SOUNDSCAPES OF BRITAIN
Bangkok, 12 April 2015
When we moved into our apartment here in Bangkok, we found that a previous tenant had left a wind chime hanging on the balcony, in front of the living room, ready to tinkle with every passing breeze – and since many breezes pass up and down the river which flows by our building, it tinkled quite a lot.
I was charmed, my wife less so. It is true that its more-or-less constant tinkling became rather intrusive to our life in the living room. My wife was for removing it completely. As a compromise, I moved it to the end of the balcony, keeping company to the King Rama VII Bridge (about which I’ve written earlier). From there, its chimes would be less sonically importunate, and it might, I hoped, keep the pesky pigeons from resting on the balcony railing.
The former worked, the latter didn’t; true to form, the pigeons simply ignore the chimes and continue to land – and poop – on the railing.
My wife and I had first come across wind chimes some 35 years ago, during a visit we made to a Buddhist temple situated in the Catskill mountains to the north of New York City. We were spending a few days in the Catskills, getting our small children out of the city and into some fresh air. By chance, during a drive around the countryside, we came across a sign indicating the way to the temple. Intrigued, we followed the sign and found ourselves with this before us.
A very nice (American) Buddhist nun took us on a tour, and afterwards, while wandering around the temple’s outhouses, we came across the wind chime, tinkling quietly in the wind.
We recently came across a more religious version of wind chimes in Myanmar, where almost universally stupas are topped with a complicated crown that includes, among other things, a circle of little bells at its base which nod with every passing breeze.
In consequence, our visits to the stupa forests around Inle lake were accompanied by an almost constant quiet background tinkle whose level rose and fell as breezes snaked their way languidly between the stupas. Their purpose, I read, is to ward off evil spirits. This seems to be the primary raison-d’être of wind chimes in this part of the world, another example of something beautiful inspired by fear. Sad, really.
As I read around for this post, I discovered that a certain set of wind chimes – at Mizusawa railway station in Ōshū, Japan, to be precise – were one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan officially designated as such by the Ministry of Environment. Soundscapes! Now, that is something I had never heard of. And my research – and consequently this post – went off on a tangent. I’ve been like a dog who while following the scent of a fox, suddenly comes across the scent of a boar and races off in a different direction.
Soundscapes, I read, are sounds that “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place”. I’ve scanned the list of official 100 soundscapes of Japan (chosen, by the way, very democratically from a pool of candidates created after the Ministry of Environment called on the citizenry to submit their favourite soundscapes). Apart from the wind chimes in Mizusawa station, I see drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Japanese crane sanctuary in Tsurui, singing frogs and wild birds of the Hirose River, ship whistles for the New Year at Yokohama Port, reed fields at the mouth of the Kitakami River, pinewoods sighing in the wind in Noshiro, the approach to Kawasaki Daishi Temple, a cicada chorus in Honda-no-Mori Forest, sand eel fishing at Tarumi port, and on and on. Any reader who is interested in the whole list can go to the Wikipedia entry.
Wow … 100 soundscapes that somehow define a country … Well, I guess Mynamarians might choose the tinkle of bells in their stupa forests as one of their soundscapes. But I can’t decide their soundscapes for them. As an Englishman, though (OK, half an Englishman but let’s not quibble), I could have a go at choosing some soundscapes for the UK.
So what sounds define the UK? Well, the national psyche is very much defined by its being an island, so soundscapes of the sea are an obvious choice. There’s the sound of the water itself: the quiet hiss of seawater running over a shingle beach like the one my grandmother used to take us grandchildren to in Norfolk, or the splintering of waves against sea-cliffs which my wife and I heard in the Orkneys, or even the howl of the wind racing inland on the back of a big winter storm. But there’s also the cries of the innumerable seabirds and other wildlife which inhabit the UK’s coasts. And then there are the human-related noises linked to the sea: the sharp orders of the skipper followed by the thunderous clap of sails resetting on a sail boat as it turns about, the blast of a siren and the churning of water as a ship moves out of port, the lugubrious sound of a fog horn, but also the chatter on a crowded beach on a summer’s day.
Staying with water, rain is also definitely part of the British psyche, so a soundscape of falling rain seems called for: not the hard, dense tropical rain we have here in Bangkok, but a softer rain that goes on and on (and on …). And then there is the sound of all those brooks and streams which criss-cross the country as they hurry down over rock and fallen log: I have a particularly vivid sonic memory from my childhood of the brook which bordered our school’s playing fields.
Talking of playing fields, these evoke for me countless sonic memories: the crack of cricket bat against ball (such an English sound! although Americans may have a cousin in baseball’s bat against ball), the thud of foot against ball, the encouraging cheers of onlookers, which in football and other commercially organized sporting events has now swelled into the chanting of the stadium (this must be one of the few truly international soundscapes), and, strangely enough because I’m not really into horses, the thunder of hooves on soft turf as race horses come round the bend into the final straight. Horse racing also evokes in me a very specific sonic memory of the TV commentator: “and it’s Blue Blazes in the lead!, and Desperate Straights is coming hard up on the inside!!, but Blue Blazes is holding the lead!!!, …” and so the voice would continue to rise to a crescendo until the finishing line was crossed, when it would fall away to normal levels. Probably not specifically an English soundscape but to me always a memory of my English youth: Saturday afternoon in front of the telly.
Going back to nature, wind is a constant in the British Isles, so we must have wind soundscapes in the collection: trees soughing in the wind; wind rustling grass, sedges, heather; the dry clacking of leafless branch on leafless branch in a strong wind. Trees lead me to birds, which hold a special place in the British heart. A dawn chorus in summer would be a definite entry, but so could the songs of any number of birds. I would definitely want to have a lake soundscape with a loon calling out – I have such a strong childhood memory of that.
The Japanese Ministry held its competition for the 100 soundscapes of Japan as a way of reminding the Japanese of their country’s natural sounds. I have sympathy for that: we are so surrounded in our daily, highly urbanized, lives with a cacophony of artificial sounds that we no longer hear Nature. But still, there are soundscapes made up of man-made sounds which so “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory”, to requote the definition, that they cannot be left out from this compendium of national sounds which I am sketching out. My personal entries would be two. One is the sound which London Underground trains make when they are halted, waiting to go. The electric engine goes into some sort of standby mode, emitting a very particular sound which I have never heard anywhere else. When I hear that noise, I know I’m back in London. The second such sound is from the diesel engine of the old double decker buses. These emitted a particular throaty rasp which I would immediately recognize anywhere. Alas, I think this soundscape now belongs to history. Today’s double deckers must have a newer engine, for I hear that throaty rasp no longer.
I cannot finish my list without mentioning the UK’s regional accents. I’ve always loved the wide variety of accents you find in the UK. It just fascinates me that the same language can be pronounced in so many different ways. I don’t know if regional accents count as soundscapes, but you certainly can’t find a more British sound than a Yorkshire accent, or a Somerset accent, or a Welsh accent, or one of the Scottish accents, just to cite the ones I am most familiar with. Whenever I hear a British regional accent on the streets or in the shopping malls of Bangkok, I turn around and smile. That’s home …
My wife has been telling me that we should think of spending six months in the UK after I retire. I’m inclined to agree. It would allow me to reconnect not only with the sights but also the sounds of my once-native land.
Buddhist temple Catskills: https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2162/2092854607_e6f4aa3d32.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/shoshin-seishu/2092854607/)
Other photos: mine