Noise and Listening in Contemporary Times

Primary Preface, or Prologue

As a child there were few things that I couldn’t figure out for myself. Through the nights after my mother went to sleep I would lay in bed reading. This showed in my coursework but I had a tendency to be bored in school and was easily distracted after completing required tasks. My mother raised me to believe fully in my unlimited potential, a powerful tool that guides me still today. The one fault that I have found is my failure to ask questions. I can link this to the fact that I was an only-child, had few playmates, kept to myself, had a single-working mother and therefore had to figure things out on my own. Occasionally I would find later, after further reading, coursework and experience that some of my theories about the inner workings of the world and banal rules that one is required to follow were completely wrong (I considered flirtatious winking to be the simultaneous batting of both lids) but I am surprised today at how astute my observations were at such a young age. For instance, I remember imagining particles in water bouncing around when it boiled which is why it hurts when it strikes the skin. So, when I first came upon the term “contemporary” and found it used in confusing instances I was baffled. How could I listen to a contemporary pop artist and at the same time read about Mozart and his contemporaries? I suppose the term slipped by me and it didn’t matter enough for me to pursue it for I collected the data and slipped by the nuances. It was only in the latter half of my education that I looked closely at detail and yet the term remained an uncomfortable bump in text. The day when I first understood the meaning of the word escapes me but it was surely in the latter half. I was no longer interested in the dates and science of an object but would pay close attention to the way objects felt and moved and made noise. This is also when I became musical.

Secondary Preface

The Primary Preface, or Prologue, is meant to lead into a discussion regarding the term “contemporary” in order to nullify all qualitative judgments regarding time. To understand contemporary is to forfeit the ability to consider one time period better than another. While it is true that a child’s life is not as threatened as it was in Victorian times one could argue against the importance of that child’s life. Surely human rights are to be taken into consideration, as they were in many of the liberal pamphlets of the time, but if one were to compare Victorian children and children of present day it would be difficult to say if they are better off. Suffering is bad, this is a given, but if all of history is to be taken into consideration there seems to be little that is necessary of a life other than the perpetuation of history. Surely the children of today are treated with a different care and respect than Victorian children were but one could also argue that the adults believed then that physical maturation was directly linked with moral maturation. This lead to rash beatings and dire punishment but one could only say that they believed that this was the way in which a child should be raised. Class-consciousness also should be considered and I am reminded of the story of The Whipping Boy in which a young king had another child whipped for him when he misbehaved. This story complicates the objective yet it remains an example of the temperament. It can also be argued that children are given too much care these days; it weakens their ability to do things for themselves and shrinks the status of the parent to equality or falling below that of the child. This seems almost as wrong as whipping the children. In later life the children will suffer another brutality; amongst other things, they might not have respect for authority and might find themselves incapable of providing for themselves when the parents finally let go.

Contemporary Times.

From a historian’s standpoint present day does not provide enough hindsight for the right kind of introspection and comparison because we cannot draw conclusions regarding the failure or success based on events and statistics. Relativity is necessary but we simply cannot see beyond the forest. Yet, it is possible to combine historical observations in order to draw conclusions about our contemporary world so that we may improve it or simply form opinions about it. It is my aim with this paper to compare the Victorian soundscape with that of the 21st century and to juxtapose the act of listening as it may have occurred with the way it appears to occur today. Beyond this aim my goal is to reject any qualitative judgment in regards to these periods.

Before the Industrial Revolution was full blown and prior to widespread usage of the phonograph and telephone we gather from poets and authors that sound was important. Whitman’s poetry emphases sound as the affirmation of human existence. The human voice was sacred and holy just as the Word of God. Victorians were convinced that physical growth connected directly to morality, which is important to our argument because it emphasizes the weight of the physicality of objects and experience. Before the separation of sound from its source, people experienced life directly and without translation. Sounds outside of a city home would have included footsteps, shouting, carriages, horses, music, doors opening and shutting, trolley bells ringing, train whistles, and all the sounds that provide evidence of human activity. As the Industrial Revolution took hold and cities became louder and faster their people started forgetting the breath associated with a human shout and the vibration created by wheels on cobble stone. As sound becomes overwhelming our ears become selective and we stop listening. Certainly we hear the sounds around us but we begin to choose those sounds that are important. The sound of the city must have been so overwhelming that it can be blamed for much of the perceived hysteria amongst women and also for the burst of creativity associated with the fin-de-siecle.
To Victorian ears city life was insulting and therefore in dire need of order and restraint. While one can blame the Industrial Revolution for the chaotic spirit it should be said that it encouraged activity and creation. Despite stringent moral codes, rules were broken and authority questioned and it is my contention that it is directly connected not simply to industry but is the explicit product of the new sound of the city.

With that in mind we should look at our present situation: In this day we are concerned with creating silence. With paved roads, sound-proofed walls and windows, public spaced saturated with Muzak, nature sounds used as relaxation, widespread walkman usage, technological advances in recording, and numerous other sound controllers, we have learned to shut out the human presence from sound. We are meant to exist as islands unto ourselves. Ironically, as the world becomes louder we are encouraged to stop listening. An argument could be made that in the 1900’s the world was actually perceived as louder because its people were not deaf to the environment. At the turn of the century, because of the Industrial Revolution, cities were a mess of sound and activity but this noise was new to ears that were accustomed to nature and slowness. Contemporary studies discuss the nervousness and increased hysteria among women at this time but in hindsight we see the turn of the century as fruitful and full of innovative experimentation in the humanities, science, industry, and virtually all aspects of human experience. It is this increased awareness, namely of noise awareness in relation to past silence, that I believe is the cause of this perpetual energy.

Contemporary Conclusion.

I would like to restate and reaffirm my contention that NOW is no better than THEN; that contemporary is a complicated term that must be embraced and understood; that sound differs today from what it was in Victorian time but it is impossible to consider the former better than the latter or vice versa. Contemporary to this thought I am fully aware of my own perspective in regards to sound. It is a contemporary argument and therefore is informed by my contemporary experience. I maintain that in the end our absence of listening can only provoke better listening and that our appreciation of non-contemporary experience alongside contemporary experience is of utmost importance.

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