Libraries, as ‘sanctuaries of quiet’, are unique places, both culturally and acoustically: they soundproof our thoughts from the distraction and the noise outside their walls. But they also co-erce us intobehaving quietly, amplifying the sounds we make beneath their domed acoustic chambers.
Manchester Central Library’s main reading room, placed on the top floor and filled with natural light, was designed to impose a state of quiet on the reader, with every small sound amplified by the unique acoustic of the domed roof.
The amplification of the personal sounds of page turning, typing, coughing etc. turns the ‘silent’ reader immersed in their private experience, into a performer within the public space of the reading room.
Using audio-visual recording, I investigate how the acoustic environment and the architecture of a building can affect our behaviour in a public space. James Mansell situates the building and its acoustic design in the historical context of early twentieth-century Britain’s ‘Age of Noise’, examining the Library as a ‘sanctuary of quiet’ in the soundscape of the modern industrial city. His research reveals the intentions and experiences of the library soundscape, placing it in the wider sound history of twentieth-century Manchester. Today’s library – embedded with technology – is full of discreet, barely audible sounds, which reveal its inner life.
My recordings delve into the different gradients of sound and silence, capturing the acoustic properties of the physical structure of the building, the sonic environment of the library created by its users, its technology and the noise of the city seeping in. Presenting the audio and visual body of my research gathered in the building and its surroundings, I explore the unique soundscape of the library – both protecting and controlling – and its relationship to the city whose voices it reverberates.
Drawing us back in time, Mansell situates these sounds in wider histories of urban subjectivities and listening. Together, we seek to explore the possibilities of artist-historical cross working, to investigate new ways to excavate the sounds of urban space through architectural resonance and through, archival remembrance.
Is today’s library still the oasis of quiet in the noisy city it was intended to be when it was built in the 1930s? Has the role of the library reading room changed with the changes of our reading habits?
In early 2017 equipped with binaural microphones and a discrete recorder, I started my walk from Albert Square. Walking through Mount Street, I realized that although I have lived in the North West for the last 20 years I had recorded Manchester very little in the past. I stood outside the Library on St. Peter’s Square listening and absorbing the vibrant ambience; the sound of a nearby building site, the voice of the Big Issue seller calling the same words, like a mantra, punctuated by a tram signal echoed by the façades of the iconic Midland Hotel. Manchester, the birth city of the Industrial Revolution, to me is a city that keeps changing and constantly adapts to the fluctuating socio-political situation. The hum of building machines is almost constant, shifting through various parts of the city centre.
Walking past a large window I can still hear the sound of the trams, traffic and building sites seeping in, from outside. As I open the heavy, wooden door of the reading room, I become aware that I have stepped into another acoustic territory.
The reading room, placed in the heart of the building on the first floor, is filled with natural light, making it the perfect environment for the reader. The room is designed on a circular plan, with 28 neoclassical columns supporting a domed ceiling. The structure of the domed ceiling creates echoes; the sound reflected by the curved surface travels with a delay and changes direction, making it difficult to tell where it originates from. Compared to the ground floor of the building, the room seems quiet. However, it is filled with the amplification of subtle intimate sounds; a pencil against paper, the turning of a page, shuffles of a chair, sniffling and coughing. As these sounds mix and become displaced from their origin, they create a joint experience that turns the reader, engrossed in the private act of reading, into a performer within the public space of the library. The architecture of this room, together with the 1930’s chairs, and the acoustics of the space, encourage us to behave in a formal way.
There is no need for anyone to officially control the level of noise, as the readers hear amplified sounds and regulate noise level themselves. Reading in silence is such a private experience; each reader is absorbed in their invisible space, but as the sound of their reading reverberates, it becomes a shared practice.
The sound work that has resulted from my exploration of Manchester Central Library, on the vinyl record ‘Resonating Silence’, is a brief exploration of the acoustic fabric of the building.The composition starts with sounds recorded outside the building, as I was approaching the library from Albert Square, followed by recordings of the reading room, which is the focal point of the piece. Heather Ross, who had never visited Manchester Central Library, till that point, responded to the audio using textual descriptions of what she had heard in my recordings. On the record cover the text has been layered in a 7 colour screen-print on to the architectural plans of the building, to create a visual impression of the rich acoustic fabric of the building.
Presented with the audio recording of this public space, Heather Ross was invited to respond, through writing, to the sounds heard and images conjured. This written experience of an unknown space was performed and recorded by Ross and then composed by me, to produce a new onomatopoeic soundscape.
Heather Ross’s contribution of text and performance is connected with her wider practice-based PhD research into a relatively unknown work by avantgarde German artist, Kurt Schwitters, known as Leise/The Silence Poem. There is no written, visual or audio documentation of Schwitters’ performance; it exists only in accounts provided by fellow artists and peers who witnessed the work being performed. The meaning of this work shifted according to location and personal circumstance: what was a frivolous performance in one venue could be experienced as an expression of protest or embodiment of trauma in another. Ross’s project has sought to re-construct this work through the production of multiple text scores and through it’s filmed re-enactment, the first of which is entitled ‘The Loud and the Soft Speakers’, shown in Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery. Ross produced a new text score specifically for our project, Resonating Silence, which forms the basis of her performance in Manchester City Library’s reading room.
Magda Stawarska-Beavan 2019
[Photos Resonating Silence, vinyl record, photo: Jo Garrett
photography of performance Toby Gregory]