These Are The Good Times
-Recordings by Ian M. Rawes-

(Vittelli Records 2013)

 Review by Chris Whitehead

Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities tells of the young Venetian Marco Polo returning from his numerous and varied travels and entering the court of Kublai Khan. On each occasion Polo describes to the Emperor the rare and beautiful new city he has visited. He speaks of cities that hover in the air, cities where it is impossible not to get lost, cities that are centres of exotic trade and cities of the dead. The conceit  is that all the cities Marco Polo describes are Venice.

London is also many cities coexisting as one. It is tempting to speak of different layers of history, memory and architecture superimposed one on top of another, but this is to do London a grave injustice. All the various meta-cities bleed into each other, and to find a boundary, say between myth and truth or culture and ritual, becomes fruitless. A state of constant flow with turbulent shallows and glassy deeps is the way of London.

These then are fragments from which to build a picture, a geography, an approximation of where the soul of this capital lies. It is maybe in the connections, the empty grooves between the tracks that the truth resides. They allow echoes and resonances to coalesce in their silences. Maybe they are the places where the sounds breathe and remain vital. Who knows?

The London Sound Survey site has been run by Ian Rawes for a number of years and the 21 tracks on this album have been selected from over forty hours of material which is presented in various guises online. The running order of each side of the record follows a rough chronology. I hear two imaginary days, one featuring the setting up of market stalls at dawn on Berwick Street and ending with fireworks. The second including an exuberant caribbean Sunday service and ending in a dark Catford night.

Rawes and Nick Hamilton of Vittelli Records decided that the time was right for these recordings to ‘crawl out of their electronic incubator and enjoy a second life on vinyl’. As candid documents, sketches, vignettes, portraits, call them what you will, the 21 tracks certainly benefit from being in this format. Aside from the monochrome image of pigeons dining on a discarded box of fried chicken (more than a hint of cannibalism there!) there are no photographs or maps. We build from the vibrations in the grooves.

Sometimes the dark corners and occluded backwaters illuminate more than the familiar landmarks and public spaces ever could. In Camden a beggar tells pitiful jokes against the barracking, swearing lads and indifferent pedestrians to earn enough for his passage back to Ireland, and in Villiers Street a pavement poet spins his words out on the air: ‘Eros exulted… Impossible attainments of impossible knowing’.

Humans aren’t the only denizens of the metropolis. Birds sing as garbage is processed at the River Lea waste depot, and they appear unfazed by the weird, sudden blasts of the piercing sirens at Coryton refinery. The tinnitus buzz of a flying ants’ nest on Rainham Marshes is an insect city discreet and of itself, and a pipistrelle bat in Catford sends out navigational sonar signals that we can only hear via the interface of a bat detector. Further proof that there is a spectral London beyond our apprehension.

Pellici’s cafe on Bethnal Green Road is a place to eat and talk amongst the scraping chairs, puthering coffee machines and clattering cutlery. There’s the sound of traffic outside, ubiquitous and constant, but inside is another sealed sound world complete with its secret ecology. Steak pie, lovely, mash, roast or chips, lovely, and a small portion of cabbage?

In Dulwich the 1923 vintage Indian Scout motorcycles fire up, their throaty rattle punctuated by bangs as they backfire oozing instability and danger. The crowd ooohs and aaahs at the display vaunted as ‘trick and fancy riding’. The MC then announces that the act we are about to witness is so dangerous that insurance for the riders is impossible to secure, so they’ve set up their own meagre fund, and if anyone wants to contribute… Then they place their faith in centrifugal force and ride the Wall of Death, held to the perpendicular surface by speed and skill. This is a thrilling recording and the combination of physicality and power is exactly what vinyl is made for.

In a poignant short article by Ed Baxter on the sleeve, Luigi Russolo is credited with kicking off the century of noise with his 1914 London concerts for intonarumori, however the arch futurist might be put out to discover that modern London still holds history in the creases of its complexion, and still has a flesh and blood core. Baxter speaks of a’ fluid, audible sculpture’, a constantly dissolving and reforming plasma of sound that we are both inside and yet seperate from. He writes: ‘Listen to London, follow the clues – and you may discover yourself here.’

The city, however does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities


[Ian M. Rawes; photo courtesy of South Hill Park Digital Media]

London Sound Survey website

Chris Whitehead

Sound artist.