Go back to article: ‘Organising Sound’: how a research network might help structure an exhibition

Workshop 2: ‘Noise and Silence’, University of Nottingham, 26–27 March 2015

The second workshop, held in conjunction with the University of Nottingham’s Sensory Studies Network and hosted by Nottingham Lakeside Arts, set out to investigate the second pairing of auditory categories: noise and silence. Here, the aim was to explore the broader, ‘non-musical’, sound worlds of everyday life in which music exists. Specifically, the workshop set out to examine the sonic cultural context of industrial modernity which made noise an issue before, during and after the interwar period. To this end it centred on the Science Museum’s Noise Abatement exhibition in 1935, organised by the Anti-Noise League, a national body founded in 1934 to promote the suppression of ‘needless noise’. Concerned that new technological developments such as the motorcar and the wireless would lead to unbearable sonic chaos in the future, the League cast modern urban and industrial noise as unnatural and unhealthy, often in contrast to the natural and healthy qualities of rural sounds and the ‘right’ kinds of music. In the modern age of industry and urbanisation, listening attention has broadened to include the everyday, apparently meaningless, sounds of social hubbub. The struggle to give meaning to these ambient sounds – to understand how to hear and control them – has formed a significant part of our modern auditory culture, shaping the way we hear and think about music, silence and the sounds in between.

As a backdrop to our exploration of these issues, we installed an abridged version of the 1935 exhibition, comprising photographs and print materials from the original. Several of the talks throughout the workshop used the 1935 exhibition as their starting point. Karin Bijsterveld, for example, pointed out that the exhibition reflected the wider logic of noise abatement at the time, in its focus on engineering solutions to problems of noise. Indeed, the 1935 exhibition was more-or-less a trade show of new technologies whose aim was to measure, control, or silence everyday sound at source. Silence was a significant theme in the choice of exhibits in 1935, from the ‘Silent Railcar’ (top right of Figure 1), to the ‘Silent Lift’, and also in the adverts for various noiseless consumer technologies, featured in the exhibition catalogue, such as the ‘Silenta Typewriter’ (see Figure 2).

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of the Museums noise abatement exhibition in 1935

View southwards of the Science Museum’s Noise Abatement Exhibition, 1935

Figure 2

Newspaper advertisement for a silent typewriter and a silent vacuum cleaner

Advertisement page from Noise Abatement Exhibition catalogue, 1935

Bijsterveld noted that many of the approaches to noise begun in the 1930s have continued, including the problematic ‘individualisation’ of responsibility for noise, especially in relation to the slippery issue of domestic noise, where individuals are often left to their own devices to solve disputes with neighbours. She suggested that we might find new ways to think about neighbour noise not in the work of engineers or public health officials, but rather in that of sonic artists, who are perhaps better placed to offer us alternative ways of thinking about sonic space. For example, Sarah von Sonsbeeck’s ‘Letter to my Neighbours’ draws attention, with humour, to the sonic spaces we share by demanding rent on the space taken up in her apartment by intruding neighbour sounds. Noise is a human, social problem, Bijsterveld argued, and might be better approached not just through scientific-technical rationalisation, but also through cultural dialogue and community building; a process of coming together to establish shared consciousness of sound. That is an aim which might well be taken up in a future exhibition on sound.

If engineering and technological innovation was presented as the solution to the problem of noise in 1935, there remained nevertheless a need to give shape to the problem itself, often through medical arguments. Attempting to shift anti-noise discourse away from an association with the exceptional ‘neurasthenic’ sufferer, the Anti-Noise League claimed that noise was a genuine public health hazard, diminishing the efficiency and ‘nervous’ wellbeing of all hearers, not only those pre-disposed to aural hyper-sensitivity (Horder, 1935). However, as James Mansell argued in his talk on the second day of the workshop, the Anti-Noise League never succeeded in convincing government authorities of the health dangers of noise (Mansell, 2017b). Mansell showed that the League’s insistence that modern noise caused physical harm to the nervous system was rejected by government scientists. Instead they drew upon newer, psychological, theories which suggested that noise sensitivity results from pre-existing disorders of the mind rather than physiological disturbance to the body (Mansell, 2016). Rather than a social question, noise became a matter of the unpredictable mental variation between human beings and, indeed, as Mansell argued, a matter of the individual’s willingness to adapt to modernity and maintain mental resilience in the face of a constantly changing world (Bijsterveld, 2008). That the psychological argument ultimately won out over the physiological one in the 1930s highlights that then, and now, noise has remained politically and scientifically difficult to pin down and its fluctuating definition represents a fascinating index of our cultural relationship with sound.

