Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Distinguishing the difference between sound and melody

John Picker, an assistant professor of English at Harvard, delves into the reasons why some hear music while others hear noise with the same sound

By Edward Rothstein  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Victorian Soundscapes
By John Picker
220 pages
Oxford University Press

The words noise and annoyance have similar origins: Noise, after all, annoys. That may even be a good definition. Noise annoys because it doesn't fit: It jars, disrupts, upsets. And it upsets because it can't be understood. There is no way to place noise in a pre-existing sonic order, no way to relate it to other sounds that have meaning and sense. Harmony joins sounds; noise merely accumulates them.

Noise, though, should be taken seriously. Sometimes, what seems to be noise is later heard as music; sometimes what is called music is later heard as noise; and sometimes what is born as noise will remain so. The ways in which noise is heard and argued about, the ways in which it is tamed or silenced or absorbed or resisted, say much about the society that produces noise, both what it knows and what it fears.

One of the first serious studies was Jacques Attali's knotty Noise: The Political Economy of Music (translated from French in 1985), in which noise takes on a polemical and pivotal role in the evolution of politics and culture. Other books have been bringing sound more deeply into the terrain of cultural studies, showing how changes in audience behavior, acoustics or technology reflect shifting conceptions of sounds and their meanings -- including, most recently, Jonathan Sterne's Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003).

Now, in Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker, an assistant professor of English at Harvard, surveys an era when ordinary sound was becoming more and more like noise. During the middle of the 19th century, he explains, microphones were invented, machinery became commonplace and cities grew; it was a "period of unprecedented amplification, unheard-of loudness."

Picker is suggestive, intelligent and insightful, but ultimately, amid his subject's clamor, harmony eludes him. His four "case histories" from that period don't really find common cause; his examination of sound in Dickens' Dombey and Son seems out of place, his examination of the invention of the phonograph too cursory. Still, there are enough fine chords struck and suggestions made so his own soundscape keeps resonating after the book is closed.

The best part is concerned with that "unheard-of loudness" on the streets of London. Dickens, Carlyle and sundry others lobbied to place legal restrictions on street musicians, whom Dickens described as "brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads."

The mathematician Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first modern computer, was a leading polemicist. When he was asked if he really believed a man's brain could be harmed by a street organ, he said, "certainly not; for the obvious reason that no man having a brain ever listened to street musicians."

Babbage must have also had a reputation as a bit of an anti-street music crank: His activism, he said, led to taunting mobs, dead cats left at his door, broken windows and neighbors who he believed were torturing him by deliberately squawking on broken wind


Thomas Carlyle felt similarly but in response built what he heralded as a "Soundless Room!" "The world, which can do me no good, shall at least not torment me." But alas, the room was, he later found, a "flattering delusion of an ingenious needy builder." It turned out to be the noisiest in the house. Picker, almost gleefully recounts these battles, around which hinge one of the great sociological issues of noise. Critics, all from the upper-middle classes, associated street clamor with the lower social strata. Some attacks were xenophobic: Carlyle referred to a "vile yellow Italian" organ grinder whom he only half-jestingly said he might murder.

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