David Owen in the New Yorker on Noise Pollution

David Owen in the New Yorker on Noise Pollution

There’s an interesting and somewhat maddening story by David Owen in the current New Yorker on noise and health (both human and animal).

Interesting because, well this is something I am interested in. I for one can hardly get enough of this kind of thing:

We stepped into an adjacent room. “Here is our acoustic laboratory,” Christophe said. He handed me one of Bruitparif’s sound-monitoring devices, which he had helped invent. It’s called Medusa. It has four microphones, which stick out at various angles, hence the name. The armature that holds the microphones is bolted to a metal box roughly the size of an American loaf of bread. Inside it is a souped-up Raspberry Pi—a tiny, inexpensive computer, which was originally intended for use in schools and developing countries but is so powerful that it has been adopted, all over the world, for myriad other uses. (You can buy one on Amazon for less than forty bucks.) Embedded in the central microphone stalk are two tiny fish-eye cameras, mounted back to back, which record a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree image each minute. Medusas are the successors of Bruitparif’s first-generation sensors, called Sonopodes, which rely on expensive components imported from Japan. Sonopodes are still in use, although they are too big to move around easily. “The Japanese system is very good, but each one costs almost thirty thousand euros, and we can’t deploy it as much as we expect,” Christophe told me. “So we built our own system, which is small and low-cost. The idea is the same.” Bruitparif has installed fifty Medusas in the metropolitan area, and will add many more this summer.

And we should all be personally concerned with this issue:

Modern sound-related health threats extend far beyond music, and they affect more than hearing. Studies have shown that people who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to many alarming problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, and all the physical, cognitive, and emotional issues that arise from being too distracted to focus on complex tasks and from never getting enough sleep.

In February, Bruitparif, a nonprofit organization that monitors environmental-noise levels in metropolitan Paris, published a reportthat combined medical projections from the World Health Organization with “noise maps” based partly on data from its own network of acoustic sensors. It concluded, among many other things, that an average resident of any of the loudest parts of the Île-de-France—which includes Paris and its surrounding suburbs—loses “more than three healthy life-years,” in the course of a lifetime, to some combination of ailments caused or exacerbated by the din of cars, trucks, airplanes, and trains. These health effects, according to guidelines published by the W.H.O.’s European regional office last year, include tinnitus, sleep disturbance, ischemic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes, and cognitive impairment in children. In Western Europe, the guidelines say, traffic noise results in an annual loss of “at least one million healthy years of life.
Maddening, because little of this is news. Anyone who read any of a host of books and studies could tell you this. And the solutions are not pie-in-the-sky by any means. As Owen’s article ends:


David Monacchi: “Fragments of Extinction”, the sounds of vanishing nature

With the prospect of mass extinction in the news, it seems a good time to reflect on the loss of soundscapes. In Ireland, the corncrake and the curlew were once the background sounds of daily life; now they are nearly vanished.

I have posted before about nature recording artists such as Gordon Hempton and Chris Watson who have captured soundscapes in the natural world that one hopes will not vanish altogether. I came across David Monacchi and his Fragments of Extinction project.

Monacchi records (and streams) soundscapes from the dwindling number of intact, untouched forests around the world. What makes his work especially compelling is the clarity with which he illustrates how these ecosystems have a panoply of harmonious acoustic niches, across species and genera. The best way to get a sense is this short video:


Curlews in The Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan’s thrillers are not exactly politically correct by today’s standards, but contain many gems of prose – especially on the natural world and on the cares of power.  There is a wonderful passage on fowling (ie hunting waders) in “The Island of Sheep” and scattered through his books are unself-conscious evocations of now lost worlds (such as the huntin’, shootin’ fun of “John McNab”

There are two references to curlews in  his most famous book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”; neither is necessarily that evocative, but the casual presumption of widespread curlews is sadly dated.

