The Urban Cacophony

June 28, 2013 § 31 Comments

I’m currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography. This is the third non-fiction book I’ve read in the past year on the history and culture of London (the others were Peter White’s London in the 20th Centuryand Iain Sinclair’s luminous London Orbital). I’m not entirely sure why I’m reading so much of London, a city I don’t have any connection to; nor is it a city I feel any attraction to.  But, here I am, no doubt attracted to these books because I find the city to be so fascinating (that’s the city in generic, not London particularly).  And London is the most written-about city in the English language.  Anyway.

One of Ackroyd’s chapters is about the sounds of London in the early modern era.  I find acoustic history to be fascinating.  Historians are increasingly interested in the sounds of the past (including my good friend, S.D. Jowett, whose blog is here), and this shouldn’t be surprising.  Given the innovative uses we historians have made of our sources, it’s really no surprise that now we’re beginning to ponder the smells and sounds of the past.  And cities, of course, are prime locations for such explorations.  One of my favourite Montréal websites is the Montréal Sound Map, which documents the soundscapes of the city.

Ackroyd has done interesting work in excavating the audio history of London, including references to the combined sound of the city in the early modern era, like a cacophony or like the roaring of the ocean.  These noises, of course, were and are entirely human created, the noise of people living in close quarters in a big city.  Even the sounds of nature in cities are mediated through human intervention, such as the rushing streams and rivers of early modern London, or the mediated parks of the modern city, such as Mont-Royal in Montréal or Central Park in New York, both of which were created and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted.  It came as a shock to me when I learned that most of the flora and fauna on Mont-Royal were not, in fact, native species, but were brought in by Olmsted and planted there for aesthetic reasons.

When I think of the roar of the city, I tend to think of Manhattan.  For my money, there is no urban space on this planet as loud as mid-town.  The endless roar of traffic, the honking of horns, the sounds of people on the streets talking, sirens wailing, fights breaking out, the sound of planes flying overhead, people hawking things along the sidewalks.  I had never really thought all that much about the noise of the city, it was just part of the background noise.  But a few years ago, I realised that I like white noise machines.  They were, I though, supposed to be evocative of the ocean (near which I grew up), but that’s not what the sounds evoked in me.  They evoked the sounds of the city, the constant hum of human activity.  The only other place I’ve been that challenges Manhattan for the capital of noise is my hometown.  Montréal is downright noisy, as all cities are, but Montréal hurts my ears.  Hence my love for Parc Mont-Royal.  Once you get amongst the trees on the side of the mountain, the sounds of the city become a distant roar.  The same is true for Central Park.

Where I sit right now, I hear the sounds of the city, over the sound of the loud music blasting out of my speakers.  But I can hear people walking by my house, I can hear the traffic on the busy street at the end of my block, and sirens.

It’s not surprising that academics as a whole are starting to turn to the sounds that surround us, given how much of an impact our environment has upon us.  This is just as true of rural areas (in which case, the silence can tend to frighten city folk).  In the late 19th century, the anti-modernists took hold of a part of North American culture.  They were turned off by the city, by the noise, by the hustle & bustle, by the fast pace of life.  People began to develop neurasthenia, wherein the patient began to feel frazzled, burned out, and depressed due to a frazzling of the nerves.  It was particularly common in American cities, and for awhile was also known as “Americanitis.”  So the anti-modernists, who preached a basic ‘back to the land’ message.  Canada’s most famous artistic sons, the Group of Seven, were predicated on this kind of anti-modernism, they championed the mid-Canadian north as a tonic against the aggravation of living in the city.

But what I find most interesting about the kind of acoustic history that Ackroyd introduces us to is the way in which he is so successful at recreating the past, I can almost put myself in the streets of London in the 17th century.  Perhaps this is not surprising.  I read something once that said that sounds, more than sights, triggered our other senses, as well as our imagination and memory (think of this next time you hear a song that has meaning for you, you will be transported back to that meaning).  But, for historians, acoustic histories (as well as histories of smells, the other incredibly evocative sense) really do work at making history come alive, so to speak.  Plus, it’s also just kind of cool to imagine what a city sounded like 200 years ago.


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§ 31 Responses to The Urban Cacophony

  • Margo says:

    I like to think about what cities used to sound like……just as loud, just differently loud. Nice piece.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I think I told you about this, but I always imagine the sound of dozens upon dozens of horses clip-clopping through the Old City in Montréal, down those narrow cobble-stone streets, and I imagine the cacophony that created, in between newspaper and veggie vendors advertising their wares, plus the sound of hard-soled shoes on the sidewalks, especially when they were wood, and the hum of the port nearby. I imagine it was actually louder then than it is now.

