Sound of the city

Saturday 5th October 2019

The City - visual aspects and sound

A city’s physical aspects are usually designed and protensive, for example; architecture, bus shelters, shop windows, traffic lights, cars, posters, clothes.

The sounds of a city are usually by-products of something else and passing, for example; traffic noise, noise from building sites, railways, footsteps, the stochastic effect of speech.

Buildings and bridges may survive for centuries and it is possible to see what these looked like hundreds of years ago if they are extant - even if the materials are weathered.

Sounds only exist now. It is not possible to hear the sounds of previous centuries, except for things like church bells, canal locks, doors slamming.

There are some intentional sounds, these are usually for communication; such as people talking, sirens, tones at pedestrian crossings, station announcements. Invariably these are not designed for aesthetic reasons. And there are, of course, exceptions; for example the few cars that are designed to create a particular ‘sound-track’, street musicians and recorded music coming out from shops.

The visual aspects of a city can last. The sounds cannot.

I wrote this when I was asked to write about the city as expressed in music/the arts for the Sounding Cities website. Sounding Cities is two contemporary classical musicians - Naomi Sullivan and Luke Newby - who explore urban environments through music, photography, visual art and text. The first city explored was Johannesburg, the second Birmingham. Productions of the Anvil is a work I wrote based on both historical and contemporary Birmingham, using text collage, ambient sounds recorded in Birmingham, and live saxophone and bass clarinet playing music based on a Black Country folksong and a favourite hymn of a significant Birmingham writer

The ‘sound of the city’ is an evocative phrase that suggests excitement, vibrant ambient sounds, the noise, energy, and urban music; Hip Hop, Grime, Electro and even Punk do not make much sense when associated with rural villages. The western cities I have visited sound the same to me, except for the different sirens on emergency vehicles and announcements at train stations. The only time London can sound different is on some Saturdays in the Knightsbridge and Chelsea area, when there is often the distinctive sound of expensive cars, such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

There are many songs about cities, often specific cities, such as New York and Paris. This does not make most city sounds any more attractive or interesting but we have to live with the dull, grey-toned traffic noise that seems always present - along with sirens, helicopters, aircraft, trains, and sounds at zebra crossings indicating the lights have changed. The Members’ late 1970s record ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ contains the following lines:

“Every lousy Monday morning Heathrow jets go crashing over my home
Ten o’clock Broadmoor siren driving me mad won’t leave me alone”


Even the the urban punk songwriters who wrote this song didn’t like this environmental noise anymore than anyone else.

Evocative sounds can be found in a city; these sounds can be recorded, edited, transformed, and the unwanted sounds excluded. This work uses such ambient sounds recorded in Birmingham: bells heard across the canal; a popular cafe at lunch time; station announcements; a barge going through a lock near Old Turn Junction; a lift with voice announcements in a college; a powerful drill - again recorded from across the canal - that is edited and transformed into a rich, contrasting industrial sound. There is also a local traffic report recorded from a Black Country radio station.