All of us at Caught by the River were deeply saddened by the news this week of the death of friend of the River, sound recordist and archivist Ian Rawes.
Ian was the creator of the London Sound Survey; he first came to our attention back in 2013/2014 via his soundmap of London waterways – an inspired and unique presentation of sounds documented by Ian of London’s canal and lesser known waterways. It was a proper work of art. We got in touch, we hit it off and he became a regular feature at our festival and social club events.
Here follow some words from admirers, pint-sharers and sound enthusiasts alike, by way of tribute.
Ian played at the very first gig I ever played in London, organised by Caught by the River. I was incredibly nervous being new to the city, and playing at Cafe Oto, a venue which I didn’t ever imagine I would be lucky enough to play at. I am not sure if my memory has distorted things, but my image of Ian from that night was him sitting in a lounge chair, with a lamp, completely at ease, reading from books, playing some sounds and regaling the audience with fond tales of his London. He was a tough act to follow in every way, but I remember hoping that one day I would come to love and feel as at ease in the city as he did, while maintaining such a curiosity towards it. In the six years since then our paths didn’t cross often, but his work was so often discussed and admired, sometimes in most surprising ways. One story which will always stay with me came a year or two ago in Brixton when I was invited to discuss field recording with some young town planners who seemingly had recently become very inspired by psychogeography, drifts and recording the city. They began their meeting with quite a Dead Poets Society moment, standing on their chairs and talking about how everyone could be an artist, before one guy raised his mobile phone aloft to play a track. I remember being like ‘what on earth is this going to be’ when out of it came the sounds of one of Ian’s perhaps most well-known recordings from inside the bascule of Tower Bridge, which we all then listened to in silence! It was a lovely, rather quirky, moment which really spoke to the breadth of Ian’s impact. These days I make a radio show about field recording with a friend, and we shared the news of Ian’s passing on the show’s social pages, prompting a flood of tributes from so many people who had been moved by his warmth, explorations and incredible dedication to London’s soundscape. There is no doubt Ian made a massive and lasting contribution to field recording practice in this city and beyond. I hope many people will continue, standing on chairs with mobile phones or otherwise, to appreciate him and his work. Kate Carr
With the sad passing of Ian Rawes, far too soon at the age of only 56, it feels as if a chapter has closed in the history of London. Here was a man born of this town, a West Londoner by birth, a purist, an idealist, an original who strove in his work whether it was as an anarcho-punk activist, as manager of the infamous Barrowlands in Glasgow or as the one and only ‘Vault Keeper’ at the British Library, to express his vision of the world about him. He found his ultimate medium in the form of the website he created in 2009 entitled the London Sound Survey, an online archive of new field recordings contrasted against historical recordings and texts. In forming this work and presenting it as he did in his usual wry and humble way, Ian did something phenomenal. He exposed the fissures that occur when London shifts from one age to the next. London may be a transient place that never stops evolving but like the consummate artist that he was, Ian Rawes had in his acute timing the microscopic ability to present the most poignant of historical recordings alongside the most prescient or prophetic of contemporary ones. How chilling it is in the immediate aftermath of his death to realise that so many of the historical recordings on the London Sound Survey are comprised of the human voice and so many of the contemporary ones that Ian recorded in the 21st Century are not. In his work was embedded an unwitting yet visionary message about a future somewhat bleak and filled with ghosts. Or was it as simple as the 20th Century and its attendant voices was the sound of the tide coming in and the 21st Century is the sound of that tide retreating? One hopes so, and that the cycle of life in this city will be perpetual. And yet, I know that had I put this to Ian over a pint at one of the many nights where he and I worked together he would have winced a bit. I can see him now, his proud but quiet bearing, on stage upstairs at The Queens Head in Piccadilly as his natural authority hushes the room, he clicks play on the button of his tape recorder and the song of the last lavender seller in Covent Garden spooks every soul present. That night, like others I spent in his company, I will never forget. Here was an artist who was nothing short of a modern day Dickens, a gentleman who always let London do the talking. John Andrews
Everyone had to move their car from the street by 7 o’clock yesterday morning. I wish I’d gone out with my camera. The road looked twice as wide, beautiful, empty, just the trees bending in the breeze, and red and yellow leaves blowing down the gutter. By 9 the street cleaners in those little glass-cubicled vehicles had done the sweeping up and the road had been cleared for the big gun: the drainage tanker. I’m not sure what it was doing, sucking up or hosing down, or both – but the noise was something else. Something from the bowels of somewhere. Ian Rawes would have appreciated it, I think – there was a definite hint of ‘Tower Bridge: North Bascule Chamber’ from Thames about it – though, in truth, he’d probably moved on some time ago.
