Surface Noise


12 November 1998 - 14 November 1998

Audio: Surface Noise (excerpt)

3 minutes 6 seconds
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Taking the sights and sounds of London and the nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down as a starting point for a journey through the city, sound artist Scanner gathered audio samples and visual material as ingredients for three evenings of live sound.

Overlaying a map with the sheet music for London Bridge is Falling Down, Scanner walked through London and made audio recordings on a Digital Audio Tape (DAT) machine and took digital photographs at the points where the musical notes fell on the map. The visual images were fed into a computer and translated into sound which Scanner mixed live with the DAT recordings.

This live performance took place six times an evening for three days with the audience retracing Scanner's original walk from a Routemaster bus travelling between Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral.

Surface Noise was the first in a series of projects entitled Inner City in which artists, writers and thinkers were invited to react to the city of London. It was also Scanner's first project with Artangel and he has since collaborated on a photography project NightJam and provided sound design for Sukhdev Sandhu's Night Haunts, both Artangel commissions.

The audio from Surface Noise is also available to stream or download from Soundcloud.

Image: The map overlaid with the sheet music for London Bridge is Falling Down, as used by Scanner as he walked through London making audio recordings on a Digital Audio Tape (DAT) machine 1998. Photograph: Scanner.

Inner City

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Inner City

Inner City explored the interface of the city and the word in both its spoken and written forms. It will encourage writes and artists to excavate a range of urban places and contemplate the changing nature of city environments and the counterpoint between narrative and place; between language and location.

Writers and thinkers of all kinds — from architectural and social historians and urban geographers to scientists, philosophers, poets and novelists — have been invited to consider different aspects of the inner city, and work with us to define an appropriate form for the expression of their ideas, spoken or written, live or recorded.

A significant opportunity to speak to new audiences in new ways, Inner City builds on the current appetite for new thinking across art forms and relocates it in the many centers of the metropolis — in the places we think we know,  as well as the places that elude us.

Projects range from the re-invention of a traditional form of address (the lantern lecture; the walking tour) to pre-recorded audio guides for particular places by artists; the urban environment viewed as a historical network of personal experience, pathways and relocollections; an A-Z of the city's insides.

Surface Noise

The Art of Legislation

The Vertical Line

Rodinsky's Whitechapel

The Missing Voice (Case Study B) 


Making Surface Noise

Scanner explains how Surface Noise came about
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Making Surface Noise

By Robin Rimbaud / Scanner

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon in South London when the telephone rang. I playfully answered with “Scanner Pizza” only to discover the voice of Artangel's Michael Morris expressing interest in collaborating with me on a project. Still blushing, I listened to him inviting me to create the first of the InnerCity projects, exploring the resonance's of the urban sprawl of London.

Taking a year to develop Surface Noise was many abandoned adventures: at junctures it was to be a way to control the lighting systems of the Docklands business district from afar, it was a swimming pool awash with teddy bears, postboxes that read letters back to you and even a media virus, Godzilla, that devoured the data of all central London office computers.

It resolved itself into a sound tour on a red double-decker bus. Making a route determined by overlaying the sheet music from London Bridge is Falling Down onto a map of London, I recorded the sounds and images at points where the notes fell on the cityscape. These co-ordinates provided the score for the piece and by using software that translated images into sound and original source recordings, I was able to mix the work live on each journey through a speaker system we installed throughout the bus, as it followed the original walk shuttling between Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral.

My work has always explored the relationship between sound and architectural space and the spaces in between information, places, history, relationships, the places where one has to fill in the missing parts to complete the picture. The public nature of this work brought together a mixture of people who have all learnt to look at a city in a manner in which they have almost become blind to it through familiarity, revealing another layer of skin, peeling the surface away. It attempted to transform the everyday into something baffling and intriguing, taking the ordinary and seemingly benign and making it extraordinary.

Like the wow and flutter of a needle on a record, I am interested in the distillation of sound into acoustic disturbance, collapsing the legibility of a city into a fresh texture. Through the brief space of a bus journey the work drew upon many of our common reserves of sonic recognition, mingling the folk memory of the nursery rhyme, the background roar of traffic and the private sounds we make, secure in the knowledge that no one else is listening.

