A breezy history of our complicated relationship with sound, from echoes in prehistoric caves to elevator music.
Written to accompany a BBC series, the book sails swiftly across the surface of human history, slowing occasionally to show us something we had perhaps never thought of. BBC journalist Hendy (Media and Communications/Univ. of Sussex; Life on Air: A History of Radio Four, 2007, etc.) begins with the discovery that many prehistoric cave paintings appear in places where the sounds are most intriguing. Then off we go on a rapid sonic tour, listening to African drums, the sounds of nature, the sonic features of megaliths, the sound-related techniques of shamans and the art of ancient oratory. Here, the author pauses to praise President Barack Obama’s eloquence, noting that he is “someone who transcended race,” a comment that will surprise some readers. Hendy also takes us to ancient Rome and to the subject of urban noise, a subject to which he returns continually throughout. He notes the significance of bells in the Middle Ages, telling us that some believed that the pealing distributed about the community the very words engraved on the bells. Then Hendy moves on to religious chanting (with some grim details about the Flagellants), the soundscapes of religious buildings and the history of the insistence that children be seen, not heard. He describes the association of sounds with social class and comments on the musical traditions of American slaves and the union of sound and revolution. We visit Walden Pond (where trains disturbed Thoreau’s quiet), witness the invention and modification of the stethoscope, journey through the wilderness with John Muir, experience the sounds of war (and shell shock), and learn the history of recordings and the omnipresence of Muzak.
The chapters, like fine hors d’oeuvres, ignite the appetite for the entrees, listed in the endnotes.