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All that noise

No sooner did I sit down to write this post than my ears were assaulted by the sounds of a jackhammer, which wreaked havoc with my powers of concentration. And then, to add insult to injury, the kid who lives in the apartment right below mine decided it was time right about now to tickle the ivories or, more to the point, to pound them. Oh, woe is me.

Sound Waves
Sound waves. Source: Smith College website

The only thing that served to ameliorate my sonic distress was the knowledge that I was not alone. In years gone by, similarly aggrieved New Yorkers took pen to paper and wrote to the municipal authorities, especially to the city’s department of health, to register their dismay at the racket that increasingly characterized urban life.

I picked up this juicy little fact from a fascinating interactive online exhibit called “The Roaring ‘Twenties” which draws on archival matter, maps and Movietone newsreels to document the aural history of New York City during the interwar years. An exercise in what its proponents call “sensory history,” the exhibition challenges us to think historically about sound.

Imagine the possibilities. We could eavesdrop on a synagogue service, whose frustrated clergy repeatedly called on those in the pews to stop talking and to tend to their prayers instead. Or we could take the measure of a sermon: Did its cadences lull its listeners to sleep or prod them into action? We could listen in on the often rancorous meetings of the all-powerful ritual committee as it decided which traditions to follow and which to relinquish. Conversations around the dinner table would also fill our ears, as would the stuff of vaudeville skits and theatrical performances. And what of the way things were taught? What of the sounds of the classroom? Of the workplace?

I’m jazzed by the prospect of integrating the history of sound into my own work and of drawing on the latest digital technologies to make that happen. I’m not sure what I’ll discover but one thing is for sure: I’ll be listening.

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