Cable Car Soundscapes

Resident archivist Jack Dangers rattles along with ‘Cable Car Soundscapes’, a unique mix of field recording, performance and musique concrète in celebration of San Francisco’s famous transport system

‘Cable Car Soundscapes’ is one of my favourite field recording albums. It features recordings of cable cars in San Francisco and the people who worked on them. It came out in 1982 on a label called Valiant Productions, although the better-known version was released the following year by Folkways.

The sleeve notes describe the cable car as a “sonic artifact, a living sound relic…” and detail the system’s extinction, with a shutdown planned for September 1982.

“The sounds of a cable car are awesome, even mythical, and without a myth a city dies,” they claim.

Perhaps the album was part of a cultural campaign to keep the network. If so, then it was successful as they’re still going strong today. The machines in the main barn are huge. One mechanism powers the whole web of cables, which run all over the city. You can go into the middle of the road and see the cable turning – it moves constantly underground. You hear it continually. The cars latch on and they get dragged along.

A brilliant piece of musique concrète that uses the sounds of the system, called ‘Mettle Of Metal’, takes up much of side two. It’s pretty late for musique concrète techniques, they weren’t coming up so much in the 1980s, but there’s just something about it I adore.

‘Cable Car Soundscapes’ also documents the annual bell-ringing competition between cable car crews on tracks ‘Voices’ and ‘Bellringing’. I live in San Francisco, and it’s a very big deal here – we see the bell-ringing on the news every year. They do it in Market Street by the big traverser, or turntable, where they turn the cars around. They’re these incredibly intricate performances – things that you can’t imagine are possible, with triplets and syncopated rhythms all coming out of a single bell.

It’s a very interesting record, but it isn’t a particularly rare one, and copies of the original pressing can be picked up pretty cheaply at the moment. The Folkways version tends to be more expensive, but decent copies seem to go for around £20 – £30.

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