Figure 3

Photograph on an anti noise league information stand from 1935

Anti-Noise League stand, probably from Health Week exhibition, c.1935

Town planning consultant Max Dixon, author of London’s ‘Sounder City’ plan – the UK’s first citywide strategy for managing environmental noise – reminded us in his talk that state-funded action on noise is still justified and financed not primarily on cultural grounds, but rather on medical ones (Dixon, 2004). Dixon pointed to the most recent studies on the health effects of noise, which attempt to make a case for a causal link between noise and raised blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. He called for ‘sustainable soundscape co-creation’ rather than noise abatement, pointing to the need for industry, government and citizens to work together to create more liveable sound environments. However, he expressed doubt about arts interventions which encourage a very close listening attention to the everyday sound world, because, in his experience, we depend upon our ability to adapt to environmental sound by learning to ignore it, or at least not listening to it in detail. As evidence for this, Dixon pointed to the Darlington Quiet Town experiment of the 1970s, during which the population of a single town were targeted with a noise awareness campaign together with significant reductions of environmental noise achieved via traffic re-routing. The result was that people became in fact more likely to complain about disturbing sounds, despite a measurable reduction in noise levels, because they had been newly sensitised to their sonic environment (Noise Advisory Council, 1981).

John Levack Drever, sonic ecologist and sound artist, made an important intervention by insisting that in noise and sonic product design, we still place too much emphasis on sounds themselves, and not on how we hear them. Indeed, Drever is sceptical about a singular category of ‘hearing’, since, as he pointed out, we all hear differently due to age-related hearing deterioration and to conditions such as hyperacusis (intensified sensitivity to certain frequencies of sound). These afflict a significant number of people, but are not usually taken account of in the acoustics of product design. His provocation suggested that we should move away from a normative ‘auraltypical’ theory of audition, to a model of aural diversity in which we take account of our multiplicity of hearing modes. He pointed out that hearing also varies culturally, offering the example of Japan, where some women are hyper-aware of sounds made in public toilets, and carry personal sound-emitting gadgets for the purposes of sonic modesty. Such devices might make interesting exhibits, as would artefacts from the history of hearing aid development, pointing as they would to the significant differences in our hearing abilities and to the need to take account of our diversity of hearing experiences.

On the second day of the workshop, anthropologist of hospital soundscapes Tom Rice returned to the question of the medical arguments made against noise (Rice, 2013). Pointing out the longue durée of the noise-as-problem discourse, from the 1930s conflict between physical and psychological medicine to the contemporary uncertain and contested science on the impact of noise on health, Rice showed the extent to which anti-noise claims depend upon medical underpinnings. Rice reminded us that Florence Nightingale was the first to promote quiet conditions in hospital wards and pioneered the use of quiet slippers for nurses. He argued that throughout the modern history of noise abatement, appeals to the need for quiet for convalescence, and more widely the argument that noise is a cause, or at least a prolonging factor, in illness, has been a major, if not the major theme in the noise abatement campaigns of industrialised nations.

Cultural historian Shelley Trower prompted us to think beyond audible noise to the category of vibration, often discussed in connection to noise, but sensed, she argued, beyond its audible registers (Trower, 2012). Turning to Victorian literature and medical writings, Trower argued that the cultural relationship with modern machines was encapsulated in discussions of vibration and vibratory affect, sometimes audible, but often with effects beyond the sonic. Railway travel is a good example, she said, of a new technology which prompted anxiety about unseen, sometimes unfelt, forces forging what were perceived to be unnatural bonds between machine and body, causing the latter to resonate in damaging ways. Noise was part of this discussion, but tied up with it was an intense general anxiety about unheard and unseen forces in the Victorian period. Trower argued that, as with noise, scientists set themselves the task of knowing and controlling these unseen forces, going to elaborate lengths to depict them in visual form. Such visualisation, including later developments in noise meter technology, could certainly provide a very interesting dimension to an exhibition on sound.

In the final talk of the workshop, media historian David Hendy drew on research for his BBC Radio 4 series Noise: A Human History (Hendy, 2012) to turn attention away from science, knowledge and policy and towards questions of social politics. Hendy argued that noise is best defined not universally as sound out of place, but instead as sound designated by a particular kind of person, in a particular kind of place, as unwanted in their specific cultural context. Hendy insisted that such designations always tell us something about power, whether of the wealthy over the less wealthy, of men over women, or of older generations over younger. He argued for an approach blending both macro and micro approaches to the analysis of noise’s entanglement with power. On a global scale we should remember that, when we settle down to quietly read a book, others have endured the sound of the logging, pulping and haulage distribution of the artefact in our hands. On the micro-scale, experiences of daily noise imposed on those who must live and work in earshot of unceasing din barely register in the consciousness of those who are lucky enough to have access to quiet, but are nevertheless part of the way in which inequality is sensed and felt. Hendy’s call to search out these experiences in court records, diaries and in other forms of less obviously sound-related source material could certainly provide a way of accounting for the socio-political dimensions of noise in an exhibition.

