Open your ears to Essex Sounds

Have you ever had an ear-opening moment?

This was a phrase used by legendary wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson in a keynote address delivered at the Sound+Environment Conference hosted by the University of Hull in June 2017. He used it in his narration of his personal journey into his career as a sound recordist, and it struck a chord. Have you ever experienced a moment where the soundscape was so startling, unexpected, beautiful, quiet, or loud that it opened your ears and heightened your awareness of the sounds around you?

The Essex Sounds audio map, Screenshot of the Essex Sounds audio mapdeveloped as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, could provide moments like that. Although you can listen to sounds recorded across the county from an enclosed, familiar location, browsing the Web at home or in a library, we hope it will spur you on to take greater notice of the sounds of your Essex in your daily routine: whether natural or man-made; everyday or unusual; familiar or unidentified. Do the sounds on the map reflect your own experiences, or does your Essex sound very different?

The free app version of Essex Sounds (available from Google Play or Apple IStore) allows more direct comparisons between the sounds on the map and present moment experiences. Travel to the location of one of our historic recordings from the Archive; play the sound; then take a few moments to listen to the present-day soundscapes. What are the similarities and differences? Is one quieter or louder? What does that tell us about broader changes in Essex?

The Sound+Environment Conference was full of presentations on how to encourage active listening. We learn to filter sounds because our atmospheres are so noisy. We tune into the sounds that we like (a loved one’s voice, the music coming through our headphones) or that give us important information (alarms, tannoy announcements) while ignoring those we do not (traffic, the music coming from other people’s headphones). But sometimes, it is enlightening to open our ears, notice the full range of noises around us, and contemplate what those sounds tell us about our environment.

The Conference was truly interdisciplinarian – there were even one or two other archivists in attendance. Many of the presenters were involved in acoustic ecology: judging the health of ecosystems based on the sounds that they make. For example, Dr Leah Barclay’s River Listening project seeks to collect data from hydrophones placed in rivers across the globe. What can the sounds tell us about the diversity of the ecosystems, and what, in turn, does that tell us about the condition of the water? Many presenters, like Stuart Bowditch who co-presented our paper on Essex Sounds, were sound artists: using varying combinations of field recordings, musical instruments, and technology to capture, mix, and remix soundscapes to make an artistic statement. Others were interested in merging the two disciplines to strengthen the field of ‘ecological sound art’ (as argued by Jono Gilmurray). The power of sound can move us to respond, initiating the culture change that ecologists warn is vital if we are to preserve ecosystems threatened by our current way of life.

For example, how do you feel after listening to the pounding sea in Stuart’s recording made at Bradwell-on-Sea?

Photograph taken on beach at Bradwell-on-Sea

Looking out over the sea from Bradwell-on-Sea

Or after hearing the number of peaceful recordings interrupted by aeroplanes rumbling overhead? Or after attentively listening to the baby owls in Joyce Winmill’s 1974 recording in Henham churchyard, an eavesdropping through time made possible by the simple technology of a microphone and tape recorder?

 

How does this make you feel about your Essex, how it has changed, and how it might change? What do you want your future Essex to sound like, and how do you make that happen?

Perhaps we think it is only far-flung landscapes like the Arctic Tundra or the depths of the oceans that demonstrate the majesty of nature which we must preserve. If you are thinking along those lines, stop what you are doing and open a window. Wait. Listen. What sounds do you hear? Essex Sounds is full of birdsong: some, yes, recorded in secluded environments such as wildlife reserves, but some just captured in towns, in the midst of our everyday lives.

This, too, is nature that might have changed and might change in future.

Neither is it just natural sounds that indicate change over time. Changing human activity is also evident on our sound map. Some industries have only moved. Others have largely disappeared, machinery laid to rest in museums, only resurrected for special events.

 

Perhaps you can identify with this collection of ‘lost sounds of Essex’, collected in 2015 when we asked people which sounds they no longer hear (Word Cloud created at Wordle.net).

Wordcloud of suggestions of lost sounds

What other changes become apparent from playing with Essex Sounds? Is there some vital sound that is missing from the map? Please help us make it more representative by adding your own contributions. Or perhaps you are a sound artist inspired by our collection of historic and modern sounds. We would love to hear ideas about how we can reuse these sounds and present them in new ways.

