‘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

Put The Needle On The Record #20 : Los Angeles : 14102019

The histories of architecture in the city are ‘scrolls’ waiting to be discovered and ‘read’ (Calvino, 1972). While investigating these scrolls through the practice of walking the streets of the city accompanied by wheeled luggage, I have found a ‘stylus’ for reading the pavement topography, the skin of the city. The wheels of the luggage bag connect directly with the built environment, rather like putting the needle on a record: a record that is city-sized and can be played in any direction. This practice presents a way of recording, mapping, and sonifying the streets of the city.
Put The Needle On The Record was created by Loz Colbert. Find out more about the project here.

From my sound diary: All the sounds I heard and found while doing the study of the venue with Cruel Diagonals: clanking chains, slamming doors, creaking doors, ringing metal protective fence sections. Imagining electro-magnetic sounds (I didn’t have headphones) . The sound of the gear being loaded up the aluminium ramp during the ‘get in’. The humming sound of the fridge in our dressing room. The reasurring sounds of humanity, the clash and bang of catering, having breakfast at a cafe, earlier in the day. 

This luggage bag recording was made after the show at the Teragram Ballroom on 14102019. I am walking from the tourbus, around the venue and back. It is late at night, dark, you can hear some chatting from some of the audience still loitering around the venue. This outside ambience is subdued in contrast to the sounds during the day that myself and L.A.-based vocalist / field recordist Megan Mitchell (aka ‘Cruel Diagonals’) spent a few hours recording. We used hand-held recorders, contact mics, electromagnetic coil microphones and standing microphones to explore the sounds around the venue, inside and out. We captured the ‘load-in’ at the back of the venue, as well as boiler rooms, kitchen, a deserted entrance hall and IT cabling rooms at the front. As part of an ‘architecture and sound’ project we were looking to find the acoustic, electromagnetic ‘soul’ of the venue at that point in time. Hopefully Megan and I will do a collaborative piece with these sounds at some point. In any case we both came away with a wealth of sounds from the study. It was a fantastic day to be thinking about and exploring ‘non-musical’ (or non-band created) sound in a music venue.

Put The Needle On The Record #17 : Seattle : 08102019

The histories of architecture in the city are ‘scrolls’ waiting to be discovered and ‘read’ (Calvino, 1972). While investigating these scrolls through the practice of walking the streets of the city accompanied by wheeled luggage, I have found a ‘stylus’ for reading the pavement topography, the skin of the city. The wheels of the luggage bag connect directly with the built environment, rather like putting the needle on a record: a record that is city-sized and can be played in any direction. This practice presents a way of recording, mapping, and sonifying the streets of the city.

Put The Needle On The Record was created by Loz Colbert. Find out more about the project here.

From my sound diary that day 08102019: My fingers tapping on the keyboard on the laptop writing this late at night. Alert sounds. The sound of the Lime bicycle and the Lime scooter coming to life. The ‘sound walk’ experience of Seattle and then the accelerated version via electric scooter and via electric bicycle, all three in the same day, with the wind in my ears for both electric transports. The hubbub and closeness of Pike Place Market, vs the outside where sound could disperse. A slamming door. My IEMs going in and making things quiet.

Union Street, Seattle 08102019

This recording of Seattle has some good examples in it. Why? Because it is a bit busier, you get the sound of the pavement / sidewalk which has some gritty ‘grooves’ and rhythmic patterns on it in an unfolding in a linear pattern. Seattle for me symbolises an edgy, unpretentious, and visceral reaction to music and culture. But in the recording there are distant police sirens, pneumatic brakes of lorries, passing cars, there is the sound of other machinery & life taking place as I pass as I roll down the street. It creates a landscaped soundscape image. There is the connected, kinetic ‘stylus’ recording of the street heard through the scraping and dragging of the luggage bag: a writing in stone that is to be read as we pass, and is very direct; but with the ambient looser sounds of Seattle around it. The section of Seattle we find ourselves in – the central business district near to Belltown – is lively, busy, active. The ‘Space Needle’ is nearby, and I am rolling downhill, towards the famous Farmers Market. There is a pause for the pedestrian crossing (this is now a familiar instance and phrase of the metre of the luggage bag recording), we hear some other pedestrians and street ambience. Then I return back up the hill to the tourbus. It is midday and we have just played a lunchtime ‘showcase’ that was broadcast live. We will then still play the ticketed gig at the Crocodile later tonight.

Business is taking place on many strata in Seattle
Multiple rhythms, multiple modes of transport on the streets of Seattle
Some visual street rhythms, in a brutalist cityscape

Put The Needle On The Record #16 : Vancouver : 07102019

The histories of architecture in the city are ‘scrolls’ waiting to be discovered and ‘read’ (Calvino, 1972). While investigating these scrolls through the practice of walking the streets of the city accompanied by wheeled luggage, I have found a ‘stylus’ for reading the pavement topography, the skin of the city. The wheels of the luggage bag connect directly with the built environment, rather like putting the needle on a record: a record that is city-sized and can be played in any direction. This practice presents a way of recording, mapping, and sonifying the streets of the city.

Put The Needle On The Record was created by Loz Colbert. Find out more about the project here.

From my sound diary that day 07102019: Vancouver. Listened to the sound of the drums sound checking… the natural ‘acoustic’ version of the drum kit is so different to the amplified version, with its booming, boosted frequencies that cut across and fill the room, the drums sound so elastic and bouncy, they sound sonorous and huge once amplified. I remember the muted sound of the lobby I sat in to find somewhere to read a family message quietly. It was the lobby of a car park or shopping centre (you take what you can get)…

07102019 Vancouver

From a street-based perspective: how was Canada different to America? Without thinking too deeply: cleaner, more tidy, less devastated and less ravaged. Also much neater in terms of construction approaches, and appearance. It wasn’t all perfect, but there were just hints of what I can only call a more ‘European’ mentality, with slightly more appealing street materials from which to build. Is this because of distant Anglo/Franco imperial influence? What even is that influence? Wasn’t that influence itself a complex mixture of borrowed stolen and controversial aesthetics? Can these be felt through the streets through history, over the ages..? What effect do key events of the past echo in the construction of cities, publics spaces, and in the demeanour of the people…? How far back does this go, and can it ever be erased? Can we hear it just by listening? Can we see it just by looking? Or is it a mixture of both, and ‘sensing’ the cultural rhythms of the past…

The back of the venue connected to an unnamed alleyway that – starting at Robson Street – seemed to stretch for miles
Glanville Street, Vancouver