25 July 2022
Recording of the week: What does the UK sound like?
This week’s post comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.
Above: Paul Cheese in Merthyr Tydfil. Photo copyright © Paul Cheese.
This week we are pleased to feature a video from musician Paul Cheese which showcases a singularly unusual creative project. It is a musical piece he made from over 4,000 ‘found sounds’ recorded on a 5,000-mile bike ride around the UK in 2019.
In Paul’s own words:
Carrying a mobile recording setup on my bike, I cycled almost 5,000 miles to every region of the UK, with the goal of capturing the sound of people, places and record in unusual locations. During the trip I recorded and captured the sounds of people, their friendliness, the sound of the elements interacting with architecture and nature, and the activities of everyday life - over 11,000 sounds. I used around 4,000 of these to create a four and a half-minute piece of music.
The sounds of people's workplaces and tools, hobbies, art, and the different rhythms of different materials - outdoor recording the echoes bouncing off concrete, or through tunnels - all combined to create a unique reflection of ‘The Sound of the UK’.
Paul has kindly donated to the archive a high-quality version of the video shown here, plus a wav-format audio file, and an additional ‘making of’ video. A second audio file, of 200 people each pronouncing the name of their respective home city, town or village, has been lodged with our Accents & Dialects section.
Above: Paul Cheese in Shropshire. Photo copyright © Paul Cheese.
Via email, I asked Paul a few questions about his project.
Steve Cleary [SC]: Did you camp outside each night or stay in hotels or B&Bs? And how was that?
Paul Cheese [PC]: Sometimes I would be on the road cycling and recording for 16 hours and most evenings I'd spend a couple of hours backing everything up, cataloguing all of the day’s captured media, writing a diary/blog and recharging the cameras/recording gear. So a pillow for my head and somewhere safe to put the bike and recording equipment for the night was required. I mainly stayed in cheap B&Bs and hostels. Most days I wouldn’t have any accommodation booked until the evening. This was because very early on in the journey I realised that sticking to the planned route would be impossible - the reason being that when I talked with people along the way they would suggest great-sounding places for recording. Fantastic!, but it was often a completely different way than the way I'd planned to go. So I quit the planning thing and although I had an idea of the main direction I was heading, I just headed where people suggested. This did mean that sometimes I hadn’t booked accommodation until 11.30 pm, and most of the time I didn’t have a clue where I was going, which added a whole different level to the adventure.
SC: How long were you on the road for?
PC: The cycle took me just over three months, longer than planned because of the detours to capture people's sound suggestions.
SC: What was the most interesting, enjoyable or surprising place you visited?
PC: I met so many amazing people and collected thousands of fantastic sounds that take me right back to the moment when I hear them. But there is one moment, that when it happened at the end of a long day it made me feel euphoric, emotional and lucky. As mentioned, sometimes I would arrive quite late to my accommodation. But this meant that some days I would arrive after everything was closed. So, no food. I was cycling in Wales and was staying above a pub.
It had been a long hilly day and I had eaten all my supplies. When I arrived, everywhere was closed and the bar didn’t even have any peanuts. But there were a few locals at the bar, we got talking and they said, ‘You’ve been cycling all day, we can’t have you going without food'. So one guy went home and got me some bread and butter; one lady got me some eggs; another went home and got me sausages; and one lady said, 'I’ve got some vegetables, you can have them too.' I felt like I was in a film, how amazing was that? I was so appreciative of their kindness and food.
During all of my bike adventures I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people, and to top it all, when I left the pub in the morning, the front door made a fantastic sound, which I recorded and used in the final track.
SC: What were your favourites of the sounds you recorded?
PC: I collected thousands of sounds, just by having a good listen to the world around me.
How can I choose just one? There were so many great sounds and every sound has a story:
the beat of firemen retracting ladders in Suffolk;
the rhythm of chalk marks as the sign writer marked out the new lettering at a carriage restorers in Ballantrea on the west coast of Scotland;
lock gates in Leicester;
curlews and electric fences on the Orkney isles;
the kettle drum-like sound of metal girders being dropped in Cornwall;
the breathing of the shingle on Brighton seafront;
waves on steps in Rhyl;
footsteps on the beach of the North coast of Guernsey;
crop sprinklers in Shropshire;
the winding of cable on the transporter bridge into Middlesbrough;
Hull Cathedral bells and the flicker of bunting;
the favourite chord of an organ master in Newark-on-Trent;
the one-o -clock gun in Edinburgh;
clog dancers in Leeds;
kicking the bar in Aberystwyth;
the wind whistling in the rigging of boats at Sandwich bay, Kent;
the scrape of bull dozers pushing metal into compactors on the north coast of Wales;
Manchester town hall clock;
the rhythm of builders re-pointing a wall in Somerset;
the sound decay of the reverb in an old railway tunnel in West Yorkshire;
the sounds of Rossy boatyard at Clydebank as a plane flew over;
a Spitfire fly-by in Folkestone on the Kent coast;
the audio tones of the different sluice gates and weirs on the Kennet and Avon canal;
rhythms and clanks of metal works in Keighley;
an old man with a 2 piece metal walking stick in Cambridge;
a motorbike dealer’s favourite engine idling in Norfolk;
‘relay for life’ walkers footsteps in Barnstaple…
There were so many different bird songs and the sound of people’s accents.
If I had to choose from a cycling point of listening/view, it would have to be the sound of a strong wind humming bass lines through barbed wire fences.
From my experience, the loudest sparrows were on Jersey: the loudest blackbirds were in Norfolk; the loudest seagulls were in Devon (Sidmouth); and the most melodic blackbirds are from the northeast of England up to around Dundee.
SC: Were there advantages to doing this by bike?
PC: The brilliant thing about being on a bike is that you can stop and listen. Here’s an example.
I was cycling EuroVelo 1 in Scotland, ah, the amazing quiet! It was so quiet that I could sense this low rumble… the kinda sound you can feel. People say about following your nose - well I followed my ears…
I followed my ears for about a mile. Eventually I found it: the low sub bass was coming from a water pumping station. Which incidentally was humming the note of D.
There were some interesting things I noticed from the recordings (not highly scientific but interesting all the same). From the sounds I recorded, 30% blackbird calls on the east of the UK were at 98 bpm, in the west, 108 bpm. Three out of four UK builders render a wall at 108bpm.
From the thousands of sounds I collected, the most prominent tempo across the UK was 98 bpm, then 110 bpm, then 122 bpm. I reflected this by the three different tempo changes within the final piece.
I also found that the prominent key was F# major, then D major and A# major (I found that D major was the prominent key of Kent). I also used this in the different movements of the final piece of music.
SC: Would you consider doing something like this again?
PC: Absolutely! I’m in the middle of creating my third solo album Just for The Record Three. This is being written and recorded on 12 worldwide cycle missions with one song being written on each trip.
I’m looking forward to how the third album will come together and the inspirational sounds and locations I will find on the way.