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Historian adds new dimension to modern era: A distinctive 'soundscape' shaped by technology

University of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA - "Modernism" calls to mind the literature of Joyce, the art of Picasso, the music of Stravinsky, the architecture of Le Corbusier. A new book by a University of Pennsylvania historian suggests that the new "soundscape" that emerged between 1900 and 1933 - an aural environment shaped by technologies such as acoustical tiles, public address systems and microphones - represents an equally distinctive facet of the modern era.

In "The Soundscape of Modernity" (MIT Press, 2002), Emily Thompson sheds light on the underlying cultural values and beliefs that shaped the explosion in acoustical engineering and manipulation in early-20th-century America.

"As in so many other areas of life during the early 20th century, cultural views of listening and sound were shaped by a near-worship of science and engineering," said Thompson, assistant professor of history and sociology of science at Penn. "There was a great desire to control sound and to achieve that control with new technological tools."

This new soundscape paralleled the devotion of modernist authors, poets, artists and architects to simplicity and function, but its practitioners were physicists and engineers armed with reverberation equations, sound meters, loudspeakers and new sound-dampening materials.

One result, Thompson said, was a hushed, echo-free soundscape that soon blanketed the nation, making Radio City Music Hall sound much the same as the super-insulated PSFS skyscraper in Philadelphia or a Hollywood soundstage.

"In the early 1900s there was a desire to attain a uniform sound that was clear, direct and nonreverberant," said Thompson, who has worked as a sound engineer at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and at WQED-FM, the public radio station in Pittsburgh. "With the loss of reverberation, there was a gradual dissociation of sound from space; the severance was made complete when electroacoustic devices such as loudspeakers claimed sound as their own."

In addition to manipulating the desirable sounds produced in American concert halls, acoustical technologies represented for many citizens the hope of refuge from an increasingly urban, noisy society. As the nature of urban noise shifted from animals, peddlers and musicians to the sounds of machinery, so changed attempts to combat it. Earlier attempts at urban-noise control focused on legislating personal behavior, but as the din of machines increased, it became clear that only engineers and their technologies could provide relief.


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