Faber Social present: the sonic world according to Alan Warner

Faber Social is the unerringly cool arm of London’s Faber & Faber publishing house. Over the coming months we will be featuring exclusive essays, extracts and articles from some of their finest authors.

Here is Morvern Callar author Alan Warner on his personal soundscape, from prehistory through technology to apotheosis:

Our most familiar, cherished albums don’t sound the way they used to; they’ve travelled with us, through poor radios, from vinyl through varied qualities of sound system, through CD, remastering after remastering, to digital streaming through high-quality headphones. Albums I’ve been listening to since 1976 – Pink Floyd’s first or the soundtrack to Jaws – don’t sound in the least as they did through my equipment of forty years ago. Miles Davis pointed out that car crashes in the late ‘80s sounded different from car crashes of the ‘50s. The sound of breaking glass and collapsing and warping metal had been replaced by sharper, more abrupt sounds of cracking plastics and imploding fibreglass.

Our music takes our journey with us. Like going to a gallery to see a favourite, familiar painting, and seeing the painting richer, occasionally simpler, with new details, a colour irrupting into another or dropping tones. Which is the true viewing? They all are.

So with sonics. We can sit in the concert hall for the shared experience of listening to Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, or to hear Porcupine Tree rocking out, but each of us hears something different. And the players hear differently also; the drummer is deafened by the bass player, the singer needs monitors to hear the rest of the band, sometimes musicians in loud bands hear their entire sound echoed at them from the back walls of an auditorium in a way those at the rear of the hall can’t be aware of; singers reach up and cup a hand round an ear to dampen the power of the amplifiers behind them, to find their pitch. Nobody hears the same thing.

When I was a teenager, I and my friends walked in the countryside, up the river, and found spots to settle in, carrying cassette recorders or players and spare batteries and scaring the wildlife with AC/DC’s or Ian Gillan’s wails. I’d carry cassettes in my shirt pockets, Roxy’s 1st album and Joe Walsh, I remember, but my tougher, more assertive mates, wouldn’t let me put them on. The Scottish weather meant we had to bring a plastic bag to wrap the cassette recorder, like a babe in swaddling, cradled in our arms in case it rained, which it always did.

And a car, to me, was little more than a mobile cassette player with windscreen wipers. Albums fitted certain glens or lochsides. I’d sometimes drive the same route over and again to play out the cassette before turning onto a main road, which required a change of cassette – a different kind of motoring anthem.


With headphones we share the music with no-one. I love headphones; they were invented for me alone. The Walkman was revolutionary: it made a concentrated musical subjectivity of the world – the music became more important than any exterior influence – I was the music. Walking quiet back roads I had to turn frequently and walk a few paces facing backwards to watch for any, rare, approaching traffic – as if sensing some following, invisible thing.

We can hear the recorded voice of someone who had lived in the 1850s but we will never hear any recorded sound from the 1850s. Imagine we could hear Napoleon speak in 1820; that there was a recording of Pontius Pilate voicing his doubts; a soundtrack of a Tyrrannosaurus Rex attack! These are sounds we’ll never hear.

Each of us will hear a unique last sound. Strap the cans on.

Alan Warner’s latest novel, Their lips talk of mischief, is out now on Faber.

Read other Faber Social authors on sound

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