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Put The Needle On The Record #22: Amsterdam 28012020

The Paradiso venue in Amsterdam is a former church in the old district of southern Amsterdam. The venue is placed directly by a canal which is at its rear in the Leidseplein area near the Melkweg, with the front of the venue facing onto a busy street. I recorded a short trip from The Paradiso venue that went onto the streets and into the Leidsplein area.

The streets were busy, flowing, animated, with several modes of transport circulating simultaneously and fairly harmoniously in this area. There are tram tracks on the road, built-in cycle lanes, car and bus lanes, lanes for water drainage, as well as pedestrian areas and various crossings of these tracks. The pedestrian pavement surface was initially made of grey-worn square paving slabs laid perpendicular to the direction of travel. The slabs were all polka-dotted with flattened gum circles. Next to these, some tessellated patterns of older red-brick were visible in the areas closer to the venue that led to the canal by way of side streets. The pattern soon changed to the design of what looked like granite brick blocks in a diagonal ‘hatched’ formation. At the same time, I also came across some more traditional-looking older hatched patterns created out of the smaller red brick flooring to the left of me, near a small shopping arcade. Curiously all bricks – whether granite or red – switched from perpendicular to hatch at the same time. I wondered was it the original older bricks that set the pattern or rhythm of that area? What changed it? It happened that also some road works were taking place on the road that spanned the tram and cycle lanes with road diggers and metal fences around them. This was an obvious disruption to the rhythmic flow in this otherwise busy, fluent area.

Sounding the surface of the streets in Amsterdam. (field recording)
Multiple lanes, multiple uses and users.
Video clip of Leidsplein walk

Put The Needle On The Record #21: Bordeaux 26012019

On the first day of the European tour, we arrived at Bordeaux. Notably, the first case of Coronavirus in France was reported in Bordeaux two days before we arrived. I took the luggage bag out on the streets nearby to the venue, which was an arts/culture centre with surroundings of mostly tarmac and grass.

My experience of Bordeaux was quite rhythmic. Once on the streets, I noticed that the thick terracotta tiles create regular, repetitive patterns, but also that these are used in adaptive and creative ways. There are variations to the pattern. There is the reactive placing of the tiles in relation to positions of street lights, drain covers, driveways, etc. Someone – or a group of people – had to make these decisions as they were laying them. This contrasted to many of the broader streets in America, where large plain slabs of cheap, mass-produced concrete materials were lain with great uniformity to facilitate the large-scale movement of people. When we think about these motives and contexts for the urban environment and for its use, for its consumption by people, wider narratives begin to materialize – what are the differences between European and American cultures for example? How and why did they evolve so?

Bordeaux

Listening notes: Crossing the road you hear a run-in groove of tarmac, before going up the curb onto the streets with the thick, square, terracotta tiles. Once rolling, the unique tiled rhythm sets up and continues for most of the journey. There were variations in speed in my walking, which created variations in the intensity of sound. There are broken rhythms as we come into contact with items such as manhole covers, street repairs, larger drain covers, cracks (cracks due to weather, cracks seemingly due to the weight of heavy vehicles), etc. What is interesting is that all these features are set on, and written in, the street. These are the grooves, the document. All we have to do is reveal their sound. An experience of dragging something over it from a given start and ending point is what creates the unique ‘record’ of that time. It is putting on the needle on the record to play it. The playback is from my starting to my endpoint.

A still from the Bordeaux street journey showing the smaller tiles, stones, and their resulting patterns.

‘Put The Needle On The Record’: Summary and Conclusions

“This is where it all started….This is the grain right here, y’all right on the soil right now, know what I’m sayin’?” Rae-Kwon

Initially, the idea was just to create a form of sound-diary of the American tour I was about to embark on for the Sound Diaries website. There were various angles and at first and I wasn’t set on what I should record; but eventually, I chose to record the sound of my luggage bag on different streets in different cities of America. This would become an expansion then, of my original (2014) video piece ‘Put The Needle On The Record’, which played with the idea that the luggage bag was a stylus reading the ‘record’ of the street patterning. For the rest of the project, I refer to the luggage bag as a stylus – as it reacts and resonates with the texture of the streets.

