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Sam Jones: “There are sounds from people swimming in the sky and sleeping on the streets”

Image: Photo of Sam Jones

As part of the Line of Light festival marking the opening of the Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms tube stations, Sam Jones of SoundThread has been working with the people who know the area best to create a bespoke album of soundscapes. He talks to Rosemary Waugh about the twitter of returning birds, the cloud maker of London and immersing himself in the noise of the city – including those tiny pockets of silence.

Rosemary Waugh: So what was the initial inspiration behind the album of podcast soundscapes for the Line of Light festival?

Sam Jones:
I do a lot of these projects, which attempt to exemplify through music and sound the stories and experiences of people who live and work in an area. My role is to sort of filter what is being said on the streets, what music is being heard or created, and what we’ve all been working on in the rehearsal room. And then it’s to try and find a way to reflect that through a soundscape.

RW: How, on a practical level, do you do that? Do you go out and about doing lots of recordings, or just try to immerse yourself in a place?

Yeah - you go and sit in places like this [gestures to the Battersea Power Station] and you try and conceptualise what it sounds and feels like. The only way you're able to do this is to be the boots on the ground, and to make and build relationships with the people who live there.

RW: The Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms neighbourhoods feel like quite unique areas, because they’ve been so utterly transformed in recent years. Has that transformation affected how the area sounds?

Battersea Power Station is such an immensely iconic building. It’s both futuristic and steeped in history. So you've got a juxtaposed reality happening here that really plays out in people’s experiences of it. In my conversations with people, there’s a lot of reflecting on the history and anticipation for the future. I think, overall, people are happy to see it all happening. There’s this idea that it’s a new city centre – and it really does feel like that. But there are, of course, losses alongside the gains. We’re trying to tell an holistic story that celebrates the developments but doesn't wash over the complexities.

RW: While we’re talking, I’m aware I can hear the wind a lot, which is something I always notice when I've walked through the Battersea Power Station area. Do natural elements also feature in the urban soundscapes that you make?

Absolutely. Here, we’re obviously next to the Thames, so there’s the sound of the water and the Clipper which goes down to Greenwich. They’re captured in the soundscape, which is lovely. We’ve also been working with a string arranger who grew up in the area, and those natural sounds are reflected in the string composition. It’s all about an atmosphere of found sounds, whether that’s the sound of a lift door closing or the Clipper washing its way along the river. We’ve tried to imprint all those sounds onto the soundscapes.

RW: Are the sounds that feature mainly those that could be experienced in the area today? Or are there any historic ones, like from when the power station was operational?

No, this is all very much about looking to the future. And the soundscape is about ‘now’. For example, the sounds of the new Nine Elms Park and the area around the American Embassy. There’s also all the new planting which has taken place, of grasses and shrubbery. Birds have started coming to the area and we’ve also captured the sounds of the birds which wouldn’t have been here before. So although it’s a nod to the past, it’s definitely looking to the future.

RW: When you're talking to people about an area and you ask them about the sounds of the city, what do they normally come up with first?

There's a lot of traffic and a lot of tube sounds. Central London is very, very noisy. But when we’re talking to people we’re really looking for their own stories. Around here, we’ve had people talking about Nine Elms Park and the Sky Pool, but also experiences of homelessness. I’ve tried not to eliminate anything, so there are sounds from people swimming in the sky and sleeping on the streets.

RW: And how about for yourself – as someone who lives in London, do you have a favourite sound or set of sounds that encapsulate the city for you?

I live north of the river and I'm very much a Londoner. To be honest, I'm always trying to seek silence in London. I love the solace of little pockets of serenity like choirs rehearsing in a church or the subtle murmuring of a little wine bar. Or two o'clock in the morning in some of the busiest places – like a Sunday morning in the City. Sound and noise are very much my bread and butter, yet I do try to find the pockets of calm.

RW: Sunday in the city is the best one. It's like a weird ghost town.

It’s brilliant. Spooky. I love it. It's what I expect. It’s probably what cycling through the city at the height of the pandemic would have been like. I didn’t do that, but that’s what I imagine it was like.

RW: I did it a few times – went right into the centre when it was totally deserted and it was amazing. Before I let you go, would you be able to say a little more about the local groups you’ve worked with on the project?

We've worked with instrumentalists who play at the Oval Cricket Ground and the group who become the unofficial cheerleaders of the Indian cricket team whenever they come to town. We’ve also worked with a saxophonist, drag queens from the Vauxhall Tavern, people connected to Lambeth Library, residents from the Patmore Estate and the Griffin Primary School (I’ve actually been there this morning). And then there’s a set of students from the Royal College of Art who are working on a project all about sonic storytelling – so that’s been perfect.

RW: And finally, what's been the most bizarre or memorable sound you've come across in the area that you think will stick in your mind when you look back on this?

Well, it’s not a sound, but can I share a story someone told me? Because there are so many of these lovely stories about how this place has ingrained itself on people’s lives. A woman from the Battersea Power Station Community Choir told me that when she was younger she would travel over the bridge and her mother or father would point at the power station and say ‘Look! That’s where clouds are made.” So this [gestures to the power station] will now forever be the cloud maker of London for me.

Find Sam Jones here:

Line of Light festival
Friday 29 and Saturday 30 October
between Battersea Power Station and Kennington
Info: /


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