Hearing Infrastructure

Photograph of a perspective drawing for “Lenin at the Podium” by Lissitsky…, 1924 or later. Collection Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal

Last night I gave a talk at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on hearing infrastructure, by which I mean both listening to infrastructure, and infrastructure that’s meant to undergird systems and practices of hearing.

This is of course a work in-progress; there are a lot of weak and clumsy spots, and some segments feel tacked-on. I’ve also not posted a bibliography because I simply haven’t formatted it yet. If you’re curious about sources, you can let me know.

Here she is, warts and all:

Mattern CCAPresentation

[SLIDE 2] If you subscribe to any architecture or urbanism blogs, you’ve likely encountered this new book by Andrew Blum, Wired correspondent and Metropolis magazine contributing editor. Tubes is about the physical infrastructure of the Internet, the particular materialities of specific nodes within that global network. [SLIDE 3] He takes us on a tour leading from oceanside manholes; to various buildings in downtown Manhattan where transoceanic and transcontinental lines converge; to data centers with their sophisticated security infrastructures; [SLIDE 4] and along railroad tracks, which paved the way for long-distance “data pipes.” (Incidentally, a couple years ago, while Andrew was working on this book, he took one of my graduate studios on a “walking tour of the Intenet” in Lower Manhattan.)

From [SLIDE 5] the work of InfraNet Lab, a “research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics” and [SLIDE 6] advocating for what they call “infrastructural opportunism;” [SLIDE 7] to Kazys Varnelis’s edited collection on Los Angeles infrastructure; to the many infrastructure-related projects hosted by the [SLIDE 8] BMW Guggenheim Lab (which resided in the Lower East Side last summer and is now in Berlin), [SLIDE 9] including the walking tours of urban systems organized by design consultancy spurse; [SLIDE 10] to the infrastructurally-minded projects comprising Culture Now, a 12-university collaboration, organized by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, that “seek[s] to define, establish, program, and implement the material and immaterial substance that drives contemporary urbanity and culture”; to [SLIDE 11] to my colleagues Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruze’s recent efforts, as part of a collective called Friends of the Pleistocene, to develop a typology of America’s nuclear infrastructure – and this is just a modest sampling – is should be clear that there’s no shortage of interest in infrastructures.

Of course there’s a certain inherent beauty to infrastructures that draws our attention – in a lecture here at the CCA in 2000, Richard Ingersoll discussed the many ways in which infrastructure functions as art – and there’s a long history of thinking about infrastructure as a manifestation of the technological sublime. But the recent interest seems to be of a different quality. [SLIDE 12] Former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested in 2009 that “renewed interest in infrastructure” within the American design community was attributable in large part to Obama’s original stimulus package, which tasked the country’s designers with “rethinking the networks – train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts – that bind our communities together.” Ouroussoff noticed a rise, “for the first time in decades,” of new infrastructure-focused graduate architecture studio courses. It seems to me, though, that the interest began to emerge well before Obama. Hurricane Katrina and other international disasters drew attention to the weaknesses in our existing infrastructures. [SLIDE 13] As a New York-based designer contributing to Mayne’s Culture Now program suggested to me, architecture’s interest in infrastructure has grown with the increased availability of data, not only GIS data, but data “generated by buildings themselves”; that data often covers large swaths of geography, and architects, he suggested, “aspire to work at scales consistent with the scale of the data.” What’s more, he says, is that working at the scale and within the context of infrastructure, rather than at the scale of the architectural “object,” has the potential to have greater impact on the built environment.

[SLIDE 14] There’s also a small but growing group of folks within my own field, Media Studies, and related humanities and social science fields, who are examining the systems through which media are produced, distributed, discarded, etc. [SLIDE 15] Among these scholars are Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, who have done innovative work on satellite television and [SLIDE 16] transoceanic cable infrastructures. [SLIDE 17] Of course our patron saint Marshall McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis (note book covers), along with Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedion and many others who have since been claimed by the “media ecology” tradition (the “Canadian school”), long ago inspired interest in media’s material form, its sensory properties, and the larger cultural, political, and even material ecologies that particular media give rise to. While many in media studies are still committed to textual analysis and identity construction and issues of subjectivity, many others – growing numbers – have turned their attention to media as designed objects, to the issue of e-waste, to the spatiality and geography of communication, and to infrastructure.

Immaterials: Light painting WiFi from Timo on Vimeo.

[SLIDE 18] This turn to the object or the material network has undoubtedly been inspired over the past few decades by shifting, and often perplexing, materialities in our media and urban landscapes, which are very much intertwined. Among the many data visualization and “augmented reality” projects that attempt to make sense of these hybrid “dataspaces” is this widely circulated video (see above) by the Touch research group. I’ll play just a bit of the video, which documents a project that attempts to make visible and discernible an invisible, intangible technological presence in our urban environments, while I read a few words from Adrian Mackenzie’s fabulous book on Wirelessness, which reminds us that there’s a real, tangible, physical infrastructure behind these waves in the ether:

While the notion of wireless networks implies that there are fewer wires, it could easily be argued that actually there are more wires. Rather than wireless cities or wireless networks, it might be more accurate to speak of the rewiring of cities through the highly reconfigurable paths of chipsets. / Billions of chipsets means trillions of wires or conductors on a microscopic scale (64-5).

Touch’s “painting with light” is one of innumerable projects whose professed goal is to “make the invisible, visible,” but there are similarly-minded projects that attempt to use other registers to get at the uncanny materiality behind these urban networks. The Institute for Algorithmics (visit site to play audio) for instance, aims to sonify, and thereby make accessible, the “the rhythmic character of the signals of most digitally working devices and also of wireless consumer electronic networks like WLAN, GSM, UMTS, Bluetooth, digital TV and Radio et cetera.” Sonifying these digital processes – and even amplifying the mechanical processes that take place on a hard drive – serves not only to help us understand the mechanisms by which these technologies function, but can also have useful diagnostic applications: we can sometimes hear problems we can’t see.

What if we apply a similar methodology at the urban scale? There’s a history within sound art of sonifying various infrastructural elements, particularly bridges. In 1983, for the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge, which at the time had a steel grid roadway (it’s since been paved over), Bill Fontana mounted eight microphones under the bridge and broadcast the sounds to the plaza of the World Trade Center, via speakers embedded within the façade of One World Trade Center (visit site to play video). More recently, one of my own former thesis students created a lovely film mixing the sounds of three of New York’s major bridges – the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg – which he collected via contact mics, which pick up vibrations.

BRIDGE from Kevin T. Allen on Vimeo. [Looks like Kevin’s made the video private, unfortunately]

Our next example, which leads us into my next section, is by German composer/sound-artist Christina Kubisch. Her “Electrical Walks” use specially-designed headphones to translate electromagnetic signals within the environment into sounds, making people aware of the myriad waves and particles that make possible their ATM transactions, their reliance on various security systems, their WiFi connectivity – and that envelop and penetrate their bodies each time they walk down the street.

[SLIDE 19] These waves and energy fields are an integral part of our contemporary urban environment – an environment characterized variously by different theorists as a “code-space,” a “data-space,” etc. Today’s “sentient city” is merely the latest incarnation of what we might call the “media city,” which, before it became the name of a particular kind of [SLIDE 20] “special economic zone” created in several international urban areas, was a theoretical concept encompassing (1) mediated representations of cities, (2) cities as sites of media production and consumption, and (3) formal parallels between various media technologies and urban experiences.

