Wednesday, June 17, 2009

do you hear what I hear?

I listen to an NPR radio program called The Takeaway on my drive to work every morning. This morning, John Hockenberry was interviewing the BBC's Kate Arkless Gray, who is spearheading a cool project called Save Our Sounds, which has to do with collecting, cataloguing and archiving audio data. Seems like we're all more inclined to save and preserve visual information, but what about sounds? How is sound a valuable piece of historical data? How do sounds define a place and time? A culture? A region? What sounds are common, and are any actually endangered, as Arkless Gray postulates?

I've thought about the specific sounds of the place I work and teach for some time now. These sounds are unique, distinctive, thought-provoking and, at times, sort of scary. The one that rises to the top of my audio-consciousness is the sound of shackles. I can't get used to this one. It's metal on metal, which by description seems pretty ordinary, but the sound of shackles is different. Hearing this always makes me sit up straight, eyes open wide, a bit more alert. Throws me into a mild state of fight or flight.

The shackle sound isn't perpetual in the clink; that is, my students don't walk around in them 24/7. Here's how it works: a kid gets put into shackles when he is adjudicated and transported from court, and they're taken off (just outside my classroom door, coincidentally) upon being admitted to the unit for detention and treatment. The kids are also put into shackles any time they're transported from the unit (court dates, doctor/dentist appointments). I hear the shackles and I think: Who's coming? Who's going? And I'm reminded, sort of against my will, that no matter who's arriving or leaving, it's a felon. Watch your ass.

Other clink sounds include: the slamming of locking metal doors, the strained shouts of residents and staff during fights and subsequent restraints, the shuffling and sliding of cheap, institutional plastic flip flops on the concrete floors, the coarse profanity that seems to seep into everyone's lexicon, in spite of visibly posted rules against it.

The BBC Save Our Sounds project offers lots of options for people to submit their audio, from high tech (.wav and MP3's) to low tech (cassettes mailed via post). There's a really cool Iphone app called AudioBoo that allows you to record and upload sound to the web. Tag your sound with "BBC_SOS" and it gets fed straight into their map via an RSS feed. Geotags then enable the sound to be placed exactly where it was recorded. Clever. I've just downloaded AudioBoo, and I plan on uploading some audio samples from the unit today. This project has a focus on "endangered sounds." I'd like the sounds of the clink to fall into this group, but I have a feeling they're going to stand the test of time.

You can visit the Save Our Sounds map at and follow them online at

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