But above all, please take time to listen to the present-day Essex. Wake up five minutes earlier to allow time to listen before you start your day. Pause in your commute. Think again before popping on headphones. Close your eyes and open your ears.

Would you be interested in a sound walk event around Essex, which would incorporate an introduction into active listening, making sound recordings, and editing the results? We are running a survey to gauge interest in such an event. Please let us know what you think, and you could win a discount on the ticket price.

Sounds of Essex captured for future generations

For our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we commissioned Sound Recordist Stuart Bowditch to capture what Essex sounds like in the present-day. Some of his recordings were made in response to historic recordings of events and places from our Archive, some in response to public suggestions about which sounds represent Essex, and some on a whim and a fancy. The recordings have been posted on our online audio map of Essex Sounds, where you can compare past and present recordings made across the county. They have also been deposited with the Essex Sound and Video Archive, so future generations can experience the sounds we hear today. What will Essex sound like in fifty years?

You can read about Stuart’s week-long trip to the north of the county in an earlier blog entry. Here, he reflects on the project as a whole. All images used with Stuart’s kind permission.

So, the recording phase of the You Are Hear project comes to a close, and I will miss it. It has been a year full of exploration and discovery, meeting a multitude of characters and learning about local skills and traditions, none of which was further than 42 miles (as the crow flies) away from where I live. I have travelled from the more familiar industrial and suburban south to the rural wilds of the north, and from the summery seaside riviera of the east to the west that seems somehow slightly detached and belonging to neighbouring counties.

We knew from the outset that the project would only be fruitful if we listened to local people, their suggestions and invaluable local knowledge. But we also knew that the ‘picture’ of Essex that could be formed from its diverse sounds would be more vivid and much wider than the stereotypical image that is often perceived. We carried out public surveys in several towns and reached out using mailing lists and social media, asking: What does Essex sound like? What sounds are connected to the place where you live? What is a sound of today or yesteryear? What sounds are new or have been lost? Questions certainly got people thinking, and we were bombarded with suggestions, clues, hints and leads to where, when and how we could find them. It was my job to take this valuable information and to try and capture the sounds for preservation in the archive; to paint that ‘picture’ of Essex as best as I could.

I drove (a 15 year-old Corsa), jumped on trains (including a Class 156 and Class 31), climbed, hiked and walked to all kinds of destinations, at all times of day and night, in all kinds of weather and every season throughout the year. I discovered new places and villages that I’d never heard of, as well as revisiting places I’m familiar with to hear them in a new ‘light’. Wherever I went, I went with an open mind, not jumping to any conclusions before arriving in order for me to capture as authentic a recording as possible. Apart from setting out with a small nugget of information, who was I to know what a place would actually sound like on any given day? There are so many variables that it’s really not helpful to try and imagine them on the way there. Upon arriving, discretion, sensitivity and impartiality were often paramount to capturing the right moment, negotiating permission or gaining access to property.

 

Photograph of cranes loading container ship

Maersk Lins being loaded at DP world, London Gateway. Listen to the sounds on the Essex Sounds page.

Working for the Essex Record Office helped to reassure people that my intentions were honourable,and that recording the sound of their activity, place of work or garden was of value, even though at first they may have thought the idea strange. It also afforded me some leverage in gaining access I wouldn’t usually be able to negotiate by myself, such as on the quayside of the DP World super port and the factory and farms of Wilkin and Sons Ltd.

 

I’ve also had to do things I never had before in order to gain access to places, such as sign disclaimers and send a scan of my passport through a week in advance to gain access to a restricted area. In fact I’ve gone to quite some lengths in the pursuit of capturing sounds: I even put my recording kit through an X-ray machine to record, amongst other things, the men who are responsible for luggage ending up in Barbados when it should have been in Lanzarote.

