The siren waits thee, singing song for song.
– Walter Savage Landor
from Robert T. Beyer, Sounds of Our Times: Two Hundred Years of Acoustics (1998). The first siren, invented in the late eighteenth century, was more of a musical instrument – it had a stopcock that opened and closed a pneumatic tube, and this powered the pipes in a church organ. A later, improved siren was able to be heard underwater. So it was officially named the siren, as an echo to the mythological Sirens of the sea.
My brother and I used to make sport of jumping out at my dad, who was brilliantly scare-able. His face would shake, his arms would flail, he would leap what seemed like metres into the air as if by jet propulsion. Our last but most triumphant scare was to creep up behind him as he sat at the computer and explode a fully inflated rubber Whoopie Cushion behind his head. He leaped off the chair, gasping. We whirled back, bracing ourselves. Then he let out a terrible roar. “DON’T DO THAT.” We fell silent and fled down the hallway. Our scaring days were over.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they react to loud noises. I still think of my dad-scaring as revelatory moments of my childhood – they revealed an aspect of my dad I’d never seen before and hadn’t known he was capable of: pure rage. Likewise, my mother – Led Zeppelin’s ‘Your Time is Gonna Come’ played on the stereo too loud would so often have her shrieking from the garden that to this day I can’t hear that song without also hearing her voice, the phantom far-away cries of ‘Turn it down.‘
Every Friday at precisely 2:30pm, the fire alarm in the building where I work howls into life. It wails for thirty long seconds. This is a heavy-duty wail. The alarm seems to be situated right above my head. I can feel the sound throbbing in my internal organs. One or two people in the office find the alarm very funny. Others get angry. “Why do they have to do this every week? It is ridiculous.” But most of my coworkers don’t seem to hear it. They continue staring at their screens and calmly sipping tea.
Urban Fox III by Rachel Levitas
For some people hearing a siren is just like passing another face in the street. They’ve adapted to the city to the degree that sirens barely register on their audio landscape. Not me. I’ve devolved, and find sirens genuinely distressing. The only siren you heard with any regularity in Te Kuiti was the daily five o’clock siren from the fire station to mark the end of the working day, back then. It was a deep-throated soughing which set all the dogs in town howling, and which I now think of with sepia-toned nostalgia. But London is a siren city, and the sirens here are not only much louder than back in New Zealand but they’re also higher pitched, providing a more authentic representation of emergency: this sound says EVERYTHING IS OUT OF CONTROL. It’s the sound that occurs before the death rattle, a kind of death warble. When I hear one at close range, always an ambulance or police car or fire truck on my cycle commute in the morning or night, my defenses are blasted away, just as my brother and I cruelly obliterated my father’s defenses those years ago. My instinct is to drop my bike and drop to the ground, a hi-vis huddle.
Obviously this is not the way it works: it’s not really the point to think about sirens in terms of how they affect the lives of healthy passersby. The purpose of the siren is to remind us that someone, somewhere, is in a life-or-death situation and you can help by getting out of the way; or they are there to tell us that things are about to get a whole lot worse, as in the case of disaster sirens. I came across this 1980 clip that was produced to tell Londoners what warning sounds they should expect in the event of a raid on the city. The network of sirens was installed before World War II.
Most sirens mimic the sound of a person wailing, surely to tap into something primal within us that responds to another being’s distress. I’m always quite humbled by how quickly people pull over or shuffle their bikes into the gutter to let the vehicle pass. For a brief moment we’re united in our mission to create a safe path for someone else. These are the times when I feel, weirdly, the most connected with fellow road users. As the crying fades out, the pitch dropping off-key into the distance, the traffic ramps up and the ordinary honking, heckling, cutting-up routine resumes.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see a chiropractor. He has one of those door buzzers that is very loud and abrasive. While he was going over my bones, muttering things like “C1, L1, S5” (I’m told these are the names of the individual cervical vertebrae) the buzzer blasted out again. I decided to say something about it, because I don’t have a very easy relationship with this chiropractor, and thought it would be possible to bond with him over this noise. So I exclaimed, “Wow, that noise must take ten years off your life every time.”
He stared at me blankly. “Well, maybe it would,” he intoned, “if I was the kind of person who thought about things that way.”
This bothered me. I’m still not quite sure why. Granted, telling someone they should technically be dead by now because of their door buzzer wasn’t a great way of breaking the ice. But it seemed such a joyless way of responding, so closed off to all possibility. It was as if he was saying, My reaction to that noise defines the kind of person I am. And that he believed he was clearly more self-possessed, more healthy of mind, than I was. I would love to give him a really massive fright sometime – maybe dress up in one of those chiropractic skeletons he has hanging around the room, and leap out from behind the door when he comes in. But I suspect that, like a cyborg, he is un-scareable.
As the population rises and the traffic thickens, I guess emergency sirens will only get louder and more high-pitched, or maybe audio engineers will need to develop new, more frightening sirens to keep the jaded and desensitised public alert. Or maybe a siren so hypnotically beautiful that people stand still in the street to listen to it, mesmerised, as the emergency vehicle tears through.
Some interesting sirens (via the wonderful London Sound Survey, dedicated to preserving the sounds of the street)
This siren at a maximum security hospital in Berkshire is tested every Monday morning. It starts off like a Radiohead song, then it’s like a wheezing accordion.
This burglar alarm in Brixton for some reason reminds me of a turkey.
This is my favourite siren: the Coryton oil refinery in Essex. It sounds at 25-second intervals – an eerie, bird-like scree across the sea. You can hear gas flares, birds, and insects.
Here is a a mounted police whistle in the Mall, London. The police officer is trying to clear pedestrians out of the way so a marching band can go through.