For the whole ‘Put The Needle On The Record’ project I am taking the street as a site of truth and authenticity, as it has always been in Hip Hop music, in Urban and other poetic narratives. The streets can have a mythical, historical connection with the past, with people, and with subcultures. In the (2019) Showtime series ‘Of Mics and Men’ Rae-Kwon from The Wu-Tang Clan is filmed walking through an area from which his group emerged when he stops and touches the street surface with his hand. He pats it, strokes it, saying “this is where it all started..” and “this is the grain right here”. The grain. Where it all started. The texture, the rough topography, and the unique historical record of the street: this is a record I seek to play…

What if I were able to do that then? Instead of running my hand across it, what if I can run something across it, and record the sound? What if the object I use can also record simultaneously the sound it is making? What if I can make a recording as long as the street? So from September 14th to October 16th 2019, I sought to run my stylus over 20 streets in America. I walked and dragged my luggage bag over paving slabs, concrete, tarmac, street tiling, soil, marble, and festival flooring. The simple and direct, physical form of sound-making and data gathering while moving on foot through these places puts your body in contact with the environment and connects you as a single part of a wider social and spatial whole. Walking is a way of interacting with our environment; dragging something behind you increases that connection with the (built) environment, and focuses you in the present.

On the tour, there were days off and travel days, yet I managed to make a recording at almost every gig or festival that we played. Mostly I would aim to record on the street of the venues we visited because it linked somehow to the touring event, and referenced the live-musical and geographic journey we were on. As venues are part of the physical and cultural image of their settings, they fit into a city’s urban morphology, so it seemed appropriate to record the streets near to the venue if possible.[2] Perhaps via this form of field recording, it would be interesting to see what differences there are from state to state, city to city, venue to venue, on a street level. And if any, what influence the venue might have had on the street and vice versa.

While touring – despite the freedom people imagine – your life is not really your own from the minute you join the entourage until you return home. So I couldn’t stick to an exact duration or schedule for the recordings because mostly time was out of my hands. There are soundchecks, record shop ‘in-stores, signings, acoustic sessions, interviews, adjustments to make with gear, ongoing technical conversations to be had with the crew; you have to eat, find showers and bathrooms in different locations each day, perhaps phone your family, and also the tour bus might be leaving or moving to a different location so you have to make sure you are aware of what’s going on to be on it. Nowadays, even flâneurs have to keep to a schedule.[3] Sometimes I would be walking and recording late at night and it would seem unsafe to go on, or I might get lost, or I was encountering too many roads and traffic, or time didn’t allow. On a tour, the only real time to yourself is on a day off, and ultimately as an entourage everyone expects you to be ‘on call’ and no more than five minutes away. So I guess I settled on about three to five minutes per recording, to be able to go ‘there and back’ safely.

I certainly found that each location was different. With the complex schedule of touring, I was inevitably recording at different times of day or night and of course in completely different surroundings as we changed location each day, so even if the pavement material was of a type shared by another city the context might be very different. I was always curious when this happened: what links the choices of street surface used in Detroit with New York, but not in Boston or Canada? Is the choice of pavement surface simply the result of economic forces, or aesthetic ones? In terms of urban planning: were choices made a result of motives that were regional, national, or global, or were they due to the character and influence of one particular individual even? What might this say about the people and their environment, the expectations of the city, and the working lives of the people in it? Either way while travelling, each location appeared to be a new context for these ideas and a new manifestation of the word ‘city’. The list of destinations was not determined by me, but in changing locations and situations so regularly, you get the sense of parallel universes shaped by a different and unique balance of forces, rather like the mythical imaginations of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974).

Some of the street names of the places I visited are interesting as they clocked up one by one. ‘Spring Garden Street’ in Philadelphia was one of the roughest places we visited: no spring, no gardens, mostly broken streets. ‘Pleasant Street’ in Boston was in reality quite pleasant – the section I experienced was a youthful, social area linked to the University. On ‘Elm Street’ in Dallas there were no Elms, they were long gone: instead, I experienced loud bars, drunks, the sound of revving pimped automobiles, and beggars – it wasn’t a nightmare but it could have been. These juxtapositions with the street name, and my experience of the place as it is now stretched the connection with a distant past, reminding me of Paul Whitty’s (2004-2009) work Vauxhall Pleasure.

As a final thought, I am curious to use the recordings as a form of ‘dead reckoning’ to explore not just the street surface but to take this recording-as-document and work outwards. The history of those streets and the cultures that shaped them – can these be determined from a single recording? Might it just depend on the style of analysis or questioning? If you take the ever-fading moment in time, the ‘now’ that I recorded back then – it instantly becomes historic, a document. As a document, it would be a rich and fruitful analysis to work backward and try to pick out patterns, starting from the street recordings. One could ask questions that begin with the sound and the rhythm of the street, but that radiate outwards and begin to ask what was the legacy of this approach to urban planning? What was happening in politics, or in music at the time? Where was that particular city in terms of its development or regression, where was the human race as a species in relation to the planet? What other cycles and forces are linking and affecting all these? 

This could be potentially done through a form of Rhythmanalysis and forms the next part of this project.


[1] http://www.sound-diaries.co.uk

[2] Kronenburg, R. (2019) This Must Be The Place, p. 4

[3] O’Rourke, K. (2013) Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers, p.5

[4] De Certeau, M. (1980) The Practice of Everyday Life, p.101

Q&A: James Green to Beth Shearsby

With your recordings for the Sound Diaries project, were there any that evoked a sense of place to you? Either through their representation of the moment in which you recorded them or from your own perspective, bringing back memories, reminding you of other sounds, having a sonic identity…

I find the recording taken on the bus held the most sense of place personally to me out of all of the others, despite it I guess actually being a part of a transition between two places. Perhaps as it is such a part of my routine – the same bus, the same route, 2hrs a day, many days a week, with little else to focus on – all those sounds become embedded and so familiar; the rattling, the wind + you know the spots on the route when the road gets more bumpy, etc… Adding the electromagnetic element to the recording gave it yet another layer of strange familiarity, as the whining of the wheels matched with the sound of the wheels physically on the road, varying in speed/pitch at the usual spots. It all seemed to fit together, holding ‘place’ and almost a strange comfort. 

In your work you contrast the sounds of nature/wildlife and the sounds of mechanical/electronic technology, do you think these sound worlds live in conflict or a harmonious relationship?

They are definitely conflicting, at least to my interpretation of the two. Putting the two together has yet to bring a sense of harmony, very much the opposite, haha. However, they are so alike! With each sharing many characteristics + similarities. A fine example of this is with insects with their constant buzzing/hums; rumbles of thunder, rumbles on tarmac/engines; chirps and cheeps of birds, not too far from sporadic blips of circuit boards; gushing rapids, radio static. It’s all communication, transference of energy, transference of data… But still, they live well on their own, but the coming of the two together (at least to me) usually spells chaos. 

Are there any sounds that you’ve missed during the last few months as our lives have moved more indoors or any sounds you’ve sought out as the lockdown has eased?

I’ve missed the sound of friends’ actual voices in the space, unfiltered or distorted by dodgy Zoom connections + tiny speakers…

Now that lockdown has eased, I find myself seeking out the sound – or rather silence – of lockdown again, haha. The absence of cars, etc… completely changed the soundscape as I’m sure we all have witnessed, making way for/amplifying the natural environment. But now that it’s returned, seemingly even louder than before. I guess as we readjust to living the ‘new normal’, our ears have to also.