There is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE 21] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE 22] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE 23] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE 24] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE 25] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE 26] the representation of the city in film (this is the dominant thread, by far); and [SLIDE 27] [SLIDE 28] [SLIDE 29] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars, like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy, have begun to address [SLIDE 30] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; [SLIDE 31] the politics of screens in public places; and [SLIDE 32] the impact of networked digital media on urban design and urban experience. [SLIDE 33] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, zoning, and urban experience.

[SLIDE 34] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. [SLIDE 35] Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media. [CLICK] Scott McQuire, in The Media City (2008), observes that the mediation of urban experience “has been underway at least since the development of technological images in the context of urban ‘modernization’ in the mid-19th century” (vii). He thus acknowledges that the history of urban mediation might stretch before the mid-19th century, yet his, and other media scholars’, relative lack of attention to this earlier period reinforces a filmic and photographic myopia, as well as ocularcentrism (and, I might add, a habitual recourse to Walter Benjamin, who dominates most urban media research). Eric Gordon, in The Urban Spectator (2010), locates the origin of the media city even later than McQuire: [CLICK] “from the hand-held camera at the end of the 19th century to the mobile phone at the end of the 20th, the city has always been a mediated construct” (2). I argue that that “always” begins well before the late 19th century – that, indeed, as Friedrich Kittler (1996) asserts, “The City Is a Medium,” and perhaps it has been since the days of Eridu and Uruk.

[SLIDE 36: BLANK] Lewis Mumford suggested that the very impetus for urbanization is rooted in communication:

What transforms the passive agricultural regimes of the village into the active institutions of the city? The difference is not merely one of magnitude, density of population, or economic resources. For the active agent is any factor that extends the area of local intercourse, that engenders the need for combination and co-operation, communication and communion… (Culture of Cities, 6)

Various archaeologists corroborate the suggestion, positing that the birth of cities is rooted not, or not only, in economics, but in the need for ceremony and communication.

[SLIDE 37] I suggest that we need to look at, and listen to, the deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE 38] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being. [SLIDE 39] The rise of print brought with it new infrastructures for publishing and education and dramatically influenced design practices, as Mario Carpo has explained. Plus the emergence of new print forms influenced how people navigated and made sense of their cities. Even to this day, metaphors of the book inform how we  “write” and “read” the city; even our locative media and “smart” buildings still “read” various data inputs, and we “read” their interfaces. [SLIDE 40] The infrastructures of a chirographic culture – of writing – have also informed, for millennia, how cities took shape. Innis and Mumford address these relationships, as do several archaeologists and art historians like Robert Harrist, who studies Chinese writings in stone, and Brinkley Messick, who examines the history of Islamic architectural inscriptions and their formal parallels in the very “articulation” of urban space.

[SLIDE 41] But what we’ll focus on for the remainder of our time is sonic media, media that resound in urban environments, and how the city itself functions as an infrastructure – a resonance chamber, a sounding board – for that mediation. [SLIDE 42] As an aside, I must acknowledge that the CCA’s fabulous “Sense of the City” exhibition from 2005-6, in which sound was one of the senses examined, has deeply informed my thinking about these issues – and about how to communicate, or exhibit, them.


We’ll start relatively close to our own time, with modern telecommunications, a term that, when it emerged in the early 20th century, encompassed the telephone and telegraph, and eventually radio, too (John). [SLIDE 43] The first broadcast centers were in cities – which, ironically, presented many material barriers to a radio signal. As Thomas Rochester, Chief Engineer of New York’s Police Department explained,

A single 500-watt transmitter station would be hopelessly inadequate for New York because of the absorbing effects of the many tall, steel-framed buildings, elevated railways and bridges and because of the area to be served. The interference caused by electrical systems and devices adds to the difficulty; and greater signal strength is required for adequate coverage than would be the case without these handicaps (quoted in Siegel 301).

Because signal strength and the location of stations’ transmitters maximized their broadcasting range, allowing them to either penetrate or circumvent tall buildings, many early broadcasts were transmitted from their cities’ highest points – the top floors of their tallest buildings, which were occasionally hotel rooms (Dennis, Hay). As communication scholar James Hay notes, in 1922 WMAQ began broadcasting in Chicago from the La Salle Hotel, then the tallest downtown building, and WGN started up in the Wrigley Building. Meanwhile, radio stations in New York were broadcasting from the Metropolitan Life Building and making use of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings’ antenna spires.

[SLIDE 44] Architectural historian Carlotta Daro, a former CCA visiting scholar, acknowledges that new telecommunications technologies gave rise to new infrastructural elements – electricity poles, cables, antennas, transmission towers – “around which cities would be built.” ([SLIDE 45] The CCA collection contains evidence of high-level debates over the functionality and aesthetics of overhead wires and the feasibility and cost of putting them underground. As electrical engineer William H. Preece commented,

Decidedly the most striking feature in New York to my professional eye is the poles that disfigure the streets in every direction. How such an enormity can have been perpetrated is simply incredible. Hideous crooked poles carrying twenty or thirty wires are fixed down the principal streets and sometimes three different lines of poles run down the same street… (quoted in Schwartz 428).

[SLIDE 46] Even today, wires (and the satellite dishes and other equipment they’re connected to) carry dystopian connotations.

City of Wires from Justin Ascott on Vimeo.

As the video suggests, the aesthetic impact of the “wire nuisance” wasn’t only visual. As Hillel Schwartz describes in his magnificent book Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond,

…there were the noises that came from the vibration of wires in high wind, which generated interfering currents, and from lightning, and then from the stringing of more overhead wires for Edison’s new incandescent lights in homes and offices, so that by 1882 “Circuits that were practically noiseless are now so bad that subscribers cannot receive messages, as the receiver makes audible every variation in the current” (Schwartz 333).

Aeolian Harp Experiment from qbit on Vimeo.

Still, some found beauty in the song of the wires: “As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us, and vibrated the lattice-work of this life of ours,” opined Thoreau. To him, the wire song was both celestial and classical: “how much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on it by the winds of every latitude and longitude.” [SLIDE 47] I’ll briefly mention, as an aside, that there was another new infrastructural sound that often accompanied the song of the wires: the hiss of the pneumatic tube systems, which were put in place in many cities to handle inefficiencies in telegraph logistics and to aid in postal delivery. I’ve written a bit about the history of the tubes.

Daro suggests that those wires were more than a cosmetic addition to the urban landscape; they profoundly informed the shape of that landscape: “professional practice of telecommunications engineering was absorbed by modernist architects and urban planners and synthesized as a new kind of technological vision of both town and country.” Lewis Mumford represented one such group of planners – the Regional Planning Association of America. In 1937, he wrote in Architectural Record: [SLIDE 48] “The area of potential urban settlement has been vastly increased by the motor car and the airplane; but, the necessity for solid contiguous growth, for the purposes of the intercourse, has in turn been lessened by the telephone and the radio.” These new, liberating technologies – what he called neotechnics – have afforded planners an opportunity to consider alternatives to increasing urban concentration – and he, and the RPAA, of which he was a co-founder and spokesperson, advocated instead for planned decentralization.

