The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (review)
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The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 by Emily Thompson. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2002. 509 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-20138-0.

Emily Thompson's account of the modern American soundscape moves like a [End Page 260] grand tape loop, slowly passing the chronological spindles of 1900 and 1933 to build an increasingly active acoustic mirror of the era. Buildings stand in for either loop point: Symphony Hall in Boston, which opened on 15 October 1900, and Rockefeller Center's Radio City Music Hall, which opened on 27 December 1932. The Boston facility was the first in American history to be designed on the principles of reverberation outlined by the formula of Harvard physics researcher Wallace Sabine. At this point, acoustic science first met the field of commercial design and architecture. By 1932, interior sound design had taken a weird trip through the circuits. Acoustic tiles and loudspeakers canceled out most of the natural reverberation. Reverb was then applied electronically to the outgoing signal. This narrative of the loss of natural reverberation and its electroacoustic reconstruction participates in "a larger cultural matrix of modernity dedicated to the destruction of traditional time-space relationships" (p. 172).

Between an introduction to modern acoustics and a closing chapter on electroacoustic theater design, Thompson follows four chronological trails through several specific fields: first, acoustics; next, musical composition and noise abatement engineering; then, environmental control and acoustic materials manufacture; and finally, the motion picture industry and electroacoustic engineering. The influence of certain players, such as Sabine, echoes across the chapters. Sabine provided his formula as open source to academics, engineers and commercial designers and builders. The resulting field of acoustics depends on the application of ideas across disciplines and institutions, while tools like the condenser transmitter, developed around 1917, are hybrids of this theoretical and practical exchange.

The pages of Thompson's book are filled with examples of cross-disciplinary transaction, theft and influence. Sometimes this contact is direct, chronicled in accounts of academics such as Vern Knudsen, who taught physics at UCLA while fostering lucrative consulting assignments with both the city of Los Angeles and the motion picture industry. The most interesting chapter in the book, "Noise and Modern Culture, 1900-1933," offers an example of less direct influences. This rambunctious chapter constructs a compact noise portrait of the era. Anecdotes of New York apartment living—where neighbors squabble over noisy parties and attempt to use noise-controlling legislation to settle their complaints—juxtapose against tales of various musicians seeking to imitate urban noise (particularly jazz composers such as Duke Ellington) or to devise instruments for making raw noise (such as Tomasso Marinetti and Luigi Russolo). Advocates for noise control team up with engineers promising to measure and eliminate noise from the public soundscape even as audiences struggle to come to terms with the radical soundscapes assaulting them in the concert hall, including Man Ray's inauguration of the mosh-pit decades early by throwing punches during the 1923 premiere of George Antheil's Mechanisms.

Noting the general failure to abate urban noise, Thompson tracks the interiorization of sound as the design industry treats sound as one element of environmental control. She next defines the microphones and loudspeakers of electroacoustics as "modern sound" itself. As the reverberating space of live performance transforms into its own electronically generated double, Sabine's formula for reverberation is first revised, then rendered obsolete as it becomes a matter for electronic circuitry rather than a law of physical space. Thompson follows a general movement from the soundscape of the physical into the soundtrack, which she claims "epitomized the sound of modern America" owing to "its commodified nature, in its direct and nonreverberant quality, in its emphasis on the signal and its freedom from noise, and in its ability to transcend traditional constraints of time and space" (p. 284). Radio City Music Hall represents the final stage of modern aural architecture, a physical recreation of the virtual space of the soundtrack.

Thompson constructs a tangible cultural artifact not only through descriptions of sound but also through the lavish use of photographs, illustrations, vintage...


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