Halfway through what must count as one of the more esoteric quests, Jennifer Lucy Allan finds herself on a hill near Birkenhead, in a cottage which houses the archive of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers. In a small bedroom long since surrendered to the past, she is handed a homemade CD of 90 foghorn recordings of ‘uncertain provenance’. Let’s call them Bootleg Blasts. She sits on the end of the single bed, craning her neck, ‘listening for more than what is there, listening for answers, listening for meaning’.
Allan is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster with a passion for experimental music:
“I have had a long affair with ‘weird’ sounds and music. I am always chasing a feeling; one where the world around me drops away and I find myself momentarily, euphorically, in a new and wondrous place.
Having spent years chasing this feeling via everything from Chilean psych rock, Japanese punk and ‘field recordings of icebergs melting’, in June 2013 she was radicalised by the ‘Foghorn Requiem’, an al fresco performance on the Tyneside coast devised by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, with a score by the composer Orlando Gough.
The piece mixed the sound of three brass bands, 50 ships honking offshore and one mighty diaphone located at Souter Point. As the final foghorn note ‘sang in broken-throated keening’, Allan heard the apotheosis of the alien, outsider music she had gravitated towards since her teenage years. She has since completed a PhD in foghorns. This book is an attempt to explain her obsession, mostly to herself. ‘I wonder if I am mad,’ she writes at one point. By the end it is fairly clear that she is not, though less obvious quite why this sound exerts such a powerful hold over her.
From Shetland to San Francisco, Dungeness to Jersey, Allan tracks her mooing Moby-Dick. In abundant detail, she offers a history of the device, charting its stop-start development in the mid-19th century, its widespread deployment and its current state of near obsolescence. She cannot shake the ‘sense of grief’ in its sound, hearing in its melancholy hoot a Last Post for our industrial past. From mighty boom to minor bleep.
Along the way, she meets fellow enthusiasts, tracks down an American ‘guerrilla sound artist’ called Fogmaster, contemplates the strange madness of lighthouse keepers and ponders folk myths from the Channel Isles. She proves an attentive guide, picking over the granular details of fog-lore in libraries where the yellow and brown carpets are ‘like ties from working men’s clubs’.
Contemplating the strange musicality of the foghorn leads her to composers and sound artists who have used it in their work. Recurring parallels are drawn between the foghorn and the primal low end so vital in dance music. Some of these connections are stirring: a well-versed myth of a foghorn turning up in a travelling sound system; a recent trend for using foghorn samples in drum and bass tracks.
Other attempts to connect the industrial past to modern club culture feel like a stretch. While developing a more sophisticated foghorn in the 1860s, the Irish scientist John Tyndall was ‘effectively jamming with industrial, pulsating blasts of sound’, creating a ‘hyper-specific music festival’.Elsewhere, Allan equates early hostility to foghorns polluting the acoustic environment with the opprobrium meted out to the experimental sonic innovations of John Coltrane, Scott Walker and Bob Dylan, a notion which confuses passive intrusion with active engagement. Oddly, perhaps, she pays little attention to the endless music of the sea itself.
In contemplating a series of borders between land and coast, sound and music, danger and safety, past and present, curiosity and obsession — some detours inevitably feel forced; yet Allan’s enthusiasms are balanced by a wry objectivity. If The Foghorn’s Lament is partly about what we have lost, it is also about why we love the things we love. She gamely interrogates the strangeness of her quest — noting that she has become ‘a novelty item in people’s pub chats’ — without ever renouncing it. She also recognises her willingness to romanticise a sound many regarded as simply disruptive, making them ‘wail with despair’. We tend to idealise things with which we aren’t forced to co-exist.
Fog is ‘elusive, distorting and mysterious’. Like the weather it describes, this book never quite forms into one clear thing. It wanders more than it might, and its conclusions are hardly revelatory — that ‘music, performance, culture has the power to memorialise sound’ — but even when it drifts, it does so thoughtfully. ‘Sound is a way of knowing things,’ writes Allan. Her fixation may make you listen, and learn, in new ways.