As well as contributing to a more detailed and colourful image of Essex and its inhabitants, I have also learned a lot during this project. People are generous with their time, knowledge, good will, and sometimes even gifts. Some people’s skills and knowledge are very niche, which is interesting, informative and essential, both in their given field and in their ability to find somewhere within society where they excel. Others were reluctantly compliant when asked by their boss to start up a particular machine so that I could record it, but reassured after a chat about the reason for my interrupting their work routine. There is a reasonably high level of trust between folk, which worked in both directions: someone letting a stranger into their house to record the aeroplanes, and me meeting a man outside the chip shop in Jaywick at 10pm with my sound recording equipment. Both situations were problem free, naturally, and led to good recordings and unique experiences for all parties.

I discovered that a big, fluffy microphone windshield apparently resembles a cute, fluffy animal, and some members of the public seemed surprised when they discovered that its owner wasn’t so. I mean, you wouldn’t put your finger onto a photographer’s lens and expect them to be happy about it, would you? But being so visible also worked the other way, as I was able stand in the middle of two hundred people drinking champagne and eating canapes for 40 minutes whilst appearing to be invisible.

Photograph of microphone in front of Royal mail vans

The microphone recording soundscapes on Halstead High Street. Did you see the microphone on our Twitter feed? It gained its own followers as it travelled round the county in search of the best sounds.

My work didn’t finish with recording. Most of the recordings were edited and uploaded to the Essex Sounds website, where you can explore the map and listen to sounds relating to that place. As part of the project, we’ve also been digitising a lot of the archived recordings, and you can hear recordings we’ve made as a comparison to archival recordings. One such location is Chelmsford Cattle Market, where you can hear what the market sounded like in the 1950s or what the site sounded like in 2016 (now the indoor High Chelmer shopping centre). You can also hear Colchester United winning a 1971 match at their Layer Road stadium, but losing in 2016 at Weston Homes Community Stadium (oh dear).

We also reached out to the general public to contribute, and many people have uploaded their own recordings to further widen the view of where we live. If you have something that you would like to contribute, please head over to the website and get clicking. Or if you’d prefer just to hear what we have all been collecting, the map is where it’s at. I hope you enjoy it.

Is there a sound of Essex that we have missed from our map? We continue to welcome public contributions of sound recordings to our Essex Sounds map. Read more about how to contribute, then get recording!

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You Are Hear Up North

For the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we commissioned a Sound Recordist, Stuart Bowditch, to capture some of the sounds of Essex in 2015/2016. We compiled suggestions from members of the public, gathered at survey events held last year, of typically Essex sounds that should be recorded. We also had some specific items in mind to compare with historic sounds already in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.

Stuart has busily been recording here, there, and everywhere to get a wide range of recordings. They will be deposited with the archive, so future generations can hear what Essex sounded like in 2015-2016. Clips are also being pinned to our online audio map of Essex Sounds. There, you can compare the sounds of today with sounds of similar places or events from days gone by (click on the ‘old and new’ option at the top of the page).

At the end of June, Stuart went on a week-long recording trip to the north of the county. Here are some of his thoughts after day one of his trip.

Day One of my Trip to North Essex: 13 June 2016

After packing my bags and picking up some kit from the studio I set off for the wilds of north Essex, happy to be leaving the south behind. Farewell to the estuary, to the busy Victorian terraces and crowded roads with a particular style of driving. It felt good to wave goodbye. And then say hello to a long queue on the A130. But despite that, I made it to the Essex Record Office to pick up some project flyers before heading to my first port of call, Marks Tey. Not exactly north, but the gateway to the Gainsborough Line, which takes you due north to Sudbury, via Chappell and Bures.

Photograph of platform at Marks Tey station with microphone in the foreground

The roving microphone at Marks Tey station

I’d sought permission to record from Abellio Greater Anglia but hadn’t heard back, so I asked at the station when I arrived. My slightly unusual request was met with some surprise and puzzlement, but after a couple of phone calls the station manager gave me permission, and I set off with my instructions not to stand next to the edge of the track. So I recorded a few trains passing through the station (a class 360 to Ipswich stopping and departing, a class 90 Intercity to Liverpool Street, a class 66 freight train to Felixstowe port and another class 360 to Liverpool Street) and waited for the Sudbury train to arrive.

 

The driver and guard seemed okay to have me on board, and I duly recorded the whole journey through Chappel & Wakes Colne and Bures to Sudbury. I wasn’t sure if it was just the way of things, but there were no announcements or tickets checked during the entire journey, which would have made the listening experience of recording a little bit more informative. On the return journey, however, an announcement was made about the ticket machine not working, which was a shame to miss as it added some personality to the soundscape.