Urban historians and historians of technology who focus on the telephone in particular seem to have come to the conclusion that it had both centripetal and centrifugal influences on urbanization. It allowed businesses to concentrate their offices downtown, while relocating their factories, warehouses, and shipping facilities outside the city, and it freed city residents to move out to the end of the streetcar lines with reassurance that the news and activity of the city was only a phone call away (Gottman, Graham & Marvin, SU).  (Architectural historian Emily Bills tells a fascinating story about the central role played by multiple, unconnected independent phone companies in agricultural production in late 19th/early 20th-c. Los Angeles. She argues that “the telephone should be recognized as the first form of infrastructure to efficiently and effectively bind the greater Los Angeles area into a comprehensive, multinucleated whole.”)

[SLIDE 49] Communication scholar James Hay finds evidence of radio’s impact on early twentieth-century city planning:

…the spatial and governmental rationality of the…city not only emphasized the beauty and scientific management of a civic center but also the unity and economy of the city radiating from that center, made possible through networks and grids for increasing the ease and efficiency of communication from one part of the city to another, and between the center all its parts. The “radio city” was born through this spatial arrangement and rationality for liberal government, welfare, and reform – through the earlier ideal of the radial city. By the 1920s radio had become a buzzword for electromagnetic waves that ‘radiated’ from a center-source outward. Over the 1920s and 1930s, radio became the invisible but audible and felt connectivity of the city as communicative space, and communicative space operated as an emerging space of citizenship and civic progress (131).

He suggests that radio – together with city newspapers and urban phone networks, which often operated cooperatively – “reorganized the US city as a communicative space” (132) – as if it hadn’t been “communicative” before? As if the urban grid, or radiating urban spaces, didn’t exist before radio.

[SLIDE 50] Others claim to hear – or rather (and this is significant) see – radio in other urban and architectural forms of the early 20th century. Eric Gordon, author of The Urban Spectator (and, again, that final word in the title – spectator – is significant), finds that [SLIDE 51] Hugh Ferriss’s drawings of New York adopt the “same formal logic as network radio” (105). Rather than depicting densely packed skyscrapers – or the radial “radio city” Hay describes – Ferriss’s charcoal drawings show “each great mass…surrounded by great spaciousness,” [SLIDE 52] affording citizens “ample vistas,” rendering the city “visible and possessable” (102). Thus radio logic manifests as a visual form. “In [Ferriss’s] drawings of the ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow,’” Gordon writes, “the city is divided into multiple centers. These ‘centers’ function as broadcasting stations, each emanating out to its proximate cluster of buildings, and each connected through a singular network.” (95). “Empty space,” ether, has been assimilated into the “structural mass of the city” (101).

[SLIDE 53] Sam Jacob, writer, critic, and co-founder of FAT architects, presented a similar argument in a recent issue of Perspecta. He contextualizes his discussion of urban form and architecture by explaining how the rise of radio effected a reconceptualization of geography, and that geographic spatial models were in turn used to make sense of the ether. Radio, as many historians and theorists have argued, seemed to represent a “new cosmology of space, time and information” – perhaps not simply a “collapse in geography,” as many a radio theory posits, but, rather, “an amplification of geographic qualities,…a topography with its own form of spatial logic” – one that oscillates “between the physical and invisible, between media and architecture” (140, 143, 144). This ethereal atmosphere could still be colonized, owned, auctioned, and controlled through regulation; “the electromagnetic spectrum is transformed from Hertzian free space into something resembling…an urban development” (140). [SLIDE 54] Continuing the metaphor, Jacob finds in the “open plan and the glazed curtain wall…signs of an architecture seeking to respond to the new experiences of wireless communication. Connecting spaces that were once separate, dissolving physical boundaries…in ways that echo the electronic dissolution of space” (137).

[SLIDE 55] I wonder if so much of what Gordon and Jacob identify as distinguishing “radio space” – its multiple connected centers, open plans, and ample vistas – might not, in some cases, precede radio, and in other cases, be equally representative of other media or cultural logics and aesthetics. [SLIDE 56] Yet even if there is some “radio” in these spaces, I find it odd that the conditions and experiences that distinguish “radio architectures” and “radio cities” are all defined in visual terms. What about radio as a sounding medium? Is there no way to “hear” radio’s influence in new spatial forms?

[SLIDE 57] Anthropologist Brian Larkin, in his book Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria, writes about the sonic consequences of radio’s arrival in Nigeria in the 40s:

In 1944, engineers in Kano began to erect loudspeakers on the walls outside the emirate council office, the public library, the post office, and other prominent public places. The words and music coming from these speakers were radio broadcasts, mainly from England, which were captured by a central receiver and amplifier, relayed by wire to individual households and public loudspeakers, and then discharged into urban space for any in earshot to hear. Radio [thus]…began its life in Nigeria as a public technology (48).

Urban streets and houses were filled with new, foreign sounds – typically propagandistic messages, uttered in funny accents, intended to win Nigerians over to the “power and promise of modern life” offered by their colonizers (50). “Loudspeakers thus formed part of the tactile, everyday world of colonial urban life and created channels of radio waves, cables, receiving sets, and sound waves that connected that world to a larger network” (49). Eventually the arrival of wireless moved radio indoors, but then, in the 1960s, the availability of cheap transistor radios – and, equally significantly, batteries – brought it back outdoors again, in portable form.

[SLIDE 58] Many new sonic techniques and technologies that arrived alongside radio during the early 20th century also informed the sonic shaping of urban space. Acoustic zoning has a long history that, Karin Bijsterveld says, we can trace back to the separation of the “hammering trades from the learned professions” and attempts to muffle “the din of traffic in the proximity of the sick” (68). And when it became possible to measure sound, cities began to define acoustic zones by maximum noise levels. That noise could be created by traffic, airplanes – or even, in the early 20th century, as Bijsterveld explains, pianos, gramophones, and radios. [SLIDE 59] A 1930 survey initiated by the New York Noise Abatement Commission identified the radio as the third most frequently cited annoyance (cited in B 115). (Interestingly, the Commission also asked the city’s radio stations – a part of the problem – to become part of the solution: to aid in a “campaign to educate radio listeners in noise etiquette” by broadcasting, at 10:30 each night, a reminder to listeners to turn down their loudspeakers “as an act of good sportsmanship” [quoted in B 162]). [SLIDE 60] Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared a “war on noise” in the mid-1930s, which led to the city’s first noise ordinance; and in the 60s and 70s, Mayor John Lindsey helped to pass the city’s first comprehensive noise code (Radovac). “Rarely were zoning laws accompanied by revisions of building codes toward the better insulation of floors, ceilings, and walls…” (Schwartz 671).

Just as architects seemed to “bracket out” noise by expecting civic officials to banish it to other parts of the city, a surprising number of scholars who study the city in the age of radio seem to ignore the sonic dimensions of the medium, as well as fantastic literature that that could help attune them to acoustic considerations. I’m thinking specifically of [SLIDE 61] Emily Thompson’s book, The Soundscape of Modernity – a book that emerged well before the aforementioned studies were published, and which had by then received wide, cross-disciplinary acclaim. Thompson speaks at length about the design of Rockefeller Center, one of Gordon’s central concerns. Yet she addresses it as both a spectatorial and, primarily, given her focus, a sounding space. Their differences in approach exemplify a disconnect, which characterizes much “media city” research, between the “spectatorial city” scholars and the city-as-anything-other-or-more-than-visual scholars.

