Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month – January

23rd January 2014

Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey Of Sound
By Trevor Cox (The Bodley Head, hardback. out now)

Review by Chris Watson.

“Open this book turn the pages and listen to the sounds”

Are the instructions printed, perversely, on the back cover of this book. Nevertheless this is very good advice as this is a book to be read and listened to with imagination.

At the start I have to declare an interest here. Trevor Cox interviewed me for this book and several of my descriptions of sounds from recording trips are included. Cox is Professor of Acoustic Engineering at Salford University and although an academic he manages to escape from the universities ivory tower, or in his case the confines of an anechoic chamber, to discover many of his own sonic wonders out there on location, up to his neck at times in all manner of stuff. Other sonic wonders are included and are described through the ears of others actively engaged in the sonic arts.

Of course it all starts by listening and the prologue describes the spark and motivation for this book together with Cox’s desire to investigate, measure and explain. It’s the explanations and scientific descriptions over the course of the first couple of chapters in particular that I found the most interesting and informative. Reverberation is described and explained in engaging and comprehensible terms along with some extreme examples of the good, the bad and the beautiful with regard to reverberation times and the resulting acoustics. The reader is expertly guided through aspects of reflected sound across a very wide range of applications from the research into the acoustics of caves and tunnels by the US military during the hunt for Osama Bin Laden to ‘Resonant Spaces’, a tour of particular acoustic sites in Scotland by musicians John Butcher and Akio Suzuki during the summer of 2006. From Cox’s site description and Biba Kopf’s article in the ‘Wire’ from that year I just wish I could have been there. I know from my own recordings that despite all available technology it is still almost impossible to re-create the size and sense of space on a two channel CD or website, some binaural recordings excepted. Personally spatial sound is best experienced on location or by employing multi-channel sound systems to translocate an audience and Cox does a good job here of explaining why.

It is in our built environment that I think we suffer the worst acoustics. Much of Cox’s work in Salford appears to be solving the acoustic nightmares created by architects who create lavish and visually attractive structures that have a simply dreadful sound. Trapped inside boxed shaped rooms with flat parallel walls and ceilings for much of our lives it may be that we have forgotten or rarely consider what we ever knew about how sound travels. Cox describes the interesting and considered scientific arguments around the current state of acoustic archaeology whilst retaining a healthy respect for those who must have perceived as magic the sound of their own voices echoing back from the stones.

Location sound recording is a solo activity and as such I was very interested to read Cox’s descriptions of most of his expeditions and research trips for this book, simply to compere with my own. Despite some superfluous guidebook waffle Professor Cox knows his subject very well and I was immersed into his world of handclapping, bursting balloons, recording impulse responses and measuring reverberation timings. Cox also has a good ear, or rather ears, as he is able to comment on the perception of quietness and the detail therein. However I read with an increasing sense of dread his desire to visit the most tranquil place in England. Now I know where this is, it’s in err.. Northumberland and selfishly I regard it as part of my patch and don’t want acoustic engineers going there and bursting balloons. Thankfully Cox doesn’t reveal the actual location and is eventually beaten back by the army of carnivorous midges employed by the Forestry Commission to defend the area. One thing Trevor, it’s not silence, its quietness.

“Like having sex, eating or taking drugs” Cox tells us that music also stimulates and excites the reward centres of our brains to release the chemical messenger dopamine. I think we all know and enjoy the results of this and for myself at least sound can also help me achieve this altered state.

Read this book, it will help take you there.

Sonic Wonderland is on sale in the Caught by the River shop at the special price of £16.00

A couple of things to be excited about: Firstly, a Sonic Wonderland event at Rough Trade East on Thursday 6 February with Trevor Cox coming along to talk about his book with Caught by the River contributor Cheryl Tipp. More information for that can be found here. Plus, both Trevor and Chris will be with us in the Summer at Port Eliot festival where they will be getting together with a like-minded bunch (including Cheryl Tipp, Rob St. John and Ceri Levy) to share their enthusiasm for sound. Unmissable.