Unremarkable objects like sound meters and acoustical tiles have as much to say about the ways that people understood their world as do the paintings of Pablo Picasso, the writings of John Dos Passos, the music of Igor Stravinsky, and the architecture of Walter Gropius. All are cultural constructions that epitomized an era defined by the shocks and displacements of a society reformulating its very experience of time and space.

Karl Marx had these displacements in mind when he famously summarized the condition of modernity by proclaiming, “All that is solid melts into air.” Marx had very particular ideas about the material aspects of life and their role in historical change, ides not necessarily at play in the story that follows. Nonetheless, like Marx, I believe that the essence of history is found in its material. I argue against the idea of modernity as a cultural zeitgeist, a matrix of disembodied ideas perceived and translated by great artists into material forms that then trickle down to a more popular level of consciousness. In the story that follows, modernity was built from the ground up. It was constructed by the actions and through the experiences of ordinary individuals as they struggled to make sense of their world.

If modern culture is not a zeitgeist, not an immaterial cluster of ideas somehow “in the air,” it must be acknowledged that sound most certainly is there, in the air. (11-12)
. . .

The physical transformation of the soundscape, as well as the social and cultural transformations taking place within it, combined to create a culture in which noise became a defining element. Noise was now an essential aspect of the modern American experience. It generated an “intense American excitability;” it was an “American symptom.” “There is nothing fanciful,” the Saturday Review of Literature editorialized, “in the assertion that the pitch of modern life is raised by the rhythmic noise that constantly beats upon us. No one strolls in city streets, there is no repose in automobiles or subways, nor relaxation anywhere within the range of a throbbing that is swifter than nature. Our nervous hearts react from noise to more noise, speeding the car, hastening the rattling train, crowding in cities that raise higher and higher into an air that, far above the grosser accidents of sound, pulses with pure rhythm.”

Simply put, the Roaring Twenties really did roar. By listening to that roar as acutely as did that Japanese visitor many years ago, we can understand more fully the civilization that produced it, as well as the culture that civilization constructed to comprehend it. (119-120)

The Soundscape of Modernity, Emily Thompson 2002,


June 15, 2006 4:06 PM