I’d read a piece by him about recording traffic on somewhere like the North Circular in The Wire, but I first saw Rawes after Jeff put him on in the Caught by the River tent at Port Eliot. As part of his talk he played an incredible recording of the song of a lavender seller from Battersea in the inter-war years. It brought tears to your eyes. Even though she wasn’t born for another thirty years, it was so moving it took my other half back to her childhood – Sunday visits to see aunts and uncles, playing on the swings in ‘Shaddy’ Park, the songs and cries of fishmongers and rag-and-bone men, the warble of an ice-cream van on the breeze, blowing around the red-brick blocks of Shadwell Gardens.
Roughly a decade or so ago, Rawes seemed part of a new wave of fascinating ways of looking at and documenting the quotidian: Ken Worpole’s 350 Miles: An Essex Journey; Ian Nagoski’s crackly old 78s and talks about the Ottoman diaspora in New York; Mississippi Records; Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts; Kate Carr’s soundworld; Tom Bolton’s London’s Lost Rivers; Adrian Maddox’s Classic Cafés; Caught by the River, of course. As John Andrews wrote, reviewing These are the Good Times: ‘Rawes has ears for the new epoch and each and every one of its apocalyptic possibilities and mundane realities.’ He built, over time, the immense repository that is the London Sound Survey website. Recordings of everyday life: old BBC reels of kids singing ‘The Muffin Man’ in Millwall in 1938, the musical parps of bus horns and drivers shouting destinations in Victoria Coach Station, 1935; and a vast digital filing cabinet of present day audio vérité: a garden warbler in Walthamstow Marshes from 2009; traffic thundering past on the A12 while water dribbles from a pipe into the River Roding; a dredger on the River Lea in Bow. There are also photographic tributaries: odes to old Soho cafés like the Lorelei on Bateman Street; a shot of the pink and yellow coffee machine in the New Piccadilly that makes you want to weep.
But it’s probably his two albums I’ve played and loved the most. These are the Good Times and Thames are beautiful, musical, (mostly) gentle accretions of sound – fleet of foot ambient masterpieces. I’ll never tire of hearing the halyards clanging against metal flagpoles on a windy day in the Albert Basin; the ineffable skitter of ‘Pipistrelle bat sonar’ recorded in Catford in 2009; and ‘Allhallows Marshes: Night, 2018’, best left described by the man with the binaural in-ear microphones himself: ‘springtime cackling of marsh frogs overlays the hum of container ships as they pass along the estuary in the small hours of the night.’
Ian Rawes was a kind of non-fiction William Basinski, Leyland ‘the Caretaker’ Kirby or Philip Jeck. He fished in the same canal as Ian Breakwell, Joe Brainard (I Remember) and Joseph Mitchell; a Tony Ray-Jones, Helen Levitt or Fred Herzog of sound. I remember a great episode of Ben Thompson’s London Ear programme on Resonance FM where Ian talked about his move to Cambridge and taking a job delivering pizza leaflets so he could start mapping out the sounds of his new city. (Can’t wait for The Listening Trail, hopefully soon @ thewire.co.uk.) He was superb live: understated, drily witty, a master at articulating and framing the sounds and material for his talks. The last one I saw was at Iklectik, fittingly on the banks of the Thames. I’d had an operation on my tongue the day before – it was hugely swollen, I couldn’t eat or talk, and I can’t remember much about the evening as I was off my head on co-codamol. But it was great, and I bought a copy of Thames – I was glad I was there. As Rawes writes in the sleevenotes to These are the Good Times, sound, life, memory, drifting, accumulating traces of the past: ‘It’s like how the wall behind the pub dartboard becomes filled with little holes as the years pass by.’ Ian Preece
For all the recordings on the London Sound Survey website, there’s one sound you’ll struggle to hear there – and that’s a recording of Ian’s own voice. I would say that was deliberate: he wanted to give the London Sound Survey a sense of being an anonymous, bureaucratic entity, setting out to capture the sounds of London in all their many and manifold ways. But for those of us who ever heard Ian present his work in public – or chat with him over a couple of pints – we grew accustomed to that wonderful voice of his: its wry tone, its gregariousness, its down-to-earthness and its ability to wax lyrical on all manner of topics. Ian turned the pressure of public speaking into a conversation between him and an audience, using the same leisurely, unhurried tone as he would for a pub chat. He had no truck with academia, but Ian was as gifted a communicator – and as creative a researcher – as any distinguished professor. Ian’s public talks on the history of sound in London were some of the most brilliant talks I’ve ever attended, but I think he’d be ok with no trace of them being left behind – he was thinking on a bigger, impersonal scale. It’s odd now to think of Ian in the past tense, to think of his recordings of present-day London becoming historical artefacts, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Ian made sure copies of his recordings were given to the London Metropolitan Archives, so that researchers of the future can listen back to who we were. In words from the London Sound Survey website – which I can hear in his own voice – “To that future listener, greetings”. Ross Macfarlane
