Sunday, 31 October 2021

Britain says "Goodbye" to Ian Rawes, celebrated Field Recordist, Sound Archivist and Londoner, who let the City he loved do the talking

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Ian, who as died at the age of 56 was born, grew up and went to school in Central London where he said he "could remember as a kid, lots of waste ground, and even fenced off, could go into them. It had the remnants of industry and housing and docks". His was a childhood where the only wildlife were pigeons on the window sill and sparrows taking a bird bath in the park. Even at this young age he had the urge to explore out of the way and forbidden places which would manifest itself forty years later when he visited, for example, the bascule chambers at the base of the two towers which made up Tower Bridge or waste ground patrolled by security guards at Canvey Island in Essex. He recalled : "As a kid, finding a bit on the map which was almost completely blank with a rectangle with the word 'Works' by it, was as exciting as thinking about Timbuktu or Pitcairn Island. It seemed every bit as remote and I just wanted to go to places like that". (link) He later reflected that "parts of any city are inflected with a a kind of resonance which comes from having relatively tall buildings flanking narrow streets, not a lot of open green space. It's not like living in the suburbs where the sounds of everyday life do not have the same resonance".

Although he admitted that he himself had no musical skill : "I think it was knocked out of me when I was given the triangle in the school band - that's all I could be trusted with". Ian's involvement in London fringe community and sound and music started in the early 1980s, when he was in his teens and  became active in London’s burgeoning industrial and anarcho-punk movements. Having left school at 16 and calling himself 'Ian Slaughter' he published the 'Pigs For Slaughter' fanzine - ‘The Fanzine For The Militant Anarchist Punk’ between 1981 and '82. It consisted of 16 tightly packed angry pages from Ian and other contributors and was an in-house organ for the short lived 'Wapping Autonomy Centre'  housed in Metropolitan Wharf. The fanzine became infamous, within the otherwise pacifist anarcho-punk scene, for its support of revolutionary violence, guerilla tactics and direct action. In its second issue, for example, it dealt with with bomb making recipes, at a time when other anacho zines were printing recipes for lentil stew. 

At this time Ian was a fiery fiery 16 year old anarchist who, on one occasion, tried and failed, to engineer a clash between punk anarchists and the police in Notting Hill, when the punks refused, despite his exhortations, to be egged on and attack the police. In 1982 at the age of 17 he contributed sound collage backing tapes to four tracks on the 'Topics For Discussion' demo by the experimental anarcho-punk group 'The Apostles' and having left home, he now shared a squat with the band's founder. He made the comment that : "I wasn't getting laid as much as I wanted to at that age" and referred to himself as a "snotty-nosed teenager" who was want to "mooch around".  

In the mid-80s, with his teen years over and in his twenties, he moved to Scotland, living in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he managed the 'Barrowlands' music venue housed in a ballroom opened in 1934 in a mercantile area east of Glasgow’s city centre. He then opened his own smaller venue next door, 'The Revue' and booked groups such as 'Jesus & Mary Chain', 'My Bloody Valentine' and 'Savage Republic'. 

Later in Edinburgh he worked on the door at the techno clubs 'Pure', 'Soma' and 'Sex Beat'. He became the typesetter for 'Autonomy Press' in Glasgow in the mid 80's and as Tony Herrington the owner/editor of 'The Wire' wrote : 'He was well respected by a lot of working class anarchists from Castlemilk, the Gorbals and Govanhill. No mean feat as they didn't suffer fools gladly'.

In his late twenties in the mid 1990s he moved back to London, readopted his surname and settled down to a more conventional life working in the storeroom of the British Library’s National Sound Archive at their old depot off City Road in Micawber Street, maintaining its collection of LPs, 78s, CDs and cassettes. He said that he was : "officially called the 'Vault Keeper'".(link)

In 2005 at the age of 40, some of his old activism was revived when he chaired a campaign of residents to persuade the Council to open a Saturday street market in Brockley and was reported in the local newspaper when interviewed and said : "We are fed up with having to trek to New Cross for expensive supermarket food. Brockley isn't well served when it comes to buying fresh food at reasonable prices. The area has been neglected for years and looks shabby. A market would make the area look better." Despite the efforts of Ian's group of 10 supporters who, with him, delivered leaflets to 3,000 homes in the area and distributed 500 questionnaires to residents, their request to the Council fell on deaf ears. 

