Arts, Culture & Media

Damon Albarn's Soundscape Gives the BBC Something to Celebrate

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Damon Albarn (Screen shot of BBC interview)

These past few weeks have difficult for the people who run the BBC (which of course is one of the co-producers of The World).

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No-one at the Beeb feels like celebrating a birthday. But the BBC is 90 years old. And, awkward or not, it's marking the day–November 14, 1922–when it made its first broadcast.

At exactly 5:33pm London time on November 14, 2012, scores of BBC stations in the UK and around the world dropped their regular programming. Instead, listeners heard the chimes of Big Ben, followed by a scratchy old recording of an announcer: "This is 2LO calling…" 2LO was the name of the BBC's first transmitter from 1922.

After that, an old tune–a hit from 1922. Mixed into it was rhythmic birdsong. And then a child's voice: "Hello future," the child said. "I hope music still matters because music is everything. Without it there's nothing; just silence."

And then there was silence, before the program restarted with a mishmash of more sounds–some eerie, some sweet. All made you listen on.

The BBC commissioned musician Damon Albarn to put this audio collage together. Albarn's resume is itself a bit of a collage. He's the front man of the bands Blur and Gorillaz. He's also recorded songs with African musicians, and he's written an opera that was staged by the English National Opera in 2011. The BBC asked Albarn to create something that would convey a sense of not just the past 90 years, but also the next 90 years.

And through its various radio outlets — talk stations, music stations, foreign language stations — the BBC solicited responses to this question: "What message would you give to somebody listening in 90 years time?" Albarn said he was overwhelmed by the responses.

"It varied from the very old and wise who tended not to imagine the future but were interested in providing a piece of hard-earned wisdom," said Albarn.

Middle-aged people tended to be "quite downbeat," said Albarn. But the young were different. "They in a way were the most interesting because they were very free–in a sense, the only people will have the only connection with 90 years."

In the soundscape, one child says: "I think there will be more people and because there'll be more people I will tell them to be careful not to get lost because it might be like really, really busy."

Not all the messages are delivered with the human voice. Philosopher Bertrand Russell's famous quote, "Love is wise, hatred is foolish," is rendered in Morse code. There's also the sound of what Albarn calls a "scary" Cold war spy station.

At the end, there are the BBC's "pips" which–like Big Ben–usually mark the top of the hour. Albarn weaves the pips in and out of a piano tune.

And then, after three minutes, BBC programming returns to its regular schedule.

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