He never did receive the pizza.

Image: One of the images created by feeding visuals into a computer and translated with sound during Surface Noise (1998). Photograph: Scanner.


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Rimbaud's sound fixation has also graduated toward noises that surround us day to day but never reach our consciousness. – Fiona Sturgess, The Independent, 15 October 1998

Selected Press

Rimbaud's sound fixation has also graduated toward noises that surround us day to day but never reach our consciousness. He is set to relinquish his trademark scanning equipment in favour of a simple recorder and a digital camera for Surface Noise, a project commissioned by Artangel, an avant-garde collective. Rimbaud's contribution forms part of a giant undertaking called INNERCity, consisting of nine commissions over the next two years and designed to explore conceptions of urban space. Other collaborators include John Berger and Laurie Anderson. – Fiona Sturges, The Independent, 15 October 1998


A half-finished car park developed an unexpected, ethereal beauty; the closed funfair beneath St Paul's looked curiously sinister, and the two vintage Citroens parked behind Waterloo station suggested a larger, more ordered narrative. It was fun trying to decipher which sounds had been born of which pictures - was that noise like someone hitting the bottom of a plastic dustbin really a response to the visual stimulus of the Houses of Parliament? Above all it was interesting, if a little Truman Showesque, to make the step from seeing film as real life to seeing real life as film. – Hettie Judah, The Times, 17 November 1998


In 1998 Rimbaud created an ‘alternative film soundtrack’ of London. Titled Surface Noise, the work was performed over three nights on a double-decker bus travelling between London landmarks Westminster Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral. [...] Throughout his writings and interviews Rimbaud cites Cage as a key influence and claims that Surface Noise employs a ‘Cagean’ approach to creativity (2001). In doing so Rimbaud appears to be evidencing the narratives relating to the adoption of experimental and avant-garde musics within Electronica. – David Carter, Popular Musicology Online, issue 1, 2009

About Scanner

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Scanner first worked with Artangel on Surface Noise in 1998, then on NightJam (2006), before working on the sound design for Sukhdev Sandhu's Night Haunts (2006) and performing Haunted Lullabies: A Psalm for London's Night Soul a collaborative work with Sandhu at the Because the Night event the same year. 

Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) is a composer whose work traverses the experimental terrain between sound, space and image.  Since 1991 he has been intensely active in sonic art, producing concerts, installations and recordings, the albums Mass Observation (1994), Delivery (1997), and The Garden is Full of Metal (1998) hailed by critics as innovative and inspirational works of contemporary electronic music.

Committed to working with cutting edge practitioners he has collaborated on projects with Bryan Ferry, Wayne MacGregor, Merce Cunningham, Mike Kelley, Miroslaw Balka, Michael Nyman, Carsten Nicolai, Steve McQueen, Stella McCartney, Laurie Anderson and Hussein Chalayan, amongst others.

He scored the hit musical comedy Kirikou & Karaba (2007), designed the sound for the Philips Wake-Up Light (2009), and campaigns for Sprint Telephones (2012), Stella McCartney (2016) and Christian Dior (2017). For the UK Olympics Scanner scored The Big Dance in Trafalgar Square for 1000 dancers and the re-opening of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in the company of Queen Beatrix. In 2012 he toured with Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked with Heritage Orchestra, and in 2014 was Visiting Artist at MIT in the USA.

He scored Dutch National Ballet’s and ISH’s Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and Rambert Dance’s Tomorrow in 2016. His work Salles des Departs is permanently installed in a hospital morgue in Paris, and Water Drops in Rijeka Airport in Croatia. His work has been presented throughout the United States, South America, Asia, Australia and Europe.


Images: (left and above) Portraits of Scanner (1998)


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Who made this possible?


Comissioned by Artangel as part of Inner City, a series exploring the interface of the city and the word in its many forms. Inner City encouraged writers and artists to excavate a range of urban environments and to contemplate the chnaging nature of the city and the counterpoint between narrative and place, between language and location. Produced with assistance from the National Lottery through the A4E scheme administered by the Arts Council of England. Funders and collaborators: Bloomberg and Whitechapel Gallery.

Artangel is generously supported by Arts Council England, and by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels.