Go back to article: Capturing the song of the nightingale

Auditory and visual space

The original spell cast by radio broadcasting was to implode and compress space, immediately creating a feeling like claustrophobia for early radio audiences (McLuhan, 1964, p 321). Claustrophobia has been compared to ‘the winter blues’. The timing in spring of the Nightingale broadcast put nature and technology in lockstep, acting to ameliorate both the radio-related and seasonal causes of claustrophobia. The magnetophone was in its element, capturing birdsong, both a familiar symbol of spring, a new beginning, accompanied by the acoustic characteristics of the outdoors.  

The nightingale’s lofty perch was significant in counteracting this claustrophobia. It is said that when we have claustrophobia, we feel like ‘climbing the walls'. Arnheim noted how ‘widely separated sounds will denote great space’ (Arnheim, 1936, p 95). The Surrey woods, with their variety of distant background noises, and the magnetophone’s ability to pick them up, provided vital atmosphere. An absence of atmosphere, emptiness, can be painful. Without atmosphere, ‘the acoustic void, the silence in which sound is embedded, has less the effect of a background free of content than of a stage agitated with important events which, however, are withdrawn beyond the listener’s power of comprehension’ (Arnheim, 1936, p 138).

Similarly, Reith wrote after the first nightingale broadcast:

Our senses are painfully inefficient in their functioning – vast ranges of vibrations with things happening that we cannot get in touch with; and even within the provinces of sight and hearing and touch we only attain to a symbolism of things as they are, until our limitations are removed, and symbolism unnecessary, we shall know as we are known. In the meantime, let us make the most of those symbols which tend to our peace. (Reith, 1924c, p 438)

The acoustic characteristics of the woods differed greatly from the characteristics of the BBC studios at the time – with ‘claustrophobia’ experienced by both performer and listener. The latter problem had spurred the BBC towards development of an artificial echo effect to be employed in studio productions. In their patent for this effect, H J Round et al (including A G D West) wrote:

It is well known that certain acoustical reflections add to the beauty of sound of musical instruments, but hitherto the provision of such acoustical reflections have been limited by practical considerations, and in practice it has been found very difficult to obtain a pleasing degree of ‘echo’ without it being excessive in small buildings. (Round et al, 1926)

In a retrospective radio play broadcast by the BBC in 1936, Scrapbook for 1924, which included some reminiscences about early BBC broadcasts from Captain A G D West, the compère proclaimed, ‘Our antediluvian studio at 2LO! – a room heavily curtained and carpeted, a veritable padded cell. Orchestra and singers packed like tinned fish!  Here are some of radio’s pioneers…’ (‘Scrapbook for 1924’, 1936).

The BBC was even discussing stereophonic broadcasting; years before Alan Blumlein famously began his experiments with binaural recording. H J Round suggested it could be achieved in broadcasting with ‘two microphones, two transmitters, two wavelengths, two receiving sets, and an earpiece for each ear’ (Lewis, 1924, p 138). In 1924, the organiser of programmes for the BBC, C A Lewis wrote, ‘one microphone collecting sound from one point of view, cannot give the same effect as two ears sitting in the auditorium’ adding, ‘this fact is at the back of a good many complaints about our transmissions’ (Lewis, 1924, p 138).

In the spring of 1925, two magnetophones were used in an attempt to capture a conversation between two nightingales. To preserve the illusion of nature for listeners when using more than one microphone, the Nightingale broadcasts would become the BBC’s first use of fading and dissolving effects. This technology was developed out of necessity at the time – to switch on the microphone nearest to the signing nightingale. ‘Clicks and noisy changeovers from one microphone to another could not be permitted, and the duplication of microphone amplifiers meant the transport of much additional gear to the spot. Thereupon, the fade or dissolve from one microphone to another was evolved and successfully used for the first time at Oxted’ (‘Capt. A.G.D. West Leaves the BBC’, 1929).

Lacey relates the Nightingale broadcasts to a broader cultural anxiety about the ‘noise’ of modernity, and thus to radio’s ability not just to add to the noise of life but to help ameliorate it (Lacey, 2013, p 81–82). Essayist and radio sceptic Wilfred Whitten, known to his readers as ‘John o’London’ had written an article in the Radio Times in March 1924, wondering whether the ‘silences’ of nature could be broadcast to counteract the noisiness of modern urban life (Whitten, 1924).

Sincerely I do wish that loneliness should be relieved wherever it oppresses the spirt of man or woman. But I wish also that there could be an exchange of experiences between the silences of Nature and the hum of the city. I would set up my aerial to-morrow, if in the heart of London, I could hear the cattle lowing on remote hills, or the barking of a fox in Essex, or the scream of an eagle over a Scottish glen. (Whitten, 1924)

Reith replied personally, assuring sceptical ‘o’London’ that soon ‘the liquid notes of the nightingales shall be borne in mystic aether waves to the home of the jaded town dweller’ (Reith, 1924b, p 482). The comforting song of the nightingale was to be the first demonstration of radio’s power to reduce urban isolation, and a fair trade for radio’s potentially painful implosion of space, or, in other words, its elimination of the comfort of distance. This was a courageous (if not potentially staged) reaction to a challenge from one of radio’s critics, played out within the medium of print. Reith wrote:

To men and women confined in the narrow streets of the great cities shall be brought many of the voices of Nature, calling them to the enjoyment of her myriad delights. There is some peculiar quality about certain sounds, since they may be considered not incompatible with the conditions of silence. Already we have broadcast a voice which few have opportunity of hearing for themselves. The song of the nightingale has been heard over all the country, on highland moors and in the tenements of great towns. Milton has said that when the nightingale sang, silence was pleased. So in the song of the nightingale we have broadcast something of the silence which all of us in this busy world unconsciously crave and urgently need. (Reith, 1924a, p 221)

The success of the broadcast in producing ‘a sense of being there’ was underscored by the unprecedented ability of the magnetophone to reproduce all sounds in its range (Lacey, 2013, p 69). Secondly, unlike earlier microphones, the magnetophone was better able to differentiate sounds close by from sounds farther away. Reith’s allusion above to ‘some peculiar quality about certain sounds’ is consistent with contemporary and later descriptions of how we perceive space acoustically rather than visually, and specifically the importance of background ‘noise’ in creating a sonic landscape. The Surrey woods provided a familiar reference point for a listener navigating unfamiliar sensory territory, not the then-abstract environment of a studio.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/006