Emily Thompson: A historian gains renown, and awards, studying the ways sound influences culture

Historians in the News

Most of us probably think of the acoustical tile as a humble artifact from Home Depot. But not so Emily Thompson.

To the UC San Diego history professor, it is an icon of modern civilization, belonging on a pedestal along with Cubist art, Einsteinian physics and James Joyce's "Ulysses."

Introduced just before World War I, the sound-absorbing tile represents humanity's new ability to manipulate the built environment and avoid the sonic assaults of other modern inventions, Thompson says. Like advances in painting, physics and literature, it "challenges the traditional bounds of space and time."

Unorthodox views like that have earned Thompson prestigious and lucrative bragging rights in a growing field -- the history of sound -- that was barely heard of not long ago.

After an unusual and sometimes painful early career, Thompson last fall won a $500,000 MacArthur fellowship, one of the so-called genius awards that propel their often previously obscure recipients into a kind of intellectual and financial heaven. More recently, she also received a $25,000 grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to write a book on the switch from silent films to ones with sound.

Thompson expects to move to Los Angeles this summer to work on the book full time for a year, scouring cinema libraries and studio archives. Then she will move to New Jersey to join Princeton University's history department, a professorship offer she accepted this month. The 44-year-old former engineer is a scholar of aural (as opposed to oral) history and seeks to understand how the ways we produce and hear sound influence culture -- and vice versa.

With much of modern history told through the sense of vision, sound has been relegated to be "a somewhat less rational sense," Thompson said.

But to understand "how people in the past understood their own world, obviously all five senses are involved," Thompson said.

She attempts to explore not only what people heard but also how they perceived it: "We aren't able to listen with the same kind of ears that people in 1900 or 1930 did," Thompson said. "Even if a time machine took me back to 1913, I would still be the product of a different time and culture.... That's every historian's challenge: how to escape their own mind-set to adapt to the time they are studying."

Her 2002 book, "The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933," won admiring reviews and several prizes for showing how concert halls, churches and movie palaces used new technology to create modern "sonic environments." The work also delved into early anti-noise campaigns. Thompson's second book, tentatively titled "Sound Effects," will examine how sound transformed the movie industry and, ultimately, American society. That change has been well-documented in the world of actors, directors and writers. Remember the trauma of the screechy actress in the film musical "Singin' in the Rain"?...

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