I'm currently sitting my living room, working, with the balcony door open. There is no music on, but there is a lot of sound. There's a long, underlying wash of distant traffic, and differently-pitched drones of motorbikes and cars close by, which swell and then disappear. The long descending sigh of aeroplanes - a glissandi if you like your musical terms - is occasionally added. It's like a main musical gesture or theme. Another gesture is the whoomph of the lift in my apartment block as it is pressed into life. Punctuating this are the high cries of kids in Ruskin Park, and those crazy green parakeets that have monopolised the lofty boughs of some parts of London squeaking away like irritating rubber bath toys. Just once there's the jingle of keys in a pocket of someone returning home to my block of flats. I'm adding my own sound too: the rhythmical tap of fingers on laptop keyboard, which adds its own, always irregular percussive patterns. If I take time to listen, I hear all these sounds interweave and interrelate, a grand, unwitting musical happening.
Stop! Listen. What sounds are there?
We all navigate around the city using maps and visual signifiers; but we also make our way around it using our ears. You know you're in Columbia Market when you hear those wonderful market cries as well as see the blooms; or in Brixton when you hear the preachers on the corner; and those sounds that the buses make when the doors open, or when they sink lower down to accommodate a wheelchair user, are distinctly London. Our city wouldn't be the same without these sounds; they shape London just as much as the slant of the Shard or the glint of the Thames.
We are so inundated with sound in our daily lives that we try and filter it out, and focus on only the important signifiers - the things we need to hear. What happens when we attune our ears to the sounds we normally try and ignore, and to try and listen to them as music?
And even better, why don't we record, in writing, some of the sounds we hear, to draw other people's ears towards them? On my Sonic Experiments evening for The School of Life, I'm going to get people consciously listen to their surroundings. We'll go on a soundwalk around Bloomsbury. We'll find simple ways to interact musically with the sounds around us. And we'll even 'compose' with the existing sound, designing soundwalks that someone else can experience.
Everyone will create their own 'map scores', noting down particular sounds that they notice and find interesting, and then design a route which includes those places. Of course some sounds may always be present and some may be transient. It might also include ways in which the soundwalker can interact with the space through sound, such as noticing the crunch of gravel under your feet or running nails along railings.
I was inspired for this activity by two things: the artist Richard Long's 'Sound Circle', in which he used a compass to draw a perfect circle on a section of a map of Dartmoor, then walked that circle, noting down sounds that he heard along the way; and by composer and sound ecologist Hildegaard Westerkamp, who has created soundwalks similar to the above.
Why not audio record sounds you find interesting? There are such simple things that you can do. Finding any way of shaping the sounds that exist around you - whether it be soundwalking, soundmapping or recording - can be meaningful. Take a half decent sound recorder (I use a Zoom) around with you, and capture any sound you find interesting, whether that is a conversation, or a mechanical noise, or a naturally-occurring one. You can pass it onto the brilliant gatherer of London's aural landscape, the London Sound Survey, or to Radio Aporee, a wonderful interactive worldwide soundmap, the aural equivalent of Google Maps.
Chris Watson, the UK's most respected field recordist, says that ‘hearing is passive but listening is a creative activity'. Check out his beautiful work here.
Kerry Andrew is a freelance composer/performer and music educator based in London. She specialises in experimental vocal music and music-theatre with a twist of pop, jazz, folk, world music and everything in between.
'Sonic Experiments' takes place on Friday 13 September as part of The School of Life's Mind Games' series. For more info and to book your place click here.
Website: kerry andrew