Category Archives: Sound

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things

You will have noticed that I have been very quiet recently, and the blog posts have fallen by the wayside. This is because I have struggling with things to say, and I have found I have been lacking inspiration. This work has taken a long time to get to this point, and the reality is that in the six years since I left my MA I have been quietly absorbing ideas and references. The task of getting these down on paper has been a hugely daunting one, and I hit a wall. However this post hope to pick up were the last one left off.

This doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy on other aspects of my practice. I have starting experimenting with different ways of recording the locations I am exploring, through moving image and sound recording. I bit the bullet and purchased a zoom h6 field recorder and a set of binaural microphones and a shotgun mic.

Tuesday night was the first time I took the field recorder out to experiment with. I was in Sheffield for a meeting with the design studio Dust to discuss what input they could have on the development of the project as a series of interlinked Artist’s Books. As usual I was staying at the cheapest premier Inn I could find, which happened to be in the Attercliffe area of Sheffield.


Attercliffe is a formal industrial suburb of Sheffield and is now home to small industrial units, waste recycling plants and steel works. The main shopping street was once bustling and houses some exceptional Victorian buildings, however it is now home to multiple take aways, sex shops, and as I was informed by a local ‘clubs of an interesting nature’.





At first wandering around with a hand held recorder and headphones was an isolating experience, however after a little while I found it liberating. I was able to close my eyes and concentrate on the sounds of the city. I could pick out the constant hum of air condition units, the gentle trickle of the River Don, in the distance the sound of an air wrench in a garage, and the rhythmic pounding of sheet metal. I found myself lingering, waiting to hear how the sounds changed and altered over time. I was reminded of a reference I have used with students on several occasions in the last few years, If no one speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor (2002). The prose of the first chapter describes the soundscape of a city at night.

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things, Jon McGregor 2002
If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things, Jon McGregor 2002


If you listen, you can hear it.

The city, it sings.

If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.

It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.

It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings.

And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.

The low soothing hum of air-conditioners, fanning out the heat and the smells of shops and cafes and offices across the city, winding up and winding down, long breaths layered upon each other, a lullaby hum for tired streets.

The rush of traffic still cutting across flyovers, even in the dark hours a constant rush of sound, tyres rolling across tarmac and engines rumbling, loose drains and manhole covers clack-clacking like cast-iron castanets.

Road-menders mending, choosing the hours of least interruption, rupturing the cold night air with drills and jack-hammers and pneumatic pumps, hard-sweating beneath the fizzing hiss of floodlights, shouting to each other like drummers in rock bands calling out rhythms, pasting new skin on the veins of the city.

Restless machines in workshops and factories with endless shifts, turning and pumping and steaming and sparking, pressing and rolling and weaving and printing, the hard crash and ring and clatter lifting out of echo-high buildings and sifting into the night, an unaudited product beside the paper and cloth and steel and bread, the packed and the bound and the made.

Lorries reversing, right round the arc of industrial parks, it seems every lorry in town is reversing, backing through gateways, easing up ramps, shrill-calling their presence while forklift trucks gas and prang around them, heaping and stacking and loading.

And all the alarms, calling for help, each district and quarter, each street and estate, each every way you turn has alarms going off, coming on, going off, coming on, a hammered ring like a lightning drum-roll, like a mesmeric bell-toll, the false and the real as loud as each other, crying their needs to the night like an understaffed orphanage, babies waawaa-ing in darkened wards.

Sung sirens, sliding through the streets, streaking blue light from distress to distress, the slow wail weaving urgency through the darkest of the dark hours, a lament lifted high, held above the rooftops and fading away, lifted high, flashing past, fading away.

And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices.

So listen.

Listen, and there is more to hear.

The rattle of a dustbin lid knocked to the floor.

The scrawl and scratch of two hackle-raised felines.

The sudden thundercrash of bottles emptied into crates. The slam-slam of car doors, the changing of gears, the hobbled hip-hop of a slow walk home.

