Beginning to Evaluate the ‘Ensoniment’

Jonathon Sterne argues that just as there was an Enlightenment marking the hinge between modern and pre-modern cultures, so there was a technological revolution in sound that can be called an ‘Ensoniment’.[1] Between 1750 and 1925, he argues, sound itself became an object. In the modern age, sound and hearing were reconceptualised, modified, mass-produced, and industrialised.[2]

Sterne’s claim can be supported in two ways by exploring sound control in American cities. Firstly, as Emily Thompson argues, certain sound-controlling means became commodified. Although this is not quite the same thing as sound itself being commodified, it is arguably still a reflection of the connection between modernity and sound- and of an ‘Ensoniment’- since city sound control was a response to one of the noises of modernity: the sounds of the city. Not only did the very construction of cities and buildings create ‘sound out of place’ (drawing on Mary Douglas’s famous notion of dirt as ‘matter out of place’, so too unwanted sound could be termed ‘sound out of place’), but the increase in vehicular and pedestrian traffic, amongst other phenomena related to the modern expansion of cities and urbanisation, contributed to an increase in noise that certain organisations (such as New York’s Noise Abatement Commission) attempted to eliminate.[3] Such attempts did not meet with much success. However, employing the science and technology of architectural acoustics to transform buildings themselves into shields against noise offered a more promising approach.[4]

By 1930, sound control had become commodified: many corporations were selling vast quantities of acoustical building materials, and thousands of American buildings were filled with such products.[5] The goal of sound control was no longer limited to those rooms where listening was the primary activity, but to reduce noise wherever it occurred. A new mastery over the soundscape was achieved.[6]

The commodification of noise control is one way in which Sterne’s argument for the connection between certain sounds (or their elimination) and modernity can be supported. However, even stronger support could be found in the idea that such sound-controlling materials did not merely reduce the noises of modernity, but also created a new, modern sound of their own.[7]

Thompson argues that this sound was characterised by its lack of reverberation. Unprecedentedly absorptive materials created a sound that was clear and direct.[8]

However, the non-reverberant quality of this sound was not its only modern characteristic. It also reflected the influence of human enterprise over the physical environment: acoustical technology could create quite places within noisy cities. Furthermore, the private character of many such quite places- offices, homes- reflects the commodified nature of the new sound, also making it modern. Sound control was a business, and its products were not only physical materials but the sound they produced.[9]

Given the above, exploring sound control in cities can be used- together with a myriad of other ideas- to evaluate Sterne’s notion of an ‘Ensoniment’.

[1] J. Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, 2003), p. 1.

[2] Sterne, The Audible Past, p. 1.

[3] E. Thompson, ‘Shaping the Sound of Modernity’ in M. Smith (ed.), Hearing History: A Reader (Athens, 2004), p. 332.

[4]  Thompson, ‘Shaping’, p. 332.

[5] Thompson, ‘Shaping’, p. 332.

[6] Thompson, ‘Shaping’, p. 332.

[7] Thompson, ‘Shaping’, p. 332.

[8] Thompson, ‘Shaping’, p. 332.

[9] Thompson, ‘Shaping’, p. 333.

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