It was in this period that Ian said at work in the vaults :"I became curious about much of the material that I was handling – what was on these tapes? You could read the tape box covers and there were some surprising things. There was somebody who recorded the sounds of foghorns around Britain. There was a very strange character from Bradford who had recorded the sound of all the bus journeys it seemed you could take in Yorkshire, and he would write very meticulous notes on the back of each tape box and I began to think that, I too could make recordings of London".

He said he thought "if you can record the sounds of buses in Yorkshire, there must be something interesting to record in London, but that also met 'a need' as well. I'd wanted to to do a website about London, but couldn't think of an original angle or a focus for it and after a bit, an interest in sound recording and an interest in London came together and in 2009 my website, 'The London Sound Survey' went online". Over the next ten years he maintained the site and single handed, built it into a unique multilayered, sound map of the capital, which was embedded with his own recordings made at multiple locations across the city, as well as historical recordings and texts drawn from a variety of sources, including the BBC archives.

Ian said that he had wanted to concentrate on those aspects of London that appealed to him most : "which tended to be the more humble down-to-earth things traditionally associated with the City, such as street markets, junk shops, old man’s pubs, canals, odd places and so on. A kind of ‘worm’s eye view’ of the City". The title of the site was also a conscious echo of 'A Survey of London', the book written by the Elizabethan historian and antiquarian, John Stow, in 1598. 

Ian, seen here recording at Birmingham's Spaghetti Junction, said that when it came to recording equipment : "I wanted something which would sound as if you were there and for the research, I did online and by asking people at work. They mentioned this concept called 'binaural recording' which consists of putting two tiny mics in each of your ears and when you make a binaural recording and then play it back - listen to it through head phones. It sounds very realistic and lifelike and you might even fancy that you're in that location, if you shut your eyes". Ian "Bought a pair of mics from an American engineer, Lenny Lombardo. It involves a rather handmade  looking set up. It looks a bit odd, but its not too obtrusive". (link) He said that the first proper recording he made outside the house was to put them on and wear them to the corner shop and recalled : "There were all voices in the shop, the rattle of this aging refrigerator and so on. I went back home, listened to it and thought ‘Wow! That’s pretty good!’"

Next : "The next more adventurous recording was to go to Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday morning, this was April 2008. It was really lively there, all the traders had different cries. There was an old man who had a tray supported by a strap round his neck, like a cinema usherette, and he was selling what were claimed to be Duracell batteries. He had a very interesting cry, which you couldn’t really make out, but he had a wonderfully weathered voice. There was a group of Christian evangelists at the north end of Petticoat Lane, who were singing while one of them banged a bongo drum. So, there were all sorts of things happening. That really got me hooked".

Ian said : "When I got back, I listened to it and it was a very rewarding experience. It felt quite unusual to have the sounds of the outdoors abruptly brought inside. So it was almost as if you'd opened a little portal and the sounds of the outside world were mysteriously, and in a slightly alarming way, brought into your living room. That became a self-reinforcing habit and I wanted to go out and record more and more and bring more of these sounds home". (link) As a result : "I began to make recordings in these sorts of noisy, lively public places. 'The London Sound Survey' came into being a year later – when it went online, it had two or three hundred recordings of street markets, street preachers, political demonstrations, chanting football crowds – anything that was noisy and public. It was mostly about voices".

When describing his recording equipment Ian said : "In any recording set up the most important part of the chain is the microphone. The mics are swathed in a a foam cover and then a fur wind cover and are attached to an old headband using plumber's clips". He said : "It wasn't a discreet system at all but you get great sound from it". When wearing it his head : "became an acoustic baffle between two microphones and the reason for doing that is that it creates a very life like, stereo image on playback".(link)


His next move was to expand his remit : "To include things called ‘sound maps’. Instead of just recording rather precise verbal signals, I also started recording the atmospheres of places. And I think those two approaches, specific focus and atmospheres, were what dominated the site for a long time". For his Map he "Split London up into a series of grids. I think I was inspired by a bingo card or lottery ticket - the use of numbers with a grid framework and the numbers would correspond to how any recordings were in a particular neighbourhood".(link)

"I take a more graphical rather than map like approach. Its not really meant to be geographically accurate. Its a little bit like the tube map that isn't supposed to be geographically accurate . It embodied a series of propositions, like 'you have to change at Bank'
and 'it's a long way to Cockfosters'. So I take that diagrammatic and schematic approach and I think it gives you more freedom for experimentation with graphics". (link)

