This project is an accessible exploration of the central role of auditory experience in American life, building from two core themes: that sound is the newest of our senses, having been reborn in twentieth century audio technologies; and that we vastly underrate spoken language and music as vital portals to the culture. This descriptive study offers a compelling counter-narrative to the bias for the visual fed by Canadian and contemporary American studies of media and communication.
Part I: Human Equipment
- Hearing and the Motivation to Listen
- Orality: Breaking the Codes of Culture
Part II: Natural, Organized and Disorganized Sound
- Functional Ambiance and the Clutter of Noise
- Capturing and Storing Sound
- The Refuge of Music
- The Wildcard of Acoustic Space.
- Hollywood and the Art of Sound Design
Part III: The Assault on Hearing
- Weaponizing Noise
- Creating Aural Islands
- Conclusion: Preserving the Most Consequential Sense
From the Preface:
Because life tends to send us in circles rather than straight lines, we can sometimes catch glimpses of our earlier selves even years later. Look hard enough, and we see at least some recognizable landmarks that we passed by more often than we might think. It is those kinds of moments that can make it seem like a subject picks its author. That’s a feeling that grew throughout this project. When it comes to the life of the ear, we all have our stories.
In my case a pattern emerges early and turns into a persistent interest, a magnetic north, always steering my attention to some new auditory experience. This lifelong passion for sound began as one of those adolescent boys in the 1950s who built crystal sets and worked to get a scouting patch for knowing Morris Code. It was clear even then that radio rivaled food and water as one of the essentials for life. That first “cat’s whisker” receiver was one of many breadcrumbs dropped over time, creating a meandering trail that rarely strayed from the geography of sound. When I did take a wrong turn, as with a hand-me-down movie projector that rewarded my tinkering with random electrocutions, the message to stick to the auditory world was clearly received.
Things that spoke in one form or another always seemed to hold the most fascination, like weekend nights listening to KOA radio’s live bands from Denver’s old Elitch Gardens. It had to be KOA, the 50,000-watt giant standing majestic and alone out on the prairie. At night and under a cloudless sky, it was an Art Deco apparition glowing in the dark beyond the city’s lights. Fact was then stranger than fiction to know that the high voltage transmitters inside came into their own at dusk, sending its clear-channel signal deep into six other states.
If it wasn’t radio as a subject, it was a one-tube electronics kit purposefully miswired to become a nuisance transmitter sending the sounds of my 45s and a lot of interference to the rest the neighborhood; or a series of shortwave sets attached to a hundred feet of naked copper wire surreptitiously attached to a utility pole. New long-playing records joined the singles on a two-tone “suitcase” phonograph. Ravel’s tonal fireworks and the Eastman School’s Frederick Fennell were favorites purloined from our modest household collection. A family friend and Fennell’s Mercury recording of Leroy Anderson’s music (Volume 2) roused an interest in the acoustic mayhem of drumming. Lessons and an assortment of teen bands followed, producing a musician good enough to play in a statewide concert band, but who also made more of an impression falling off a stage mid-performance than in mastery of the forty rudiments.
If I was just an ok percussionist, it was partly because I was part of the distracted post-war generation that had been captured by the world’s rapidly expanding trove of audio recordings. LPs always promised nirvana and sometimes delivered. Record browsing at Tower Records or Sam Goody was a Friday reward for surviving the week. Bargain label reissues of classical and jazz albums began to accumulate, as did recordings of European organs that mystified friends looking through my stash of vinyl for the latest release from The Doors. Bach and Buxtehude learned to hang out on the shelf with Basie and Brubeck. It was all stuff that had to be heard, even if the stereo equipment was a mismatched collection assembled from Radio Shack’s sale table.
Childhood obsessions may eventually extinguish themselves, but attraction to the aural continued at a campus radio station attached to a California college. The station itself was a refuge from the hot Central Valley summer work in a soul-destroying steel plant. There were also rare weekend escapes with parents to nearby casinos in the Sierras. They gave an underage stowaway the chance to hear flawless musicians playing jazz-inflected sets over the din of slot machines.
The cooler fall would bring a new semester and once, a course in the Psychology of Art that lead this sound-centric student to a paper on the tragedy of Beethoven’s deafness. The research had a boatload of sophomore empathy for the stricken composer, a view not shared by the art historian who puzzled over the escapee who went over the walls of his well-ordered discipline. After all, “speech” was my college major, later deepening into graduate work in one of the oldest of the auditory arts, classical rhetoric. Orality and fluency mattered to the Greeks. A person’s mark as a leader rested on their skills to face an audience and win them over with the power of vocalized appeals. It was all to play out in the circularity of returning to where the journey had begun a few years earlier, but now in the form of an older and misplaced academic teaching courses as utterly different as rhetorical theory and radio production. It was a better fit than it seemed for one who prodded his film colleagues with the old canard that radio was like video, “except the pictures were better.”
In those days, “speech” meant understanding a panorama of topics, from the human anatomy that created and received sound, to the handling of equipment that might record it. Back then, audiology and the mechanics of hearing seemed like a sideshow. But as these pages reflect, it was impossible to not notice the passion of instructors who insisted that aural media represented the essential gateway to language. They knew that the miraculous process of hearing is a huge part of the cultural ballgame, and they were right. For them, and for all these reasons, this book is meant to describe and celebrate our many debts to the sonic world.