Audience members at Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House in China. Photograph: Iwan Baan
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Reviewed: Noise - a Human History of Sound and Listening by David Hendy

Boom industry.

Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening
David Hendy
Profile Books, 402pp, £16.99

During a classical music concert, a cough is rarely just a cough. According to a recent paper by the economist Andreas Wagener, people are twice as likely to cough during a concert as at other times. Furthermore, they are more likely to cough during modern, atonal music than during better-known repertoire and they cough more during slow or quiet passages than during fast and loud ones.

The classical cough, then, is no accident but rather a form of communication disguised as involuntary physiological tic. “Because of their ambiguity – they may always be forgiven as bodily reflexes – coughs are a noisy substitute for direct, verbal communication and participation,” Wagener writes. “They allow for social interaction up to contagious herding, propagate (possibly incorrect) assessments of the performance and reassure concert-goers in their aesthetic judgements.”

Coughers might thus be rebelling nonverbally against the hierarchy imposed on them – that of powerful, noise-making performers and submissive, silent audience. Wagener’s paper is too recent to have found its way into David Hendy’s book, but it reflects in this way one of Noise’s major themes – that social groups struggle for supremacy using sound as a proxy. (In classical music, the asymmetry of the right to make noise is quite recent. Chamber music used to be the mainly ignored soundtrack to parties, while opera-goers would heckle or cheer ad libitum.) From the hypnagogic effects of shamanic singing in enclosed spaces to the territorial authority of church bells and the use of carefully engineered background music in workplaces and supermarkets, sound is often, Hendy points out, a means of control.

If there is one general lesson that this amiably diverting book reminds us of, it’s that sound has more profound effects on us than we often consciously realise – a truth exploited by movie composers and sound editors. It is fascinating to learn, for example, of the archaeologists who moved through ancient French caves in darkness, performing a crude form of bat-like echolocation: shouting or clapping and listening to the reverberations. When the acoustics of the cave changed, they would turn on their torches – and there, more often than not, find a cave painting.

Why the cave art should have been so placed is a mystery – as are many things about the distant past. Thus Hendy’s first section on the prehistory of sound – which also takes in musical stones and African drumming as proto-telegraph – is highly speculative in tone, sometimes excessively so. Discussing what came before human speech, Hendy guesses: “Something with the quality of music might well have been a safer evolutionary bet than using words.” The deployment of the term “evolution - ary” does not help this sentence rise to the level of science.

From prehistory, Hendy moves to classical antiquity, where we find Seneca complaining about the din from the baths he lived above. (This prompts one of the book’s few jokes: “‘Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to?’ [Seneca] explained, with what can only be described as a complete lack of stoicism.”) Thence we fast-forward to the medieval and early-modern periods, with monkish days measured out in bells, priestly chanting making people feel better and reverberant cathedrals hosting heavenly music.

Eventually, there arose what Hendy calls a “cult of decorum”: making noise was perceived as lower class, if not outright revolutionary. “Increasingly,” Hendy writes, “the noise of revelry was simply assumed to be the noise of outright rebellion.” (There is no mention here of the early-1990s rave scene and the legislative immortalisation, in 1994’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, of “repetitive beats” but it fits right in.) The ability to flee annoying tumult was always a prerogative of the rich, from wealthy Romans running to the hills to well-to-do Edinburghers flocking to the New Town. During the First World War, officers suffering shell shock would be sent off for quiet recuperation, while enlisted men were more likely to be classed as “neurasthenic”.

As Hendy skips through the centuries, he observes Henry David Thoreau complaining about the encroaching noise of the railways, the shrieks and roars of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution and the inventions of the stethoscope, gramophone, radio and Muzak. For the latter, Erik Satie must shoulder at least some of the blame, with his call for a new species of “furniture music”. In 1920, he created such a piece to be played in a theatre foyer during the interval. “As soon as they heard it,” Hendy relates, “the theatre audience stopped talking and stood in reverential silence. Satie was furious.” Meanwhile, Hendy notes that “piped music” was originally used as a way of making frightening new technology, such as the elevator, seem more comfortable.

It’s sometimes unclear to what extent Hendy’s examples show sound working as sound, rather than sound happening to accompany something else that is more pointedly relevant. Zooming across the map to South America, Hendy emphasises the frightening loudness of the Spanish colonists’ guns – though one suspects that if the guns’ deafening noise had not been routinely accompanied by the dropping dead of their unfortunate targets, the noise would have soon lost its power to amaze. Hendy is on safer ground when he stresses later that the noise of 20th-century warfare, rather than being a homogeneous pandemonium, was rapidly “readable” by soldiers, who analysed it for a wealth of information critical for their survival.