Thompson’s book sets the stage for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall by addressing various shifts and developments that helped to shape the “soundscape” of the modern city: [SLIDE 62] developments including the emergence of new sound recording and broadcast technologies, of acoustical engineering, and of new acoustical architectural materials; the cultivation of new techniques and tastes in the “culture of listening” [SLIDE 63] including new definitions of what constituted noise); and, as a result of these other shifts, “the reformulation of the relationship between sound and space” (2). Steen Eiler Rasmussen, in his classic Experiencing Architecture of 1959, also explained that radio impacted the design of space on the architectural and interior scale, too: [SLIDE 64] “Radio transmission created new interest in acoustic problems. Architects began to study acoustical laws and learned how a room’s resonance could be changed – especially how to absorb sound and shorten the period of reverberation” (235). [SLIDE 65] Products like Akoustolith, Acousti-Celotex, Acoustone, Sanacoustic Tile, Sabinite, and Sprayo-Flake created architectural spaces characterized by the lack of reverberation. Rooms no longer had a signature sound based on their dimensions and materials; [SLIDE 66] these new architectural materials signaled “the power of human ingenuity over the physical environment” (171). Radio and record producers could then engineer back in the simulated sounds of particular performance spaces.

As we look toward the future, there’s potential for engineering out and in particular sounds on the urban scale – designing soundscapes for entire cities. We’ll return to these speculative ideas later.


[SLIDE 67] Let’s consider now an even older medium, the voice – which might stretch our understanding of the term medium, but which indeed was the primary means of communication in pre-literate cultures, and is still a vital part of our communication repertoires today. It would seem that the only “infrastructure” we’d need for oral communication is all packaged within our bodies, but it’s important to consider that all vocalizations happen in a setting, a space, either physical or virtual. How might the city itself function as a sounding board or resonance chamber for public address and interpersonal communication? Such considerations have, wittingly or not, informed the design, construction, and inhabitation of cities for millennia. [CLICK] “Plato limited the size of his ideal city to the number of citizens who might be addressed by a single voice,” as Lewis Mumford reminds us. He continues:

[T]he city, as it develops, becomes the center of a network of communications: the gossip of the well or the town pump, the talk at the pub or the washboard, the proclamations of messenger and heralds, the confidences of friends, the rumors of the exchange and the market, the guarded intercourse of scholars… – all these are central activities of the city. In this respect the permissive size of the city partly varies with the velocity and the effective range of communication” (CiH, 63-4)

That velocity and effective range of depends in part on the material environment in which communication happens. In recent years, archaeologists have begun to pay more attention to acoustics – from the sounds produced in ancient sites by historical musical instruments or tools, to the acoustic properties of various locations, and how they informed drama, everyday speech, or a variety of other performative and communicative activities. [SLIDE 68] Some call this sub-field archaeoacoustics.

Classicist Christopher Johnstone has drawn on some of this archaeological research to explore how [SLIDE 69] the architecture of the agora, and, later, civic buildings like the stoa, law courts, various auditoria both shaped the delivery of an orator and his audience’s engagement – and even limited the size of the audience, which might be governing body or a jury (and it’s important to note that juries usually numbered 200 or more). The physical setting also had rhetorical significance in terms of cultivating pathos and ethos. [SLIDE 70] Classical rhetorician James Fredal notes that, from the “Pnyx hill that once hosted the Athenian assembly,

…one could look toward the Acropolis and see the Nike Temple nestled neatly inside the larger Parthenon behind it, as though the arrangement of these two temples was deliberately designed for the speaker (from among an all-male assembly) with this orientation in mind: winged victory nested within the temple of the city’s patron goddess, declaring hegemony held by her citizens. A turn to the north brought into view the civic center of the ancient city — the agora and its public buildings. The ancients understood the importance of the view offered by the assembly place” (4).

[SLIDE 71] Interestingly, I found in the CCA collection a guidebook that applies similar ideas to the design of parliamentary buildings.

[SLIDE 72] In 1872 archaeologists found in the Roman Forum two marble reliefs representing an emperor – either Trajan or Hadrian – standing on the Forum’s Rostra Augusti (speaker’s platform), delivering a public address. Inspired by such finds, architectural historian Diane Favro and classicist Christopher Johanson are creating digital models of the Forum to understand how the space accommodated funeral processions.  [SLIDE 73] With further research, they’re attempting to model and understand how the Forum functioned acoustically as a space for speech:  “How did accompanying sounds reinforce the activities?… Where did spectators stand?… What route to the forum was taken by participants?” (15). In short, they want to understand in part how the material landscape functioned as an “infrastructure” for oral communication networks.

Jump forward a few thousand years, to an age when print was widely available – in fact, as David Henkins writes in City Reading, it was plastered all over the city – and the mechanically reproduced image was gaining in popularity. Even then, in the mid-19th century, the city was a place of public address. [SLIDE 74] Architectural historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury examines how the design of New York’s Union Square has been modified repeatedly to either accommodate or contain voices of protest. Samuel Ruggles, one of the Square’s developers, claimed in 1864 that the square was “deliberately designed to support participatory democracy. The triangular parcels of land left over by the imposition of the ellipse on the grid were expressly made for ‘the assemblage of large masses of our citizens in public meetings.’” [SLIDE 75] “The recent use of the square for huge rallies in support of the Union” showed the Square to be “a theater adequate to the utterance of the national voice.” Through its continual renovation, planners aimed to use the square as an infrastructure to create “active and informed citizens as well as foster social harmony,” yet it remained, and remains, a site for radical meetings and rallies (including many that integrate a variety of media: locative technologies, text messages, cloth banners, and, still, the bull-horned or naked human voice).

[SLIDE 76] Parks were usually intended to be acoustic spaces of exception within the urban din. If we consider what it must’ve sounded like to have a conversation within the chaos of the urban street, we need to consider the city’s material properties as an acoustic environment. [SLIDE 77] The voice is interacting, or competing, with a host of sounds – traffic, whose clatter was tuned by the materials of road construction (pavement, shells, stones, wood); the noises made by a great mass of people; and “reverberations off the steep canyons of dense urban avenues” (Schwartz 309). What’s more, Schwartz says, the nineteenth-century city was “a heat sink, its large brick or stone buildings and pavement retaining heat, raising the local temperature and speeding sound along” (274). [SLIDE 78] But there were also buildings within that grid that were dedicated to public address: as Mumford reminds us, “In every…[early 19th-c. industrial] center the political auditorium became the chief civic institution: Exeter Hall, Albert Hall, Madison Square Garden, the endless Mechanics’ Halls” (Culture of Cities 182). Like their ancestors, the orators in these venues had to be attuned to their acoustics. Again, Schwartz:

Schooled or unschooled, people were veteran auditors of hours-long sermons, stump speeches, wedding toasts, union exhortations, lyceum lectures, revival harangues. Connoisseurs of such holdings forth, they appreciated delivery and style and listening for sound as well as soundness of argument (288).