Ian said that one of his most satisfying recordings was made at the time of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when England met Germany in the second round on Sunday, 27 June and Germany won the match  4–1, knocking England out and advancing into the quarter-finals. He said that he travelled to Essex and "went out to Canvey Island to get into a bit of waste ground which is usually fenced off and patrolled by security guards but I figured they were all watching the football". (link) The result was recorded in his Survey as : 'A siren wails at the Coryton oil refinery during the World Cup’s England vs Germany match. Recorded from Canvey Island immediately to the east. The refinery was closed in 2012'. Of his field visit to the Thames Albert Basin he said : "It was a windy day which is usually a very bad thing for field recorders, but there some old flag poles, big aluminum flagpoles and the halyards were just clanking about".(link)

Interested in the resonance in the streets of London, it was in these years that he said he "spent years volunteering for the 'Lewisham Living Newspaper' in the hope of meeting blind people to say : "How do you listen your way around London ?" After a year of volunteering I actually met a blind person and asked him and he shrugged his shoulders and said : "It think it's subconscious".

Ian's 'Survey' was listed in Time Out's 2012 edition of 'Things to do in London' and in Adele Emm's 'Researching for the Media: Television, Radio and Journalism'. In 2013, Vittelli Records released a vinyl LP of London Sound Survey recordings titled : 'THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES'. In the 21 tracks Ian began with ‘The River Lea Waste Depot’, ‘Pellicci’s Cafe’ brought a human voice as did ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’ and ‘Joke Telling Beggar’. Ian ranged from ‘Thames Festival Fireworks’ to ‘Caribbean Sunday Service’ the ‘Motorcycle Wall of Death’ a ‘Flying Ants’ Nest’ and ‘The Poet of Villiers Street’. Of  'Allhallows Marshes' : Night, 2018' (link) he poetically said : 'Springtime cackling of marsh frogs overlays the hum of container ships as they pass along the estuary in the small hours of the night' and closed with ‘Pipistrelle Bat Sonar’ recorded in Catford on the 14th October 2009. 

On the his sleeve Ian poetically wrote : ‘I hope you hear something recorded that’ll put you in mind of sounds you’ve heard in real life but kept to yourself as private, unspoken experiences. Someone whistling at the far end of a tube platform, voices from a curtainless room above a shop, a blackbird singing at night in an empty street, the rising tone of a lorry’s brakes early on a cold morning’. 

Ian said that one recording which had gone "quite well" was the one he'd made beneath the River Thames, he said : "Inside Tower Bridge inside each of then two towers there is a big, brick-lined void called the bascule chamber and it is where the road section counter weight sinks when the Bridge is lifted. It sinks quite slowly into this space and you can't be in there at the time that it does that, otherwise you'll get squashed, but you can observe it from a gantry high up. Tower Bridge kindly let me in to make recordings of the lifting of the Bridge and I set up my mic to record on a gantry and I didn't stay with it while the Bridge lifted, I went around somewhere else and left that particular mic and recorder running and got back an retrieved it and went home and listened to it and this was a surprising result. There is a complete orchestration of sounds. They're not just sounds, they are actually tones which are produced as the counterweight sinks as this 110 year machinery, plus electric motor, swings into action.(link) It's hard to put into words, but its a very grave solemn sound if you've listened to enough 20th century music you will probably feel a response in you to its sound and that was taken up by a composer called Ian Chambers and developed into a musical piece which was then performed back inside the bascule chamber. That whole experience of making the recording, listening to it, sharing it and then having Iain Chambers rework it, completing the circle - that was very satisfying indeed".(link)

The 'Bascule Chambers Concert' was held in 2015 and Iain Chambers said : "The Bascule Chamber is one of London’s most surprising and inspiring spaces. The last thing you expect to find within such an iconic structure is a quasi-theatrical brick-lined space with a resonant acoustic. You hear boats passing above your head – you’re beneath the line of the Thames – and you can see the engines that power the bridge every day. Every year we aim to rethink how we use these spaces artistically, allowing audiences to interact with this operational space in different ways.” (link)

More credits followed and his 'Survey' has been featured on Radio 4, BBC Radios London and Essex, World Service, Resonance FM, and BBC1 London news. Sounds from the site have also been used in audiobooks released by BBC Worldwide. Ian said : "The project once got some favourable coverage on the Daily Mail's website, causing a huge if brief visitor surge and my recordings were also used in a Guardian interactive feature about the Shard skyscraper". In 2016 he was given a few minutes on Radio 4's 'The Today Programme'.

