Now I hear it

What did Ol’ Queen Elizabeth sound like? Photo illustration by Elling Lien.

An audio documentary by local producer Chris Brookes has been chosen to open a prestigious media festival in Berlin. Kerri Breen gets the scoop.

Bruce Smith, author of The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, once asked himself: Are the sounds of the past gone forever?

Inspired by Smith’s question, Chris Brookes, a local audio documentary producer and self-described sound nerd went on a quest to discover what Elizabethan England sounded like.

For two weeks, he wandered around England recording sounds people have been hearing since Shakespeare’s days.

His research brought him to a farm to record the snorts and squeals of Gloucester Old Spot pigs, a breed that’s been around since Elizabethan times, and to old churches whose bells have been ringing for hundreds of years.

The result of his work, and that of co-producers Paolo Pietropaolo and Alan Hall, is an audio documentary called Hark! The doc, which runs just under an hour, has been chosen to open the Prix Europa Festival in Berlin on October 18.

Normally North American features do not qualify for the prestigious festival, but Hark! was given the OK because it was co-produced by a Brit and aired on BBC. Hark! has also been featured on CBC radio and broadcasts in Finland and Australia.

Last summer it won the international Prix Marulic prize for radio documentary.

Brookes says Elizabethans had a pre-scientific, almost spiritual conception of sound—with which Hark! was made in recognition of.

“They thought of listening differently,” he says. “They had this idea that you heard a sound and it kind of circulated through your body, kind of like a spiritual fluid or something.”

Hark! doesn’t intend to be an accurate audio portrayal of Elizabethan life, nor could it be. For one, Brookes says it was impossible to isolate the church bells from London’s brash traffic sounds.

“Part of what we try to do is try to get people to imaginatively subtract all the 21st century sounds.”

The program juxtaposes sounds that have existed for hundreds of years with those of modern day London. Brookes had to get creative to collect those sounds as well.

“I spent a long time phoning payphones in London trying to get someone to answer, and when they did I’d ask if they could just hold the phone up for 30 seconds so I could just record the sound in that particular spot.”

Listen to Hark! at