Posted by: kaleidophonic | October 22, 2011

The Soundscape of Modernity

A few days ago I mentioned that a friend had tipped me to this MIT video lecture given by Emily Thompson, based on her book The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America (M.I.T. Press, 2002). I’ve heard of this book, but never read it, so I’m glad to now have seen a nice summary from the author about her book’s arguments, evidence, and conclusions. I think especially that her overall argument about the soundscape of modernity – that it changed drastically in the thirty years between 1900 and 1930 – will be of value to my own exploration of Montreal’s soundscape another thirty years on.

So, the lecture itself starts around the 3 minute mark (after introductions), and ends about 40 minutes later, after which there are questions. Thompson first addresses the “new” aural history – but keep in mind this history was “new” almost a decade ago now. She gives a very nice definition of the idea of ‘soundscape’ – via some of the key thinkers in terms of sound studies, i.e. Schafer, Corbain, etc. (There is a great bibliography on the MIT lecture website – scroll down below the vid to find it).

After this general introduction to aural history, Thompson gets into the meat of her argument about the changing nature of America’s soundscape during the first thirty years of the 20th century. She does this by tracing the history of architectural acoustics – from the first measurements of reverberation to the development of specific materials designed to minimize the resonance of built spaces. Throughout this story Thompson points to how specific buildings were designed with acoustics in mind – specifically, the idea that our homes and work spaces should be isolated against the bothersome and noisy technological soundscape of the city. But then something interesting happened: with the invention of recording technologies and electronic transmission, people began to fill up these silenced spaces with yet more technological noise, i.e. radio broadcasts and electronically amplified sound.

This is a basic narrative of how modern Americans, faced with the fact that the general environmental soundscape was no longer natural (i.e. the wind and rain, other people, or animal noises) but characterized by large technological noises (railroads, factories, automobile traffic, airplanes), reacted to that change. First was a widespread “quest for quiet” amid the noisy modern world, which led to the development of materials designed to dampen and isolate the troublesome presence of modern sounds.  But once society had banished noise through architecture, they then brought noise back in again, via electronic signal.

Behind this story Thompson is making deeper points about how modernity changed mankind’s relationship to space/time – through the divorce of sound from the space within which it is created. She also explains how the practices of hearing and listening changed during the first third of the 20th century, and how ‘modern’ spaces like New York’s Radio City Music Hall epitomize these changes.

Fascinating stuff, even if the lecture itself wasn’t engaging enough to keep my attention riveted. The use of visual materials helped, but the camera work is amateurish and Thompson’s delivery a bit flat. But for all that, if you’re at all interested in sound studies, Thompson’s work should be a key work of reference. I’m definitely adding The Soundscape of Modernity to my own reading list.


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