Not much different from the Athens that Johnston describes. But unlike Athens, the early-20th century metropolis met a [SLIDE 79] new public sound technology – the loudspeaker – that changed how the voice reverberated off of those brick and stone surfaces. “[B]y the 1930s,” Schwartz writes, “loudspeakers were touted as capable of commanding audiences of half a million” – far larger than any Athenian stoa could accommodate (629).

[SLIDE 80] One modern-day application demonstrates that even these “old” media push us to continually reassess our relationship to the material city and renegotiate our social relations within it. The tradition of the call to prayer certainly isn’t new, but its mediation – through loudspeakers and even through radio – continue to raise questions regarding the politics of sound (or noise, depending upon whom one asks), “rights to the city,” and religious freedom. As ethnomusicologist Tong Soon Lee reports, the use of the radio to broadcast the call to prayer is occasionally a compromise to ease tensions within religiously diverse community over the call’s projection into public space via loudspeaker. Yet as Lee suggests, the radio also redefines the relationship between physical and acoustic sacred space in the cities of Singapore:

Through the use of radio, the extended and separated profiles of Muslims in the urban environment now form[s] uninterrupted acoustic space, and resultantly, a unified social and religious space. It is the radio, rather than the physical proximity of a mosque, that facilitates the cohesion of the Islamic community and maintains its identity within the larger, urban context of Singapore (92).

[SLIDE 81] And of course today, in our immediate environment, we’re negotiating with the implications of verbal (and culinary) “sounds out of place.”


What can we look, or listen, forward to in our future cities? How will its infrastructures become entangled with those of the “city of speech”? What new sonic media are to come, and how will they embed themselves in our urban landscapes – and integrate with all the sound-making communication technologies that have preceded them?

[SLIDE 82] We might consider the implications of evolving regulations and zoning practices. New York passed another noise code in 2005; it took effect in 2007. This code regulates many of the old sources of noise, but also adds a few new ones, [SLIDE 83] including noise produced by nightclubs and ice cream truck jingles. A June 2007 article in the New York Times reports that “The…code bars playing a personal stereo in public at a level that can be heard 25 feet away, and for those wearing earphones on a subway or bus, the volume must be lowered so that no one five feet away can hear.” Lilian Radovac, at McGill, is studying how these evolving codes response to evolving urban, sonic, and media contexts, and of course expand our consideration to other geographic areas.

[SLIDE 84] Another possible opportunity for designers is through urban sound, or soundscape, design. Arup, which, as you probably know, is a global firm of “designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists” focusing on the built environment, [SLIDE 85] has a team that focuses specifically on acoustics (I consulted with them on some of my earlier research on library sound design). That team, Arup Acoustics, has created a tool called the SoundLab, thorugh which engineers can listen to the sounds of simulated buildings, or recreate the acoustic conditions of buildings past. Arup is even occasionally asked to sound-design entire cities, as they were with [SLIDE 86] Dongtan, China (a project that eventually fell through). As reported in Dwell magazine, Dongtan’s automotive fleet was to be entirely electric, which created space within the soundscape for city-dwellers to hear sounds – birds, voices, wind in trees – that would’ve otherwise been masked by combustion engines. Arup’s Neill Woodger says, “People haven’t really known that they can change the sounds of a city – they can change the road surface, for example, and that has a huge effect.” In various projects around the world, sound has been a major consideration in the design of public places, at least in part so that these spaces can better facilitate socialization and interpersonal communication. But as Anne Kockelkorn and Doris Kleilein, among many contributors to the pseudo-biannual Tuned City festival, wonder, “Is this approach just about acoustical cosmetics,” about “sonic branding,” “or does it mark the beginning of a broader understanding of planning?” (105).

The political aims of sonic branding are many. [SLIDE 87] An ugly cousin of sonic branding is sonic warfare, which Steve Goodman, musician, DJ, and producer, and author of a book on the topic, defines as “the use of force, both seductive and violent, abstract and physical, via a range of acoustic machines (biotechnical, social, cultural, artistic, conceptual), to modulate the physical, affective, and libidinal dynamics of populations, of bodies, of crowds” (10). How can some of the seemingly mundane technologies we’ve already examined, along with new technologies under military development, and other sound media we’ve haven’t even conceived of yet, interact with the surfaces and volumes of our cities to function in urban law enforcement and warfare? Even the voice can be deadly: we need only recall that it was a mere blast of voices and trumpets that supposedly felled the walls of Jericho? [SLIDE 88] Architectural forms themselves can function as “sonic weapons,” as seen here, in these “concrete ears” constructed on the south coast on England in the 20s to detect the sound of approaching enemy aircraft. [SLIDE 89] Or architectural forms can be repurposed to serve in sonic resistance. Here we see public art being used to amplify the voice, which can’t be legally electronically amplified, at Occupy Wall Street.

[SLIDE 90] Goodman also talks about the potential for disenfranchised populations to use sonic warfare to create new forms of social interaction, particularly within public spaces. He asks: “What vibrations are emitted when slum, ghetto, shantytown, favela, project, and housing estate rub up against hypercapital? And what kind of harbinger of urban affect do such cultures constitute within contemporary global capitalism?” (xx). He uses the example of Jamaican sound systems, with their “intense vibrational environments,” that effect “sonic dominance” – a condition in which sound is both “physical and formal, feeling and hearing, content and form, substance and code, particle and pattern, embodying and disembodying, tactile and sonic” – and thereby to “attract and congeal populations” (28, 172).

[SLIDE 91] We might also consider pirate sound-spaces on the urban peripheries, and what Goodman calls their “rhymachinic takeover of space-time” (173). Although I am by no means an expert on the topic, low-powered and pirate radio is of particular interest – in large part because, with the rise of Internet radio and global virtual music communities, remaining pirate radio operations are typically motivated by very specific connections to material practices and urban space. This “old” medium still resonates in, and gives form to, contemporary urban landscapes. Media artist and scholar Matthew Fuller lists the material components of pirate radio:

[SLIDE 92] Pirate radio: transmitter, microwave link, antennae, transmission and studio sites; records, record shops, studios, dub plates; turntables, mixers, amplifiers, headphones; microphones; mobile phones, SMS, voice; reception technologies, reception locations, DJ tapes; drugs; clubs, parties; flyers, stickers, posters… [CLICK] [A]s all the various elements organize in combination within the sound, across the city, through a jumble of available media, there is also a sense in which the polyphony traversing the signal echoes a wider sense of connective disjuncture as a crucial term of composition… The media ecology is synthesized by the broke-up combination of parts (15-16)

[SLIDE 93] He also examines the tower block as an integral part of this combination: “The thicker the forest of towers, the more antennae perched above the city, the more the Radiant City, botched, radiates” (16). There are no open plans, open vistas, feel-good diversity in these radio cities. In the “botched” Radiant City – the city where so much of the world’s population lives, radio city echoes disjuncture, mismatch, time-slippage, grafting, hacking. But still, it resounds.

The media city resounds. It has for millennia. We just have to listen for its contemporary soundings and for its history’s echoes.


