On Sunday morning I attended the 4am Project / Project Brutal event held at Birmingham’s Central Library.

With the building of Birmingham’s new library underway and with the chance to gain access outside of the normal opening times I felt this opportunity was not to be missed. Despite 4am Project being a photographic project I agreed in advance that I would mainly be recording the sounds within the library. This aspect fascinated me on two levels. Firstly, a library is meant to be a place of silence, “Shhhhh, people are trying to read”, but what we perceive as silence is just our ability to block out some sounds and not others. I wanted to focus in on these sounds as well as discovering what other sounds I might find in parts of the building one wouldn’t normally gain access to. Secondly, with the proposed demolition of the existing library, I considered this to be an opportunity to record the dying breaths of the building.

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Audio Recordings

 
Update: these recordings are now also available as a release on Open Sound Group, here.

The recordings are presented in order of recording, with no processing, other than trimming to remove any unwanted bits. We started at the top of the building and worked our way down, ending in the book store in the basement. Warning: some recordings are LOUD.

At the very top of the building there was a large glass pyramid roof surrounded by a metal walkway. Everyone else went up to take some photographs. I on the other hand got distracted by the sounds coming from The Plant Room, which I assume provided the air conditioning throughout the building. I made the following recordings inside The Plant Room:

Belt Cage – contact mics attached to the vibrating cage surrounding a rubber belt / pulley system

I love the range of sounds you hear in this sample. It seems to be constantly morphing whilst always maintaining the rhythmical basis. It also sounds to me like a machine that is struggling a bit with old age.

Belt / Pulley System 1 – stereo mics placed near rubber belt / pulley system

A harsh and unforgving noise. Brutalist. Yet somehow other rattles and clicks can be heard through the noisy background sound.

Belt / Pulley System 2 – stereo mics placed a bit further from rubber belt / pulley system

A slightly less harsh background sound, allowing the click and pops some space.

Deep Metal Casing – contact mics attached to side of deep metal casing housing a belt / pulley machine

I love the deep and resonant nature of this sound. Heavy machinery creating a deep and foreboding sound.

Pump Room Exploration – wandering around The Plant Room using 90 degree stereo mics

Making use of my stereo microphones you can really hear the breadth of the sound generated in The Plant Room in this one.

Outside The Plant Room the last group of people were just coming down the large metal steps. I quickly attached my contact mics and recorded the sound of them doing so.

Coming down – contact mics on metal steps

This sounds exactly as it did in my mind’s ear. I am very pleased with the extra detail in the sound provided by hands and rings scraping down the hand rail.

Next we headed downstairs to the floor below. I focussed mainly on the sound of the air conditioning system and other ambient sounds that would be ever present if visiting the library.

General Ambience – stereo mics placed on desks near air conditioning system

This sample really shows how noisy the library really is when it might be said to be silent. Obviously the camera clicks wouldn’t be present normally and some areas were quieter than others but the air conditioning system was almost always present.

Heavy Fan – stereo mics placed inside air conditioning unit, where one of the grates was missing (brutalist sound)

This harsh sound was created by the rushing of air and the fans within the air conditioning unit. I like the fact that despite being noisy there are still other sounds present, as people wonder around taking photographs.

Window Music – contact mic taped to window

This was my favourite recording of the day. One of the joys of field recording is when you come across a sound you can’t fully explain. Listen very carefully and after a while you can hear odd ambient tones. These stop and then towards the end other musical sounding tones appear. I don’t know what it was inside the building that caused these. I would like to explore these further.

Spiral staircase – contact mic taped to spiral staircase

Unfortunately, the staircase was closed but it did make a nice resonant “dong” when somebody hit it with their tripod. I also rather like occasional exterior sound as it is transmitted through the staircase.

Down another floor and this time I recorded people coming down the escalator.

All Down Escalator – stereo mics on metal foot plate at the end of the escalator

The security chaps kindly put the escalator on for me to record. I love the scrapes as it operates and clonks as people come down it. I particularly love the sound as it shuts down. I was told it stopped because it was “used to being an up escalator”, apparently the wear on one side from years of use makes it think it has malfunctioned when it is used in the opposite direction.

Toilet Stop & Escalator – stereo mics on tripod

A general field recording taken as we wait to go downstairs. These noises are of course hidden from the main library areas normally but show the noise that is present in other parts of the building at all times.

Then we sent down into the book store (see photographs below) and then outside, before heading to the Shakespeare Memorial Room. These were the settings for my last two recordings.

Outside – stereo mics on tripod, with wind-shield

Seagulls, camera clicks and Birmingham at 5.30am. Sadly just after I stopped recording two dicks walked past being aggressive and talking about “White Power”…yawn!

Shakespeare Lobby – stereo mics on tripod

I loved the occasional sound of this rattling ventilation system outside the Shakespeare Memorial Room.

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Photographs

I also took a few photographs, most notably in the book store, as this definitely featured more visual than auditory appeal. Below are two images I took. In both I placed my camera on the floor and shot upwards using the timer.

Book Store – floor shot of shelving

Outside – floor shot of building (I guess the odd moving things at the top are seagulls)

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Thanks

I am pleased with the results and look forward to expanding on some of the ideas this has given me. THANKS so much to Karen Strunks (4am Project) and Marie Foulston (Project Brutal) for organising this amazing event!

10 Responses to Sounds of a dying library

  1. Dave Conroy says:

    The second shot more like gunk on your sensor. You can clean it off easy enough. often only shown on sky shots as otherwise masked.

    Enjoyed the sounds a lot. Top job!

  2. mr.underwood says:

    Thanks Dave. Will see about cleaning my sensor, although I rather like it ;)

    Glad you enjoyed the sounds!

  3. Mark Wilson says:

    Grabbed a picture of you in action recording one of the escalators at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sparks68/5649387930/

    Looks like you had as much fun recording as we did taking pictures.

  4. [...] then it doesn’t stop at photographs as people collected video and most interestingly sounds. To be honest archiving the sounds of the library isn’t something which occurred to me until [...]

  5. Leon Trimble says:

    no fair. i want in.

  6. Fascinating sounds, love your book store pic too :)

  7. Great stuff. I really enjoy taking time to explore a place sonically. Can’t listen to the sounds now (at work) but will have a butchers later. Let me know if you fancy releasing them as an album on Open Sound Group!
    Lovely photos too. Glad it’s going well!
    Gggg

  8. [...] clever Mister Underwood collected some amazing sounds from the library. Head over to his blog post, Sounds Of A Dying Library, to hear them all. Definitely worth a [...]

  9. [...] A series of field recordings from sound artist, composer and inventor, Mr.Underwood, recorded in the early hours of the morning in Birmingham Central Library. More information from the artist’s website. [...]

  10. [...] ‘added extra’ of sound recordings made by Mr Underwood of a ‘dying library’ – click on http://www.mrunderwood.co.uk/news/sounds-of-a-dying-library/  for [...]

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