The Unusual Likeness of Being Musical

Mick Beck, Sensory Trust

As a Trustee, I bring a very personal interest to bear on the work of this organisation, being a blind person. I do not represent any organisation of the blind, but simply enjoy interacting with the environment, and would like others to be able to do the same. I also have expertise as a musician – I work with experimental, largely improvised music as a saxophonist and bassoon player, but part of my interests lie in getting unusual sounds out of those instruments, and composing pieces that create unusual soundscapes. So I have thought a lot about sound and its interpretation.

I was therefore glad to be able to put on a small workshop as part of the Sensory Trust’s Sense of Place conference, held last summer in Plymouth and Cornwall. I drew on my skills as a reeds player, and brought a number of easily portable acoustic sound machines (not electronics), many of which were products of the Acme Whistle Factory in Birmingham (known best for the Acme Thunderer whistle, used by referees worldwide!).

But Acme Whistles don’t stop at that – they manufacture a variety of bird and animal calls, and a range of specialist whistles to meet all kinds of unforeseeable circumstances – everything from swanny whistles to magpies, bosun’s whistles, vixen calls, and sheepdog whistles.

All I was able to do in a short space of time, and in a plain rectangular inside space, was to show what a wide range of noises instruments and machines can make. Describing a few might give an idea of scope for using sounds in a deliberate and evocative way, e.g:

  • The bassoon (when sucked rather than blown) can call to mind the sounds of elephants having a bath, or the complicated chords that can be generated when blowing it are reminiscent of the Doppler effect of some passing planes.
  • Swanny whistles and sirens can replicate a variety of the fantastic Australasian birdsong, the like of which does not occur in European birdsong.
  • Duck calls do, of course, sound like ducks, but can also be bullied into mimicking a fight between small dogs or a group of chattering chimpanzees.

What fun. A diverting tale from the annals of the Acme Whistle Factory is that they were commissioned by the Ministry of Defence in the 1930s to make an instrument sounding like a lion’s roar, to be used by armies to frighten opposing soldiers in jungle territory. It does sound like a lion roaring, but alas didn’t become a popular part of military kit!

There are three things I particularly like about the work of the Sensory Trust. First, through its various projects, it is steadily capturing a great deal of knowledge about all sensory experiences, and is thinking about how people with varying personal needs can broaden their access. Secondly, it is constantly looking at the question of supply and demand – it’s all very well making a wider range of experiences possible, but is there really an audience? Thirdly, all of its work is being developed to share, and to be used by the many people and organisations working in the field.

I admire the dedication and energy of the Sensory team. That is why I have been a Trustee since its inception back in the late 1980s. I will continue to give it my support, and when appropriate, my expertise.