Sound travels faster than light

Two new books argue that our aural environment makes us modern

The ears have it.

Forget what you think you know about ours being a visual culture, in which sight is the privileged sense.

Two thoughtful new discussions of the culture of listening - of what our modern world sounds like, and what we listen for and hear - make a strong case for the primacy of ears. And each further suggests that our experience of our aural environment - in which sound, like light, heat, or water, can be turned on or off with the flick of a switch - is a hallmark of modernity.

The aural experiences of yore were often communal - a congregation listening to a sermon or a choir, or an audience listening to a play. They happened in a specific time and place, and when they were over, they were over. Anyone who was wool-gathering during the second act simply missed it. Period.

Nowadays, however, we have a soundscape that is as much a "built environment" as is a city skyline. But the myriad forms of sound recording and amplification make it a fragmented soundscape. Instead of an audience that, as one, laughs or cries or sits enraptured, we have collections of individual auditors, each with his or her own headset. This fragmentation is like similar phenomena in other modern media and art forms - such as flashbacks that cinemagoers once had to learn to "read," or photo montage and stream-of-consciousness literature.

And indeed, in "The Audible Past," Jonathan Sterne argues that ears had to cope with this fragmentation first: "Even if sight is in some ways the privileged sense in European philosophical discourse since the Enlightenment, it is fallacious to think that sight alone or its supposed difference from hearing explains modernity.... Modern ways of hearing prefigured modern ways of seeing."

He focuses on (oops, he tunes in on) two 19th-century developments: mediate auscultation (the medical practice of listening to patients' bodies through a stethoscope) and telegraphy. Auscultation was the first modern medical technique of gathering data on patients, a conceptual forerunner of X rays, magnetic resonance imaging, and other (visual) technologies. Electrical telegraphy was first considered a visual medium - after all, the messages would ultimately be printed and read. But early on, it became apparent that the best telegraphers worked by ear. They decoded messages by listening to the clatter of the telegraph key. What was originally noise became, to their practiced ears, meaningful sound.

The physician and the telegrapher had each mastered what Sterne calls "audile technique," a capacity for sorting out sounds, for active listening, as distinct from "hearing" of earlier centuries. We take talking on the phone so much for granted that we don't realize people once had to "learn" to communicate by telephone. Sterne doesn't exactly draw a straight line from the physician to the kid with the hissing headphones beside you on the train, but he runs a pretty securely plugged-in extension cord.

Like our own time, the period covered by these books is one of new technologies coming and going; sometimes the "killer ap" turns out to be not at all what an inventor intended. The Victorians were keenly interested in keepsakes of the dead, and so Thomas Edison hoped that the phonograph would be sought after as a way to record final utterances.

Emily Thompson's book "The Soundscape of Modernity," covers a shorter time span and concentrates more on architectural acoustics. Her narrative bridges two towering achievements: from the opening of Symphony Hall in Boston in 1900 to that of Radio City Music Hall in 1933.

In Symphony Hall, Wallace Clement Sabine, the Harvard physicist whom Boston Symphony Orchestra founder Henry Lee Higginson had engaged as an acoustical consultant, was trying to get the right amount of reverberation to let the music be heard to best advantage. But through the early decades of the 20th century, reverberation came to be seen as "noise," as something to be controlled. New developments in building materials and electronic amplification technology combined to change the acoustical equation dramatically. We're used to it by now, but it's bizarre when you think about it: Concert halls were in effect "soundproofed," and so musicians and other performers needed amplification to be heard.

As Thompson puts it, "When reverberation was reconceived as noise, it lost its traditional meaning as the acoustic signature of a space, and the age-old connection between sound and space - a connection as old as architecture itself - was severed." The epitome of this is St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York: Built in 1913 to replace a church destroyed by fire, the church has a traditional Gothic look - but, because of its sound-absorbent building materials, an utterly modern sound.

Thompson quotes a music reviewer who in 1962 wrote that listening to music in one of these, the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, N.Y., "is rather like listening to a very fine FM-stereophonic reproducing system in a carpeted living room." This was evidently supposed to be praise.

Both books are from university presses, with lots of notes and references and, especially in Sterne's case, liberal use of terms like "heuristic" and "reification." But their prose moves gracefully and nimbly beneath the academic robes. And more than that, their topic is so intimately connected to the way we experience the world around us that it can't help resonating.

Ruth Walker is on the Monitor staff.

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