Taking a walk into sound

Our You Are Hear project Sound and Video Digitiser, Catherine Norris, reflects on sound and why it matters ahead of our ‘Sounds in the City’ event on Friday 27 October 2017.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with sound since I was very young. My very first bedroom growing up was positioned at the back of the house and the view from my window looked out onto a street lamp. One night I heard a buzzing sound and I thought it was in my room. I would have only been four or five years old but I distinctly remember checking under the bed and in the wardrobe as I was convinced there was a giant buzzing monster in there.

I then saw the light of the lamp and walked towards the window and realised that it was the lamp making the noise; it was hypnotising. Years later when training to be a sound engineer and learning about acoustics, I realised why I heard what I did and why it appeared to be such a strong sound.

The sound that I heard was affected by the environment it was being captured in. The fact that it was night time, that there was no traffic and no one walking around, the open casing around the lamp and the location would have all had an impact on the sound and amplified it.

There are many factors in play as to why we hear what we hear, and how and why the sounds around us change depending on what the environment is like and what else is happening within it.

I love how the outside of buildings can affect what we hear because of their shape and size, what they are made out of and how they can be a sound barrier. I also really like the contrast between man-made and natural sounds and how they can mix together.

Weather, traffic, wildlife and people all add to the soundscape we hear on a daily basis. But with many of us just rushing to get from A to B it is as if we tune out of what we could be listening to. This is a shame because there is so much out there to hear and discover.

Just over a year ago, as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project at the Essex Record Office, we launched the Essex Sounds map, made up of old and new sounds captured in Essex. This got me thinking about what else we could do to create sounds, which then led on to the idea of doing a sound walk somewhere in Essex. The sound walk would be a way of encouraging people to collect sounds and create their very own soundscapes.

This idea has now grown into a fully-fledged event taking place in the city of Chelmsford on Friday the 27th of October 2017, as part of the Ideas Festival and the Art of the Possible Festival. Chelmsford is a city that is forever changing and in soundscape terms is very interesting. It’s mixture of historic and modern buildings, nature and busy streets makes it the ideal place for a walk of this kind.

The morning session will include a talk on recording soundscapes, then the sound walk around parts of Chelmsford. During the sound walk we will be recording sounds at specific locations, with myself leading the walk and providing advice on recording techniques and acoustics and how to create the best recordings.

The afternoon session will include learning the basics of editing sound recordings with specialist software at the Essex Record Office.

You don’t need to have any previous experience with recording to come on the walk as training will be given throughout the event. We will also provide recording equipment to those not bringing their own. All you need to have is a passion or interest in sound (and suitable footwear!).

It’s going to be a very interesting event, and I’m looking forward to listening to all the sounds that get recorded on the day.

Date and time: Friday 27 October, 10.00am-4:30pm
Price: £20
Location: Meet at the Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

Advance booking to our ‘Sounds in the City’ event is essential. Please book through our website, or contact us for further information.

You Are Hear: What does it sound like?

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux of our You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place project muses on how sounds can transport us to difference times and places.

Smells and tastes are evocative senses; this is well-known. A whiff of a particular aroma instantly transports me to the place where I once encountered that scent. The smell of an extinguished match smells like birthdays, that moment at the party when you blow out the candles on the cake. The smell of chlorine takes me back to swimming lessons. The warm smell you encounter of an upstairs room on a hot day reminds me of summer; the dusty smell when you first put the heating on for the year reminds me of winter. As for the smell of a library book, well, that is a heavenly odour that evokes happy days spent discovering new texts and re-reading well-loved ones. A taste of a familiar food, too, can bring me back to childhood. A baked apple is associated with Bonfire Night; the first clementine of the season tastes like Christmas.

But sound? Certain songs remind me of a period in my life, or people I enjoyed the tunes with. But can ordinary, everyday sounds have the same effect? Working on the You Are Hear project has made me realise that, yes, sounds too can provoke memories of places encountered. After growing up in a port town, the horn of a ship reminds me of watching the slow progress of ocean-going vessels travelling through the locks. An oar quietly slipping through the water on a still morning brings back family canoeing trips. The honking of geese brings to mind autumn, and the start of a new academic year, with all the mingled expectation, fear, hope, and regret this entailed. The relentless clipping of hundreds of heels on hard floors, rhythmic but not quite in unison, will always remind me of my morning commute through the maze of underground tunnels during a brief period when I worked in London.

