Map­ping the rhythm and blues of the Lon­don Un­der­ground

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

WE’VE seen plenty of alternative maps of the Lon­don Un­der­ground, from those plot­ting av­er­age rents by sta­tion, to those chart­ing life ex­pectancy at ev­ery stop. But what about sound? A group of mu­si­cians and sound artists have this week launched the first ever in­ter­ac­tive “sound map” of the Lon­don Un­der­ground , cap­tur­ing the shrieks, grinds and gen­eral pat­ter of 55 tube sta­tions across the cap­i­tal.

It’s a noisy old world down there – from the “mind the gap” an­nounce­ments to Lon­don­ers’ idio­syn­cratic curses and drunken late night con­ver­sa­tions over il­licit tin­nies. This is pre­cisely what The Next Sta­tion project, the work of Cities and Mem­ory and The Lon­don Sound Sur­vey, spent three months ear­lier this year gath­er­ing. And as well as cap­tur­ing the real-life au­ral ex­pe­ri­ence, sound artists from around the world were then in­vited to remix and reimag­ine the field record­ings and cre­ate an alternative sound map to com­ple­ment the real one – you can lis­ten to all of them in one in­ter­ac­tive fea­ture.

So why make a sound map of the places we would all rather spend as lit­tle time think­ing about as pos­si­ble? Stu­art Fowkes, a sound artist and the project’s cre­ator, says Lon­don’s un­der­ground noises are iconic, “not just na­tion­ally but on a global scale” – for res­i­dents, tourists, and watch­ers of Lon­don-based films alike. The tube, Fowkes says, de­fines Lon­don in a way that pub­lic trans­port net­works in other cities don’t.

Click­ing through the sound map, you’ll hear a sur­pris­ing range of noises: a didgeri­doo player at Strat­ford, someone of­fer­ing free hugs at Brix­ton and a bag­pipe busker at King’s Cross – as well as all the an­nounce­ments and clat­ter­ing train noises that you’d ex­pect. “You might think that one un­der­ground sta­tion sounds much like an­other,” says Fowkes, “but they’re as char­ac­ter­ful as pet dogs once you get to know them.” King’s Cross would be a yappy ter­rier, then; Brix­ton an af­fec­tion­ate labrador.

Though we might clas­sify many of the noises on the tube as stress­ful, Fowkes in­sists they can be re­as­sur­ing in their fa­mil­iar­ity, keep­ing the whole sys­tem mov­ing like clock­work. “The de­tails like the in­to­na­tion of the au­to­mated an­nounce­ments com­mu­ni­cate ‘ev­ery­thing is well’ to com­muters sub­con­sciously … The trun­dle of the es­ca­la­tors, the clos­ing of the slid­ing doors are all as rhyth­mic as a heart­beat, and be­come part of Lon­don­ers’ nat­u­ral func­tions when they’re un­der­ground.”

This idea of the im­por­tance of acous­tic ecol­ogy is not new – R Mur­ray Schafer, con­sid­ered the fa­ther of the de­bate around it, be­gan talk­ing about the (dam­ag­ing) ef­fects of sound, es­pe­cially on peo­ple dwelling in the “sonic sew­ers” he be­lieved cities to be, back in the 1970s. “Noises are the sounds we have learned to ig­nore,” he wrote. So per­haps this fo­cus on the tube’s sounds will help Lon­don­ers’ oc­ca­sion­ally lis­ten, as well as sim­ply hear, the un­der­ground au­ral land­scape.

“There’s no blue plaque sys­tem for pre­serv­ing im­por­tant sounds,” Fowkes says, even though “sounds change as much as vis­ual ci­tyscapes, and to­day’s sounds are to­mor­row’s his­tory”. Per­haps it makes sense that we should be work­ing to ar­chive the soon-to-be-lost sounds of our cities.

The remixed sounds on the Lon­don Un­der­ground sound map – added to “help peo­ple to ap­pre­ci­ate how sound can form source ma­te­rial for some in­ter­est­ing art”, Fowkes says – are in­trigu­ing, if a lit­tle high- con­cept. With the field record­ing made at Pic­cadilly Cir­cus, Swedish sound artist Anya Try­bala has crafted a com­po­si­tion meant to be a med­i­ta­tion on Brexit. Com­poser and artist Martin A Smith has reimag­ined Moor­gate by mix­ing record­ings the North­ern line with the sound of cigales and church bells recorded in forests in Provence.

And with the tube now rum­bling through the night into the early hours, will we see this sound­scape chang­ing? “From a field record­ing per­spec­tive, the night tube is really ex­cit­ing,” Fowkes says. He’s plan­ning to head out, recorder in hand, and cap­ture some of these noc­tur­nal tube sounds. Cities and Mem­ory is con­tin­u­ing to cap­ture sounds, not just below ground, but also above ground in Lon­don and in other cities in 55 coun­tries across the globe. Fowkes’ ambition is to “help peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate the joy of the sounds that sur­round them ev­ery day.” So maybe then we can stop gri­mac­ing at the shriek of the Vic­to­ria line as it passes through Pim­lico? Per­haps not. But maybe we can look more kindly on that King’s Cross bag­piper at quar­ter to nine on a Mon­day morn­ing.

Photo: Shut­ter­stock

The Lon­don Un­der­ground is the old­est un­der­ground train sys­tem in the world, dat­ing back to 1863.

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