These Are The Good Times: Field Recordings From London in the Early 21st Century
Review by John Andrews, first published 12 August 2013
‘These Are The Good Times’ announces Ian M. Rawes the man behind The London Sound Survey and the architect, along with the track compiler Nick Hamilton, of the new vinyl long player – Field Recordings From London in the Early 21st Century which is out now on Vitelli Records. Rawes has ears for the new epoch and each and every one of its apocalyptic possibilities and mundane realities. Over 21 tracks he sculpts a landscape that echoes as if populated only by ghosts. On the opener ‘The River Lea Waste Depot’ there is a sense of space so peacefully enticing that it beckons you in as if to a Garden of Eden although it is not until ‘Pellicci’s Cafe’ that there are what you might call familiar voices, in the form of a human conversation about a lunch order, something strangely re-assuring set against the hum of machine driven ambience. All the while the tracks merge and flow into one another conjuring up a mesmeric dreamscape, forming a sonic map of London’s subconscious, the ‘unheard’ sounds, the background noise that every Londoner absorbs through dirty pores and which goes to make up the collective consciousness of the city. ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’ appears at once both parochial and exotic, the overlapping song like something not from the 21st Century but from the 19th. Those Ghosts again. ‘Cigarette Ponce’, begging to be written under ‘occupation’ in the back of every passport is upstaged by the ‘Joke Telling Beggar’ whilst ‘Thames Festival Fireworks’ brings the curtain down on side one and made one listener with whom I listened to this record for the first time stand up and applaud spontaneously.
Side Two opens with the horns of the ‘Coryton Refinery Sirens’, begging to be a single, a pop song for the doomed generation of this impossibly hard edged and empty new century, for whom one day surely a similar siren will sound the end before another one hundred years is eventually out. ‘Caribbean Sunday Service’ spooks like an American deep South church full of spellbound crazies and could quite easily have been christened Canvey Island Voodoo, a lullaby to make you want to lie down obediently in an impromptu marsh grave. ‘Motorcycle Wall of Death’ fills the speakers as if it was recorded at the end of the sixties. You can smell the damp sand, the sawdust peculiar only to circus tents, the sulphurous mix of diesel and cigarette smoke. I could not believe that this track was recorded only last year in Dulwich, weeks before the Olympics opened a few miles away to much fanfare. The motorcyclists show of courage was surely THE spectacle that should have opened the games. A gang of un-insured riders in rhinestone suits (for what else would you wear to ride the ‘Wall of Death’) out-doing one another just off the Number 176 bus route.
Via the ‘Flying Ants’ Nest’ and ‘The Poet of Villiers Street’ the record closes with ‘Pipistrelle Bat Sonar’ recorded in Catford on the 14th October 2009. Oh yes, these are indeed the good times. On his sleeve notes Rawes says ‘I hope you hear something recorded that’ll put you in mind of sounds you’ve heard in real life but kept to yourself as private, unspoken experiences. Someone whistling at the far end of a tube platform, voices from a curtainless room above a shop, a blackbird singing at night in an empty street, the rising tone of a lorry’s brakes early on a cold morning’. I am thankful as I think you will be if you buy this record that Rawes chose not to keep all that he has heard and recorded as his own ‘private and unspoken experience’. By sharing these 21 tracks on vinyl he has composed a love-letter to London and a love-letter that will make all who hear it feel simultaneously lost and found. Oh yes, these are indeed the good times, the ones that when you stand witness to them will leave you with tears in your eyes and ironically for a record that does not comprise of something more traditionally akin to the medium, a song in your heart.
26/02/65 – 19/10/21