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.
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.
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.
I was thrilled that London A to G was the featured soundscape in this week’s Soundscapes show on BBC Radio Ulster.
If you don’t know the show it’s well worth checking out. It’s an eclectic mix of great music that you probably never heard before, along with a weekly featured soundscape. This week that was London A to G, the audio piece I produced based on recordings ranging from tube trains to barking dogs, arranged in order of pitch from A up to G. It’s inspired by the listening walk I lead for Dotmaker Tours called The London Ear. The piece comes on after 26 minutes and segues beautifully into Black Mesa by Biosphere. The episode also features tracks by Hot Chip, William Onyeabor, Quantic and others. It’s available to listen to on BBC Sounds until 26 July.