As recommended in our recent guide to books for field recording, Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting A Place In Paris is a wonderful document of the author recording everything he sees over the course of three days sitting in the same location, a cafe in Paris. It’s an attempt to highlight the mundane, the everyday – the details most people miss in the daily bustle of life.
As part of my recent project in Margate, UK, I created a similar piece focused around sound. Here, I sat in the same location in the centre of the Dreamland amusement park for one hour, writing down every sound I could hear at any given time. Here I was ignoring what could be seen, and focusing only on what could be heard.
However, where it gets really interesting is that I also recorded the hour in question, so you can listen to the sounds at the same time as reading my responses, recording and reaction to the sounds. It’s a fascinating study, to name just one aspect, of the difference between the human ear and the microphone, and how the two listen completely differently.
For instance, in the recording there are dominant, repetitive sounds such as some of the rides close by, which you can hear throughout at a high level, but which are only referenced now and again in the text, as my ears focused on different aspects of the soundscape, causing it to sound more diverse and distinct than perhaps it does in the recording. At other times, the recording is richer, given that I would tend to focus on whichever sound was prominent at any given second, rather than the cumulative effect of the surrounding soundscape.
An attempt at exhausting Dreamland
Listen to the field recording, and read the corresponding text version below…
Establishing the scene
I am sitting in the centre of the park, directly next to a fairground stand, the type at which you throw a ball into a bucket to win a cuddly toy. The aim is to throw two balls into an angled plastic bucket and have them remain there without bouncing out – the prize, a stuffed fluorescent-coloured doughnut, of the sort you’d expect to see on The Simpsons. Like all good sideshows, it looks incredibly easy, but the success rate is low, as the balls inevitably bounce out from their intended home.
There is a set of three benches, of which I am sitting on the furthest left – being around lunchtime I would expect these to fill up with passers-by on and off during my time here. The benches are placed on concrete, with gravel covering the ground off to my right.
Ahead of me are two rides – the Crazy Mouse is a twisting miniature rollercoaster of the sort on which the carriages are round, Waltzer-style and twist around on the track, as well as swooping up and down the dips. It’s the most popular of the three rides I can see, and probably the most exciting.
To the right of the Crazy Mouse is the Pirate Ship, a series of small carriages shaped like miniature ships, which bob up and down as well as going round and round, powered by a generator and hydraulic lifting arms. They move up and down under the control of the ride operator – the hydraulic action is charmingly old-school, like most of the rides here at Dreamland. It’s an amusement park built around vintage rides and an update on the types of attractions you would have found at funfairs and parks across the last eighty or so years.
Behind me, and behind the three benches are the Flying Jets, twelve retro-style rocket carriages on arms rotating around a central pedestal, and lifted to a relatively great height and steep angle by each rider, using a hydraulic arm. Riders can lift themselves up and down, and the hydraulics respond with a great hissing.
Between the benches I’m sitting on and the Pirate Ships to my right is a large gravel-covered area, the main thoroughfare between two parts of the park.
Behind me and to my right, the Dream Cars, a series of small, manually-pushed cars designed for toddlers. These are all but silent, and I do not register them sonically for the whole time I’m here.
Off behind the doughnut game stand, in my line of view is the Helter Skelter and behind it the swing chairs, and I can just make out the Wall of Death on the left of my field of vision, a wooden cylinder, around the walls of which motorbikes travel at great speeds and heights. I remember them from attending several very old-school funfairs in my childhood, but haven’t seen one in more than twenty years.
Directly to my left, what should be the park’s coup de grace, the wooden Scenic Railway rollercoaster, the track of which is complete but the ride cannot yet open – the rollercoaster is a listed structure, one of the oldest rides in the UK. I can only imagine the clatter and clank of the wooden track and the screams of its passengers, which would ordinarily be a big feature of the soundscape from where I’m sitting.
To my right, behind the rides, a tall series of trees are in place, to block the sounds of the park from bleeding out into the town, and vice versa. Above me, my field of vision is about 20% sky.
