(Bodley Head, £20)
Review: 'Sonic wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound' by Trevor Cox
An aural odyssey that takes us from the echoes of a London sewer to the world’s quietest place – and beyond
Conveying the sound of chirping crickets in Westerns as cowboys gather round the camp fire seems like a simple task: record a few of them and put the result on the soundtrack. But don’t say that to a Hollywood sound designer, who is likely to have expended much time and energy on finding the right recording: a calm scene requires a soothing sound, but if things are tense and edgy he or she will find something with a stop-start rhythm to suit.
We live in a world of visual primacy, but there is also a hidden world of sound – hidden in plain sight, one might say. “Hidden” because unless our attention is aroused we merely hear sound rather than actively listen to it. When we do the latter a whole new world emerges.
Trevor Cox is a professor of acoustic engineering with extensive experience in the art and science of squeezing the right kind of sound out of theatres and recording studios. The key is controlling reverberation, and this fascinating book began life with an epiphany amid the extraordinary echoes in a London sewer, which sent him on an aural odyssey of some of the world’s most remarkable sound- producing spaces.
There’s an entire book to be written about reverb alone: Cox quotes Hope Bagenal, acoustic consultant at the Royal Festival Hall, who considers that the insertion of galleries in Lutheran churches, which reduced reverb, was “the most important single fact in the history of music because it leads directly to the St Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass”. And it’s surely no coincidence that stone age cave paintings are always to be found in the echoiest spots.
Cox explores a dazzling variety of fascinating sounds (and silence) around the globe, from the spherical Boston Mapparium, where the voice of one’s companion gets louder as he or she walks away, via whispering galleries like the one in St Paul’s Cathedral, and the road in California that plays the William Tell Overture as you drive along, to the quietest places in the world (including what is officially the most tranquil place in Britain, a secret location in Northumberland National Park).
He listens to instruments made out of ice and stone, as well as a stalactite organ near Luray, Virginia; mercifully, a 17th-century “piano” that involved driving nails into cats’ tails almost certainly didn’t go beyond the planning stage. Buildings make sounds too, Cox discovers: the Beetham Tower in Manchester has a sculpture on top which makes a loud hum in the wind – so loud, in fact, that it has disrupted the filming of Coronation Street, whose old set was a quarter of a mile away.
Cox stresses the importance of sonic design, both in history and in modern life: his biggest contemporary bugbear is open-plan schools, where noise careers about with nothing to impede it. There are many ways to reduce unwanted sound, like the fountain in front of Sheffield railway station designed to act as a noise barrier, while in future, sonic crystals may be used to block out certain frequencies.
There are ways to retrain our senses. We can join guided soundwalks in various cities – it was on one of these that Cox had his aural epiphany – and the “ear-cleaning” exercises advocated by Murray Schafer, the godfather of acoustic ecology, which involve a change in the way our brains process sound. One technique Schafer advocated is forgoing speech for a day while eavesdropping on the sounds made by others – “a challenging and even frightening exercise”. This might seem to be taking one’s sound-quest too far, but one thing’s for certain: when we actively listen rather than merely hear, the world becomes a richer and fuller place, and Cox’s book is the perfect primer for retraining your ears.
Order at the discounted price of£16 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 #NotGuilty: Second Oxford student writes of brutal rape by two men who then threw her in a bin as part of campaign against victim blaming
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 5 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils