Tuning in to a world of sound
Trevor Cox is a man who is invariably disappointed by guidebooks. Their overriding concern is with what there is to see, and what Cox wants to know as soon as he arrives in an unfamiliar country or city is what there is to hear. He is a physicist by education and an acoustic engineer by trade. Having spent several years on the theory and practice of eradicating unwanted noise in buildings from concert halls to classrooms, he had (in a sewer of all places) what he calls an epiphany: he had become so preoccupied with removing noise that he had forgotten to listen to the sounds themselves, which could be not only surprising but sublime.
Hence Sonic Wonderland (Bodley Head), in which he documents his quest to experience and explain the world’s oddest acoustic effects, from the booming of bitterns on the Somerset Levels, by way of a joking echo in the Loire Valley, to the chirping steps of a Mayan pyramid in Mexico. It’s a book both about sounds and the effect they have on us. It’s an encouragement, too, to open our ears to the everyday ones. Read a few pages, go for a walk, and you’ll find yourself tuning into the world in a new way: yes, you hear all those sounds every morning on the way to the station; the difference this time is that you’re listening to them.
My colleague Ivan Hewett, reviewing Sonic Wonderland in The Daily Telegraph today, said it was “a charming and romantic book”, but it was a shame that the publishers hadn’t offered some of the sounds on a CD or a website. Cox himself has done so, at soundcloud.com/sonicwonderland.
The sound file below is of the burping noise Cox’s feet made in sand as he trudged up a dune in the Mojave Desert in California. “Each laboured footstep,” he writes, “created a single honk, like a badly played tuba. Towards the top of the slope, I got so tired that I resorted to scrambling up on all fours, producing a comical brass quartet.”