The following year Ian was interviewed on BBC Radio 'The Verb' and was described as : "Rawes runs the London Survey which aims to archive and preserve the everyday sounds of London Life. He has just published 'Honk, Conk and Squacket : Fabulous and Forgotten Sound Words from a Vanished Age of Listening'". Ian described it as a 'collection of over 1500 forgotten and obscure sound-words found in Victorian county dialect surveys and a host of other old sources from across the English-speaking world. Taken together, they make the case that people in the past paid more attention to the sounds around them than we do today'. 

In the summer of 2016, Ian featured in an article published in the 'New York Times' and titled, 'London, as You've Never Heard It Before' and described how Ian,
'on a recent Saturday, had spent several hours walking around London with two microphones strapped to his head. He went into a vegetable market and got so caught up recording the sound of birds in its rafters that he almost got hit by a cabbage-laden forklift hurtling toward him. He went to a park, only to decide that the stream dribbling through it wasn’t worth recording. Then he headed to Stamford Hill, a traditionally Hasidic Jewish community, where he wove around men in towering fur hats, capturing snatches of their conversations in Yiddish'. When he'd finished as he took off his microphones he said : "A good morning’s work, two more tiny fragments of the mosaic that is London.” 

He told his interviewer : “As time goes by and cultural, technological, economic conditions change, these recordings will become more and more interesting. I mean, could you imagine if you could hear the sounds of 18th-century London today? Even if it was just the sound of people spitting in the street, coughing and a lot of people were sick back then, so it probably would be fascinating”.

It took Ian a year to make the recordings he inserted onto his interactive 'Tube Map' of 'London's Waterways'(link) which 
mapped out the sounds of our capital's brooks, canals, and underground rivers. The soundscape drawn in the style of Harry Beck's famous Underground map had 14 lines, each representing a lesser-known river in London. The lines all had 'stops' which users of the online map could click to hear the sound of the river at this location, which varied from busy quays to nature  reserves

In 2014 when Ian was 49, he left London and moved to Cambridge where, to support himself, he got a job delivering pizza leaflets and at the time of his death he was working on a new field recording project, 'The Listening Trail', which consisted of soundwalks made in the areas around Cambridge and which he intended to publish as both a series of podcasts and as a field recording diary on 'The Wire' website. A number of his friends and collaborators now hope to complete the project. In 2019 the 'Persistence of Sound' released his 'Thames' recordings on vinyl.

Earlier this year he featured in 'London's Lost Sounds - Report For BBC World Service' and said : "Old recordings age well. What I mean, just as a human voice becomes weak and quivery with age, so the recording degrades in a roughly similar way and I think that does make you feel some kind of solicitude towards them just as you might treat a very elderly relative".(link)

His 'Sound Survey' started in 2009 was updated it regularly until 2020 and by then housed over 2000 recordings equating to over 40 hours taken from across London. When Ian was asked : "You've got this big body of work and that to me is not a hobby, it's a kind of work over several years and in many ways". He replied : "I think its a very serious hobby. It's important to me. I guess it is a form of self-actualisation, if you want to sound fancy. But I think for many people their hobbies are precisely that. They are somewhere where you go away from the strictures and demands of work and you are in control of what you are doing. You are creating freely without any obvious external requirements to do so. Certainly, this has done that for me. It was an area of life in which I've been able to create freely and whether the results are good or bad or indifferent, it is entirely up to me. So I get the credit from when its good and I have to take the blame for when its bad". He also said : “Pleasure and curiosity have been the most reliable motivators, more so than a desire to 'document' the city, which just sounds pompous".(link)

When asked why he had donated a large portion of his archive he said : "I had thought that some of the material might be of interest to people in the future. Even mundane recordings, with the passage of time, can become more informative and interesting. I mean, just imagine if you could go back to the 18th century and listen to just any old street scene in London, however mundane – it would surely be interesting. So, perhaps people in the future would feel the same way. There’s only so much a private individual can do to preserve their recordings. For long term preservation, it’s best to give your recordings to people who specialise in that kind of thing, such as London Metropolitan Archives. I found also that the approach adopted here was a very friendly one, giving the idea that the people here would be pleased to get the recordings, rather than that the archive was doing me a big favour by taking them off me. I thought ‘that’s the way forward for archives’".

Ian said of his ambition : "I think the best I could hope for would be, through recording, I would have captured a fragment of experience which another person, might perhaps have felt that had been private and peculiar to themselves and to realise that much of our experience is almost identical across people wherever they live".(link)

Ian told 'Minute of Listening' : 

“Sound pulls you into a sense of place more effectively than a photograph does … conveying subtle emotions that are hard to put into words”.

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