Interview with MacArthur "Genius" Winner Emily Thompson


Ms. Rodriguez is an HNN intern.

In September San Diego Associate Professor of History Emily Thompson won the highly coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in connection with her research into aural history. She is the author of The Soundscape of Modernity. She was interviewed by email.

What exactly is aural history?

Most simply put, aural history considers the sonic dimensions of the past; what kinds of sounds people heard, as well as the ways that they listened to those sounds.

It is an unusual field--I’ve never heard of it, and I don’t think that would be an uncommon reaction. How did you become interested in it?

I have always been interested in music and sound, but it took me awhile to find history as a means to explore those subjects. I played different musical instruments while growing up, but when the time came to go to college, I was encouraged to study engineering as it offered a more stable career prospect than did music. I worked in a recording studio while I was in college, and did a bit of radio production, and I thought that I might be able to get a job designing stereos or concert halls or something like that when I graduated. Well, that didn’t happen. I did get a very good engineering job, at Bell Labs in New Jersey, where I designed some integrated circuitry for use in a video teleconferencing system. But the job wasn’t as fulfilling to me as I had hoped, and I couldn’t imagine doing that kind of work for the rest of my life. I was also feeling that my education was incomplete -- my undergraduate curriculum had been filled almost entirely with technical courses, with very little exposure to anything in the humanities or liberal arts, so I was thinking about going back to school, just to learn more and to learn new kinds of things.

One day I was playing hooky from my circuits, just hanging out in the Bell Labs library, and I came across the journal Isis, which is the journal of the History of Science Society. I had never heard of this field before, but I immediately realized that it could work for me as an intellectual bridge, taking me from where I was to where I wanted to go. I learned more about the field, I applied to grad schools, and I proposed in my application essay that I would study the history of concert hall design. So I really just carried my longstanding interest in that subject into new territory, and I proposed studying it from a new perspective, as a historian instead of as a technician. The subject proved fruitful, history offered the “fit” I hadn’t found in engineering, and I’ve been happy with both ever since!

What kind of sources do you utilize? It seems like it would be hard to find many historical sources that explicitly discuss sound or any other sensory experiences.

For the period I focus on, the early twentieth century, there is a wealth of source material with which to work. At this time, tremendous changes in the sonic environment were occurring, so there are lots of magazine and newspaper articles engaging with and reflecting upon this change, trying to make sense of it. There are also the published papers of scientists and engineers who were investigating sound, as well as the instruments and devices they developed in order to study and control it. For my Soundscape book, I worked in New York City’s municipal archives, where I read hundreds of letters of complaint that ordinary citizens had written to the Mayor and the Health Commissioner, and these letters were invaluable for giving me a sense of how ordinary people were perceiving their sonic environment. Since that project focused on architecture and the relationship between sound and space, I also worked with architectural design sources - building plans and photographs - to read the buildings themselves as sources of information about sound, noise, and people’s attitudes toward them. I listened to music that was composed during this era, and since the technology of sound recording existed at this time, I also had some recordings of historic sounds from the era. I listened to the sound tracks of early sound movies, and there are even some old sound newsreels available with recordings of the kinds of noise that one heard in American cities at this time. The challenge in doing aural history, for me, is never that there is a paucity of sources, it’s more about how to read -- or rather, to hear -- those sources in a historically informed way: how to listen like someone circa 1925 rather than 2005.

How does analysis of sensory experience enhance our understanding of history?

People can only perceive and comprehend their world through their senses, so I think that understanding sensory experience is fundamental to any historical inquiry. Scholars have been exploring the history of visualization for many years, and with much success, but vision is just one of the five senses. Historians have argued that the modern era is particularly visual, and for that reason they have neglected the other senses, but this assertion is now being questioned and this neglect is now being redressed, by scholars working not just on sound, but on the other senses too. I think these studies can reveal all sorts of new aspects of history, as well as revise some of the histories we currently believe.

In my own case, my consideration of sound and listening enabled me to tell a new kind of story about the development of modern architecture in America, a story somewhat different from that previously told by visually-oriented historians of architecture. Leigh Schmidt, in Hearing Things, uses sound to chart the changing boundaries between religion, science, and popular culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Mark Smith locates new sites of sectional tension in antebellum America by considering the sonic dimensions of antebellum America in his book, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. And those are just a few examples of all sorts of interesting historical projects that are drawing upon sound and sonic culture to tell their stories.

Do you think aural history deserves more attention as a field? What are some practical ways that aural history could be incorporated into history as it is taught currently?

I’m not sure about this, but I think aural history might be better thought of as a method than a field. It needn’t be relegated to studies that are only or primarily interested in sonic subjects. I’d like to think that consideration of sound and listening can enhance almost any historical inquiry of any subject. And for post-phonographic histories, with recent developments in digital sound technology, there is an immense amount of sonic material available now through the World Wide Web and through library databases that can be drawn upon and incorporated into historical scholarship and teaching. Undergraduates are good at listening to recordings (if not always to their professors!), and I think that presenting them with sonic sources and challenging them to hear those sources as the original listeners would have heard them is a wonderful new tool for teaching history, for getting students to enter the mindset of the past.

