The London Sound Survey – Thames

Years in the making, Thames (Persistence of Sound) documents and preserves a dying sound, a sound on the brink of being lost forever. The River Thames is central to London, running right through it, dividing it, and directly affecting the city in numerous ways. Thames moves along its banks, a set of field recordings ranging from Tower Bridge to estuarine marshes to an old oil refinery. The London Sound Survey has not only brought the River Thames to life, but its surrounding areas; it snakes through and connects with them, forging relationships with the land and the body of water.

Ian Rawes has been studying and recording the changing sound of the UK’s capital since 2008. His field recordings of London and its street life are important for historical purposes, but they can also act as a viewfinder, looking upon London’s changing environment with a watchful eye. The London Sound Survey went online in 2009, born out of a belief that the city’s rate of change was quickening, and it’s now grown to incorporate well over 2000 modern-day recordings.

The London Sound Survey’s site allows visitors to travel back in time to explore London through sound, via archive sounds and descriptions of specific sound panoramas in history. 

Thames can surprise Londoners, too (we’re able to hear the lifting of Tower Bridge from inside the north tower’s bascule chamber, which is pretty cool). Sounds that would normally be obscured are brought to attention; the steady whoosh of traffic and the overhead thunder of circling aircraft can block them out. Even in as peaceful a place as Kew Gardens, you can both see and hear the low-flying planes on their final approach to Heathrow Airport. Some would say that even this is in danger of being lost, because the roar of those 777 jet engines interferes with the peaceful, natural environment; eternal nature threatened by something not even a hundred years old. Some of the areas are inaccessible to the public while local Londoners perhaps become immune to other sounds, muting them unintentionally against the background buzz of the city.

So, The London Sound Survey’s work is increasingly important. Familiar sounds are becoming extinct. In Thames, we travel to the Allhallows Marshes, which are located at the eastern end of the Hoo Peninsula on the Kent side of the estuary, where we find birdsong and bees skirting past the microphone: both of which are under threat. A siren, recorded at the Coryton oil refinery during the 2010 World Cup match between England and Germany (where England were spanked 4-1) haunts an otherwise-silent space. The oil refinery closed down in 2012, a mere two years later, and at a time when new stadiums were just about to open for the Olympics. Cities naturally change, but some preservation is needed. Entire personalities can be lost.

London is lucky in that there are plenty of parks and open spaces. Areas of peace and escape are possible all over the capital. But the city is still changing, losing some of itself with the gradual erosion of the past.

Dripping water accompanies a later, leaky recording from Tower Bridge, the recording taking place in the south bascule chamber on a rainy afternoon. The bridge can be heard lifting up to allow the passage of a sightseeing boat; its horn works a melody as it passes. Listeners can also pick up on the eerie, ominous rumble of life beside the bridge’s underbelly, with river water slapping at its darkened curves. Nothing captures the feel of a place more than a field recording. These sounds are under threat, but they’re forever preserved in audio amber.

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