Warm, around 23 degrees, patchy cloud overhead. The hour starts off sunny and becomes increasingly cloudy. It’s mostly still, but the odd gust of wind blows across where I’m sitting, which I assume will be more or less audible in the recording.
Around the corner from me, out of my line of sight, but one of the noisiest things in the park, the Wall of Death is setting up for their first show of the day by revving the engine of an old (1950s?) motorbike and advertising the show through the PA. The motorbike engines reverberate upwards and outwards, filling the soundscape from my left outwards with a roar like a stock car pit stop.
A man returns to collect his wife from the bench next to me, having ventured onto the Crazy Mouse – ‘Oh Valerie’; he says, ‘ it’s a good job you didn’t go on it.’ They laugh, and leave together.
I can hear the low pulse of a bassline, some music to draw more punters into the Wall of Death show, but I can only hear the repetitive bass part, and nothing from the top or mid-range.
The Pirate Ship to my right emits a constant, industrial drone which it’s easy to block out if you’re concentrating on other things, but if you start to focus purely on listening, it’s a constant presence, reminding me of the sound of the whirl of a cement mixer drum.
‘D’you wanna have a go boys, or do you wanna watch first?’ asks the member of staff working on the game stand.
The riders at the Wall of Death are warming up their motorcycles to begin the show – they rev their engines between the same bass notes I could hear before, and I can hear the characteristic periodic bangs of the engines firing. The Wall of Death host continues to exhort people to join the show, but the wind carries his voice this time, so I can no longer make out the words.
“Are you ready?” drifts across from the Pirate Ship ride, combined with a cheer of delight from the stand next to me as a young girl wins a cuddly toy for landing a ball successfully in the plastic bin with a dull thump.
The Crazy Mouse at slow speed sounds something like a supermarket attendant collecting up shopping trolleys, but picks up speed with a heavy metallic clanking akin to an HGV travelling over a small bridge.
A can of drink hisses open behind me – someone has stopped for a can of Diet Coke, head slumped on the table and apparently in need of revitalisation.
A sudden gust of wind concerns me, as I worry that that recorder set up next to me won’t like being disturbed by the breeze – despite setting up my bag as a makeshift windblock, I worry that the accompanying recording will be ripped apart by wind, or by the vibrations of my typing on the same bench, though I am careful to set it as far away from me as possible.
A woman asks me if it’s OK to share the bench. I nod silent assent but hope she doesn’t knock the recorder.
Behind me, the Space Jets are a mechanical snake, their hydraulic action lifting them up and down with the industrial press sounds of hissing air at great pressure. The ride stops, and I suddenly notice the air a lot cleaner – the hissing sound of the Space Jets occupies much of the soundscape when the ride is active.
When it stops, I can suddenly hear much more detail in the sounds around, right down to being able to hear the sound of my own typing for the first time.
Hissing from the Pirate Ships, and the clank of the Crazy Mouse going past for another lap, punctuated by the screams of what sounds like two or three young girls.
A small van drives past accompanied by a security officer, wheel crunching over the gravel surface.
Someone from the Pirate Ships is trying to get the attention of a friend not on the ride, shouting ‘oi’ a few times as he circles around.
The sound of music from the PA around the corner has almost completely drowned out the sound of the Wall of Death show – when the music drops, I can hear the dull, powerful throb of motorbike engines and, still more faintly, the whoops of appreciation from spectators. I reflect on how this sounds from within the Wall of Death – the sheer power of the sound is overwhelming – and how it’s lost from just 100 yards away.
The Dreamland street performers (whose job it is to spread joy and cheer throughout the park with songs, jokes etc.) are passing through, whipping up passers-by with shouts of ‘oi oiiiiii’. They stop to chat among themselves.
A trolley is wheeled past by a staff member, who empties the bins near me. His radio crackles into life with an announcement from the central office about something I can’t quite make out.
All of this is punctuated by the rave-style sounds and beats coming from my left, which I am beginning to resent as they intrude on my attempts to listen to the overall soundscape.
Even this sound is interrupted by the Dreamland performers starting up their own portable sound system on the ground – they are performing a song behind me – seven of them in total, with a pre-prepared song and dance. Site-specific, pop-up performances take place all over the park seemingly at random.
