- An Interview with Emily Thompson
Emily Thompson is a professor of history at Princeton University. Her research addresses the cultural history of sound, music, noise, and listening and focuses on how these phenomena and activities intersect with technologies like the phonograph, motion pictures, and architecture. Thompson’s groundbreaking work, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (MIT Press, 2002), explores the relationships between sound and the physical spaces in which we hear them and how both helped define modernity in earlytwentieth-century America. Her current research focuses on the transformation of technical work during the transition from silent to sound motion pictures in the American film industry. We sat down with Professor Thompson to discuss her views on the relationship between sound and architecture, technology’s role in shaping media spaces, and the creative power of the laborer.
VLT: How do the physical spaces in which we encounter and interact with media affect our experiences with them?
ET: I think the sounds of all spaces affect our behavior, and media spaces are just a subset of the larger historical project that I’ve been engaged with, which involves restaurants and schools as well as concert halls and movie theaters. But, focusing on the media or performance spaces that I’ve studied, it’s obviously a crucial element. With live music the sound is primary, and with audiovisual media it’s part of the package. The sound is interacting with the space, and that interaction is an important element that is really contributing to the program. So what you hear is not simply the sound of that media program but also how it’s being shaped as it travels from its source to the listener’s ear through the space the listener inhabits.
When sound movies took over the U.S. film industry in the late 1920s, sound engineers and theater designers and all of the people involved in setting up these new media spaces had what I would call philosophical discussions about the relationship between sound and space and what the audience should be hearing when they go to a sound movie.
VLT: As opposed to more of a material discussion, they began with philosophical questions?
ET: They were trying to solve technical problems, how to “get” “good sound” but also, and even more fundamentally, to figure out what constitutes “good sound.” What should sound movies sound like? Fortunately for me as an historian, the Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers included not just the papers that were presented at their meetings but also a transcription of the Q&A discussions afterward. So we really have a direct line to people who were really trying to answer the same question that you are asking today.
The question then was whether audiences should hear the space that they inhabited or that virtual space that the movie was creating. And if the attempt was to create the virtual space, would that become sonically confusing for an audience? Should all sound movies sound spatially like a theater because you’re sitting in a theater when you watch them, because that is where the event is occurring for you? If so, you should have a very spatially neutral soundtrack so that the theater in which the soundtrack was reproduced would simply shape the sound that you would hear. A lot of early sound features were actually backstage musicals, and most of the very early short sounds were just filmed vaudeville performances, so you were often literally looking at a performer on a stage who was singing to you. For these films there was an equivalence between that virtual space and the space that the audience was inhabiting, so the question wasn’t necessarily a big problem right away. But as soon as sound films stepped away from the theatrical model and went back—like the silents—to taking [End Page 76] the audience anywhere and everywhere, moving through space from one cut to another, this question then had to be resolved. Should movies that take place outdoors sound like the outdoors, with no echo or reverberation? If a scene...