The Art of Listening: vuvuzelas

On the sound of the 2010 World Cup.

A couple of mornings ago, I awoke from a dream about being chased by a bee. I might have thought nothing of it, but in the days since, friends have reported similar occurrences. It would seem that the likely culprit is a long plastic horn which non-African football audiences are only now familiar with as the vuvuzela.

Many people do not like the cumulative and enveloping buzz produced by thousands of spectators blowing the horn in unison. Some have complained that it ruins the tournament atmosphere; others that it puts players off their game. RW Johnson, the South African historian unfavourably compares the sound to that of a chainsaw and says the instrument should be banned. (He's not alone in this, but the World Cup organisers have refused to do so.)

I beg to differ. For devotees of pure sound, as followers of the Art of Listening must surely be, massed vuvuzelas are a fascinating thing: more than simply the aural equivalent of a Mexican wave, the constant, tiny variations in volume and tone turn the crowd into a single, responsive entity. When a goal is scored, or a foul committed, there is no change as such, merely an intensification of the sound already there. The usual noises - cheers, chanting, insults, a brass band playing the theme from The Great Escape if it's an England match - are all subsumed into the drone emitted by the horns.

While the drone may be a new discovery for football fans, it has an extensive musical history. Perhaps one or more of the following clips will serve as a good alternative soundtrack to viewers who tire of the vuvuzela.

"De natura sonoris No. 2" by Krzysztof Penderecki. Readers may recognise this from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - film being an area in which mass audiences have long been conditioned to accept sounds that would otherwise be dismissed as avant-garde or "unlistenable". (Hat-tip here to Zone Styx Travelcard.)


L Subramaniam, live at the Royal Albert Hall. An excellent example of how a drone - used extensively in Indian classical music - can act as a springboard for a virtuoso performer, in this case the violinist Subramaniam.


Sunn 0))), live in Berlin. Distorted guitars played in low tunings and at high volume.


The late guitarist Jack Rose. His reinterpretations of American folk and blues were anything but traditional - which brings us to a final point about the vuvuzela. The South African tourist board claims it is derived from the ancient kudu horn. But beware the authenticity trap! The vuvzela's manufacturers say instead that the prototype came from America, while they have traced its use to a Chinese women's basketball game. A true child of globalisation, then - and a reminder that what you hear is never less than the product of its circumstances.


You can read more from The Art of Listening column here.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.