[Accompanying: A field recording taken mid-lockdown whilst out on a walk… Despite this, of course a dreaded jet still manages to interrupt the recording – at the time being a nuisance. On reflection, this is a nice little example of the two worlds conflicting each other, yet coinciding. As I walked further along the path from the spot, a transformer loomed overhead. A funny oddity against the green of the countryside. I didn’t have the electromagnetic pickup to hand, but it instantly brought with it imagined sounds that are not too dissimilar to the various insects I’d been recording shortly before… It’s probably humming/singing/screaming its metal electric heart out.] 

Q&A: Atilio Doreste to James Green

How do you think that the soundscapes, recorded as part of your Sound Diaries project, have changed during the intense weeks of the pandemic compared to the previous ones? Are you able to go back listen ‘in person’ these days?

Yes, I have been listening to the original ones a bit recently and they differ quite a lot! This is because I honestly haven’t taken many new recordings since the lockdown began. Instead for me, it has been a process of listening, reflecting on them and trying to figure out some ways to reimagine them instead of going out and making new recordings.

 Another way they have differentiated is their sudden significance in the new context we have been put under. With the project, and my approach as a whole, I have concentrated on spaces and areas that hold meaning due to their social use or the way people shape that area, so listening back to crowds, buskers, religious singing and nightclubs they almost seem shocking and absurd that these many people were ever allowed to occupy the same space. Overall though I’ve enjoyed using sound as the material to create something new rather than seeing it as an elusive substance I’m always trying to capture. 

If there are layers of attention and definition (or non-definition) in your sound experiences facing the landscape, how would you establish the relationships between them in terms of overlap, transparency, or murmur?  Do you consider the possibility of some leading role in a specific sound source?  If so, what character would it have in relation to its possible appearance of figure and background?

For me, what tends to take my interest are areas of non-definition, many particulate elements coming together to form a larger image of what that landscape represents. However, that’s not to say that sometimes sounds take the foreground. I think this is more to do with our conditioning towards those sounds rather than the actual sonic characteristics. Things like cars, alarms, announcements and unpredictable sonic agents (eg crashes and lary people) often make it into the recordings I’ve made. Due to these usually being warnings in our everyday lives they evoke a reaction and therefore bring themselves to the foreground whilst listening back.  

I really like your idea of transparency and overlap, when reimagining some of the soundscapes from the project I’ve been layering unedited recordings from different areas of Aberdeen which I think ties in with these ideas. The city in these experiments has been overlapping and merging with places too disparate to have ever come into direct contact before but still echo or contain murmurs of the region as a whole. 

What do you consider is the estimate and necessary time for a track as a piece for the public? Is very different the length of your listening and the final selection?

It has been dependent on what I’ve been making the track for but generally, I listen back and edit at the same time. By edit, I only really mean finding the length of recording I like or removing the low-end wind noise which always makes it in!  Most of the longer, hour-long tracks I have composed use 2 – 5 minute chunks of audio that are then brought together in a kind of generative system I’ve been working on. The process of listening here is also an on the job case, listening and running it through this system a couple of times and hearing which I like better. These longer tracks are more meant for installations and therefore the listener may only hear a couple of minutes but can drop in and out at any point and still get a feel for the place that they are listening to.  

Goodbye Twenty Twenty #7 : Praa Sands, Cornwall

Everyday sound has had a curious and extraordinary year in the midst of some of the toughest of times. Amongst the sounding memories we have of the last eleven months is the shuffle of papers, hushed voices and birdsong on the live feed from the Rose Garden at number ten Downing Street as journalists waited for Dominic Cummings to make a statement about his visit to Barnard Castle; the sound of rain falling on the turf at Elland Road, home of Leeds United, audible only because there was no crowd, no sound in the stadium other than the sporadic shouting of the players and coaches and the falling rain; the still quiet of the fields alongside the A34 usually saturated with the deafening sound-making of tyres on asphalt but during the first lockdown in England filled instead with the sound of birdsong and children playing.

