There was a movie that I just couldn’t get out of my head. Not because it was good, but because it had come so highly recommended at the time and was such a big letdown. The time was the mid-eighties; sometimes disappointment really hangs in there. At first I thought it was Blow Out (a ridiculously lame riff on Blow Up and The Conversation) but it wasn’t that turkey. It turned out that the scene that I couldn’t forget was from the sonic extravaganza To Live and Die in LA.
The spotting brush (usually these things are about four or five hairs round) hit the Kodalith with a scratching sound and I was gone in a rage. When a spotting brush makes that kind of racket, I know I have entered into some sort of alternate universe where a pin dropping can shatter an eardrum. The rest of the clip is pretty indicative; it’s foley gone mad with a relentless Wang Chung score.
I was reminded of this stuff this morning when I read The Death of High Fidelity. I don’t think it was MP3s that were responsible for the death of natural sound—I think it happened long before that, in the mid-eighties. No, I’m not just talking about the advent of digital sound in general, either. I think the movies helped kill high fidelity sound.
Looking out the window of the History Center, you can’t hear the freeway. It’s totally quiet, save the sound of the children playing in the distance. Crossing through the playroom with careful displays behind glass, one encounters a faux building that claims that there is an “Open House.” Inside it, there were many strange noises—all canned.
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)
When I went to the Minnesota History Center a few days ago, I was surprised by how big the building was. Standing in a polished outer hallway, I asked a volunteer sitting at a table outside the café for directions. The wash of sound in the otherwise silent hall was surreal. It was if I were speaking through mud, and with each turn-taking exchange it seemed as if the echo of a hundred other conversations might be excited by the resonance.