London – three sound pieces

For sound alone, 1991-1994.

These three sound-based works are all about London, not the London of tourist brochures but the London that I lived in at the time, the early 1990s, and the London remembered by my mother, growing up during World War II. All three pieces make use of personal recordings, and form an aural autoethnography which, I hope, communicates a sense of place and time to a wider audience. Now many of the sounds have changed – the sparrows that were an omnipresent aural feature of my east London back garden are relatively few and far between now, writing in 2010. The memories that my mother held so vividly when I recorded her in the early 1990s are now more distant.

London E17

In London, as in all large cities, even a short walk can involve abrupt transitions from one sonic, and social, environment to another. The source sounds for this piece are diverse, and all were recorded in and around Walthamstow, London E17, which I considered to be my home `patch’ at the time. Although there is quite a bit of sound-processing, it is intentionally surreptitious. I used it to `light’ a series of linked sonic films, letting the so-called ordinary shine through. The music travels through various environments, dwelling for several minutes in each. They include sounds from my back garden, underground `tube’ trains, my local eel pie and mash caf , a noisy outdoor market, roadworks, rain. London E17 is dedicated to Paul Lansky, with thanks and affection.

In her own time

My mother holds a wealth of memories concerning her life in London during the Second World War. In these stories from her childhood the horror of war is disguised, or perhaps made even more painful, coloured by a child’s excitement and lack of understanding. And, of course, she tells them now from an adult’s perspective, looking back at the person she once was. Her memories were familiar bedtime stories for me, so much so that I feel they are part of my experience too. During the Gulf war they began to haunt me; perhaps I realised, for the first time, how it must have been. With my mum’s enthusiastic participation, I used her words, emotions and personality as the basis for this piece. Many of the recordings were made `on location’, as my parents and I revisited the places where she grew up.

In her own time is as much about my feelings for my mother as about the events she describes. More generally, it’s also concerned with memories, places or people as they are now and were then, the temporal nature of sound itself, and the important legacy that stories provide.

People underground

The sounds used in this piece were recorded in foot tunnels underneath the Thames. These tunnels are reached by descending in large Victorian lifts, complete with mahogany panelling and raucous sliding metal doors. The tunnels are extraordinary, and the experience of interacting with them more so. As the doors open, the crowd emerges into a wonderfully reverberant environment, and many people immediately begin playing with it – stamping their feet, shouting, listening to echoes, making spooky noises with their kids. It’s one of few occasions in everyday life when people spontaneously engage with sound, and the `effects’ produced are surprisingly nightmarish. In the damp and dimly-lit tunnels, you could almost convince yourself that the journey may not end, or that you might be entering some dark, unknown world. This piece is a walk below ground in both the sonic and metaphorical sense, an imaginary journey in which the sounds of the tunnel, and the people, drift in and out of focus, become intensified or surreal or fade inexplicably to silence. Things aren’t what they seem, until the music returns to the surface.

People underground has also been used as the soundtrack for a film, Below the Surface by Paul Rodgers, with whom the original sounds were recorded.

Available on LONDON, a CD of music and sound art by Katharine Norman (NMC D034)