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'Music, Noise and Silence': emerging themes

Context: industrial modernity

That the network series explored the path of music’s development over a quarter millennium within the context of the rise of industrial modernity is more than coincidence. Music in this era, we proposed, has been a cultural component of a world responding to industrial change and employing the resources of the sciences to do so. Our insistence that the workshops use the very broad temporal context of scientific and industrial modernity paid dividends in enabling us to take the long view inclusive of many different musical forms as well as a plurality of scientific and technological developments. But industrial modernity can be considered as having many differing relations to music: it might merely be the background context against which music has changed. It might be an umbrella term for the technologies that are put to work in creating new materials, instruments and devices to create and reproduce music. In its association with science, using the category of industrial modernity might enable new understandings of sound and music and how we perceive them. Myles Jackson’s demonstration in the third workshop exemplified the links between industrial capability and musical instrument making. Using items from the Museum’s collection he illustrated the argument of his book Harmonious Triads (Jackson, 2006) that instrument makers, musicians and physicists had all worked together in the nineteenth century. The noise of industrial modernity might also be an inspiration in noisy forms of music. Across the nineteenth century, symphony orchestras also grew substantially in size and volume, requiring new instruments to be created, especially in the bass register, to be heard against the other instruments. Furthermore, the rhythms of industrial sound might render novel kinds of rhythmic music acceptable and attractive, or provoke a reaction in the composition of particularly quiet and contemplative musical styles. The workshop series exposed the participants to many of these ideas and possibilities.

Although the workshops’ main concentration on the noise of modernity was on the interwar period, the relevance of the direct impact of older industrial noise was particularly evident in the performance of Sarah Angliss and Caroline Radcliffe’s piece, The Machinery: Clog Dancing as Early Noise Music, part of the evening concert in the third workshop. Lancashire clog dancing was far from a rural tradition; it was a response to the sounds of the cotton weaving mills. In Radcliffe and Angliss’s reading, the repetitious rhythm of weaving looms forms a proto-Industrial music soundtrack to a mechanoid dance.[29] The resonances with Alexei Monroe’s account of recent techno and industrial music were clear, even as the latter’s account also helped locate a putative longer history of noise musics via Russolo’s Art of Noises (1913) and Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens (1922).

Overcoming industrial noise through the use of music in industrial workplaces was a well-established principle from the interwar period, when industrial psychologists, aided by the newly available electronic  amplifiers, experimented with the influence of music on productivity. In the open-plan white-collar workplaces of the present day, many people also make music their productivity aid, as they benefit from MP3 compression and streaming services to supply music to aid concentration and block the noise of the office. James Mansell observed in the second workshop that the consensus conclusion of the interwar noise debates was that it behoves the individual to maintain mental resilience in the midst of the noise of modernity. The implication is the same as Dixon’s account of the social experiment in Darlington. In both cases, the advent of personal listening technologies may provide a new means to escape the noise of modernity by retaining oneself within its bounds. This suggests an inversion of the Anti-Noise League’s campaign against ‘needless noise’, instead focusing attention on ‘necessary silence’.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170814/005