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  • Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond by Hillel Schwartz
  • Erin M. Holmes
Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond. By Hillel Schwartz (New York: Zone Books, 2011. 912 pp. $38.95).

In Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond, Hillel Schwartz works relentlessly to identify almost every possible proof of noise, “unwanted sound,” in many different societies over a very long period of time. The effect is deeply impressive. Schwartz has produced an enduring study that will become a touchstone for all other historians of sound, noise, and historical acoustemology. From the outset, Making Noise distinguishes between sound and noise, attending to the sounds of civilization rather than the sounds of nature, and determines that only by historicizing noise as a response to the conditions and sensibilities of a given period can the complexity of those vastly different societies’ experience be understood.

“It is not possible to begin quietly,” we are told from the outset. No part of life can truly be lived quietly suggests Schwartz as he ranges over virtually every human experience from birth to death. His temporal and geographic breadth is especially noteworthy. On the subject of bells alone, for example, Schwartz moves fluidly from medieval Europe’s regimented tolling of ecclesiastical hours to complaints lodged against St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia toward the end of the nineteenth century. With similar breadth, Schwartz treats us to a discussion of “lulls” as an auditory sanctuary falsely promising relief for the ears, detailing examples from Italy, Japan, England, and North America. At times quite astonishing—and always refreshing—such breadth characterizes Making Noise. Whether he is detailing the development of modern sonar or the [End Page 1099] acoustic evolution of the prison system, Schwartz has a remarkable ability to move easily between far-distant and recent pasts. Such breadth evinces a mastery of secondary and primary sources and historians, specialists, and the general reader alike will find the book a compelling chronicle of the history of noise.

Schwartz identifies so much evidence that weaving the various threads into a single narrative proves challenging. Instead, Making Noise relies on Schwartz’s perceptive analysis of the creaks, crashes, and bangs that appear in each section to provide a sense of connection between a sometimes disparate collection of events and observations. Somehow the connections are made, but the leaps can be dizzying as the discussion flows from physics to Sartre and jazz to medieval noise ordinances. This confusion is compounded by the fact that at times Schwartz’s prose, “meant to be read aloud,” is more an experiment with sound and language as poetry than it is cleanly analytical; while this produces an evocative description of the historical soundscape, it can be distracting and discouraging to those seeking out the history of particular noises or following Schwartz’s interpretations of the soundscape.

Making Noise focuses on bringing structure to the chaos of this particular brand of sound. The first “rounds,” “Bang (A Beginning)” and “Everywhere” serve as an extended introduction to the origins of noise at its most basic, focusing on sounds made exclusively by man, as well as the earliest thoughts on the origins of noise, and offering the most sustained analysis of those sounds within their cultural and historical context. “Everywhen, Everyone” moves from this inclusive discussion into conditional noises (sounds heard by particular people, at particular times, in particular places, thereby opening a discussion of privilege and possibility previously untapped by the discussion of universal noises), before setting up the final section “Everyhow,” which delves into man’s expansion of the realm of noise enhanced by science and technology.

This last “round” of Making Noise offers a tantalizing intersection between the history of sound and the growing history of science and technology, revealing how much noise mankind has been unable to hear throughout the millennia and the extent to which revealing, finding, and amplifying that noise has changed society. Though Making Noise draws heavily on a range of scholarly work, reaching across disciplines to support its arguments, Schwartz does not push the boundaries for aurality established by those works and chooses not to complicate his interpretation of noise...


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pp. 1099-1100
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