25 February 2013
Tell us about Noise? What’s it about and what inspired you to write it?
Put at its most basic, the book is a history of the role of sound and listening in the evolution of human culture over the past 100,000 years. But, I also think of it as showing how, if we focus on aural experience, a more emotionally nuanced historical narrative is revealed – one which attends more to how key events were experienced subjectively by those involved. My starting point is to take the idea of sound as a way of ‘touching at a distance’ – a notion first articulated by the Canadian theorist of soundscapes, R. Murray Schafer. Sound has force: it travels invisibly through the air and, when it arrives, it moves us emotionally, it carries information, it stimulates certain beliefs. In short, it helps in subtle but profound ways to shape our perceptions of the world. Sound can inspire, but it can also manipulate. The whole phenomenon attracted me as a subject when I was at the tail end of my previous book, Life on Air: A History of Radio 4. The final chapter was called ‘Pleasures’. It explored why, despite all their grumbling about programme changes over the decades, most listeners to Radio 4 still professed to its central role in their life. Writing that chapter made me realise as never before the potency of sound – even of supposedly banal background radio sound – in people’s lives. Putting on my historian’s hat, I wanted to pursue this further, and try to dig up some of the historical roots of this emotion.
How did you undertake your research? Did you encounter any difficulties in finding sounds of the past?
Researching the history of sound is, in some ways, a fool’s errand. There’s a magnificent array of sound archives to draw on – and both the book and the radio series will touch on a large number which have never been heard on the radio before. But of course sound is ephemeral. It leaves no traces – at least, not until the start of recorded sound in the late 19th century. So we have to do a lot of guessing about what exactly the past sounded like. Fortunately, our guesses can usually be well founded. Throughout most of history, almost without noticing it, we humans have been drawn into describing the sounds of the world around us, in our letters, diaries and journals. This was especially the case with explorers or colonists, who found themselves in new environments or among new and unfamiliar cultures. There are, for instance, vivid descriptions of the sounds of Native America experienced by 17th century colonists from Europe – and, similarly, of the Australian outback in the 19th century. These accounts make it clear that throughout history our sense of place and of time is shaped by the sounds we hear as much as by what we see.
Two other sources of information are also available to the historian of sound. One is the rich supply of ethnographic studies of various human cultures – which, while never quite offering a direct parallel with the deep past certainly give us helpful clues as to the possible role of sound and listening in pre-literate societies. The other, a relatively new resource, is the work of experimental archaeologists (and in some cases, experimental musicologists or experimental architectural historians) who have visited ancient sites and tried to test their special acoustic properties. Examples of this, which I explore in the book, include work in the Neolithic monuments of Orkney and in the magnificent San Marco church in Venice.
You’ve travelled all over researching the book and recording the series. Was there a place where you were particularly taken with its sounds?
It’s true that we’ve travelled in Europe, America, Africa, and the Middle East. And in each case, we’ve experienced very distinct soundscapes. Before I set out, I had a hunch the world was starting to sound the same wherever one was. Not so. Yes, traffic noise is a near universal irritant – and it was often difficult to record anything without the din of cars or lorries intruding in some way. Background music, played in shops, restaurants and cafes, was also quite pervasive – though this very fact is, naturally, part of our story. Even so, the place that has left the most lasting impression on me was in some ways the most unpromising: a lake in Massachusetts. Not just any lake, I should add: it was Walden Pond, where the writer Henry David Thoreau spent the best part of two years in a small cabin experiencing the sounds, smells, and sights of nature all around him. Do ponds have a distinct sound? The answer appears to be an emphatic yes. In the two hours that Matt Thompson (the series producer) and I were at Walden, we heard – just as Thoreau had done before us – the ice crackling, the breeze and raindrops moving through the leaves, and, just as we were leaving, the sound of a train passing in the woods nearby – a sound Thoreau associated with the coming of modernity. No doubt these sounds can be heard in many other places, too. But their combination on the frosty, misty Sunday morning we visited helped constitute the stunning ‘vernacular’ soundscape of this place.
Are there sounds you feel you missed out on during your research, and will you be trying to hear them in future?
The story I’ve wanted to tell is the story of sound. And although that clearly includes music, I wanted to be careful not to slip into providing a history in which music became dominant. Yet each stage of the research revealed musical cultures and musical stories that seemed to demand more attention than we were able to give. This was never clearer than when researching the role of sound in the story of slavery in America. As the book will show, the slaves’ right to bang drums became a contentious issue in the 18th century, and the ban on the instrument introduced by many southern states is very revealing about the misplaced anxieties of the white plantation owners. But the ban also prompted a creative explosion of alternative music-making – hand-slapping, fiddle-music, and so on – much of which lies at the root of many contemporary African-American musical traditions. It’s a huge story and one that I’d like to learn much more about in the future – especially since, in places such as the Alan Lomax archive, there are such extraordinary collections of recordings available to us.
