I have been thinking about sounds and effects lately. One particular sound that caught my ear at the week-end was the crunch of swedes being broken up by tractor on the Archer’s. It has been rattling round in my head ever since. Did they record that especially? Did they already have it on file, labelled ‘sound of swede being split by tractor’? A couple of years ago I was present with a playwright friend when a radio play he had adapted form a narrative sequence of my poems was recorded at the BBC in London. It was a fascinating experience and revealed the huge amount of skill and expertise that goes into just one forty-five minute afternoon radio drama.
The sound effects people were a joy to watch at work. There was a man who did sounds in the studio, ‘live’. He had in the past, he revealed, spent a great deal of his time randomly roaming the streets and the country side recording sounds that could be stored for the BBC Archives. I have often thought of that job, how sound would fill your world and become the consuming landscape through which you move. What sound, no matter how inconsequential, would merit recording, how would you choose?
What would be my eight Desert island sounds of choice I wondered? The sound of bacon sizzling in a pan is wonderful after an early morning walk on a cold winter's morning but would this sound be welcome on a sweltering hot desert island with only coconuts and the odd exotic fish as your staple diet? That particular sound could drive me crazy and lead me to hollow out any small discarded turtle shell as a canoe in order to seek out some Danish unsmoked back bacon. My luxury would, of course, be paper and pen, what sort of writer would I be if I asked for cigars or a Slumberland mattress? I may, therefore, be driven to write poems including the words sun, sea, sand, seashells, solitude, serenity, sleep, sinusitis and sanity in order to feed my need for the right degree of sizzling assonance.
I may be slightly over-sensitised to sound at present as a neighbour has been using a power-saw in the front garden for several days. By late Tuesday afternoon I had the Texas Chainsaw Massacre firmly established as a visual, although I have never seen the original film nor any of its blood soaked spawn. I had tried to make the sound morph into something else more conducive to writing or just general living. All that I could think to summon that approximated, were bees; the lazy drone of bees on a summer’s afternoon. However I am not a fan of bees they are too close in sound to the wasp that twitch me about when all I am trying to do is relax in the garden with a glass of wine and a sandwich on a hot day No matter how hard I thought of bees whilst also trying to fight off the image of wasps landing in my wine glass and crawling over the sandwich, the power-saw remained stubbornly a sound total unique to itself.
Some sounds and voices are so intrusive into the skull that they cannot be ignored. The neighbour, I noted, was wearing ear-protectors and an MP3 player wire was trailing from under them. Tinnitus suffers use music to mask out unwanted sounds, no doubt he had Meatloaf and Status Quo blasting out. I am engaging in stereotypes here; he is a middle-aged builder with a Landrover and a fast bright red motor-bike purchased, he told me, as a post divorce treat to himself. He is a very nice man, he has crawled through my small open upstairs window on more than one occasion when I have locked myself out and did not once make any comment about women of a certain age and forgetfulness. He could be listening to Beethoven and mediaeval plain song.
I tried to turn up the radio, I played music, I even talked out loud to myself; nothing proved an auditory firewall to the power-saw. Even now after it has stopped I am hearing the ghost of it, there is a slight hum in the back of my head. The only thing that really helped sooth me was the imagined film clip and as I say I have never even seen that film but I have found it very easy to make up my own footage. It involved my neighbour as a victim and a naked George Clooney wielding the chain-saw as I am personally a pacifist. The neighbour only received a few minor cuts with the blade and if I concentrated very hard on George naked the noise did seem to reduce a tad.
I should tear myself away from that visual image, which for some strange reason has popped back forcefully into my head as I write; back to the sound effects people. The particular sound effects man I met at the BBC created the sound of a woman vomiting onto a hospital corridor floor from a trolley with the use of the perfect amount of water poured from just the right sound height onto the exact surface. Cupboard doors were open and shut when he produced a small portable door.
Other sound effects held on file were precise to the point of anal retentive. A car door shutting was required. "What sort of car? Someone will write in and say that you mentioned a Mini in the play but that was the sound of a Ford Granada circa 1998 shutting." There are apparently people who listen so attentively that the clunk of a mug holding coffee can be spotted instead of the clink of a nineteenth century china tea-cup half-full of Earl Grey. The ‘sound police’ listen with their ears close to the radio. Some record it and listen to it over and over in order to substantiate their complaint. The BBC knows who they are, they call upon all the many arts of technology to outwit them; it is a matter of pride.
The play required night sounds. The sound effects librarian asked “Do you want night in the country, night in the suburbs, night in the inner city, with or without other passing people, with or without sirens, with or without drunks, walking on night streets, walking in night woods with or without owls, night suburbs with or without curtains twitching as you walk past, what sort of weather, what pace are you moving at?”
It made me realise how imprecise or inattentive to the detail of sounds I can be when writing. Do I work as hard on the soundscape as on the visual image in a poem?
It is not true that in space no one can hear you scream, the BBC sound effects people have it on tape, the silence is precise and carefully constructed from an empty paper cup and a velvet clothe.