Thursday, September 13, 2012

Researching historic sound requires a lot of digging; looking for sound references in all kinds of sources. Rarely does someone provide a sustained account of a sound environment, it's always mentioned parenthetically, like an afterthought, and frequently as a kind of sentimental conclusion to an accounts of events, as an embellishment: 'the bells were ringing that day' etc.

One of the first books I was introduced to at Tech was Diderot's Encylopedia, or "A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry." Dr. Susan Martin, my thesis advisor, showed this to me at the very beginning of my studies, and it has taken me a while to really take a close look at these plates, but I finally have. While it may seem obvious, it needs to be mentioned that the singular extraordinary quality of these illustrations is that people are included in them. So many illustrations of industrial processes exclude the human form, instead just focusing on the machines and the movement of the different parts and processes. Some of the plates are sublimely beautiful, and I think Edward Gorey may have derived some inspiration from them. In most of them there is less concern for architectural accuracy in favor of clarifying how people interacted with the machines and tools they used. The inclusion of the human figure in most of these plates comes from an intentional desire to pay homage to workers and craftspeople. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

"Let us at last give the artisans their due....Artisans have believed themselves contemptible because people have looked down on them.... We need a man to rise up in the academies and go down to the workshops and gather material about the arts to be set out in a book which will persuade artisans to read, philosophers to think on useful lines, and the great to make at least some worthwhile use of their authority and their wealth."   --Diderot

(As an aside: I've been thinking that programmers and computer experts are no longer worthy of the honorific titles "nerd" or "geek", because of their clear social acceptance and social power. The new nerds, the new geeks are people who work with their hands, because, let's face it, it's just not cool.)

So I thought to myself "Can I find references to sound in these plates?" History seems so silent. We can visualize history but few steps have been taken to auralize it. In most of my reading on historic sound, one thing seems constant: speech and orality, verbal communication was a prominent aspect of the soundscape. Mostly, I'm interested in listening. What were people hearing?  Here's some examples from the plates in Diderot's Encyclopedia.

There's many more-- representing alarms, alerts, attentive listening, idle banter, laughter, casual jovial discussion, interruptions--  but for some reason my computer is flipping them all 90 degrees. I gotta fix that...with my hands....