This performance starts to attract a crowd, most of whom are filming it on their phones.
From my seat, the kick drum from around the corner blends out of time with the performers’ backing track.
The performers break into a version of Run DMC’s ‘It’s Like That’, with the lyrics changed to refer to Dreamland. This is followed by ‘U Can’t Touch This’, and another song I’ve already forgotten in the time it took me to type this.
The performance continues – one member of the team tries to get the audience (now numbering around 30) to clap along, but most are too busy filming or eating ice cream and have no free hands. Onto a new version of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’. A couple sit on the same bench as me and eat ice cream noisily – something I wasn’t previously aware was possible. I notice they’re the same couple who sat here earlier – creatures of habit, this is their favourite bench.
Droning from the Pirate Ships to my right, hissing from the Space Jets behind me, a mobile goes off, its ringtone set to a refreshingly old-school bell tone. The performance continues, they’re now adapting ‘Hey Mickey’ and ‘My Name Is’.
The hissing of the Space Jets stops and once again I notice the clarity of sound, which brings out details in sound to me as clearly as if they’d been thrust under my nose, like the crunching of people’s shoes on the gravel next to me.
The performance stops to a brief burst of applause, the performers ask everyone sitting at the three benches if they’re OK. The man sitting at my bench expresses how much he enjoyed it. He is now describing the Crazy Mouse ride to his wife in a thick Kentish accent. They now discuss how easy it would be to throw a ball into the bucket at the stand next to me – their companion thinks it would be easy, he is not convinced.
Someone fails to win a prize, he cackles in delight. The stallholder demands to know ‘who doesn’t want a giant fluorescent doughnut in their life?’, an exhortation to play the game. A woman standing by wonders aloud what she would ever do with a fluorescent doughnut, but it’s clearly worked on a passing family, who try their luck.
A brief discussion as to whether the doughnuts are inflatable or stuffed comes to an end with a squeeze test. They’re stuffed.
The woman who came to sat on the same bench as me leaves. She hasn’t said a word while sitting here, but receives a reply to her text and duly sets off.
“Two balls for two pounds!”
Another hefty gust of wind, this one almost blowing the recorder over.
The wind blows in my direction from the Crazy Mouse, bringing to light its clattering wheels and clanking carriages more clearly, and a couple of isolated female screams.
“Jack, are you going on the aeroplanes?”
On the bench behind me, a group discuss their next moves in the park. One of them has a nasty cough.
The litter trolley is back and wheels up over the gravel next to me on its way around the park.
“Two pounds, two balls – come and get a doughnut!”
Big screams from the Crazy Mouse ride. The group behind me discuss what the ride does in heavy local accents, apparently weighing up whether it’s too scary to risk riding on.
A couple sit on the bench in front of me. Keys clink, but they face away from me so I cannot make out their conversation.
The rules of the doughnut game become clearer to me – one must get two balls in the bucket to win, not just one. I briefly consider trying it, but stick to my recording duties.
Music has died down and there’s a moment at which all I can hear is the hum coming from the Pirate Ships to my right, and cascading screams from the Crazy Mouse, which is picking up in popularity from half an hour ago,.
An elderly couple who look like ex-punks sit with me. The woman has white hair with a green patch at the front, the man earrings and a rucksack. The benches seem to be a place where people stop to consider their next moves in the park, particularly at such a sensitive time as lunchtime.
‘Wow-ee’ declares a young boy off to my right, seemingly invoking the retro 1950s spirit of the park.
The old punks seem to be talking about old fairground shows the way they used to me, discussing various sideshows. They’re facing away from me, and the Space Jets are once again hissing their hydraulic mantra to the the heavens, so I fail to make out their conversation fully.
A calm moment. A member of staff passing through declares ‘Arrrr!’ at his companions who are managing the Pirate Ships. For the first time, I can hear the dull bass notes from the Twister ride, some distance behind me, which plays rock n roll 50s and 60s classics all day – as yet, it’s been buried beneath the other sounds surrounding me.
The Dreamland performers walk past me again – one recognises me and shouts ‘good man!’ across at me with a wave.