There has been a new interest in sensory experiences of history, including aural history. Do you think your particular field will expand in any meaningful way in the next few years? What do you see as the future of this field of study?

I certainly hope that the number of historians considering the sonic dimensions of the past only increases! When I started this project, as a graduate student writing my dissertation, I had no real models to follow for this kind of scholarship. But by the time my book appeared many years later, a small cluster of books on different aspects of aural history had begun to appear. I’ve since met many of these authors, and, like me, they each felt that they had each chosen this intellectual path for purely personal reasons, and had worked more or less in isolation on it. I don’t know if it’s just coincidental that we all chose such a path at the same time -- maybe we are all part of some sort of cultural zeitgeist that was driving us to explore sound? Well, I don’t actually believe in zeitgeists myself, so I prefer to assume that a future scholar will be able to find the connections to explain why this interest has developed at this time.

In any case, the number of scholars exploring sound is growing - and it’s not just historians but also sociologists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and literary and film scholars who are producing really interesting work. A number of conferences focusing on sound studies have been held over the past few years, and there is a now strong cohort of graduate students drawing upon the work that now out there, including my own. That’s very exciting, and I think we can look forward to even more, and even better, work on sound in the future!

Your book, The Soundscape of Modernity, focuses primarily on “sound” in the sense of acoustic design employed in buildings. Would you say this is an accurate statement?

I like to say more generally that my book is about the relationship between sound and space. It describes how new scientific developments and technologies allowed people in early twentieth-century America to reconfigure that relationship. They did so partly through new techniques of architectural design, but also through the use of new electroacoustic technologies -- loudspeakers and microphones -- that were perhaps even more powerful tools for defining how a space would sound.

In addition to examining how people controlled sound, I also sought to discover why they wanted to do so, so my book is equally concerned with attitudes toward sound, and particularly attitudes about noise. Urban Americans during this period perceived that they lived in an era unprecedentedly loud, and that perception drove their efforts, not only to attempt to control sound, but to create a particular kind of sound through that process of control. The particular sound they sought became, for me, a sonic key to understanding that society and culture more generally.

Many people would say that the world today sounds very different from the past -- constant sound effects from instant-messaging programs, people talking on their cell phones everywhere and, especially with the rise of mp3 players, the option of completely isolating yourself from your surroundings and only hearing what you choose. Do you find any significance in this?

In the early twentieth century, people were definitely hearing sounds that had never been heard before. These sounds were the product of modern technologies -- the roar of internal combustion engines, the incessant pounding of pneumatic riveters, the crackle and hiss of radio static. It was the machines of the machine age that made the roaring ‘twenties roar. Today, I’m not so sure that we are hearing new sounds -- physical sounds that couldn’t have been heard fifty years before. But our relationship to these sounds is nonetheless very different, and I think that difference is defined by the technologies that mediate between ourselves and our sounds. When you can have virtually any song in the world at your fingertips at a moment’s notice, it does change the meaning of what you hear. Additionally, an mp3 or any compressed audio format represents a loss of sound quality. A few audiophiles do indeed complain about this, but the vast majority of listeners today choose quantity over quality, and I think that says something about our cultural priorities. In the early twentieth century, there was a very modern belief in “one best sound” but that no longer holds in our own post-modern era. We want a diversity of sounds, and are willing to sacrifice the “best” in order to get the “most.”

Also, if you were to ask people today about the noise that bothers them most, I think most people would probably answer with a sound that is not new, indeed it is one of the oldest sounds on record -- the sound of human conversation. The problem with cell phones is that we are forced to listen to conversations -- or one half of them -- at all times, in all places. Here, I think it’s the pervasiveness that is the problem more than the sound itself. I also think that overhearing inappropriately personal conversations may touch upon deeper fears about the lack of privacy in the networked world. In any case, there is a lot of great sonic material here for a future historian to explore.

The MacArthur grant is quite a lot of money, half a million dollars over five years. What do you plan to use it for? Are you going to conduct research for an upcoming book?

This grant is a wonderful resource that will indeed help me execute my current project. I’m working on a book about the transition from silent to sound motion pictures in the American film industry, focusing on how all the technical work associated with making and showing movies changed. There are lots of sources scattered all over the country, so the MacArthur grant will enable me to travel and examine far more sources than would have been possible for me otherwise. It would also be wonderful if I could include with my book a DVD with relevant clips from some of the early sound movies that I explore. I suspect that could be a complicated and costly thing to pursue, but perhaps this money will help make that possible, or at least make it possible to try. Also, I’d like to use some of the money to help underwrite the preservation and restoration of some of the films that I am studying. There is a tremendous amount of material in film archives that can’t be accessed by scholars because it is so physically fragile, and the archives just don’t have the financial resources to stabilize and preserve it, let alone to transfer it to modern media for scholarly access. If I can help out here, that won’t only (selfishly) help me with my own project, but it will be a legacy for future scholars to draw upon as well.

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