I broke the journey at Bures and took a walk around town. I had to backtrack a few
hundred metres after I discovered that my tripod attachment had fallen off, but
luckily I found it next to a huge puddle in Water Lane.

Photograph of large puddle on Water Lane

Photograph of River Stour, with microphone in foreground

Roving microphone by the River Stour

 

I bought a sandwich from the local delicatessen and found a very nice spot next to the River Stour from which to eat it and also to record. It was slightly raining, but that did nothing to  deter the house martins, ducks and ducklings, and occasional passersby from enjoying the peaceful moment.

 

Back in Marks Tey, I loaded up the car and drove west, through Coggeshall to see if my friend Walt was in. He wasn’t. That’s a shame as he said it’s particularly quiet standing in his garden and had invited me over to record one day. I had to leave that for another time. So I proceeded further along the A120 and saw a sign for Stisted. My friend Ed had said it was a particularly beautiful village, so I decided to take a detour. The buildings are great, so I decided to park up at the Village Green. As I did so the school bell was chiming, but unfortunately it had stopped by the time I had set up the microphone. I waited for half an hour there, but the bell never chimed again. However, I did get a great recording of the birds on the green which included chaffinch, greenfinch, robin and blackbird. There was also a reasonably continuous stream of cars making turns at the junction, but when they weren’t present the quietness was really pronounced and the recording will clearly indicate the impact that motor vehicles have on the sonic environment. I may return tomorrow if I’m in that area to try and record the school bell.

Photograph of Stisted village green with microphone in the foreground

Roving microphone by Stisted village green

 

Next on the list was Halstead High Street, and I decided to make two recordings here, one at the bottom of the hill and one at the top. There was a constant flow of traffic along the high street, including many vans and heavy goods vehicles. There were also plenty of passersby going about their daily business, including people of all ages and social standings. One of the interesting things about this project is picking up the different accents and languages that can be heard in different parts of Essex today, and coming from the south of the county it was interesting to note that in an hour on Halstead high street I didn’t hear a single foreign language. The recording at the bottom of the hill features two van drivers loading parcels and letters from the Post Office and some children playing.

Photograph of Post Office workers loading vans with microphone in foreground

 

The recording at the top of hill was made next to the war memorial as light rain was falling, and also captured the moment that St. Andrew’s Church struck 5 o’clock.

 

The first day of recording had felt reasonably productive, and despite the promise of some traditionally British inclement weather the next day I was looking forward to more roaming and recording.

All of Stuart’s recordings from his trip up north are collected here on the Essex Sounds website. You can follow Stuart’s progress with his latest recordings on his Twitter account: @stuartbowditch.E-invite to launch event

To hear more about Stuart’s adventures, plus talks from the rest of the project team and guest speaker Martin Newell, come to our official Essex Sounds launch. The event will be held at Colchester Town Hall on Wednesday 28 September 2016, from 6:00pm to 9:00pm. Attendance is free, but please register on our Eventbrite page.

A day in the life of Chelmsford Library: 5 April 2016

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, You Are Hear Project Officer

What does a library sound like in 2016? A zoo, apparently.

 

Stereotypically, libraries are quiet places, where everyone must speak in hushed tones. They are places for reading and studying, solitary activities that create minimal noise and require a calm, peaceful environment. But is that still what is required of a twenty-first-century public library in the middle of a busy city?

Unfortunately the Essex Sound and Video Archive does not have many recordings of what libraries sounded like in the past. To rectify this for future generations, I spent a day in Chelmsford Library, capturing the different soundscapes over the course of the nine and a half hours when it was open to the public. All the recordings were made on Tuesday, 5 April 2016: a beautiful sunny day during the school Easter holidays. I was using only a handheld Zoom H1 digital recorder (recorded as wav files and later converted to mp3s).

I arrived at the Library shortly before it opened at 9:00 am. I expected to be the first one at the door. I expected to have plenty of time to establish myself in the best location before the general public started to trickle in and create noise. But there were already people waiting at the door to get in, mostly students intent on studying for looming exams. From the start of the day to the very end, I was never the sole member of the public inside.

