Modernity Sound

AE interviews Emily Thompson
March 21, 2006

Emily Thompson is an aural historian based at the University of California San Diego. Her book The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, published by MIT Press in 2002, details significant and profound changes in the sonic environment and the listening habits of Americans over the period 1900-1933. She is a recent recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. We asked Steven M. Miller to speak with her.

SM Could you briefly summarize some of the inter-relationships that you explore among the changes in architectural acoustics, electronic media, listening habits, noise abatement, public policy, and the sonic environment during this period?

ET Well, the hardest part of that question is your call to be brief, but let me try: Simply put, America circa 1930 sounded very different from the way it had sounded just thirty years before. Additionally, people listened to those new sounds in distinctly new ways. The sounds themselves were increasingly the result of technological mediations. Scientists first discovered new ways to manipulate traditional building materials to control the behavior of sound in rooms. Later, new materials were developed to achieve even greater degrees of control. Finally, new electroacoustic technologies effected even greater results by transforming sound energy into easily manipulable electrical signals.

Accompanying these changes in the nature of sound were new trends in the culture of listening. The fundamental compulsion to control sound stimulated auditors to listen more critically, to determine whether this control had been achieved. The need for control stemmed in part from new worries about noise, as traditionally bothersome noises like animals and peddlers were drowned out by the technological crescendo of the modern city. The desire for control was also driven by a preoccupation with efficiency, which demanded the elimination of all things unnecessary, including unnecessary sounds. Finally, control was a means to exercise choice in a market filled with aural commodities. It allowed consumers to identify what constituted good sound, and to evaluate whether or not particular products achieved it.

Perhaps the most significant result of these physical and cultural changes was a reformulation of the relationship between sound and space. Indeed, as the new soundscape took shape, sound was gradually dissociated from space until the traditional relationship virtually ceased to exist. By 1930, good sound was defined as sound that was clear and direct, signal-like in clarity and free of any spatial characteristics, particularly, free of reverberation - the lingering over time of residual sound that had always been a direct result of the architecture surrounding that sound. Previously, reverberation had constituted the acoustic signature of a place. It indicated the unique architectural character of the specific site in which a particular sound was heard. Now, such residual sound was redefined as noise - unnecessary and unwanted - and it was eliminated through technological interventions.

Reverberation can also be characterized as aurally defining space through time, so I argue that the modern, non-reverberant sound can also be seen as transforming the traditional relationship between space and time. In this way, the story of the rise of the modern soundscape parallels stories of other transformations of traditional space-time relationships, transformations long considered to be constitutive of Modernity-with-a-capital-M: the Cubist art of Pablo Picasso; the relativistic physics of Albert Einstein; the stream-of-consciousness prose of James Joyce. Modern artists, physicists and writers were fully conscious of the revolutionary character of their work. Modern acousticians were just as aware, but until now few historians have thought to place sound meters and acoustical tile ceilings alongside E = mc2 and Ulysses in the pantheon of quintessentially modern artifacts. In my book, I attempt to do exactly that.

SM Part of your book focuses on urban noise and modern music, in particular jazz, the Futurists, Antheil, Varèse, etc. What do you think composers, musicians, and sound artists have to contribute to our understanding of our sonic environment?

ET They contribute so much; it's hard to know where to start. First, musicians, composers, and sound artists enjoy the privilege of calling attention to sounds, of forcing us to listen, to hear something new, or to hear something old in a new way. Most of our listening is not executed in what might be called an "aesthetic" or fully attentive mode. When we listen this way, we listen more carefully and are open to - indeed expect - new experiences. Musicians demand that of us simply by doing what they do, and I think this is tremendously important.

Musicians further possess the unique power to turn noise into music, and by doing so they can take a culture's sonic dross and turn it into gold. The so-called noise musicians of the early twentieth century taught people new ways to hear the noise of the modern world. They aestheticized the urban soundscape, and for some listeners, this constructive approach was a far more successful way to "deal with" noise than were the many destructive attempts to eliminate or abate those same noises.

Finally, for sound historians like myself, music constitutes a wonderfully rich resource for understanding sonic cultures of the past. Musicians' intentions, as well as listeners' responses - both pro and con - provide valuable clues for understanding how people listened, and what they heard, in a sound world that no longer exists.

© 2006