Parsing Noise

via funkandjazz on Flickr:

I have a feeling I’m one of the first people in the universe to have read, from cover to cover, Hillel Schwartz’s 859-page* Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. I finished it last Saturday. Most other people with whom I’ve spoken have either stared at it for a while, not sure when they’ll have the time or mental stamina to commit to it; or chosen to regard the book — which was published last fall — as a sampler, dipping into passages every here and there.

I had committed myself to a more deliberate, linear reading. I was asked last summer to review the book for a journal. Actually, I (ridiculously) ambitiously proposed to jointly review Schwartz’s book and another recently published sound studies anthology — but then, 1500 pages later, after having finished both books, I came to realize that Making Noise is a species, a genre, of its own and is best not compared with any other. Both books are ostensibly about the same subject — but only Making Noise takes on a literary (and physical — more about that later) form that echoes its content.

Schwartz has created something like lyric scholarship, with few of the standard trappings of academicism. He uses existing scholarship (mind-blowingly huge truckloads-full of it!), but in a wholly unpretentious, non-demonstrative (i.e., “here, let me show you how much I know!”) way. The edited collection — which, I must admit, I read after having finished Schwartz, so it didn’t really stand a chance! — was by contrast pure academic formula: much ado over minute issues, each framed with a dry literature review and neatly summarized with a clearly labeled “Conclusion” enumerating all its major theses. Normally, I can tolerate that kind of thing; it’s the standard fare in academia. But after Schwartz, I was spoiled. I realized, it doesn’t have to be like this! Erudition needn’t come in frustrating packages! And writing on sound in particular can dance, not plod, through my brain!

As I prepare to write my review, I thought I’d try out some ideas here:

Before I even get to the text, to hermeneutics, I have to say something about the book itself. At 9 1/4″ x 6 1/4″ x 2 3/8″, Making Noise is not the kind of book one can easily tuck into a bag for subway reading. In fact, in the two months I spent working through the text, not once did I manage to find sufficient spare space in my bag to lug it to school or a coffee shop; consequently, I read the book entirely in my apartment — in a very particular, and relatively noise-free acoustic environment.

My dog Roxy poses with the book (on my parents’ couch) to lend a sense of scale.

In addition, it’s not the kind of book you can read while lying on the couch; its 2.5 pounds tire your wrists far too quickly. As a result, I read the entire book sitting or standing up, or while lying on my stomach on the living room carpet. Thus I never experienced Schwartz with my head cocooned in a pillow, down and cloth providing acoustic insulation.

The main text alone is 859 pages; with the index, it’s 912 pages. Yet even that doesn’t include all its bibliographic components. Because of the book’s length, the publisher decided to make the 349 pages of endnotes, along with a 51-page bibliography of “noisy” children’s books, downloadable from the Zone Books website. I love endnotes; when I read I typically maintain two bookmarks — one in the main text, one in the endmatter, so I can continually reference relevant endnotes and/or citations. In this case, however, the printed text itself required such a physiological commitment that I simply couldn’t manage simultaneous consultation of the endnotes. I couldn’t keep running back and forth from reading chair to computer, or juggling the physical book and an iPad full of endnotes. As a result, I missed all the great endmatter, and I fear that, as a result, my experience in reading the book was less multivocal than it was meant to be.

Not that the book didn’t have plenty of resonant voices as is! Those voices lived not only on the pages, but also in the book’s form. With so many sheets bound into such a large volume — and these aren’t your typical Norton Anthology onionskins; these pages rival the weight of a nicely published mass-market fiction hard-cover — there’s a distinctive depth to its flutter as I flip through its pages. And when I drop it to the floor: what a nice round thud it makes — not the strident crack of less substantial volumes! Making Noise is definitely a tenor.

Yet it’s a discordant tenor, with its somewhere-between-mint-green-and-robin’s-egg-blue cover featuring, in fluorescent orange (which makes it look like it’s printed in negative), a blown-up print of Grandville’s “Katzemusik” (“rough music”), and type in an elegant brick red serif font. Quite a noisy contrast of graphic elements.

Inside the cover, past the black endpapers; past an image of Michael Barton Miller’s “aroundsound #2 (elpasoyodel),” sculptures resembling the ear canal; past the copyright info and dedication, we encounter Schwartz’s encouragement that “This book is meant to be read aloud.” There is indeed a lyricism to the writing that Schwartz manages to maintain throughout all 800+ pages. Even if my lips weren’t moving as I read, I heard Schwartz’s words resonate in my inner ear — something that rarely happens when one reads typically tone-deaf academic prose.

Schwartz has divided the book into three main sections, or “rounds”: (1) Everywhere: “On apprehensions of noise on all sides. How this comes to be, and from which directions”; (2) Everywhen, Everyone: “On ears of all sorts. On who is hearing noise, under what conditions and at what time of day or year of life”; and (3) Everyhow: “On hearing what had not been heard, could not be heard, should not be heard. Calibrating and recalibrating noise. Toward what end?” While working my way through the book, the Rounds resonated only very faintly for me; they felt more like cryptic titles of symphonic movements. But after completing the book and allowing it to echo for a while, the rhetorical functions of these titles did eventually make some sense: the focus on where, when, who, and how suggests that Schwartz regards his work as that of a storyteller. And the regular use of the “every-” prefix prepares us to accept the broad, encompassing breadth of these stories; Schwartz’s story of noise has multiple characters, widely distributed agency, and is inflected by the place, time, and identity of his characters and “informants.” The story’s telling also depends upon the methods those various culturally and historically situated subjects use to define, measure, and represent noise. The book’s structure in “Rounds” seems appropriate for a story that cycles through time, that continually revisits subjects (some, perhaps a bit too frequently) and appreciates their echoes. Even the book’s polychronic subtitle — which starts with Babel, then listens back for echoes of the Big Bang, then listens forward to the beyond — suggests that this is not a linear, teleological story.

The three Rounds are preceded by “Consonances,” Schwartz’s acknowledgments of resonant minds and voices; and “Bang (A Beginning),” or introduction, on “hearing out noise,” “[o]rigins auricular and oracular, mythic and metaphoric,” and “hardness of hearing.” This Bang isn’t the “big” one, however; it refers instead to the booms, breaths, brouhaha, and babble in various Vedic and Judeo-Christian genesis stories. It is here that Schwartz establishes the “every-“ness, and at the same time, the contingency, of noise:

…[N]oise is never so much a question of the intensity of sound as of the intensity of relationships: between deep past, past, and present, imagined or experienced; between one generation and the next, gods or mortals; between country and city, urb and suburb; between one class and another; between the sexes; between Neanderthals and other humans (20-1).

Noise, Schwartz proposes, has a fourfold history:

First, the chronicle of changing soundscapes: how each era and culture lives within its own ambience of sounds. Next, the annals of sounds earmarked as pleasant or obnoxious: how each era, culture, and rank hears (or does not hear) and welcomes or disdains the sounds around it. Next, the career of noise itself as variously apprehended: how each era, culture, occupation or discipline reconstitutes the notion and nature of noise. Contingent upon these, finally, are narratives of noisemaking and noise-breaking: how noise in each era, culture, and class has been denounced or defended, defiantly produced or determinedly deadened (21).

