The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900­1933, by Emily Thompson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 500 pages. $44.95. BUY NOW

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While composers and musicians responded to rapid changes in the audio environment, those who rejected modernism conflated their abhorrence of the machine age with noise nuisance and race politics. "Critics of jazz articulated their disdain for the new music in a curious conjunction of racism and antimechanism," Thompson writes. "Jazz was attacked 'not only for returning civilized people to the jungles of barbarism but also for expressing the mechanistic sterility of modern urban life.'" Aspects of this confusion did not go unnoticed in film noir: Who can forget Buzz Wanchek in The Blue Dahlia (1946), clutching his amnesiac, war-wounded head and moaning about the "monkey music"?

The variable boundary between noise and music was being mapped as much by law as by the Duke Ellington Orchestra or Edgard Varèse. One of the first landmarks in noise abatement legislation resulted from the persistent agitations of Julia Barnett Rice, wife of publisher Isaac Rice. In 1905, she became so upset by the incontinent tugboat signaling that rocketed from the Hudson River into the Rice's Riverside Drive mansion that she hired a group of Columbia University students to count the blasts. Almost three thousand were recorded in one night. After two years of vigorous campaigning by Rice and others, federal legislation was introduced forbidding all unnecessary blowing of whistles in ports and harbors.

Ultimately, Thompson argues, noise abatement was a failureówiping out soundmarks integral to the social flow of the streets, like the cries of pushcart peddlers, yet helpless to stem the tide of motor traffic. So emphasis shifted from the streets to interiors. Architects turned to materials that could cocoon private spaces from the noises of modernityófuturistic, sepulchral products with names like Silentaire, Acousti-Celotex, and "Tomb" Brand Deadening Felt and the real grim reaper, asbestos.

Simultaneously, a standardization of sonic emission and reception overshadowed the anarchy of sound we associate with the twentieth century. Devices like the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and radio annihilated physical and temporal distance. The process of controlling echoes, begun in earnest by Sabine in the late nineteenth century, became a crusade to eliminate all unnecessary interference. From the 1920s on, acousticians promoted fan-shaped concert halls, virtually free of reverberation.

Nowadays we know there is no ideal music venue, only fabulous music that transcends the ceiling, floor, and walls that encase it, or terrible music that foregrounds its mediocre surroundings. Thompson addresses this in her concluding chapters. After the audible shock of Al Jolson's "You ain't heard nothing yet," in 1927, Hollywood discovered new ways of controlling sound in flexible, synthetic environments. But by the time Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center were built, soon after the 1929 stock market crash, the mood had marched elsewhere. "Many of the most notable concert halls built in the late twentieth century are designed to be acoustically reconfigurable," writes Thompson. In our pluralistic times, control has become a relative value. The engineer's utopia of a single audio environment perfect for all situations is as outmoded as the blast of a traffic whistle.

David Toop is currently composing a piece for tugboats and electronics, to be performed on the River Thames.

 

 
     
     
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