At one point, Richard Hannay cannot even find his spirits lifted by the cuckoo (it is interesting how often Buchan’s supposedly arch-imperialist heroes find themselves struck by various funks):

“If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time. It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and curlews and falling streams. But I had no mind for the summer, and little for Hislop’s conversation, for as the fateful fifteenth of June drew near I was overweighed with the hopeless difficulties of my enterprise

Fortunately, we also have curlews (along with plovers) lifting his spirits elsewhere:

It was the same jolly, clear spring weather, and I simply could not contrive to feel careworn. Indeed I was in better spirits than I had been for months. Over a long ridge of moorland I took my road, skirting the side of a high hill which the herd had called Cairnsmore of Fleet. Nesting curlews and plovers were crying everywhere, and the links of green pasture by the streams were dotted with young lambs. All the slackness of the past months was slipping from my bones, and I stepped out like a four-year-old. By-and-by I came to a swell of moorland which dipped to the vale of a little river, and a mile away in the heather I saw the smoke of a train.

Often in thrillers and adventure stories there are arresting details which stop us short in a way more ostensibly “literary” works may not. The 100th anniversary of The Thirty Nine Steps passed in 2015; one  hopes that for the 150th the “continual sound” of the curlew again is heard “crying everywhere”

Reflections on my top Spotify plays of 2018

It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for! I wonder why Spotify do this with over three weeks of the year still to go? Perhaps it is so that is isn’t overwhelmed by Christmas songs. And I wonder does the “year” therefore comprise 11 months and a little under a week?


This year I expected (yes, I have been thinking about this) that the influence of my children’s use of our Spotify would become apparent. To a degree it has, with the Greatest Showman soundtrack featuring heavily. I thought I expected George Ezra’s Shotgun to be way ahead of everything else, but it wasn’t.  

The top two are both songs (or perhaps more properly recordings) which I have tended to use to endeavour to get my children (and myself at times) to sleep. Number 2 is a recording by Gordon Hempton, Ocean Dreams, nearly an hour of ocean sound. I have listened to it in full waking as well as as a sleep aid, and it is quite an aural trip:

The number one is Ekkehard Ehlers’  Plays John Cassavetes 2. Based on a recurring sample from the Beatles’ “Goodnight” Again it’s a wonderful listen for non-sleep related purposes also! Here is a video of it on a one hour loop, if you have spare time after Ocean Dreams:

Number 3 is “HImlico’s Map”, with Mick Lally speaking over Shaun Davey’s music. This is the opening of Davey’s “The Pilgrim”, and also the opening of a playlist I put together called, um, The Pilgrim.


Here’s an extract from The Pilgrim sleeve notes:

Himlico’s Map: Colum Cille Leaves Derry. Mick Lally, Narrator and Helen Davies, metal-string harp. Himlico was a Carthaginian who was sent during the 6th or 5th century B.C. to explore the coastline of Western Europe. Although his original report is lost it is thought to form a basis of a poem by Avienus, a 4th century A.D. official of the Roman Empire. An extract from this, one of the earliest written descriptions of the Celts, is followed by three of a number of verses ascribed to Colum Cille at the time of his departure from Derry in the 6th century A.D.

Here is “Himlico’s Map / Colum Cille Leaves Derry” on YouTube, with a fairly trippy visual accompaniment:

OK, I’m not going to go through each one like this… honest. I do think the playlist is a fairly accurate reflection of what I listen to, although I have been listening to quite a bit of fairly honest-to-goodness guitar-based rock lately which hasn’t made it to this (nor has much by way of country, and only a few electronica). I also listen to a fair bit of the Beatles, Sinatra and Dylan, but possibly too diffuse a range of tracks for one to make it. I also have some playlists which are basically multiple versions of the same song or piece – for instance this one of various interpretations of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude . Quite a few of these versions feature in my annual top 100. That probably pushes the classical percentage, already pretty high, even higher.

Spotify also produce a playlist called “Tastebreakers” which is supposedly “a playlist of songs from genres and artists you don’t normally explore” Whatever about the artists bit, I can’t say that the genres are unfamiliar. A fair bit of jazz, a fair bit of country, a fair bit of soundtracks … it isn’t that far from my familiar furrows.