In a book this large, in which readers are likely seeking orientation and a guide to navigation, this four-part model might seem to promise a map or score of the text — but no; these are simply four refrains to listen for throughout the three Rounds. There’s much to be heard in the silences, too. In the “sound-shadow,” Schwartz says, we can discern “four reciprocal histories”:

the history of elected or commanded silence; the history of the deaf and deafness; the history of Arcadian idylls and millennial kingdoms; the history of stillness – of portraiture and death, sedation and paralysis, inner reserve and outward desolation (21).

The reciprocal histories can be contextualized, or “masked,” within the “ostensibly larger stories of civilization, urbanization, industrialization, mass distribution, and mass communications” (21).

These eight reciprocal histories — as well as others not named here, like the histories of medicine, fashion, children’s literature, and firearms — and the five larger “masking” historical contexts are intertwined, together composing the multivocal history of noise. I’ll highlight just a few of the connections drawn in the introduction and each of the four main sections:

In “Bang,” we hear about epidemic diseases with otoxic side-effects, “low noise” cassette tapes, the evolving role of the encore in the performing arts, and the many challenges of being a sonarman on a submarine, where a mishearing can have devastating consequences. “[T]he meanings we assign to noise are no less consequential than the meanings we assign to other sounds. Noise may be unwanted or incomprehensible sound; it is never insignificant sound.” (28)

Schwartz also mentions the seemingly vain search for an Ur-language, “root of all other tongues spoken by humanity,” and the cultural biases inherent in anthropologists’ early studies, among ancient or isolated communities, of what it means to “hear well” (30). “Abandoning…any claim to imperturbable sanctuary or impeccable hearing, we are free to move on to what is left: the history of noise” (36).

And move on we do, into Round One: Everywhere. Here we hear about the history of reading aloud, the textual conventions — spaces between words, punctuation, capitalization — that thwarted or facilitated this practice, and the distinctive skills required to read those differently formatted texts. We hear town criers in the street; conversations in the Medici-era court; echoes represented visually in cliff paintings and cave walls; and echoes reverberating around Mayan pyramids and Greek amphitheaters. We learn of the integration of zones of publicity and privacy — of sound and silence — into the Renaissance domestic sphere, where various architectural solutions were designed to keep noise out, and often failed. In the Old World,

[Echo] was active in the stone corridors of narrow city streets, in the hallways of country houses, in the lyrics and staging of songs and operas, in artificial grottoes hollowed out for aristocratic gardens and public amusement, in the echo-organs of cathedrals whose vaulted domes sometimes (as at St. Paul’s) had whispering galleries (65).

Echo echoes in Baroque music, and in the sounds of war and the cacophony of the underworld. The righteous had to “listen through noise…for the Lord’s guidance” (90-1) — but what precisely constituted the medium through which they listened was a matter or debate: was it pneuma, or ether — either/or, neither/nor? We also consider how flatulence and laughter and weeping were received in various contexts, and consider what it means to speak with angels or through machines. We map a new geography, and a new soundscape, shaped by iron furnaces and steam engines. We think about practices of “educating the senses” — particularly in the penitentiary, where, as the prevailing penal theories had it, “it was solitude [and silence] that conduced toward repentance” (182). We hear the noises of slavery and freedom, and consider how they sounded differently to one another. We imagine doctors pressing ears and stethoscopes to ailing patients, and telegraphers making sense of the “dit-da of Morse Code” (227). We consider how the rise of these new technologies — telephones, radios, radar — installed “a new mode of listening that entailed a heightened sensitivity to the ubiquity of noise,” and we watch Victorian architects work toward isolating interior life from the cacophony outside (230).

Early in Round Two: “Everywhen, Everyone,” Schwartz presents a concise “lesson”:

[E]ach generation inhabits a different acoustic universe, constituted by different musics and memories of sound, by different thicknesses of walls and densities of traffic, by different means of manufacture and broadcast, by different diets and ear-damaging diseases, by different proportions and preponderances of metal rattling in kitchens, clanging on the streets, or ringing in the (differently polluted) air above” (314).

We begin this Round with the “loud dress” of the dandies. We’re then stumped by acoustic shadow on Civil War battlefields, and made to wonder if the “acoustic density” of our industrializing cities — a function of demographics, traffic, and heat, which “[sped] sound along” — is an inevitability. To some, the only recourse seemed to be a search for sonic retreats in cemeteries and parks, or “rest cures” in foreign lands (274). Meanwhile, officials experimented with new street-paving materials to cut down on traffic noise. Florence NIghtingale reminded of the healing powers of quiet, and various anti-noise parties set out to enforce it, in part by encouraging the establishment of acoustic zones. Later in the Round, we hear about new scientific studies of sound (by Bell, Doppler, Edison, Faraday, Maxwell, and Sabine, to name just a few researchers), and about architects who learned from these scientific discoveries as they strove to soundproof homes and hospitals. Meanwhile, urbanites watched overhead wires overtake their cities.

We consider hearing loss and tinnitus, particularly among factory workers. We think also of the significance assigned to ears — how they were once used for the “typing of personality” — and how, nevertheless, they’ve been subject to all sorts of abuse:

Add it all up – the endemic diseases, epidemics, and childhood ‘fevers’ with their ontological after-effects, often permanent; the ototoxic drugs used to treat those afflictions; the boxing of schoolchildren’s ears and the familial tugging or cuffing at home; the injury done by industrial noise to the inner and middle ears of working adults, year after year, and more swiftly by the cannonade of battle to the ears of soldiers and sailors; the tinnitus and earache from impacted wisdom teeth, dental decay, and gum disease; the cigar and cigarette smoke, sulfuric ash and coal dust, lead-laced paint and arsenical wallpapers in the most genteel of homes, and the soot and smog outside in the thick city air… — add it all up and the heard world was widely compromised (383).

While concert halls and upper- and middle-class homes were more insulated from the din, working-class ears were not.

In Round 3, “Everyhow,” we begin with anthropologists studying the hearing of “savage and semi-civilized races,” and learn that some Western researchers came to understand that their own hearing was neither superior nor inferior to the “savages'”; rather, “[the savages’] senses were honed by minds that grasped the ecology of their milieu” (556). We hear again about the sounds of war — about shellshock and uncanny silences — and about assaulting sounds emerging, even in peaceful territories, from improved loudspeakers. We overhear politically charged deliberations on the cause of deafness. We talk of sound therapies: Freud’s “talking cure” and hearing aids.

Again, we consider how architecture and construction devise new strategies — “electrically amplified sound-transmitting infrastructure[s]” and “sound-absorbent wall and floor coverings” like Celotex — to seal out the noise (635, 638). Sometimes, as before, those solutions “redoubled the problem” (632). We again consider zoning and the spread of litigation against noise — even in the depths of the ocean. In one particularly fascinating segment, Schwartz addresses the audition of fish and sound-making of whales and efforts to prevent their disruption by deleterious naval activities. We consider how we’ve learned to listen inside the aquatic environment of the uterus; ultrasound transformed how parents listened to their children — both in utero and throughout their development. Meanwhile, we also began to listen to the universe, to hear static in cosmic rays and to search for radio waves transmitted from afar.

