Amazing Sounds

I have been hard at work on several projects including my Town & Country soundmap for The MERL. This project is destined to have a nice long life; the map will be played live over wireless headphones at the Digital Takeover event on May 18th (next Thursday) but the sounds will be archived at MERL under this creative commons license. This means they can be accessed and used by other people in future projects exploring the textures of urban/rural experience in Reading.

I’m really excited about the longevity of this project and that it has been structured with future listeners in mind. I have benefited greatly in many of my projects from sound archives created by recordists of the past and even recent recordings of familiar locales give new sonic perspectives and ways of listening in those places.

The process of recording sounds around Reading is giving me a wondrous feeling of connection with its inhabitants and its textures which I would like to share with you today. This week I have particularly enjoyed listening to the sounds of the Shinfield Shambles Morris side; (I think) a nest of baby woodpeckers; a fantastic old telephone bell; and the chirrups of the darling little cygnets that my swan buddy at Whiteknights has been so anxiously awaiting. I thought it might be nice to tell you a bit about my experiences of recording these sounds and to play them here so you can hear them too.

Shinfield Shambles are a local morris side who dance in the Welsh Border style. They are based in the village of Shinfield. Each dancer wears an outfit themed around a single shade, with a rag jacket covered in small pieces of fabric; a hat covered in flowers of the same hue; and a coloured skirt and shoelaces to match. Bells are wound into everyone’s shoelaces and the musicians are dressed in all shades of the rainbow. The Shinfield Shambles were performing last Sunday at an event at the Museum of Reading and I enjoyed the inclusive style of their dancing which featured several numbers in which everyone was invited to participate. Perhaps even slightly more than the sounds of the actual performances, I liked that wherever the morris side walked, they left a trail of bells with their feet. One member of the side commented that after a while you get to know who is who from the distinctive sounds of their bells; I don’t doubt it. It was wonderful to listen to this acoustic performance of sticks, bells, dancing and traditional English folk music and I hope you like it too.

Mark and I have recently discovered a beautiful pocket of woodland at the fringes of the Harris Gardens in the grounds of Reading University and I wanted to go there to listen to the sounds of the birds who are all very busily chirruping away just now with their babies and their nests. I found a nice clearing, resonant with the songs of birds, but then became aware of something – amplified through my microphones – high up and high pitched in the trees. Luckily I was recording using Chris-Watson’s pro-tip to attach two omni-directional microphones to a coathanger. This gives you a lovely stereo impression of ambient sound, but it also means that when you hear a difficult-to-access sound that is high up, you can wedge your coathanger on a stick and poke it up to the source. That is what I did, standing in a clearing still and near to a tree, watched over by two anxious woodpeckers. I think this sound is what I heard – the sound of their babies in a nest inside the tree. Isn’t it amazing? I love it when the process of recording a sound highlights something I had not previously heard – once I’ve heard it through the headphones, it’s there forever in the soundscape.

Sometimes a happy sonic incident can change your perception of a place forever too; on one of my recent brick walks I was startled by the magnificent old-school telephone bell at a local architectural salvage yard. It is a wonderful, thunderous and immediately nostalgic sound that I suspect is well known to everyone who lives in proximity to it; one day it will no longer be part of the soundscape but I feel its vintage character must be preserved for posterity right now while it rings out across its yard. I returned to the site the next day, cheekily positioned my recorder and telephoned the number of the establishment in order to make the bell ring out, but my batteries died before I had successfully documented its full sonority in the context of its busy urban setting. I shall return again with batteries fully charged but for now here’s what I managed to collect with the dying energy of two AAs.

Finally I wanted to supply you with an update on the swans of which I wrote the other day. Having followed the male swan and listened to his aggressive defence of the lake, his nest and his mate, I confess to having become rather attached to the outcome. Clearly I am not alone in this – as you can hear in the recording, many comrades were gathering at the weekend to greet the six perfect cygnets and their parents now swimming relaxedly around the lakes. You can hear families, ducks, some of the other birds who live around the lake, and keen local photographers as eager to capture the fuzzy loveliness of the cygnets in light as I was to document their glorious chirrups in sound.

KNITSONIK is all about listening and looking to everyday inspirations and celebrating them either in stranded colourwork knitting or in community sound projects like my Town & Country soundmap with its associated archives. Photos, sound recordings, drawings and daily walks are all important for my creative practice, but they have an important emotional dimension too; they make Reading feel more like home to me, and they foster affection for this place in which I live. I’m really curious to hear about anything you do to more closely connect with your environment and I hope you enjoy the sounds!


1 thought on “Amazing Sounds

  1. Thanks for the swan update! Aren’t those cygnets adorable! Congratulations, Ma and Pa Swan! Are the cygnets the almost constant, slightly wheezy peeping? If so, they’re certainly talkative little fuzzballs, aren’t they? I love it that Pa seems more relaxed now.

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