We’re now starting out on the busiest stretch of our field recording for the series: the United States, Ghana, Italy, Turkey, and Greece ,with France, Belgium and various sites in the UK to follow in February.
Two days into our stay in New York, and one major challenge is all too obvious. How do we evoke the sounds of the past when they have long disappeared from a particular place? This morning, for instance, we were in Harlem for a part of the series that explores the role of gramophone records in the 1920s and 1930s in changing musical tastes across the race line in America. The jazz musicians of the time, like Fats Waller or Duke Ellington and his band, are no longer in town playing, and we hear more Hispanic pop and rap than swing or stride piano drifting out of apartment windows and car stereos.
Then, this afternoon, we were in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a wonderfully preserved record of tenement life in what was, in the late 19th century, the most densely populated place on Earth. But whereas maybe 200 people were crammed into this one building at any given time back then, this afternoon there’s just Matt, me, and Kira, the museum guide walking around what is an otherwise deserted – and hence quiet – place.
Fortunately, both Harlem and the Lower East Side tenement still offer a distinctive sonic footprint. They have an atmosphere, which I think can somehow still be heard as well as seen. 125th Street has a raw energy to it that can’t be heard on 42nd Street. The tenement is more claustrophobic than an Upper West Side home or even a bohemian Village apartment. But it’s likely to be subtle on the ear. And it’s a reminder of how you still need words and stories to conjure up the past of a place. This is, after all, a series about people, not about spaces. Which is why I end the day in a tiny, darkening room, illuminated only by gaslight, speaking into a microphone about the sleeping habits of an Orchard Street family, and what a young girl heard coming from behind her neighbour’s door as she carried a pitcher of water up the stairs. It’s one of radio’s curious but stimulating challenges: to use a sense of place in the here-and-now to launch the listener on a journey towards the past.