London Sound Survey ~ From Dusk Till Dawn

Isolated from sight, smell, or touch, is there music in the sound of a place? Field recordings attempt to do with sound what many photographers do with sight: to capture a time, process, or place as it is. Although this can seem more like simple documentation than an artistic act, field recordings are never transparent artifacts. Baked into the medium is a certain curatorial instinct: behind every recording is an artist who decides which environmental sounds are compelling, beautiful, musical, or otherwise worth sharing.

As far as sonic curators and documenters go, there was perhaps none more dedicated than Ian Rawes. The recently deceased archivist and sound artist created in his sprawling website, The London Sound Survey, a portrait of the city that transcended the local, reflecting the heterogeneous musicality of daily life in a contemporary metro-pole. This portrait includes sounds both animal and human, ambient and abrupt, familiar and obscure, all mapped onto the London metropolitan area. Compiled with tight logic and an ear for sonic layering, Rawes’ recordings as released on the label Persistence of Sound showcase his work not just as an act of sonic cartography or documentation, but as art with its own gentle rhythm and priorities.

In From Dusk Till Dawn, Rawes focuses his attention on East Anglia, a historically flat and marshy region of eastern England once characterized by its many marshes. Recordings of wetlands like washes and fens make up a significant portion of these recordings, from the pointillistic seaside bird calls of “Welney Washes” to the unquestionably musical interplay of cuckoos, frogs, and songbirds on “Joist Fen”. Yet the collection’s structure is more temporal than spatial: in essence, From Dusk Till Dawn traces the sounds of a region through the dark hours of the night, a window of time in which you’re better off relying on your ears than your eyes.

The sounds of animals — from swans and frogs to seaside seals — take center stage in these recordings, but Rawes is far from shying away from the inorganic. Among the most unique recordings in this compilation is “Inside Pumping Station”, a rushing, white-noise suite for gently rattling machinery that evokes the isolation and pseudo-silence of the deep nighttime. Alongside these quiet, unseen moments, Rawes places recordings that reach towards the grandiose and sublime, leading the listener out of themselves not through isolation but through a sense of being one among many. The uncountable cries of “Buckenham Rooks” come as an incredible torrent of clustered rhythm, a shimmering array of individual voices made so dense that they speak with a new and mysterious force.

Rawes reminds us that there is an intense variety of sounds to be heard on even the most typical night, and in framing them for us he manages to reach towards a far-reaching philosophy of sound without saying a word. Yet just as this collection shines a light on only a tiny portion of the everyday sounds available to the close listener, From Dusk Till Dawn represents only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Rawes’ work. The elegantly curated moments he leaves behind for us deserve to be experienced in their entirety, not just as sonic curios, but as acts of artistic creativity and agency which will long outlive their moment and creator.  (Peter Tracy)

About petertracy

staff writer for a closer listen

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