  • The anti-modernists you mention are only one group in a stream of people who have learned that sensory stimulation–especially auditory–is beneficial up to a point, after which it does noticeable damage to the mental, emotional, and physical body.

    The latest individuals to declare this are doctors and biologists who have monitored the effects of cacophony on the psyche. In a word: it ain’t good. Something they discovered was that people often believe that they can become sensitized to and comfortable with a certain level of noise in their life when in fact their body is measurably stressed by the overload. They just become used to discomfort, not even realizing what they are experiencing until it is removed and they have an opportunity to truly relax. What many call “normal” is actually rather dangerous, especially in the long term.

    I’ve lived in both large cities and medium-sized ones but I’ve always protected my ears. To this day, I have uncanny hearing that can detect a range of sound that blows my friends away. The downside is that I cannot hang out with them in many of their normal environs–it’s just too noisy. Somehow, though, life is so much better.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Indeed, there’s long been a movement of people concerned with noise pollution and its effects on our nervous systems, and, ultimately, our physical health. Interestingly, I’ve also read work on evolutionary biology that suggests that evolution is also at work here and our bodies are, in fact changing, to accommodate the noise, hustle and bustle, etc. of the city. The curious thing is that urban centres have always been noisy and cacophonous, going back to the Ancients, but we’ve also only reached a point in the past century or so where the majority of us live in urban centres, first in North American and Western Europe, and now the world over.

      I’ve been a big city boy all my life, but there really is a difference between being in the city and the country. Personally, I see benefits of both, though I seem to be craving the quiet of rural areas as I age.

  • segmation says:

    I don’t know what cacophony existed 200 years ago. Maybe Lewis Carroll could have used that in his Jabberwonky poem?

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      All kinds of noise 200 years ago: horses, carriages, factories, mills, construction, etc. etc.

      • Cacophony isn’t just about noise. Cacophony can be silent. Martin Luther King Jr. and he created cacophony amongst his people who were all so protesting silent. There can be a cacophony of feelings too.

  • odiousghost says:

    I’m stuck in today’s London. It’s sounds mainly consists of people talking loudly into their phones about how drunk they got last night, and how sick they were this morning. Seriously.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Lol! I think that pretty much describes any city today. I have been thinking lately of how the cell phone has changed the sounds of the city, all the loudmouths screaming into their phones about the mundane details of their lives.

  • […] noted, I’m reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography.  As might be expected of such […]

  • themodernidiot says:

    Iowa here. Parts of us sound the same as they have since the beginning of the prairie. Crickets and stars. The rest of it sounds like cows driving.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Lol! I was reading something this weekend about the buffalo on the Great Plains and their near-eradication in the 19th century, as well as the environmental changes brought about with the rise of cattle ranching and whatnot. Believe it or not, that got me to thinking about the sounds of the Prairie, and what kinds of changes the decline of the wandering buffalo and the rise of the more stationary cattle, affected the soundscape of the open Prairie. But, then again, I think too much.

      • themodernidiot says:

        No, you think just the way we need people to think. I was so elated by your post because I thought I was the only one who read books and wondered about sounds and smells of long ago. My lord it was so dirty!

        As far as our prairie, it’s so large we still have places of blissful silence, but it is disappearing quickly with our urban sprawl and mega cites forming from the merging of smaller cities along our major highways. And with that big fat Keystone pipeline in the works, the landscape would change dramatically.

        It’s a bit scary. I don’t think people really give enough thought to what all that noise is really telling us.

      • Jeff says:

        Along those same lines I’ve wondered what it sounded like when the flocks of passenger pigeons were overhead. Or the locust swarms. Or for that matter a dust storm.

  • I read a great history of 18th century London and loved it. I often wonder (and am a fellow ex-Montreal resident as well) how cities sounded in earlier times. It must have been so different with the horses’ hooves and the rattling of carriage wheels and the sounds of sailing ships in port. I crewed aboard about 15 years ago for five days aboard a replica of the Endeavor (a tall ship) and the sounds were magical — the creaking of wood, the flapping of canvas sails, the squeaking noise as you climb the rigging.