What’s your favourite noise and why? Least favourite?
I’m going to allow myself three favourite noises, I’m afraid – and none of them, I fear, particularly unusual. One is natural, one human, one technological. The natural sound is that of rain beating onto a windowpane – a sound that reinforces the sense of comfort and safety when you’re inside in the dry and the warmth. I invariably sleep better at night if it’s raining when I climb into bed. The human sound is of my own family in different parts of the house: someone in the kitchen, perhaps preparing food; someone else playing the piano or singing along to the radio; someone getting into or out of the shower. Since my children are now at the stage of leaving home, the combination of sounds is diminishing, and their return a source of joy. These sounds, not always necessarily quiet or entirely sociable, never fail to bring the house to life. The technological sound is of the radio. As an historian of broadcasting, I am perhaps biased. But for me, the simple radio set in the corner of the kitchen has done so much to banish loneliness, connect us with the wider world, and stimulate our imaginations, that I would miss it dreadfully if it were to ever disappear. It would be my Desert Island luxury item. I am reluctant to name a least favourite sound, because I’m philosophically committed to the idea that all sounds are interesting in one way or another. But it would be more truthful to say that I despair at the way the noise of road traffic is so dominant in the centres of our towns and cities. I’m a great advocate of pedestrianizing and of creating cycle lanes. When I visit cities in continental Europe, I’m struck more than anything else by how they sound different because of the absence of cars and lorries: how human interactions – talking, laughter, footsteps, music, and all the rest – are able to breathe and make themselves heard. The result is magical.
As technologies and landscapes change, so do sounds. Are there any sounds you think might be everyday in the future?
Historians are no better than anyone else at predicting the future – another fool’s errand! But I felt that I had an insight into the changing soundscapes of the 21st century a couple of years ago, when I was on a visiting fellowship to Yale in the US. I was struck by how quiet the cafes were, simply because everyone in them drinking their coffees was sitting before an open laptop and working online. Hardly anyone was talking to anyone else. I live in a British university city – Oxford. But, at the time, most cafes there seemed to be still full of chatter, with only a smattering of people there with their laptops open. Now, Oxford is much the same as Yale – and laptops dominate. So perhaps, the world is becoming quieter, being denuded of sounds, and especially the sound of face-to-face interaction – to be replaced by the pervasive tapping of keyboards or, more likely, the even more subtle sounds of fingers gliding across touch-screens. But one thing I explore near the end of the book is the uneven distribution of noise and quietude in the modern world. The touch-screen tablets we enjoy in the west, and which offer relative silence, involved a great deal of noise in their manufacture and delivery – noise which is generally experienced by people who are poorer than ourselves.
How would you encourage people to listen more closely to sounds around them, and what can they take from listening more on a daily basis?
I think few people need any encouragement to listen to sound – look, for example, how almost everyone enjoys music or listening to stories. Despite all our talk of living in a visual age, we are still an intensely aural species. But people can only attend to the variety of sounds all around them if they are allowed to hear those sounds in the first place. And that involves society – government, local councils, big businesses – taking more responsibility over regulating the noise pollution that smothers so many other sounds. Traffic sound, aircraft sound, amplified music: the 20th century showed that these can be regulated and contained. But the 21st century taste for reducing ‘red tape’ threatens to undo all this progress. If the full range of human and natural sounds can be liberated, then I think we will have a greater sense of emotional attachment to the places in which we live – and fight even more for protecting them as social, communal spaces.
What one thing would you love to go back in time to hear?
I would dearly love to travel back to the Palaeolithic and enter one or other of the painted caves of western Europe, to discover exactly what sort of ritual activities went on inside. We know the caves weren’t used simply for habitation, and the combination of art and resonance seems to suggest that something approximating to shamanic trance or even ‘music’ of some kind might have been performed. But it’s largely guesswork. It would reveal a great deal about the origins of art and culture if we could only eavesdrop on our prehistoric ancestors at one of these moments, even for a single hour.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how noisy are you?
When working, I’m a 1; when cooking I’m a 6; when listening to music, I would say I’m an 8 – though my son reckons I’m a 10. Which just goes to show that what counts as noisy is what someone somewhere doesn’t want to hear.
NOISE: A Human History of Sound and Listening will be published on 14th March 2013.
The BBC Radio 4 series begins on 18th March.