‘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