‘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 #9 : Nashville : 26092019

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 26092019: Turned up early and got coffee in a diner. The luggage bag recording was of me going to the day room, walking up the hill. I’ve been experimenting with video here and I want people to be able to see the surfaces they are listening to, I think this is best… in some ways it has to be there as a visual thing. The patterns on the road, the objects etc.. and their relationship to the sound and story.. they all relate.

Luggage bag recording: Nashville street 26092019

Arriving and being in a historical place of such ‘traditional’ musical heritage, I made field recordings of the pavement – or ‘sidewalk’ as it is known. Yet in some ways this is the most dynamic form of reportage I could do – to get up close to the material, the story, the real life, as it is now. What is the sound of the street, when you play it like a record? And which musicians have walked these streets I am trawling along now? What state were they in? Where were there careers heading, pulling back from? Nashville is one of the main centres of musical activity and industry in the USA, but also has the most colleges and universities after NYC/Boston, and it is known for its healthcare. What characters have walked these streets in the past? Students, academics, vagrants… How has Nashville and its network of streets been shaped – if at all – by its own musical history and musical ‘legend’ (and legends)? If anything ‘Nashville’, and the idea of a music city lives above the streets as a romantic idea, not on them. What lies on the streets is more the truth of the matter: pavement forms created by municipal protocols and economic constraints; impacted with social and societal encounters leaving traces such as dried bubble gum, spilt drinks of various consistencies, litter, scratches, dents… devastation and entropy lie waiting on the outskirts of what is clear to see..

Outside the venue, the streets look fairly normal. But I wonder what dramas have taken place here? At what times?
Facing the direction of the gear being loaded in.
The legend of Nashville is ‘above’ rather than ‘on’ the streets…

Put The Needle On The Record #8 : Philadelphia : 240919

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 24092019: “We are based in a rougher area today for the gig, so the sound of the luggage bag on the the street was more brutal and closer to ‘noise’ today. Rough and chipped concrete. As I walked towards a more desirable area, the street sound developed into a more smooth and regular refrain (Gentrification?). Some streets again have the concrete delineations of space, they are not so much individual slabs, as a larger section of pavement overall, with troughs in straight lines to delineate a rectangular space on the surface.”

Dragging my luggage bag across the streets near to each venue that we play on this American tour, I am making a record of the histories etched into the very street I am walking along. Connected to the street, I read and write this encounter as recorded sound. There is a sense of ‘presence’ as I am walking, listening, and creating sound at the same time. I am engaged and engaging with the street. A form of stylus, the luggage bag reads the physical topography of the street and vibrates like a traditional stylus might, faithfully rendering the unique physical topography into sound. One recording cannot represent all activities, all agents, all histories, but it can work as a starting point for these. And as we compare each location, a certain story is told in each. The rhythms reflect the physical ‘document’ of the street, and how it has been written by multiple authors: government, local government, architects, accountants, municipalities, construction workers, repairmen, commuters, businesses, artists, tramps, vagrants, criminals, tourists, musicians… A palimpsest, the street is constantly being written, imagined, interpreted. As we walk the streets and are present, we can be open to this collaboration. Even better to play it out loud.

Luggage bag recording: Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia 24092019
A visual selection of Spring Garden street (no sound).

Put The Needle On The Record #7 : Washington DC : 22092019

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 22092019: A hot day: 32-37 degrees C. Slabs (concrete sections) are much closer together. Is Washington ‘more refined’ than Detroit? Some variations on the street such as manhole covers and ventilation grilles. Two pedestrian stops to cross the road. I took a luggage bag walk and saw how the hot pavement slabs (well actually concrete sections like in other towns) were closer together. Some metal grids like the ones I saw in Times Square were there, which cause a dense and full sound like a drum roll. Heard today, the sound of the water in the shower, limpid, unimpressive. And the sound of my luggage bag rolling into and out of the dressing room. 

Luggage bag recording: 5th St, North West, Washington DC 22092019

What could be said of the street surfaces I have seen so far? Some have felt very impersonal and some have felt characterful; some have felt dangerous and some have felt safe; but there is always a story if you have a look and a listen… ‘Listening’ to sounds, but also to the different streams of data and information is a form of Rhythmanalysis. In Detroit, Brooklyn, and Washington the streets I walked were impersonal. What factors lead to this? Is it just financial concerns, practical concerns, or social? Is it historic or technological factors that shape the streets and the experience of walking them? Or, was it just the location of the venue I find myself near? Is my experience being directed by different approaches to music, and to the location of live venues in the city? Venues can be central to culture and invited into urban planning, or they can be pushed away from it. Why was Boston (a University Town) more human and socially responsive somehow? Different communities respond in different ways to street perspectives. What factors shaped those responses, those communities..?

Out on a luggage bag walk in Washington DC 22092019

Put The Needle On The Record #2 : Chicago : Riot Festival 15092019

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 15092019:

“The sound of the buggy as I got moved around, the distant sounds of festival music, bassy, incoherent. Walking through the crowd, and the man shouting at the top of his voice literally to people to back off. The difference between side of stage and in front of stage. The different mixes and sounds of the bands playing as I moved around of course.”

Riot Festival took place at Douglas Park, Chicago on 15th Sept 2019. Below is the shortest sound clip in this series, but it is the first taste of the luggage bag on American soil – and not. The ‘soil’ of an outdoor festival is usually covered with metal grids or ‘ground mats’ in the busiest areas such as walkways for crew and professionals working backstage. I managed to capture some of this, while in transit.

15092019