Thinking more about this, there are certain sounds that were distinctive to my childhood in the late twentieth century, sounds that only a comparative few (out of the course of human history) would identify with. The exquisitely sharp sound of a phonograph needle dropping into place, though this is enduring thanks to djs and music purists.

Record on record player

The drone of a dot matrix printer. The call of a dial-up modem (static at one pitch, static at a lower pitch, then wee-oh, wee-oh, all the while hoping, desperately hoping that it will connect).

For how much longer will these sounds be remembered? What sounds in human history have disappeared and been forgotten? In fifty years, will people know why the words ‘Unexpected item in baggage area’ spoken in an automated female voice provoke me to a frustrated rage because I HAVEN’T STARTED CHECKING OUT MY PURCHASES YET! Will an annoyingly chirpy whistle still prompt half of a bus-load of passengers to start rummaging in their bags looking for their phones?

Sound artists have realised the power of sound to evoke associations, and the danger of losing certain noises as our world changes. Aiming to record the present for future generations, they seek out those noises that compose everyday soundscapes, difficult to identify, but instantly recognisable to those who dwell in such soundscapes.

As part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we want to capture the sounds of twenty-first century Essex by making new recordings of what you can hear today. We will then pin these recordings to an online map, together with recordings made in similar locations or of similar activities decades ago, from recordings already in the Essex Sound and Video Archive. Will this show change, or continuity? I expect both.

We need your help. What sounds matter to you? What can you hear on a daily basis? What sounds do you think will disappear in ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred years? We are holding public consultations to ask you, the residents of Essex, what sounds mean Essex to you, or what Essex sounds like. Come along to one of the following events and tell us about your soundscape, and why you are hearing what you are, where you are.

1-3 October: George Yard Shopping Centre, Braintree
29-31 October: Grays Shopping Centre, Grays
12 November: ecdp offices, Chelmsford
19-21 November: High Chelmer Shopping Centre, Chelmsford

You will also have the opportunity to test our prototype audio comparison map; take a beginner’s workshop on making your own sound recordings; and learn more about the project. If you cannot make it to these events, please do pass on your suggestions of Essex sounds to: Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, You Are Hear Project Officer.

HLF Logo

What is heritage?

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, Project Officer for You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place takes a step back to muse on what heritage is all about.

The Essex Sound and Video Archive has been granted £5000 from the Essex Heritage Trust to contribute towards our project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place – subject to receiving the rest of the funding. The grant has been awarded under the Trust’s Restoration / Conservation fund, as we intend to put the money towards purchasing equipment to digitise some of our sound and video recordings. Through digitisation, we will preserve these irreplaceable recordings, which are at risk of deterioration or loss due to obsolescent formats. Digitisation is also the first step towards making them more easily available for you to enjoy, from the comfort of your own homes.

The Trust’s approval demonstrates the trustees’ broad appreciation for the county’s assets, not limiting themselves to more obvious historical treasures such as buildings and gardens. Rather, they have recognised that the sound and video recordings we hold are equally covered by their mission statement ‘to help safeguard or preserve for the benefit of the public such land, buildings, objects, or records that may be illustrative of, or significant to, the history of the County or which enhance an understanding of the characteristics and traditions of the County’.

The bulk of the funding for the You Are Hear project will come from the Heritage Lottery Fund, if we are successful with our second-round Your Heritage grant application.

Can you spot the common denominator? The assets worthy of preservation and the motivations of the financiers are all linked to heritage.

So what is ‘heritage’? What qualifies as forming part of our heritage? Is it only to do with ‘old stuff’?

To me, heritage is about the foundation of a shared culture that demonstrates who we are, based on a common history, geography, or society. It includes historical treasures, certainly, as evidence of our past. But I think it can encompass much more than that. We should also consider what should be captured from today’s culture, which will form part of the next generation’s heritage. This is particularly important with sound and video archives, where careful planning is necessary in order to preserve recordings that might otherwise be lost.

You Are Hear aims to digitise many of our recordings and make them available, but also to actively encourage people to develop their sense of heritage within the county of Essex: building a sense of place based on the sounds and moving images that represent the county. We hold recordings related to our industrial past, such as a speech made by Marchese Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, who built the factory in Chelmsford that enables the city to proudly proclaim itself as ‘the birthplace of radio’ on the signs as you enter its boundaries (SA 27/9/1).