We started to think of noise in terms of wave patterns, and we classified those patterns by color: white, black, brown, orange, and pink. The last, the most trivial-sounding, is 1/f, or flicker noise, which displays “‘interesting structure’ over all time intervals” (839). We eventually recognized the power of pink: “1/f noise was suddenly found to be flickering almost everywhere that things or beings were in motion. It was in fact intrinsic to perception and judgment” (840).

[Pink noise] seems to be the optimal noise for catalyzing phase transitions and rescuing systems out of whack. When added to a weak signal, pink noise can nudge it over a threshold crucial to awareness or stability; when introduced to a system in turmoil, pink noise can shepherd it back to homeostasis… [P]ink noise allows organisms to ‘hear’ and respond more aptly to their environs; in physical and otological terms, it restores balance (843).

The ubiquity and utility of pink noise explodes the commonplace notion that noise is simply “unwanted sound.” Schwartz writes: “Not only was the world literally shaped by noise; our brains required noise. Pink noise. Measured at the peripheries, the noise of the nervous system is white; in the brain, electrical fluctuations approach 1/f” (845). This noise is very much wanted and necessary sound. “The intentional making of noise was an ontological statement: I substantiate my historical being through the noise I can make” (846). In other words, “[w]ithout noise, we would not be in the world” (859).

We might say that pink noise is also essential to the maintenance of balance in Schwartz’s book. At times the logic by which particular topics are chosen for each of the three “Rounds” (and the coherence of those rounds) eludes me, and occasionally it seems that Schwartz’s fluid prose is smoothing over odd leaps in logic and strained connections (how, exactly, did we move from the primal scream to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to the Rites of Spring — yes, the D.C. post-hardcore band! — to sonocytology within the space of four pages?!). But every once in a while we’ll hear one of Schwartz’s refrains — the fourfold histories and their “silent” reciprocal counterparts — that allows us to find the book’s underlying rhythm. The “flicker noise” of these refrains “nudge[s] [Schwartz’s looping lyric tale] over a threshold crucial to awareness or stability.”

Bound up with bone and tissue, with solids, liquids, gases, and plasmas, with the tactile and cortical, with the chthonic and the cosmic, all those vibrations that are soundmusicnoise have been historically re-cognized, from era to era, within a cultural logic as nonlinear as the coils of the hairs of our inner ears. Distinctions between sound and noise, or noise and music, or music and sound, can only be provisional – not because they are matters of taste but because they are matters of history and histrionics: of what becomes audible through time and how the acoustics are staged, in auditoria, or bedrooms, in laboratories or courtrooms… (858).

Or in beautifully typeset tomes with noisy covers.

*   *   *   *   *

I’m not sure how I’ll end the review — particularly how I’ll connect the nature of Schwartz’s argument with the acoustic materiality of the book itself; or how I’ll address Schwartz’s problematic and not-tremendously-helpful (for me) segment titles: Everywhere, Everywhen, Everyhow. Everything in my review needs a lot more finessing — but at least the above presents the raw material I have to work with.


Misophonia Sinfonia

via anniebee on Flickr:

My husband and I moved back to Brooklyn a few weeks ago, which means that I now return — for at least part of the week, on mornings when I’m not in Manhattan — to my old gym, which I frequented during my six years in Park Slope. Today was the first day I’d returned, after two years of going exclusively to the awesome McBurney YMCA, and the memories all came flooding back — through my ears.

The Brooklyn gym is a neighborhood gym, with lots of neighborhood folks — including a few with a sonic character all their own. Every gym has its histrionic huffers and grunters, but we’ve got some even more distinctive character actors here. There’s the guy who rides the recumbent bike, whose insanely loud pffffssshhhhh exhalations, expelled through clenched teeth, resonate throughout the entire floor, into separate rooms and even down the stairwell. Then there’s the other guy who rides the upright bike whose wide-open-mouthed exhalations are equally loud, yet punctuated after every four breaths by two hacking coughs. I’m not lying. It’s like clockwork. And then there’s the guy who listens to doo-wop on his Walkman and breaks out every 20 seconds or so with a jarring “doo bee doo bee doo!”… “tell me whyyyy”… “sheboom sheboom”… “dooo waaaaaaahhhh.” He’s got the perfect voice for the musical style — but, honestly, it’s not what I want to hear, drowning out the sound from my own earbuds, when I’m doing my pull-downs.

The last guy, I realize, might sound adorable. I’m well aware that I should find him adorable, but instead, I’m so annoyed I can pay attention to little else. I find myself grimacing, glaring, then catching myself and forcing a smile. For as long as I can remember, I’ve fixated on errant human- and human-and-object produced sounds. “Don’t you hear that? How can you stand it?” I’ll say to my companions. They often have no idea what I’m talking about. Consider last week, when we were taking the bus to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was trying to have a conversation with my husband, but all I could hear was a persistently squeaky ‘s’ taunting me from the back of the bus. I simply can’t tune out sibilant female voices: “Yesssss, Ssssarah and I are going out Sssaturday night to Lombardi’ssssss.” Why should such an innocuous sentence make my skin crawl? Why does the sound of cracking gum put me on the edge of getting all up in somebody’s face? (I should note that this paragraph is chock-full of extreme hyperbole!) Why do I want to smash the TV screen when Blake Lively says “Chuck” on Gossip Girl? Why do I feel the urge to publicly berate people who drag their feet in flip-flops? What’s the big deal with cashiers whose long, ornately bedazzled fingernails clickety-click on cash register keys? Why do smacking lips make my fists clench? Why is it so hard for me to be next to people walking in corduroy pants? That zip-zip sound — ooh, it kills me.

I never act on any of these impulses or express my anger, of course. I realize my reactions are completely irrational…and pretty embarrassing. “Doesn’t that bother you, that guy cracking his knuckles on the far end of the subway platform?” I’ll ask my companions, hoping for empathy. Their response: What guy? Then I wonder: OMG — what noises do I make that are really annoying? If I had to listen to myself, would I want to punch me?

Gwinnett County, GA, by BarelyFitz on Flickr:

My gym experience this morning reminded me of an article I read in the Times a couple months ago — one that put into perspective my experience and allayed my fears that I might either have bionic ears or be a total a-hole. Misophonia, misophonia — “dislike of sound” — that’s what it is. “Many people can be driven to distraction by certain small sounds that do not seem to bother others — gum chewing, footsteps, humming,” the Times reports. “But sufferers of misophonia, a newly recognized condition that remains little studied and poorly understood, take the problem to a higher level.” Some doctors believe the “condition is hard-wired, like right- or left-handedness, and is probably not an auditory disorder but a ‘physiological abnormality’ that resides in brain structures activated by processed sound.” Having a name for it makes me feel a little less crazy, but I’m not totally convinced that I’ve got a legitimate “condition,” and that I’m not just being a jerk; I can’t let myself off the hook that easily. As some comedian the brilliant comedian Derik Boik put it, “This new ‘condition’ of yours sounds a lot like a thing I call, ‘Being Annoyed by Something Annoying.'”

My annoyance doesn’t escalate to blood-boiling rage, as seems to be the case for some of the folks described in the Times article. But it does push me to the verge of self-righteous proclamations. “Excuse me, sir, but could you please not breathe so loudly?!? Not everyone wants to share in your respiration!”