The rippled roll of shutters pulled down on late-night cafes, a crackled voice crying street names for taxis, a loud scream that lingers and cracks into laughter, a bang that might just be an old car backfiring, a callbox calling out for an answer, a treeful of birds tricked into morning, a whistle and a shout and a broken glass, a blare of soft music and a blam of hard beats, a barking and yelling and singing and crying and it all swells up the rumbles and crashes and bangings and slams, all the noise and the rush and the non-stop wonder of the song of the city you can hear if you listen the song.

And it stops in some rare and sacred dead time, sandwiched between the late sleepers and the early risers, there is a miracle of silence.

Everything has stopped.

And silence drops down from out of the night, into this city, the briefest of silences, like a falter between heartbeats, like a darkness between blinks. Secretly, there is always at this moment, an unexpected pause,a hesitation as one day is left behind and a new one begins.

A catch of breath as gasometer lungs between slow exhalations. A ring of tinnitus as thermostats interrupt air-conditioning fans.

These moments are there, always, but they are rarely noticed and they rarely last longer than a flicker of thought.

We are in that moment now, there is silence and the whole city is still.

The old tall-windowed mills, staggered across the skyline, they are silent, they are keeping their ghosts and their thoughts to themselves.

The smoked-glass offices, slung low to the ground, they are still, they are blankly reflecting the haze and shine of the night. Soon, they will resume their business, their coy whispers of ones and zeroes across networks of threaded glass, but now, for a moment, they are hushed. The buses in the depot, waiting for a new day, they are quiet, their metalwork easing and shrinking into place, settling and cooling after eighteen hours of heat and noise, eighteen hours of criss-crossing the city like wool on a loom.

And the clubs in the centre, they are empty, the dance-floors sticky and sore from a night’s pounding, the lights still turning and blinking, lost shoes and wallets and keys gathered in heaps.

And the night-fishers strung out along the canal, feeling the sing of their lines in the water, although they are within yards of each other they are saying nothing, watching luminous floats hang in the night like bottled fireflies, waiting for the dip and strike which will bring a centre to their time here, waiting for the quietness and calm they have come here to find.

Even the traffic scattered through these streets: the taxis and the cleaners, the shift-workers and the delivery drivers, even they are held still in this moment, trapped by traffic lights which synchronize red as the system cycles from old day to new, hundreds of feet resting on accelerators,

hundreds of pairs of eyes hanging on the lights, all waiting for the amber, all waiting for the green.

The whole city has stopped.

And this is a pause worth savouring, because the world will soon be complicated again.

It’s the briefest of pauses, with not time enough to even turn full circle and look at the lights this city throws out to the sky, and it’s a pause which is easily broken. A slamming door, a car alarm, a thin drift of music from half a mile away, and already the city is moving on, already tomorrow is here.

At the time the novel was included on the 2002 Booker prize long list, the Guardian ran a review, which pointed out some of the short comings of the work.

This is a novel where the contrived metaphor, the struggling simile, the romantic reference all come first…

I know I ought just to go with the flow. This is a clean, bare, sensitive and undoubtedly well-intentioned piece of fiction by someone still in his 20s. It’s admirably adventurous. Its determinedly unpunctuated dialogue more or less works. And I know what McGregor is aiming for – how he wants to create 360o pans with his juddery word-camera and show us what’s going on in a whole neighbourhood. How stuff that seems small and insignificant can have huge consequences…

But the trouble with largeness, with this wide lens, is that it can be oddly ungripping, colourless, unfocused.
Woolf at the door, Guardian 24 August 2002

The danger when we use the written word to describe location is we naturally fall into the trap of using purple prose, I certainly know that I am guilty of this. I understand the approach that McGregor is trying to take, we have similar ideas and sensibilities, however the novel is perhaps the wrong medium to do it in. The visual image or soundscape allows the audience to produce their own reading of the locale, bringing their own understanding and baggage to the fore.

