On May 18th 2017 from 7-10pm, as part of the Digital Takeover late night event at The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), I’m sharing a soundmap of Reading, featuring sounds broadly themed around “Town & Country”. The map is being created using the superb aporee platform created by my friend Udo Noll, and you’ll be able to explore it at the event with your friends using wireless headphones. You can also check it out at any time from your own home. In the weeks leading up to the event, I’ll be expanding on what’s currently featured so what you can see today is a work in progress. I’m mainly using recordings from my archives and new recordings made especially for this. However, if you are a fellow aporee contributor living in Reading and would like your sounds to feature, please get in touch or leave a note in the comments – I would love to hear other perspectives on this place!
Town & Country
Working on this project is making me think about the ways in which we categorise places as “Town” or “Country”. Reading Museum and The MERL respectively represent the histories of urban Reading and English Rural Life, but many objects in their collections speak across a shared history. Reading (Town) like most urban centres grew through utilising the natural resources found in the encircling working landscape (Country) – a relationship immediately evident in old maps.
When I was writing the chapter in my book about my special Huntley & Palmer’s biscuit tin, I learnt that barges used to travel up the Thames to the mills at Sonning and Mapledurham to collect flour for use in Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits. This is just one example but it’s a good one for illustrating how Town & Country were once aligned to common enterprises; similar examples illustrating interdependent relationships between working landscapes and nearby urban centres of trade can be found everywhere.
However, each context seems to have become more discrete as the commercial activities of the Town have lost their direct connections to the nearby natural resources of the surrounding Countryside. This has happened gradually and is a shift enabled by transportation technology. Now goods can be grown in one place and transported almost anywhere else for sale, so towns like Reading are no longer commercial hubs for the surrounding landscape, but conurbations in which goods from all over the world might be bought or sold… and the countryside is no longer bound by the commercial demands of its nearest towns, but rather by the needs and opportunities of the global market. To go back to my example, the mill at Mapledurham still produces flour, but it also now produces and sells electricity with a state of the art hydro-turbine; the mill at Sonning is now an arts venue; and Prudential Plc. – a multinational life insurance and financial services company – now stands where Huntley & Palmers once had its headquarters. The sonic story of Town & Country in this case may once have involved the sounds of wind through wheat in the fields; the sounds of millstones grinding it to flour; the sounds of the working waterways bringing the flour to the factory; the sounds of biscuit production in a Victorian factory and then its art deco successor… now the same journey would feature the sounds of lorries and tarmac rather than boats; and there is no biscuit factory here to record, but instead, the new sounds of the water turbine; theatre and dance; and the sonic textures of a globally connected office and all its telecommunications. The major change between an 1800s recording and a 2017 recording would be the sounds of the roads that encircle it all in 2017.
Today, the sounds of transportation and the tones of the combustion engine really have come to define the sonic textures of both Town & Country… yet there are still differences, and for all the presence of cars, lorries, planes and trains in the soundscape of Reading, distinctions of “Town” & “Country” persist.
Urban/Country Meditations (1988)
Listen to a roadway – eyes closed – distinguish size shape and make of car by the sound – also speed and health of engine.
Sit by the trees – what kind of tree makes what kind of sound?
– Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening, A Composer’s Sound Practice
Even in a globalised world, Reading still draws on the heritage and identity formed from its agricultural past – from its specific geographic position, natural resources and subsequent trades. I have been thinking a bit about how to speak across those ideas – those concepts of Town & Country – in sound. I’ll keep you posted, but in the meantime, I’d love your feedback on the map if you have time to explore it, and please do get in touch if you are an aporist of Reading and would like me to add your recordings to my map!