In addition to talks and discussion, the second workshop featured practical interventions intended to stimulate debate about how to engage museum goers in an exhibition about sound. These included presentation of a new sound art commission by Audialsense, a sound art group consisting of architects Paul Bavister and Jason Flanagan, and acoustician Ian Knowles, who specialise in installation works revealing the acoustic properties of architectural spaces. The piece, entitled Walk, exploited the acoustic peculiarities of the Trent Tunnel, a long, curving, underground walkway connecting two of the major buildings on campus. Walk consisted of a base sine wave of 70 hertz along with a combination of other pure tones based on a Japanese scale, plus the sound of ghostly footsteps accompanying the visitor as they moved through the tunnel. Only by moving through the space and traversing its unique acoustic qualities would the combination of tones merge to form a constantly shifting, echoing, whole.[11]

Audio 1

Recorded in the Trent - Portland tunnel as part of the 'Noise and Silence' symposium, Nottingham University March 25/26 2015

Walk was installed for two full days of normal university life and transformed the tunnel from a humdrum zone of transit to a remarkable place of reflection. Travellers slowed their pace as they moved through the sonic tunnel, becoming more aware of the sound of their own footsteps, stopping to look up and around, and to wonder about the sounds around them. Bijsterveld’s point about the sonic skills of artists is thus an important one: artists can enliven our sense of hearing, causing us to experience place and sound differently.

The second day of the workshop included a re-enactment of the recording of a 1929 sound effects recording,[12] led by Aleks Kolkowski and composer/conductor Jean-Philippe Calvin. Using a vintage recording lathe to cut direct to a 78rpm disc, the group’s recreation of an orchestrated crowd scene was recorded to video as well as disc.[13] The resultant hubbub, which crescendoed to an uproar, is typical of crowd recordings of the period, which were orchestrated in the studio by groups of actors or extras under strict direction (Napier, 1936, p 94).

Video 1

In celebration of the 1935 Noise Abatement exhibition, participants at the workshop ‘Noise and Silence’ at Nottingham University on 27 March 2015 were invited to make a 78rpm noise record. A 1930s studio recording of a crowd scene, used as sound effects for film, radio and theatre, was re-enacted, the hubbub recorded direct-to-disc on a vintage recording lathe and played back on a turntable. The crowd noises were directed by Jean-Philippe Calvin, disc recording by Aleks Kolkowski.

The recording activity provoked discussion around the nature and use of recorded sound effects in theatre, film and radio, and of hyper-reality in sound production, where natural sounds have been greatly exaggerated or replaced with artificially produced sounds in order to enhance the medium they serve (for a critical account see: Whittington, 2011). Workshop participants remarked on the phenomenon of commercial sound effects libraries, with sounds recorded in previous decades being reused in cinema and radio, even to the present day, to the extent that the repeated use of some specific sounds has made them easily recognisable, even irritating, to those who listen closely.[14]

The recording activity also introduced an alternative thread to the workshop theme, namely the noise of the crowd. Rather than thinking of noise solely as it was defined in the 1935 Noise Abatement exhibition, where the noise of industrial modernity is generated by machines and by people using those machines, the human noise of the crowd is also important to the experience of modernity. It can be seen as being a key constituent of the all-consuming modern metropolis with its masses of inhabitants.

It is clear that there would be no shortage of compelling artefacts relating to noise and silence to include in an exhibition. Some of the objects from the Science Museum’s 1935 Noise Abatement Exhibition, such as noise meters, are still in the Museum’s collection; promotional materials made by the Anti-Noise League still exist, and perhaps materials relating to the Darlington Quiet Town experiment mentioned by Max Dixon could be located in an archive, too. Artworks such as those mentioned by Karin Bijsterveld would contrast interestingly with scientific objects, and Audialsense’s approach to changing our listening attention could be effectively deployed in the museum space as part of, or alongside, an exhibition. Crucially, in seeking to take account of the sonic categories of noise and silence, any exhibition would have to account for the essentially contested and political nature of the struggle to define quiet. Who decides what constitutes that ideal compromise between noise and silence? Who gains and loses access to it? How is it promoted and measured by scientists and policymakers? These questions cut to the core of what it is to live together in modern societies.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170814/003