Voice Across Time



I’m currently privileged to be listening to sound archives at the Museum of Bath at Work, oral histories recorded mostly in the 1980s.  Hunched in the building’s basement, with headphones placing the voices of the interviewees inside my head, some of these people have entered my heart too.  It’s started me thinking again about how Voice, a complex ephemerality produced by air and muscle movement from the instant we’re born, can cut across time, building relationships between people who’ve never met.  Every one of us, even those denied the power of speech for various reasons, has a sound that’s as unique as fingerprints.  In some languages the word for ‘soul’ is related to that for ‘breath’.  ‘In-spire’ is life, the taking in of spirit.  Ron Perry spent his working days as a car and truck mechanic, but he spent all his life responding to the world around him, alive to potential in the small things.  The pleasures he describes touch me even though I’ve never experienced them, and make me wish I could have talked to him.  Here’s a fragment of his recollections.  I hope it makes you as happy and thoughtful as it does me.


recording property of Museum of Bath at Work


Found instrument/found sounds

I was visiting the Tate Modern with an Australian friend about a week ago and showing her The Tanks when we discovered that a manhole cover in the floor of one of the tanks made the most marvellous sound when stepped on. In the acoustic of the room, with the muffled sounds of the surrounding video works and gallery visitors, it was this wonderful, huge, complex sound.

So when I went back to the Tate (to visit their ‘Picasso 1932’ exhibition) this week, I wanted to play more with the manhole cover and see if I could create a tiny piece – or the beginnings of a piece – with it. The principal challenge was simply the sheer number of people around. My first attempts were interrupted by chattering tourists and a little girl who earnestly showed me the strange effect photographing the neon artwork in the room produced, explaining it with a kind of matter-of-fact reverence. I kind of loved her. She was so very serious when I was being so, basically, childish, stamping on the floor because it made a nice sound! I can’t really understand what she’s saying in the recording, but I like the shape of her speech.

I managed to capture some satisfying sounds of tapping and scratching on the metal walls with fingernails from these early attempts, then gave up and went to see the Picasso.

Coming back to The Tanks later in the day, things were quieter, and I was able to spend a full two uninterrupted minutes improvising and playing – stamping, tapping, sliding both in my sandals and with bare feet – just enjoying the sounds. The middle of the performance is not so satisfying to me – the bare feet sounds are a bit lost in the acoustic and background noise – and I feel the end is a bit rushed as a family with children entered and I could feel the children’s fascination with the sounds – as soon as I stopped my performance, they took over!

Listening back, I’m now regretting that I didn’t just keep recording while they were stamping – I think it might have made a nice chaotic ending. Perhaps I need to make a policy of always recording the thing that interrupts the recording, and not to be so focused in on my intention!

Recordings made on an iPhone 6s with Zoom HandyRecorder app. The exhibition sound in the background is a muddle of various video works from Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s No Ghost Just A Shell project. Exhibition info here »