SILENT LONDON MAY 2020
Re-capturing locations from the noise campaign of 1928
Interest in the novelty of such a record is probably the predominant impression made at the beginning; later when the ear has become accustomed to the incessant but indeterminate roar, the question arises, "Is this really so intolerable after all?”
A few weeks ago, digital curator Foteini Aravani from The Museum of London got in touch with me having heard my recent recordings.
Foteini told me about some fascinating 78rpm discs they look after, possibly the earliest existing recordings of London ambiences captured with a portable recording system. We decided that it would be worthwhile to capture those same locations, nearly a century on during lockdown.
Having been made aware of a fantastic collection of images documenting the emptiness of London on Facebook, I got in touch with the photographer, Damien Hewetson and asked if he would join me to visually document these locations while I was recording. All images accompanying these recordings were taken by Damien; please visit his page here to see more of his incredible work.
The original recordings from 1928 were created by the Columbia Graphophone Company in collaboration with The Daily Mail to capture rising noise levels in London. You can find digital transfers of two of the recordings on the excellent site 'Sound and History'. While the damaging effects of unwanted noise are now well documented, nearly a century earlier, they were only starting to be understood.
Some detail on the five locations Columbia recorded: they wanted to demonstrate the noise levels patients were being subjected to at St. George's Hospital Hyde Park Corner (now The Lanesborough Hotel); the noise levels in residential street Beauchamp Place off Brompton Road were described as intolerable, jammed with traffic trying to get around London; the busy Cromwell Road / Queen's Gate junction was described in The Daily Mail as 'a stone's throw from the house of then home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks.
Upon completion of several days creating these recordings (the process was laborious, they needed a whole room to set up the equipment per location) they took them to the government to demonstrate the perceived rise in noise pollution at the time. While the gramophone played, the Home Secretary repeatedly questioned the medium and its effect on their judgment of noise levels. He was convinced eventually - the creators of the discs had made sure to leave space at the end of each record to demonstrate the needle noise / sound of reproduction beyond the sound their microphone had collected. It's possible these recordings played a small part (in addition to the extremely high number of fatalities on the road in the late 20s) in convincing the government to bring in stricter laws with the Road Traffic Act 1930.
London continues to this day to be a hotspot for noise pollution despite existing legislation, something which has changed during this lockdown. Have a listen to the locations I have re-captured - Damien and I documented more than the five original recordings on our afternoon trip and they’re all included below.
Please note - these are binaural recordings, make sure to listen on headphones for a true 3D binaural experience. Check your L+R phones are the correct way round (to match the perspective of the stills), and listen somewhere quiet, best wishes, Will x