My room in King’s College faces out on to the quad and throughout the day today I kept hearing a single shout , that sounded like ‘coaaal…’ coming from the building works on the east wing of Somerset House and repeated every few seconds. From ground level it was inaudible but from the fourth floor of the South Range it was clear. The sound seemed so ‘out of place’, so unusual, so elemental. It was such a human – and in that sense alien – addition to the normal Strand soundscape of traffic noise. It made me think about what comprises a soundscape as a collection of sounds, including silences, that can be heard in a particular place at a particular time.
Human sounds are rarely heard on the Strand other than when traffic gives way to celebrations or demonstrations that sometimes take over the street. In recent weeks there have been plenty of the those – protests by firemen and students, blowing whistles or vuvuzealas, chanting slogans or beating drums. But mostly the Strand is a soundscape that consists of traffic noise and siren sounds with little human interference in the mechanical chant of modern urban life.
The buildings that line the Strand reflect – or deflect – the sounds of the street. St Mary le Strand and St Clement Danes, when they were built in the 18th century, were stranded like islands surrounded by busy streets and encircled by the sounds of metal rimmed cart wheels and horses hooves clashing on granite setts. At one time wooden blocks were used to pave the streets but, although they deadened horse drawn traffic noise, they were not hard wearing and soon gave way to more durable if noisier stone surfaces. The blocked up ground floor windows of both churches hint at the problems that noise must have presented to feeble voiced vicars, tenuous choirs and hesitant parishioners.
There were plenty of other sounds that fought for attention on the street: ballad singers like Joseph Johnson in the early nineteenth century or itinerant Italian barrel organ grinders – both precursors of the more recent buskers that are now confined underground to licensed pitches or to the back of St Paul’s church in Covent Garden – would have added to a more human soundscape than that which exists along the Strand today. Even into the 20th century the cries of itinerant workers – knife sharpeners, coalmen, rag and bone men and others – going about their business added other layers of sound to the London streets. But today, at least along the Strand, the human voice is a silent witness to a past age. It’s not that this voice is absent but we hear it through different and primarily mechanical means: gathered in digital files that we download to mp3 players and use to isolate ourselves from the noise of the city. It’s not that the human voice has disappeared – only that we now hear it differently. That’s why, the lone, repeated sound of a workman on a building site crying ‘coaaal… ‘ opposite my window today was so alien – so ‘out of place’.