- Soundscapes of the Urban Past: Staged Sound as Mediated Cultural Heritage ed. by Karin Bijsterveld
This edited collection, produced by members of the Soundscapes of the Urban Past research project at Maastricht University, investigates the urban soundscapes of Amsterdam, London, and Berlin as a window into the cities’ evolving identities over the course of the twentieth century. Given the lacuna of historical recordings of everyday urban experiences, scholars’ access to soundscapes of the past—defined here as both the sonic environments of cities and urban residents’ perceptions of those sounds—is necessarily mediated through written texts, radio plays, and films. Yet because historical actors frequently took note of sounds only when they elicited particularly strong reactions, the authors argue, textual sources referencing the “putative historical realities” of past soundscapes can be analyzed alongside radio plays and films “dramatizing” urban environments (p. 15). This methodological premise undergirds the three principal chapters, which examine patterns in the representation (or “staging”) of urban soundscapes over time and across different media.
In “Shifting Sounds,” the first core essay, four coauthors (Karin Bijsterveld, Annelies Jacobs, Jasper Albers, and Andreas Fickers) analyze novels, films, diaries, and travel writing from the 1920s through the 2000s to uncover the “narrative repertoires … used to articulate particular impressions of urban soundscapes” (p. 35). They find that sound has most commonly been deployed to frame scenes of urban arrivals, juxtapose soundscapes of the present with those of the past, compare and contrast urban neighborhoods, and highlight the varied rhythms of urban life. Their second lengthy essay, “Sounds Familiar,” examines the symbolism and narrative function of sound in four different versions of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: the original 1929 novel, a 1930 radio play, the 1931 film, and Rainer Fassbinder’s 1980 television serial. While considering the historical factors shaping the production and reception of each version, the authors’ goal is to demonstrate the value of a comparative “intermedial” approach for studying sound. Radio, sound film, and television may have made possible the creation and mass diffusion of soundtracks for Döblin’s narrative, but [End Page 265] the novel ultimately provides the richest evocation of the soundscape of interwar Berlin. Carolyn Birdsall, who authors the final core essay, “Sonic Artefacts,” tackles the representation of cities in pre-World War II German radio documentaries. Highlighting how techniques of modernist visual collage shaped the structure of early radio reportage, she identifies multiple techniques—from the “wandering microphone” to the “bird’s-eye view”—cultivated by reporters to create auditory images for listeners at home.
The authors then invited leading media and sound studies scholars from Europe and the United States to write six short “expansions” to their core essays. In the most evocative of these contributions, Mark M. Smith challenges researchers to contemplate the sonic importance of water (from lapping rivers to waterpowered machines) in urban spaces; Jonathan Sterne offers a critical reflection on the “soundscape” as an intellectual construct; and Ross Brown considers the importance of staged silence to urban memorial and Armistice Day commemorations. The methodological and topical diversity of the essays together raises provocative questions for sound studies scholars about how to interpret and “listen” to different media for their sonic resonances.
However, readers looking for a coherent argument about the ways urban soundscapes (or their representations) have evolved over time or the distinctive features of a particular city’s sonic environment may be disappointed, as the essays primarily theorize urban soundscapes and listeners’ interactions with them. The introduction outlines a number of key concepts for analyzing soundscapes (“auditory topoi,” “acoustic profiling,” and “audiographs”) and provides a rubric for categorizing sounds (“keynote sounds,” “sound marks,” and “iconic sounds”), yet the subsequent essays employ this terminology inconsistently, while the authors continue to introduce new terms such as “period ear,” the “noisification of music,” and “earwitnessing.” Such classification is undoubtedly useful, but the repeated defining and qualification of these terms becomes belabored for the reader, at times obscuring the main arguments of an essay.
Finally, given the importance of sound to urban cultural...