I hope to shortly present the images I took and the sound recordings I made wile I explored the unappreciated corners of Attercliffe. I will also be updating the blog with posts about the other areas of my practice I have been developing other the last month. As well as a couple of more in depth pieces about Sex and Edgelands or adventurous play as the geographer Tim Edensor describes it, and a piece about the importance of trespass and transgression to our land access rights.

Inside The Circle of Fire- A Sheffield Sound Map by Chris Watson

A couple of weeks ago I was in Sheffield to see Dr Anna Jorgensen from Sheffield University’s Landscape Architecture department to discuss her work on urban wildscapes. In my down time I not only had an excellent burger and Pulled pork fries at the Twisted Burger Company, but I also went to see Inside the Circle of Fire at Sheffield Millennium Museum.

Co-founding member of electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield-born Chris Watson has nurtured an enduring fascination with sound.

In this ambitious new exhibition, Chris will transform the Millennium Gallery into an immersive ‘sound map’ of Sheffield, charting its boundaries on the edge of the Peak and traveling its waterways to the bustling heart of the city. Recorded over the past 18 months at locations in and around the city, the sound map will use the latest technology to create a sound which changes throughout the gallery, depending on the listener’s location. By truly hearing the sounds of the city, perhaps for the first time, we hope that visitors will gain a new perspective on Sheffield in 2013.

You walk in to be confronted by 4 sofas set around a square rug, with 3 projectors behind you. The whole space is ringed by speakers, including some hung from the ceiling .

The exhibition space
The exhibition space

The projections show a slowly evolving series of black and white photos, mainly depicting the industrial decline of the city, inhabited by ghosts of it’s glorious past. Photos of the bell casting works, are accented by the harmonious peel of their creations, while in the background the foundry siren screams. This is even more evocative having walked past a series of Sheffield bells on the way into the gallery.

At times photos compete with each other on two opposite walls, either conflicting or in harmony with the aural motif.

In my opinion the main themes of the piece, apart from the industry, are the rivers and the football. Pictures of Hillsborough and Bramall Lane are devoid of people, but the ghosts of matches live on in the chanting and singing of ‘High-ho Sheffield Wednesday.’

Recording the sounds of the urban river
Recording the sounds of the urban river

It’s a real shame that sound work is such a hard sell with the general public, with many people walking in; realising there isn’t anything to look at and leaving. For those who take the time to sit and let themselves be enveloped in the sounds of the city, find they leave with a richer experience of the city’s personality.

Chris records audio for the exhibition
Chris records audio for the exhibition

The sounds had an ability to wash over you, and in fact I’m not sure if the photography actually took something away from the experience. When I lay back and shut my eyes I was transported to an image of the spaces.

Interview excerpt from The Quietus

How did you decide on using photographs to accompany the piece?
CW: I don’t often use visuals in my work and I was concerned, putting a sound piece in a public gallery, what I was interested in doing, of course, was engaging people. I thought one way to do this was to use visual aspects, apart from the lighting, apart from the comfy seating, so Alan, this great photographer who works at the gallery, came out with me and documented lots of the recording trips I did, and then we put this series of images together which were black and white, so it’s not too distracting. I mean people can go in and close their eyes and just choose to listen, [but] I know some people like that sense of being able to engage with an image, so we used a series of non-synchronised images. What I didn’t want was to have a slideshow – everywhere you see is a place that you hear in the piece, but not necessarily at the same time.

The early beginnings of Sheffield’s electronic scene in the 80s are readily apparent, with the mixture of field recordings echoing cabaret Voltaire’s first recordings. The sounds of Sheffield have always been informed by its industrial legacy.

Recording the industrial soundscape
Recording the industrial soundscape

Something that was documented in Eve Woods excellent film Pulp: The Beat Is The Law – Fanfare For The Common People.

“Watson captures sounds that we take for granted and illuminates them to art form level.”

The Guardian, click for full interview