Sound of the city - the man who created a sonic portrait of London

·6-min read
Ian Rawes doing a recording on the Southbank (Chris Low)
Ian Rawes doing a recording on the Southbank (Chris Low)

In Camberwell, there is birdsong, distant traffic, the slamming of car doors in the street and the voices of passersby. In Battersea, a woman sings, selling her lavender, while in West Ham, two young urban foxes playfight, letting out screams.

These are some of the clips on London Sound Survey, a website of field recordings that instantly take you to a particular place and time. There are archive sounds, like the lavender selling, which is from 1938 (before a law was brought in to stop people singing in the street to sell things), as well as more recent recordings, including one from inside Tower Bridge as a boat honks and it lifts up to allow it through.

The London Sound Survey is the creation of Ian Rawes, who died suddenly last month aged 56. His work captures London in a particular way, evoking places in a way that photos or film cannot, and it is now at the London Met archives as well as still being online for anyone to access.

The idea came out of work Rawes did at the British Library’s sound archive in the early 2000s when he was their “vault keeper” (he laughed at the grand-sounding title). He found tape recordings of everyday sounds in the BL collections – including one of all the fog horns along the coastline of Britain and another of every bus route in Yorkshire. It led him to him reflect on sounds he remembered from growing up in West London and what had changed – the evolution of street markets and buskers. This was before social media, when anyone could set up a website to chronicle their interests and that is what Rawes did.

“I imagine he would have cringed to hear me say this but in many ways he was a sonic Charles Dickens,” says Chris Low, who met Rawes in 1982 and lived with him in Edinburgh. Rawes was active in the anarcho-punk movement and called himself Ian Slaughter, going on to work in music in Scotland in the eighties, booking the then-little-known Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine for his own venue The Revue in Glasgow. “What he aimed to do with his sound mapping was portray the aural tapestry of the capital so future generations walking through Soho could hear how the same streets would have sounded fifty years before. He was self-effacing and interested in what wasn’t immediately apparent.”

Ian Rawes, who created The London Sound Survey (Jacky Minchella)
Ian Rawes, who created The London Sound Survey (Jacky Minchella)

As the Sound Survey grew, field recording became more popular, with Chris Watson leading the scene. “It’s moved from being an old bloke’s hobby like fishing to something young people are doing,” Rawes said. “Perhaps it’s a reaction against the emphasis our culture places on the visual. We’re constantly being told about new standards of video for our TVs and phones, and inevitably you get a reaction against that – reminding people they have senses other than vision.”

But the sounds of the city can be elusive. Rawes had an immersive approach to recording, often strapping microphones to his head to get different sounds. Helen Frosi, an artist and creator of Sound Fjord, says she will remember him, “in the handmade mufflers he used to prevent wind baffle, the ‘stealthy’ clothing he wore to prevent the sound of his coat getting onto the recordings”. He had an “enduring spirit of adventure and created a web of (sonic) histories that is sure to renew in every new generation that has access to his work”.

“Ian was interested in the underdog and the overlooked in life, and had time for the people and experiences that are easily missed or have been purposefully neglected. He was a tremendously deep thinker and raconteur, and conversations with him, often in one of his beloved Formica cafs, would meander in directions as diverse as 16th century texts on potions that invoke hyperacute hearing, to street cries that become television jingles. In recent correspondence, he enthused about his latest project, a long walk along the Norfolk coast, just himself, his recording equipment and a bivvy so he was free to kip almost anywhere he chose. This way of working was typically Ian, resourceful, creative and playful with nuances of the everyday.”

Kate Carr, whose label Flaming Pines focuses on field recording, sound art and experimental music, met Ian at the first gig she played in London after moving here from Australia. “My image of Ian from that night was of him sitting in a lounge chair, with a lamp, reading from books, playing some sounds and regaling the audience with fond tales of his London. He was a tough act to follow in every way, but I remember hoping that one day I would come to love and feel as at ease in the city as he did, while maintaining such a curiosity towards it. With his thousands of recordings made under London Sound Survey he has left us with an extremely valuable archive of the city and its diverse and inspiring soundscape. There is no doubt Ian made a massive and lasting contribution to field recording practice in London and beyond, as well as inspiring many new recordists to take up the craft, and listen a little more closely to the sounds of the city.”

His discoveries about London made their way into a book, Honk, Conk and Squacket: Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening, “a collection of over 1,500 forgotten and obscure sound-words found in Victorian county dialect surveys and a host of other old sources from across the English-speaking world”. Stephen Cleary, lead curator, literary and creative recordings at the British Library, describes Rawes as “always personable and unpretentious in discussing his work, and happy to share information on his location recording techniques”.

Rawes’s style, says Frosi, was “to reveal the voices of people and objects, mostly modest and quite often unheard. Some of these recordings revealed difficult pasts and complex presents, some disclose the past interlaced within the now. This is what brings Ian’s work, though often referred to as archival, constantly into a sense of presentness, and what makes it so important. Multiple pasts bubble to the surface across his London Sound Survey project, interlacing and imbuing geography, people and material with a scintillating quality – what is the past tempers the present, shining through to review itself anew to each new ear that cares to listen. The London Sound Survey, the complexity and layering of recordings, is a nod to the many worlds of London – the city as a body, the city as a repository, the city as a palimpsest, the city as a magic trick…”

Low remembers accompanying his friend on his recordings and speaks of “sunny walks along the Thames punctuated by pub breaks, and nights out in Camden where on one bustling bank holiday Sunday he captured for posterity the persistent ‘Cigarette Ponce’ and garrulous ‘Irish Joke Teller’ who featured on his first album: These Are The Good Times.” Rawes told Low how cities have their own particular sounds. He said, “I love the idea of just shutting your eyes and being able to almost hear your way around a city even if it’s somewhere you’ve never been, on the other side of the world or from a time before you were born.”

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