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


Anyone keen to hear what New York City might have sounded like a hundred years ago should experience firsthand the frenzied whistleóblowing of Mexico City traffic police, who seem to be attempting to expel their brains through their eyeballs by sheer force of noise. Of course, this past/present analogy is based on pure speculation. Slipping a MiniDisc recorder into your pocket to tape the naked city was not an option in 1905; we can only guess at the constitution of historic urban soundscapes, based on written descriptions and visual clues provided by paintings, photographs, and films.

What Emily Thompson achieves so impressively in The Soundscape of Modernity is an evocative reconstruction of American audio life in the first third of the twentieth century, built from the elusive sound waves that linger in these silent memory museums. I use the word evocative advisedly. The significance and poetry of her account steals up on you through an advance army of mathematical equations and technical descriptions of architectural sonics that recall Wallace Sabine's daunting Collected Papers on Acoustics, first published in 1922.

Via Thompson, I realize that Sabine shaped many of our listening habits, along with the environments in which we hear music. In 1895, while improving an excessively reverberant lecture hall in Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, Sabine discovered that old methods of measuring reverberation time, like monitoring a candle flame, were of limited use. "Sabine thus abandoned all attempts to look at sound," writes Thompson, "and instead chose the seemingly obvious, but long neglected, alternative of listening to it." He began by comparing the duration of residual sound in the lecture hall to the university's acoustically successful Sanders Theater. Sabine was forced to work at night in order to measure nothingness. We might think of the late-nineteenth-century Harvard Yard as a mausoleum of quiet, but the everyday sounds of streetcars and students interfered with Sabine's delicate work. He could be observed in the dead of night, carrying stacks of cushions across campus. Upholstery was key to the whole enterprise. Blizzard or shine, Sabine wore the same outfit: a blue winter coat and vest, trousers, and thin underwear. Like every sound engineer since, he understood that excessive knitwear can turn a sparkling resonance into a wintry vegetable soup.

From Sabine's discoveries came a formalization of the rules governing sound waves inside buildings. But new problems arose as the century progressed. Some were psychological, such as Joseph Pulitzer's commission of a soundproof room for his New York town house. The builder described his client-from-hell as a "nervous wreck and most susceptible to noises and he has discovered many real and imaginary noises in his house." Other challenges were less phantasmagoric. The growing roar from city streets complicated the businessóand it was now a businessóof controlling internal echoes within buildings. Move deeper into the book, into the roaring '20s and beyond, and the photographs look like stills from the St. Valentine's Day massacre. A man in a raked fedora and heavy overcoat glowers as he compares a standard noise signal with the ambient noise; seated behind him inside a noise-measuring truck, an identically attired man looks ready to pull a tommy gun. Al Capone could have scripted incidents from the history of noise abatement: One Chicago woman was bombed by her neighbors after ignoring requests to turn down her radio.

  1 | 2 | Next>>