By the time I had set up my equipment and started to record about half an hour later, the Library was already a busy hive of activity. Among other things, a member of staff agrees to put up a community notice: the Library serves as an information point about local activities.

 

At first, I sat on a chair placed halfway between the front doors and the issue desk, opposite the self-issue machines. Periodically you can hear people using the machines, returning books into the bins provided. But you can also hear the ding of staff issuing books at the desk, followed by the more traditional stamp as they put the due date in the book: here they are not insistent on people using the self-issue machines.

 

In the early afternoon, I worked upstairs. It being exam season, these study desks were almost all occupied. Though some of the noise travelled up, and a siren infiltrated the windows from outside, this area provided something of the peace and quiet traditionally associated with libraries, allowing people to focus on their work.

 

Later in the day, I worked by the public access computers. This area was even quieter: perhaps because it was later in the day and there were fewer people in the library, or perhaps because it was shielded from the general activity in the open area. Surprisingly, there were few technological noises, such as dings and beeps of error messages. There was only an occasional burst of typing: perhaps less than there would have been thirty years ago, when operating systems relied more on keyboards than mice? There is also the unmistakeable, clean sound of someone opening a fizzy drink: the library has an amenable policy of allowing people to drink inside, even by the computers: something my mother never allowed her IT students to do (nor her children at home).

 

Different activities took place over the course of the day. A read-aloud book group meets once a month to enjoy reading together, as well as discussing the text. They are currently working their way through Simon Armitage’s Walking Away, and, after reading for a time, they broke into a discussion of Armitage’s prose versus his poetry.

 

The Library’s sensory wall was also open in the morning, in the children’s section. This is actually a corner: two walls full of gadgets that produce different sounds and lights, touchy-feely parts with different textures, mirrors, and play-things. It was fun watching the children interact with each other and the wall.

 

Elsewhere in the children’s section, the Library proved that it is still about reading. Listen out for the sound of a woman reading a book aloud to a captive audience.

 

The Library provided so much enjoyment that for one boy it was a devastating blow when he was told that the back end of the children’s section had to be closed off for a private booking.

 

The different soundscapes of all these different activities come together into one great crescendo of noise when you stand on the stairs. Children, adults, machines working and playing – mixed with the conversations you can hear from County Hall offices that adjoin the Library – create a busy atmosphere. There are no librarians demanding quiet here.

 

The 1850 Public Libraries Act was the first piece of legislation granting town councils the right to use money raised through rates on the establishment and running of a public library facility. There were restrictions: it only applied to boroughs with a population of over 10,000, and they could only spend a set proportion of the rates on libraries (the legislation was extended to smaller towns and even parishes by the 1855 Public Libraries Act). Significantly, any such library would have to operate on the basis of free admission.

The use of library spaces has undeniably changed in the last 150 years, with a resulting impact on the sounds you hear inside. There is less whispering and rustling of pages. Libraries now offer more than books and study spaces: from public computers (increasingly important to combat digital exclusion) to social groups; meeting spaces to play rooms. We can speculate about how libraries will change in future, and how this will affect the soundscapes. Nevertheless, the service they provide remains true to the original purpose of the act: providing facilities ‘for the Instruction and Recreation of the People’.

The soundscape at Chelmsford Library did get gradually quieter over the course of the day. By the time I returned to the stairs at around 6:15 pm, the children had gone home, the students had packed up for the day, and the few people remaining were quickly checking out books and printing off documents before the Library shut. Staff went through the closing-up routine on computers and machines. It was noticeably quieter. That stereotypical hush had finally descended on the Library, but creating an aura of settling down to sleep and preparing for another busy day the next day.

 

Perhaps this one last clip is sufficient to demonstrate the valuable role that public libraries continue to play.

 

I echo this customer’s thanks: I am very grateful to the staff at the library for facilitating my recording visit.

Does your local library sound different? What about your college or university library, or an institutional or workplace library? We want to add the soundscapes you experience to our audio map of Essex Sounds, created as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project. You can find instructions on our ‘contribute’ page, or get in touch to ask for more information.

You can listen to all of these clips, finishing with a more extended version of the recordings, on our Soundcloud channel here.

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