a condition of our Covid times; and is something that I think makes the recording all the more meaningful.
It was wonderful speak to business improvement consultant Michelle Dove at her home in-between Lockdowns 2.0 and 3.0. I was there to interview her for this short ‘About Me’ piece for her website. We talked about her work over the years as a specialist in Lean thinking and how she can help the film and fashion industries improve their processes, reduce costs, increase profits and become more efficient. To find out more about Michelle visit her website.
I commissioned Rosie to produce a surprise Spoken Portrait for my mum’s 80th birthday. I was quite nervous about the process and Rosie guided me through with reassuring professionalism and sensitivity. She expertly broke down this big undertaking into manageable stages and I knew I was in good hands all the way through.
Rosie has a way of setting people at ease with her warmth and genuine interest. She managed to collect some moving and priceless memories that will be treasured forever. It was a huge success – a very highly recommended gift and altogether rewarding experience!
— Naomi, London
In these strange Covid times where parties are out of the question, I am increasingly being commissioned to make tribute-style Spoken Portraits as a surprise birthday or wedding gift. To produce them I interview and gather messages from friends and relatives over the phone or internet. I then weave together their stories and well-wishes into a seamless affectionate entertaining piece about the ‘sitter’ and what’s great about them.
I love hearing about how surprised, touched and delighted people are when they get to listen to their Spoken Portrait on the big day. I like to imagine the recipient sitting with a few close family members out in a garden, yet feeling the warm glow of friendship from perhaps 20 loved ones as their voices come in, one after another. It’s wonderful to be able to create such a meaningful, memorable centrepiece for a celebration that might otherwise feel rather low-key.
I’m always excited to get these kinds of commissions. The process is a journey of discovery as I gradually form a picture of someone I don’t know by speaking to people I’ve never met before. On the way, I’ll hear hilarious and unlikely stories and discover fascinating details of social history.
Sometimes people really surprise me. One man began his message for an 80th birthday girl with a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday. Another gave two readings from Saint Augustin, one in English and the other in Hebrew!
It can be a challenge to find ways to incorporate these marvellously left-field contributions. But they always make the feature richer and more colourful. As one recipient put it, what’s so lovely about a tribute-style Spoken Portrait is that it is as much about the person’s friends as it is about they themselves. And in these days of lockdowns and social isolation, how much more we crave their company and love.
You can find out more about our Spoken Portraits and listen to clips here.
It was such a delight to produce this surprise Spoken Portrait of a very special 50th birthday boy. As he’s a keen historian, I came up with the idea of an affectionate, humorous audio portrait of ‘Adam Through The Ages’. I divided it into tracks called ‘Adam at 10’, ‘Adam at 15’ and so on, and asked friends from different stages of his life to paint a picture of what he was like. As it was lockdown, I couldn’t visit any of them for face-to-face ‘real-life’ interviews. So instead I interviewed most of the contributors over the internet and gathered voice messages from the rest. I heard from 22 people in all, from San Francisco to India. After some very careful editing (657 cuts!) and sound engineering, the final feature came to 50 minutes.
Here’s a 3 minute taster.
And here’s what the birthday boy had to say after his family played it to him on the big day.
What a wonderful surprise! I love it. It’s so nice to listen to as it is as much about my friends as it is about me. You have done a fabulous job weaving all the voices together to deliver great material, and the shape and tone of the editing is brilliant. It’s the gift I never knew I wanted, but will always treasure.
You can find out more about our Spoken Portraits and audio tributes here.