A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?
In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.
A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).
While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.
Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?
Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .