In Memoriam Ian Rawes: A Tribute to The London Sound Surveyor

Ben Thompson remembers the work of a major figure in UK field recording

WORDS: Ben Thompson

LOCATION: London’s Sonic Ether

Ian M. Rawes, who died last month at the age of 56, was a major figure in the history of British field recordings. That formal-sounding achievement may conjure up a rather dry, academic image, but Rawes’ quixotic career path was actually illuminated by an infectious sense of mischief. Like Mark Fisher, whose line about “the solitary urinal of male subjectivity” he quotes with a chuckle in this hour long 2019 Resonance FM interview, (full tracklisting below), the enduring vitality of the work he left behind renders his early death all the more poignant.

The first time I met Ian was at the British Library in 2012. I was editing a book of Mary Whitehouse’s letters for Faber at the time, and in his capacity as (to use the title he rejoiced in) “vault keeper” of the National Sound Archive, he was kind enough to assist me in my search for punk songs that mentioned her. The innocent enjoyment Ian seemed to take in delivering copies of albums by The Adicts and Sore Throat to the library’s exquisitely stylised listening environment makes more sense now I know of his pre-history as a noted firebrand in the already fiery realm of direct action anarcho-punk fanzines (see this fond and detailed tribute by John Cooper for further info).

In-between helping me work out which of the 103 tracks on Sore Throat’s landmark 1989 album Disgrace to the Corpse of Sid was “Mary Whitehouse Raving Mad” (it’s actually track 87 on side one), Ian told me about his extra-curricular activities with the London Sound Survey.

In a career arc that will be familiar to students of the great Victorian naturalists, this Herculean field-recording endeavour spiralled in subsequent years from a hobby into a life’s work, creating an archive (London Sound Survey) whose institutional grandeur is commemorated in this unusually authoritative and fair-minded (for that newspaper) tribute in the London Evening Standard.

We kept in touch, and by the second time I met Ian – his first appearance on my Resonance 104.4FM show The London Ear (no doubt lurking somewhere in the archive but I’ve not been able to track it down yet) – he had released a fantastic compilation of these field recordings (2013’s Vittelli records release These Are The Good Times) and was in the process of overseeing a unique concert in the bascule chamber of Tower Bridge, where he’d been allowed to record the sound of the bridge opening, only to be delighted by the process wherein this recording was reconstituted as a live event by aptly-named composer Iain Chambers. Listen here.

At Resonance, Ian was quite properly revered as a Hindu God. And for his next – and, sadly,  -as it turned out, last – appearance on The London Ear, a show to whose title he may justly have laid claim to as a soubriquet (linked above) he wore a fancy hat quite in keeping with his enhanced status. Having relocated to the digital hub of Cambridge, he talked affectionately of the skunk farms and brothels now populating the new-build developments around his new home (his experiences of these were not as a punter but rather from a part-time job delivering junk mail) and introduced his new album of Thames estuary recordings on the Persistence of Sound label.

Listening back to this show again, after Ian’s death, I found it very moving how detailed and humorous an account he gave in it of the evolution of his appreciation of sound – from the urban resonance of tall buildings flanking narrow streets in his inner city upbringing, to the wide-open spaces of vanishing tracts of post-industrial estuary wilderness, via teenage immersion in the dramatic sound-stages of Joy Division and PIL (not to mention Bauhaus). It was a beautiful journey, and it’s very sad that its ultimate destination arrived too soon.

Track-listing of May 2019 Resonance FM interview with Ian M. Rawes

Thames Albert Basin

Elvin Jones – drums from Africa Brass

Thames All Hallows’ Marshes (by day)

Rockers Revenge featuring Donnie Calvin – Rocking on Sunshine (excerpt)

Coryton Refinery Siren

Penderecki – Cosmogonia

Steven Feld – The Time of Bells

Pilgrimage to Santiago Sanctus

Thames – Machine Room (Tower Bridge Lifting)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Ben Thompson is an author and music journalist who presents The London Ear at noon every Thursday on Resonance FM.

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