Two extremely excited children run past me shouting, pursued by their parents.
The old punks are still with me, talking about a local steam fair now.
Lull. The Crazy Mouse is at a standstill, being loaded up for the next ride, makes a high-pitched, spinning sound like some out of control gardening implement.
Conversation between the old punks, impressively, turns to renegade US broadcaster Studs Terkel.
The sounds I can hear briefly blend together into the most wonderful mélange of the sounds of funfair enjoyment. I can hear the exact right levels of enjoyment from two rides simultaneously, with the doughnut game building quite a queue at this point.
The old punks continue to chat away, and I half wish they would leave, because music and conversation are the two hardest things to screen out when listening for other sounds – how the human brain and microphones hear differently!
“Bad luck, try again!”
I resolve to blot out what the old punks are talking about, but simply to note their presence as part of the soundscape. They speak softly; both are well-spoken and spend half their time observing the doughnut game.
“Two balls in the bucket to win!”
“I really wanted you to get that as well, I was really hoping you’d win!”
The breeze brings different ends of the park to me as gifts on a platter – the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll backbeat drifts up from behind me, but the song is as yet indistinct.
The old punks leave. A motor trolley zooms past me, on its way to perform some task or other. The clatter of the Crazy Mouse starts to remind me of the tracks of a tank rolling over metal.
“Helter Skelter there! Helter Skelter there!” shouts an excited young girl at the head of her family party.
Someone in the Crazy Mouse queue laughs a shrill, penetrating laugh – the first time a sound has come over from that distance to me.
“Look at them, they’re brilliant!” – the stallholder next to me continues to sell the benefits of her fluorescent doughnuts.
Music starts up again from near the Helter Skelter. Its bassline blends with the sound of a pushchair going over the gravel next to me.
The cleaning trolley rumbles back the other way, its work done. A small boy pleads for money from his parents behind me to try his hand at the doughnut game.
On the Crazy Mouse, there’s a particularly hysterical girl, who screams are constant and clearly recognisable.
The woman who sat silently here earlier is back, accompanied by four children.
Perhaps she was enjoying a moment of peace earlier. She explains to the stallholder that her children are green from going on a ride too many times.
They make a joke about being sick in a bin.
I note that the industrial drone from the ships, so prominent when I started listening, has now drifted right back into the background. My brain has blanked it out, but I suspect it will be prominent as ever in the recording.
The woman agrees with her children to extend the car parking and stay for another couple of hours. The children, aged between seven and nine at a guess, are all but silent, and refuse an offer of food.
The maintenance trolley speeds past. The Pirate Ship gets its sonic moment in the sun, as the Jets and Crazy Mouse are not running. I can hear its hydraulics pulsing regularly, like some great beast struggling to draw breath as it carries humans around on its back.
The first tears I hear – a small girl behind me is unhappy about something, but quickly calms down.
The woman who was here has gone to buy a drink, leaving the four children, who don’t say a single word. I start to wonder if they’ve been kidnapped and are silent under threat of violence.
An old motorbike revs up, and I realise we’re about to come full circle – the Wall of Death is starting to warm up.
Dreamland performers (four) go past me, singing in falsetto a snatch of “ Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside”.
The PA at the Wall of Death kicks in, the owner exhorting park-goers to enter with tales of danger and excitement. The Flying Jets behind me gasp their approval.
The Flying Jets are hissing behind me, and the Pirate Ships to my right hiss in return, two trapped hydraulic reptiles communicating with one another across the small space in the centre of the park. Perhaps these metallic lizards will break out and overthrow their human masters someday.
Motorbikes are warming up, revving their engines, crackling and banging as the performers prepare.
“You’ll see the riders taking their hands entirely away from the handlebars, steering the bikes with their feet”. This time, they’re doing a physical demonstration outside the Wall of Death to give people a flavour of what goes on inside.
One of the children leaves, the other three remain silent. The woman returns with some cans of Coke to pep them up.
The Crazy Mouse judders into life with a start, jerking its new load of passengers off down its metal railroad.
I turn the recorder off, but I keep listening.