Marconi disc label

We have an oral history collection about the development of Harlow as a New Town, revealing the planning that went into it, and what life was actually like for the earliest residents (SA 22). We have film footage of Morris dancers from local bands at festivals, on tour, and even at a wedding (VA 30). We have recordings of mayor-making ceremonies in Chelmsford (SA 7/571/1), Colchester (SA 8/5/12/1), and Southend (SA 20/1/5/1), capturing the ritual and dignity of local government. We have the commentary from the famous Colchester United victory over Leeds United in their fifth-round FA Cup match in 1971, a permanent reminder of one moment of glory in our county’s sporting heritage (SA 27/12/1). These recordings all demonstrate different aspects of our shared past, evoking pride and attachment to the county.

But we also have a copy of Blur’s 1995 album ‘The Great Escape’ (Acc. SA291). We have a recording of a Tilbury-Juxta-Clare parish meeting (SA 24/1001/1). We have a recording of pedestrian crossing beeps, the escalator in the BHS store, and general noise of the Southend high street in 2008 (Acc. SA501). Do these also qualify as ‘heritage’?

Why shouldn’t they? They are part of the county’s diverse and continually evolving culture. They capture the everyday – those moments that together build a realistic picture of what it is like to live in Essex. In a hundred years, what will listeners make of Blur’s music? Or the noise of an urban landscape? Historians face the challenge of trying to uncover what life was like in a former era. We have the opportunity now to give future historians a helping hand by preserving as much of our current heritage as possible. We can also help to validate the diverse culture of today’s inhabitants by recognising it as worthy of long-term preservation.

Has this made you think of some of your own sound or video recordings, which might be of interest to people today or in the future? Please do let us know: we would be delighted to help make your personal heritage part of the county’s shared culture. You can also get in touch with us for more information about any of the recordings mentioned.

You can listen to extracts from selected recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive on SoundCloud:

Essex Sounds Like…

For the past six months, we have been surveying people across Essex to ask them what they know about the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). The main aim of the exercise was to collect baseline data, so we will have some statistics to compare with similar surveys we plan to run after the You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place project. We hope this will demonstrate the impact of the project to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and that more people will be aware of us and have engaged with our treasure store of recordings.

We surveyed our long-suffering readers in the Searchroom, so frequently asked for feedback; visitors to events that we attended; and innocent passers-by who happened to be walking through High Chelmer Shopping Centre, Chelmsford on Saturday 1 March. We even roped in the aid of libraries and village agents to distribute our surveys. The end result was 185 surveys completed by people from near and far (even some from outside Essex snuck in).

Our main aim was to establish how many people had heard of the Essex Sound and Video Archive. Forty percent of the people who answered this question knew about the ESVA but had never used it, but another 54% had not even heard of us. We obviously have some work to do!

We collected demographic information about our participants, but we also took the opportunity to ask some more interesting questions about people’s perceptions of where they live.  Eighty-six percent of participants felt they belonged to some kind of community: mostly their town or village, but social or religious groups, neighbourhoods, and on-line communities also featured. Despite a few references to the stereotypes associated with Essex (thanks largely to a certain ITV television programme), most people had positive associations with the county. Several referred to it as home or felt rooted to it by family ties. Some mentioned its attractive features, such as the seaside, the countryside, the good travel links – and the fact that it’s not London. We hope to build on this  undercurrent of pride in the county by sharing what former residents have felt about their homeland, what they experienced, and what they felt moved to create in it.

The most interesting question to me was, ‘Which sounds represent where you live?’ Although it initially puzzled a few people, we eventually got some wonderful descriptions of the aural landscape of the county. The overwhelming majority of the responses were precisely what I would have identified in my own town: Essex sounds like traffic and birds.

We created a word cloud from all of the responses received: the bigger the word, the more times it was mentioned. How does the picture compare with your location?

sounds wordcloud aug 2014

Wordcloud of sounds associated with Essex, created with www.wordle.net

In the spirit of You Are Hear, we have a sound clip alternative:

At the moment the clip is just the words spoken aloud: the recording of the actual sounds will come once the project starts, with your help.

Thank you to everyone who completed a survey or helped to distribute them. Get in touch if you want to read more about the results.