London A to G

What does London sound like? How much is thought through and how much is sonic waste? These are some of the ideas behind London A to G the piece I produced as a follow-up to my sound walk The London Ear. I was delighted that it was featured on BBC Radio Ulster’s Soundscapes programme in June. It has also been played at the 2019 HearSay International Audio Arts Festival and on Resonance FM.

‘London A to G’ is a 4 minute audio piece based on sounds I recorded around London in January and February 2019, arranged in order of their pitch, from A up to G. If you have a musical ear, you’ll notice the gradual shifts up a note. If not, it doesn’t matter. The piece is really about the resulting journey through London’s soundscape.

I decided to produce this because of my experience over the years leading The London Ear, a sound-themed walk for Dotmaker Tours. I’ve been particularly intrigued by the observation of the acoustician Dr William Braid White in 1931 that each city has a different ‘ground tone’: the sound you hear when you go up to the top of the highest building, that emerges like a drone note beneath the jumble of street sounds bubbling up. He commented that at that time London had a ‘heavy hum’ closest to the lowest C because it was ‘a city of low buildings, wood paving blocks, moist atmosphere’ and a law abiding population ‘not prone to excessive displays of excitement’. It set me wondering, does London have a ground tone today? And if so, has it changed from a low C?

What I’ve noticed is that, rather than there being a single constant frequency, a journey through London takes you through lots of local ground tones: the mechanically generated hums and rattles coming from air conditioning vents, construction works, pile drivers, bus engines and tube trains. I’ve included a few in London A to G, and they are all at different pitches. For example, the air vents here that cluster around C, C sharp and D and the Bakerloo line that (in this clip) veers between A and A flat.

Then there are the other intermittent musical sounds around you, again all going off at different frequencies. This is chance music, John Cage style. By editing some of them together, I found lovely coincidences like the dog barking at D that sounds much like the screech of skateboards in the Southbank Undercroft; and the Petticoat Lane market trader whose “serving you cheap” cry rhymes with the quarter bells of St Lawrence Jewry.

Some of the sounds presented have been carefully tuned, like transport beeps, sirens and church bells which begs the question, how were the different pitches and keys chosen? I’d love to speak to the person at TfL responsible for decisions about which sounds to incorporate in the system, if indeed such a person exists.

This, of course, raises a bigger issue of the design of London’s soundscape. How much of what we hear is thought through, and how much is just sonic waste? The father of soundscape studies, R Murray Schafer, warned in 1977 against creating a ‘sound sewer’, something that ‘is much more likely to result when a society trades its ears for its eyes, and … is certain to result when this is accompanied by an impassioned devotion to machines.’[1] By bringing into some sort of order the seemingly random collection of pitches that surround us in London, there’s an interesting conversation to be had about whether and how we might retune the city.

Post by Rosie Oliver, founder of Tickertape Production and leader of Dotmaker Tours alternative London walks.

[1] The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, By R Murray Schafer, 1977. Quote from Chapter 17, The Acoustic Designer.