Coming Next Year: The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens

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.

Chapter List 

  1. Introduction 

Part I: Human Equipment

  1. Hearing and the Motivation to Listen 
  2. Orality: Breaking the Codes of Culture 

Part II: Natural, Organized and Disorganized Sound

  1. Functional Ambiance and the Clutter of Noise 
  2. Capturing and Storing Sound 
  3. The Refuge of Music 
  4. The Wildcard of Acoustic Space.
  5. Hollywood and the Art of Sound Design

Part III: The Assault on Hearing

  1. Weaponizing Noise 
  2. Creating Aural Islands 
  3. Conclusion: Preserving the Most Consequential Sense

From the Preface: 

Sometimes it seems like a subject picks its author. It becomes evident because life tends to send us in circles rather than straight lines. Look hard enough, and we see at least some recognizable landmarks that we passed many years earlier. A feeling of revisitation emerges and, in my case, the recognition that the sense of sound would turn out to be a magnetic North that could always be found on the horizon. This sense started early in this project with a memory of being one of those adolescent boys in the 1950s who built crystal sets and tried to get a scouting patch for knowing how to send and receive Morris code. It was clear even then that Radio and water were about equal in their importance. That first “cat’s whisker” receiver was one of many bread crumbs dropped over the years, creating a meandering trail that rarely strayed from the peculiar geography of the auditory world. When I did take a wrong turn, as with a hand-me-down film projector that rewarded my tinkering with random electrocutions, the message to stick to radios was clearly received.

Things that spoke in one form or another always seemed to hold a degree of fascination, like the late weekend nights spent in the dark listening to KOA radio’s live bands from Denver’s old Elitch Gardens. It had to be KOA, the 50,000-watt giant with a building and tower that stood alone and majestic out on the prairie, an Art Deco apparition at night with high amber windows that seemed to hover above the brush. Fact was then stranger than fiction to imagine what was inside this soaring fortress that had the muscle to push electrons into six other states.

If it wasn’t a radio as a pre-teen, it was a one-tube kit soon to be rewired to become a nuisance transmitter in the neighborhood; or a series of shortwave sets attached to a hundred feet of copper wire surreptitiously attached to a nearby utility pole; or a deluxe two-tone “Symphonic” phonograph that spun new long-playing records that where almost as big the suitcase shell. Ravel and the Eastman School’s Frederick Fennell were favorites purloined from a modest household collection. A family friend and Fennell’s Mercury recording of Leroy Anderson’s music roused an interest in the acoustic mayhem of drumming. Lessons and an assortment of school and private bands would follow, producing a musician passable enough to play in a statewide concert band, but one who made more of a splash falling off a stage mid-performance than by total mastery of the forty rudiments.

If I was just an OK percussionist, I was a hooked and completely captivated listener. Record browsing on a Friday afternoon was a reward for surviving the week. Bargain label reissues of classical and jazz albums began to accumulate. And there were those esoteric albums of organ music that puzzled friends looking through my vinyl stash for the latest album from The Doors. Captured by the majesty of the powerful pipe organ in our church, recordings of Bach and Buxtehude showed up on the shelf next to those of Basie and Brubeck. It was all stuff that had to be heard, even if the stereo equipment was a sorry collection of homemade speakers assembled from Radio Shack components.
Childhood obsessions tend to eventually extinguish themselves, but attraction to the aural continued at a California college where I was drawn to the campus radio station. Managing it for a time was a safer bet for the staff, who must have wondered why my time slots featured almost nothing from the Billboard charts. That station was a refuge from the hot Central Valley summers that were reserved for working at a steel plant and playing band dates on weekends. The cooler fall would bring a new semester and once, a course in the Psychology of Art that lead this sound-centric student to an odd paper on the darkness of Ludwig Beethoven’s deafness. The research pumped up a boatload of empathy for the stricken composer, but left an experienced art historian scratching his head about over the flagrant disregard for his well-marked disciplinary boundary.

Rare weekends could sometimes be spent with parents at nearby casinos in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The chance gave an underage bar-show stowaway the opportunity to hear free live music that was steadily disappearing from the casinos: usually four or five crack musicians playing jazz-inflected sets over the din of the slot machines.
“Speech” was the chosen major in California, later deepening into graduate work in one of the oldest of the auditory arts, classical rhetoric.

Orality mattered to the Greeks. A person’s mark as a leader rested on his skills to face an audience and win them over on the sheer power of vocalized appeals. It was all to play out in the circularity of returning in some ways to where the journey had begun a few years earlier, but now in the form of a misplaced academic teaching courses as utterly different as rhetorical theory and radio production. Advising campus radio station members also became part of the job description: a good fit for one of those people who believed the old canard about recorded music and radio: that they were like television, except the pictures were better.
Thanks to the well-rounded undergraduate program a few years earlier, this trail haphazardly crisscrossed the auditory world also passed through the borderlands of what was then called the “speech and hearing community.” In those days, “speech” meant understanding everything, from the human equipment that produced the spoken word, to the handling of equipment that might record it. Back then, audiology and the mechanics of hearing didn’t seem to be any more than a sideshow. But it was impossible not to notice that the passion of instructors who insisted that aural media represented an essential gateway to language and full participation in the culture. 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 debt to the sonic world, and the richness it provides that too frequently gets overlooked.