Leaping around from one colourful and intriguing vignette to another over the course of the book’s 30 short chapters, Hendy fulfils only partially the ambivalent promise of his introduction, in which he disavows the kind of “intellectual history” of sound essayed by other writers and promises instead a “social history”. But even a social history is not just one damned thing after another.

“Instead of worrying about the usual boundaries between noise and music, or cacophony and silence, or speech and song,” Hendy counsels eagerly, “we need to discover the virtues of leaving them to one side.” One may immediately resist the wheedling authoritarianism of his phrasing (“we need”, do we? Speak for yourself!) and conclude regretfully that Hendy’s successful fidelity to this programme of ignoring conceptual distinctions renders his book analytically impoverished.

The term “noise”, for a start, is usually (and usefully) distinguished from “sound” in general by explaining that noise is “unwanted sound”. Yet, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, Hendy decides that “noise” means just what he wants it to mean: that is, any kind of sound at all. He even heroically leaves to one side the boundary between noise and speech, devoting a chatty chapter to rhetoric in ancient Rome – an interesting enough subject but impossible to cover more than superficially in the 12 pages allotted.

Discussing oral storytelling traditions, Hendy calls the Iliad “a piece of early sound art”, which is in danger of implying, bizarrely, that speech is noise and nothing else. (It seems that if you set too many distinctions to one side, meaning goes out the window.) “In a vigorous oral culture,” Hendy claims, “it’s hard to draw a firm line between speaker and listener.” It isn’t really – the speaker is still the one reciting the story, even if others are chatting and butting in – and to claim otherwise is a kind of conceptual democratisation gone mad.

Hendy has the unfortunate habit, too, of congratulating himself on perfectly unsurprising opinions. He insists early on, “I’ve stressed how the distant human past was probably far from silent” – as though anyone had ever imagined that it was. Later, he writes courageously: “I would go so far as to say that it was through conversation, as much as through writing, that we should locate the origin of philosophy and rational thought in the ancient world.” Anyone who has ever heard of Socrates and his forebears would readily concur.

Throughout, Hendy’s emphasis is on championing noise as a vehicle of sociality. In this rather Panglossian view, there is little worthy of the name of noise “pollution”, except, perhaps, poor Muzak. Several times, Hendy repeats his pretty and persuasive formula that sound is “a kind of ‘touching’ at a distance” but seems reluctant to draw too strongly the obvious conclusion that, if so, some kinds of sound constitute an assault.

Though he expresses sympathy for the noise-exhausted residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, he doesn’t dwell on how the traffic noise suffered by people who live near major roads today in London or New York increases their risk of stroke and lowers their scores on IQ tests. And a single study suggesting that people work more creatively in the babbling ambience of a coffee shop does not warrant Hendy’s warm and fuzzy conclusion that: “We think best . . . whenever we can hear each other close by” – at least, I suppose Marcel Proust would have a word to say about that, from the sonically insulated haven of his cork-lined room. (In his final chapters, Hendy leans heavily on Garret Keizer’s The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, a much more critical and detailed investigation into the noisome effects of modern noise.)

Is the world now noisier than it ever was? The answer seems unequivocally yes, even if you can always dig up curmudgeons in earlier eras complaining about the unprecedented noise of their environments. Our global modern racket, as Hendy hastily acknowledges late on, is physically harming wild animals such as elk (with the din of snow mobiles) and whales (industrial shipping) as well as ourselves.

Not dwelled on within these pages, either, is how so many people today out on the street or on public transport are playing music to themselves using headphones or earphones turned up to alarmingly damaging volumes (thus also irritating people around them with the sonic overspill).

This phenomenon seems to imply a general desperation to control our sonic environment in the face of the thousand aural shocks of metropolitan life. What is surely a coming pandemic of severely compromised hearing because of such mp3-caning habits – a self-inflicted species of the “boilermakers’ disease” that Hendy notes was, by the end of the 19th century, afflicting “shipbuilders, locksmiths, iron-turners, weavers, engine drivers, railway workers” – may be a price some moderns are willing to pay. Fight fire with fire, alien noise with your chosen noise, volume with more volume, until at length noise can’t touch you at all.

It seems telling, too, that though Hendy devotes a chapter to the noise of stadium crowds, from the London 2012 Olympics back to the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, and celebrates the ability of a rebellious crowd to show its displeasure through booing, he does not mention the most notorious modern instrument of sporting mob dictatorship. I mean the vuvuzela, the plastic horn whose aggregated cacophonous buzzfarting ruined the auditory atmosphere of the 2010 World Cup for spectators around the world and often made it impossible for the players themselves to hear one another’s calls. Despite the sunny bias of Hendy’s choice of historical stories, the crowd is not always right, and sometimes noise really is just noise.

Steven Poole’s latest book is “You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture” Say what? A picnic is interrupted by plane noise (Union Books, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times