Contributor: Shirley Pegna
Location: Praa Sands, Cornwall, England
Time and Date: 09.30 08122020

Praa Sands, Cornwall

I was struck by how normal the sea sounded – although it was a pandemic..

Goodbye Twenty Twenty #6 : San Juan Atezcapan

Everyday sound has had a curious and extraordinary year in the midst of some of the toughest of times. Amongst the sounding memories we have of the last eleven months is the shuffle of papers, hushed voices and birdsong on the live feed from the Rose Garden at number ten Downing Street as journalists waited for Dominic Cummings to make a statement about his visit to Barnard Castle; the sound of rain falling on the turf at Elland Road, home of Leeds United, audible only because there was no crowd, no sound in the stadium other than the sporadic shouting of the players and coaches and the falling rain; the still quiet of the fields alongside the A34 usually saturated with the deafening sound-making of tyres on asphalt but during the first lockdown in England filled instead with the sound of birdsong and children playing.

Contributor: Lucia Hinojosa Gaxiola
Location: San Juan Atezcapan
Time and Date: some time in twenty twenty

Insect Poem

I started some time ago writing a series of thoughts, poems, scores, instructions called insect poems. During lockdown I was away in the countryside at San Juan Atezcapan and the sound of stridulation was fascinating and decided to make a composition-performance for the insects, or in collaboration with them. I only had a singing bowl with me so I tried to match its drone with the sound of the insects….

Goodbye Twenty Twenty #5 : Back Streets, Oxford

Everyday sound has had a curious and extraordinary year in the midst of some of the toughest of times. Amongst the sounding memories we have of the last eleven months is the shuffle of papers, hushed voices and birdsong on the live feed from the Rose Garden at number ten Downing Street as journalists waited for Dominic Cummings to make a statement about his visit to Barnard Castle; the sound of rain falling on the turf at Elland Road, home of Leeds United, audible only because there was no crowd, no sound in the stadium other than the sporadic shouting of the players and coaches and the falling rain; the still quiet of the fields alongside the A34 usually saturated with the deafening sound-making of tyres on asphalt but during the first lockdown in England filled instead with the sound of birdsong and children playing.

Contributor: Loz Colbert
Location: The Back Streets of Oxford
Time and Date: 05122020

The back streets of Oxford

The sound of the luggage bag on the streets has been largely absent – as has been my physical presence on them – since lockdown. So recording this sound on my first walking trip in the City Centre for many months felt like a beautiful moment.

Goodbye Twenty Twenty #4 : Hurst Water Meadow, Dorchester-on-Thames

Everyday sound has had a curious and extraordinary year in the midst of some of the toughest of times. Amongst the sounding memories we have of the last eleven months is the shuffle of papers, hushed voices and birdsong on the live feed from the Rose Garden at number ten Downing Street as journalists waited for Dominic Cummings to make a statement about his visit to Barnard Castle; the sound of rain falling on the turf at Elland Road, home of Leeds United, audible only because there was no crowd, no sound in the stadium other than the sporadic shouting of the players and coaches and the falling rain; the still quiet of the fields alongside the A34 usually saturated with the deafening sound-making of tyres on asphalt but during the first lockdown in England filled instead with the sound of birdsong and children playing.

Contributor: Stephen Eyre
Location: Hurst Water Meadow, Dorchester on Thames, Oxfordshire
Time and Date: 05122020

Hurst Water Meadow

I recorded this sound at the south-east corner of the meadow where the River Thame runs over a small weir and collects into a pool. The sounds of this and the birdsong are all but masked by the A4074 which runs directly behind. The effect is more pronounced in the recording than in situ but even in a pandemic and outside of a normal rush hour the road sound is dominant. Visually the site is wild meadow with some trees and bushes offering sight lines that contour the meadow into sections. It is possible to imagine you are in the New Forest, especially in winter when horses are put out to graze in the middle but the road noise is a reminder of the true order of things here!