Songs, Speeches, and Musical Spoons: The Noisy Closet of Marie Slocombe

How about taking that spoon out of your noodle soup for a tuneful interlude? Apparently, the Vietnamese get a lot of noise out of their flatware. Back in 1936, one woman, a BBC temp by the name of Marie Slocombe, set out to preserve such sounds, recorded for broadcast but to be discarded thereafter. This Saturday, I am tuning in to “Saving the Sounds of History,” a documentary about Ms. Slocombe and the origins of the BBC sound archive. There are rural dialects, the ancient harp of King David, and a bird song anno 1890 (more of interest, no doubt, if the captured talent had gone the way of the Dodo).

I have long been fascinated by natural and man-made sounds, endangered or representative, familiar yet fleeting. For years, I kept my own library of noise: New York City traffic in the age of breakdancing, the laughter of an old friend, the footsteps in the hallway of a former home—noises that conjure up scenes left out of pictures in an age before mobile phones and digital cameras.

Sean Street’s documentary perhaps overstresses the historical significance of “cupboard S,” in which Slocombe secretly stored the abdication speech of King Edward VIII, the recording of which the BBC did not wish to preserve. As Slocombe acknowledged in an interview, the speech (transcribed here), was available in the US, having been transmitted over shortwave throughout the world on 11 December 1936 and was rebroadcast in part on NBC’s Recollections at 30 back in 1956. As it was replaying in the US, it still sat hidden in Slocombe’s closet.

To this day, access to the BBC sound archives requires a trip to London; but “Saving the Sounds of History” at least creates an awareness of such treasures. Say, which sounds would you preserve? The spoons, if you ask me, are best kept in the bowl.

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