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'The Soundscape Of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics And The Culture Of Listening In America, 1900-1933' by Emily Thompson

Acoustics come alive with the history of sound

Sunday, June 30, 2002

By Ellen S. Wilson


The Soundscape Of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics And The Culture Of Listening In America, 1900-1933

By Emily Thompson

MIT Press


Sound, says Emily Thompson, tends to be erased from the historical record. But if we know what people heard and how they listened to it, we can gain a more profound understanding of history.

Thompson, a professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania and a former Pittsburgh resident, focuses on acoustics to try to understand the Machine Age in America.

During the early years of the 20th century, an increasing understanding of the physical world and a drive to master it led to an interest in acoustics as a field of applied physics.

Because there are so many threads that run through this tale, Thompson has approached each individually, telling the story chronologically several times as she traces each subject within it.

Beginning with “The Origins of Modern Acoustics” and “The New Acoustics,” she then turns to “Noise and Modern Culture,” “Acoustical Materials and Modern Architecture,” and “Electroacoustics and Modern Sound.”

This is a specialized book, probably not intended for mass appeal, and yet Thompson writes so well and is so literate, flinging around witticisms as she lays out her own vast knowledge, invoking literary and other cultural figures, that her book is entertaining, enlightening and clever.

It hits the desk with the heft of a textbook, but the black and white photographs and period drawings, graphs and charts lighten it up considerably. Thompson tells the human side of this story frequently, beginning with a young physicist named Wallace Sabine, who corrected the excessive reverberations in the Lecture Hall at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum.

Despite a lack of instruments -- except for his own ears -- for measuring sound and echo, Sabine succeeded, filching chair cushions from other halls to absorb the noise and then sounding an organ pipe and listening.

Next, he worked on the design of Boston’s Symphony Hall, and during this time he developed a mathematical equation calculating the relationship between reverberation time, the volume of the room, the absorptive capabilities of the materials and the surface area of material.

Symphony Hall, after some initial public outcry, was deemed a success. The musicians found it dead, but the audience learned to love the pure sound they heard.

During the period in which Sabine was working to control the impact of the physical environment on sound, the modern world was changing, and the public was, sometimes unhappily, forced to listen.

The sheer noise of machinery during this period of rapid technological growth, as well as increased traffic in city streets, led to an awareness of just how loud the human race was becoming.

Elaborate studies were done to measure street noise and control the worst offenders. Julia Barnett Rice, a wealthy West Side New York matron, established the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, which led eventually to the enactment of laws to regulate noise around hospitals and schools.

The desire to eliminate noise fell in naturally with a drive to eliminate everything unnecessary and was linked with efficiency and modernism. William Strunk’s “Elements of Style” eliminated unnecessary Victorian verbiage, women shortened their hair and their skirts, and studies showed that a noisy workplace was an inefficient workplace.

The populace gave itself over to the new way of thinking with gusto, but as the world began to change with the end of the 1920s, so too did the public’s priorities.

Thompson closes the book with the opening of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. Constructed according to the new theory of acoustics, which now not only eliminated reverberation but also mixed it back in using microphones and echo chambers, the new hall was acoustically perfect, the new towers shut out street noise, and the architecture was a hymn to the future.

The music hall, however, was too big for its intended use, and was better suited to another new technology, sound films.

The stock market had crashed, and the golden statue of Prometheus in front of Rockefeller Center was dubbed “Leaping Looie” because he appeared to be frozen in mid-plummet himself.

“American life had entered a new and uncertain era,” Thompson writes, “and the nation now faced problems that made the long-sought and hard-won mastery of those age-old mysteries of the acoustic seem like mere child’s play.”

Thompson has great fun with this subject, which seems esoteric until it is closely observed. With 100 pages of footnotes and a 45-page bibliography, it is clear that she found it hard to contain her enthusiasm.

Linking art, architecture, literature, music styles and human behavior, this portrait of an age and how it listened is unusually complex and full.

Ellen S. Wilson is a free-lance writer in Pittsburgh.

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