We all have a favourite Christmas album or maybe just one track that will instantly cause us to burst into song dance around the kitchen whilst preparing the festive dinner. It is the actual sounds of preparing the dinner that today’s guest would be more interested in and it is an absolute joy to welcome Felicity Ford aka Felix aka KNITSONIK to the blog. As well as being an incredibly talented knitter, designer, writer and podcaster, Felix also works as a sound artist and you will often find elements of sound incorporated into her knitting. Today she is writing about the Sounds of Christmas so put your feet up, turn off the radio, have a read and then see how many of these sounds you can hear around you…
My first encounter with “Sounds of Christmas” was at TATE Modern in 2004 where I’d gone to hear Christian Marclay’s performance of the same title. In his days as an experimental turntablist, trawling charity shops for records with which to make amazing art projects, Marclay had noticed how many Christmas records exist. He began collecting them. At TATE modern, DJs had been invited to remix that collection live. I remember standing in a drafty tent on the embankment listening to one DJ combine version after version of “Silent Night” in a soft, murky syrup. The carol become hypnotic through repetition, the different recordings melding into detuned sonic soup. Each recording was layered and mixed together with the blurry scratches of vinyl and the electric hum of amps and speakers. The sound of the performance has mixed in my memory with the sounds of revellers walking beside the Thames and emergency sirens in the nearby streets. When I call it into my head I see the cheesy disco lights and can remember the smell of sweet peanuts cooking and the sensation of being cold.
The festive season is saturated with recorded sounds. Versions of carols like the ones in Marclay’s collection play in every shopping centre from late November onwards, and TV adverts feature choirs, sleigh bells and exquisitely recorded food preparation sounds designed to whet appetites and boost the sales of festive fare… Prosecco fizzing; pan sizzle and the ding of wine glasses joined in a “cheers”. Children’s voices and twinkly sounds also seem to feature more on TV in the lead up to Christmas – take a listen next time there is an ad break and you’ll see what I mean. On Oxford Street in London last week I was startled to hear that one of the big stores has included, as part of its window display, a gentle chime that shimmers in the air. The recorded sound spangles in time with the twinkling lights and is dispersed over the busy road by speakers.
But what about the everyday sounds that are also part of Advent such as the stress in the supermarkets on the lead up to the big day, the squeaking of cellotape and the rustle of paper, the sounds of hanging up tinsel, switching the gas on for the Turkey, unwrapping food from its (sadly often) plastic packaging, or – if you forget to prick holes in them – the ominous thuddings of chestnuts exploding in the oven (don’t ask me how I know)?
In 2008 myself and Paul Whitty set up a project called “Sound Diaries”. Dedicated to “recording life in sound” Sound Diaries documents everyday life through field recordings. It’s about finding creative ways of sharing and celebrating ordinary sounds. We launched Sound Diaries with a sonic advent calendar. Each clip was recorded on the same day on which it was uploaded, and each one was 24 seconds long – a nod towards the 24 days of Advent. We decided not to hunt too hard for overtly “Christmassy” sounds, but to try and represent the day to day reality – the “everyday life” of Advent.
I also started a project in 2008 called “Sound Bank” in which I recorded one sound every day for a year in the form of pictures, notation or words and, in 2009, I shared some of the sounds recorded throughout December on my own blog.
What I enjoyed about both these projects was that using creative frameworks for listening – and the pressure to come up with a sound each day! – pushed me to think about the sounds of Christmas differently. I was surprised to hear all the many ways in which the festive season manifested in daily tasks, and in a way I feel that listening to Advent right where I was brought the Christmas cheer in more closely – to things that were right in front of me.
Some of the sounds I recorded in SOUND BANK in words, drawings or notation included:
walking on frosty pavements and the slight slip in my stride
mystery birdsong (I discovered later that it was a Great Tit)
getting beer bottles out of the fridge
roar of the weir near town after rain
cutting up a parsnip
bubbles in the bath
different sorts of wrapping paper
scratchy pine needles when decorating the tree
Sounds I recorded for Sound Diaries included:
tinsel at poundworld
a trip to the bottle bank
ice melting onto a large plastic water barrel
waiting by the door in the crowded post office
the boiler, the washing machine and the dinner being served up
the last minute supermarket dash
the fire starting to take
There is a lovely intimacy to these sound lists that were not compiled by thinking about “Sounds of Christmas” but by listening to them. I love a cheesy old Christmas record and the sound of jingle bells as much as the next person, but there is something equally comforting about overlooked sounds like the sounds of weather and of necessarily heating the home, and the sounds of processes involved in preparing food for special occasions.
Today some of the sounds I have noticed included the delicate tinny sounds of the wrappers left on foil-wrapped coins. The sounds of tidying as I try to get the living room ready for our tree. The hum of the franking machine as I go through orders placed through my online shop which must be posted in time for Christmas.
The boiler gurgles and murmurs in the kitchen because it’s cold, the doorbell has gone several times with deliveries, and the wind makes a low soft sound in the chimneys. Later on this week I will unwrap and assemble the angel chime, light a candle and hear its tinkly sounds. And since I started thinking about the role that sound plays in Christmas, I have created several DIY garlands of jingle bells which introduce acoustic sparkles when we lay them round the tree.
Every year I am happy to hear these sounds again…like the DJ at TATE Modern playing Christian Marclay’s Christmas records, each replay of the festive season feels like a best hits remixed. Next time you fetch out a special plate, chop up veg for a dinner, clink wineglasses with someone you love, take the bins out, fold paper for recycling, tidy up glasses and plates or tussle with the ornaments on your tree, lean into the sounds a little… these are your Christmas records… your “Sounds of Christmas”. And those are the best festive sounds of them all.
A huge thank you to Felix for such a wonderfully evocative essay which I have found myself reading and re-reading. We would both love to hear your “Sounds of Christmas” so please do leave a comment and add to the list.
You can keep up with Felix over on her blog where you will also find more information about her current projects along with links to her podcast and online shop, where she sells copies of her amazing Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, Wovember badges and fabric-covered buttons. Felix can also be found on Twitter and Instagram as KNITSONIK.
All images © Felicity Ford and used here with permission.