    Much as you think Manhattan is noisy, I live 25 miles north of it in a small town on the Hudson River and the CONSTANT noise of helicopters and jets and leaf-blowers and traffic on the Tappan Zee bridge adds to up much more noise than you’ll ever hear on the quieter corners of the West Village, for example. Drives me nuts.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Was it Jerry White’s book on the 18th century in London? I read his 20th Century one and have his 19th and 18th century ones on my list. I imagine that 19th century cities were louder in many ways than today’s due to the horses hooves clopping on the streets and the wheels of carriages.

      I’ve never sailed on a tall ship, replica or not, but I’ve been on a couple, there’s one in dock here in Salem, MA, permanently. I love the sounds they make, even in dock.

      As for the noise where you live, I can believe it. Salem, for a small city of 40,000 is endless noise, sirens, cars, tourists, and so on. I feel like the Grinch before Christmas, “all the noise, noise, noise, if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s the noise, noise, noise!”

      • You MUST get onto the tall ship….they’re going to be back in the Great Lakes this summer, too…I covered them in the summer of ’84 for the Globe and fell in with them then. It is the one way to truly experience life as it was in the 19th, 18th, 17th century — if you work on one — as you are performing all the same tasks in the same way on the same equipment. I even slept each night in a tiny hammock, as they would have then.

        I feel exactly the same way about noise; you might want to look in my blog archives, July 2011, for five posts I wrote while on an 8-day silent retreat. Life changing.

  • retrobob57 says:

    I love cacophony. I have a strange affinity for air raid sirens. I get my fix every Wednesday at noon.
    Banging. Disjointed rhythms. No melodic structure. I love it all (Except crying babies. That I don’t like).

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I can appreciate both noise and silence, but I do like the discordant noises of the cacophony. Last summer, in my hometown, Montréal, there were all these student protests against rising tuition costs, and when the government responded with draconian anti-protesting legislation, the citizens of the city actually came together as one, and there were these massive protests, 10s and even 100s of thousands of people, out on the streets. And we began to bang pots and pans and march, so you had these strangely musical marches with people banging pots and pans through the streets of Montréal, it was like Carnival, but there was nothing the police or anyone could do with that number of people out. The noise was beautiful in its own way. This YouTube is a video of a protest in the Villeray neighbourhood last May:

  • Well, I bet you haven’t been to India, and if you are phonophobic, this is the last place to be. Sometimes I wait for the night so I can enjoy the silence and think properly instead of having my line of thought constantly derailed by taxis hooting, neighbourhood maids and watchmen having loud conversations outside my gate, bikes racing around with their silencers deliberately removed (bikers think it’s cool to vroom around), autorickshaws rattling around on their three wheels, my cell phone ringing every ten minutes, and lots else.

    I spent the weekend at Hampi ruins (about 300 km from Bangalore, my city), and it was bliss – only noises of birds, goats, cattle, and some vehicles and people too, a tolerable number of them. The view from the hotel room was a freshly ploughed rice paddy where about twenty people were busy transplanting saplings quietly, peacefully . . .

    You won’t be astonished if I tell you I don’t find London noisy, and NY is not bad at all, esp with Central Park to escape to if need be!

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Lol! No, never been to India, though I’d love to. I don’t know if it’s the India I know from literature, or from history, or from film, but I just see a loud country in all ways, from the colours to the scents to the noises. And I would imagine that, to you, London, Manhattan and other places in North America and Western Europe would be close to silent. The Hampi ruins sound gorgeous!

      • India from literature, history and film are far removed from each other, and none of them will prepare you for our cities! The historical places are nice though, but not in the tourist season. I have put up a dozen pictures of Hampi on my blog, do take a look, you’ll know what I mean.

      • John Matthew Barlow says:

        I think I’m more than a little intimidated by the idea of Delhi or Mumbai. I’d really love to visit, nonetheless. And not in tourist season. I like in a tourist town in New England and it can be a little unbearable at the height of tourist season around here. I followed your blog.

      • Do let me know when you plan a trip to India – my husband and I can give you lots of tips, not only about places worth seeing, but also on how to not get ripped off all the time 🙂

      • John Matthew Barlow says:

        Thanks. I’ll do that!

  • sophieatkins says:

    Love you posts… I do have a self hosted blog. Would you be interested on sharing your writings to our audience? Thanks

  • am reading Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ where she evocatively uses descriptions of sounds and smells to convey the atmosphere of England, particularly London during the time of Henry VIIth in the early half of the 16th century. Historians are critical in informing us about how things were and giving us a sense of identity in the process. Lovely post!

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Oh yes! I read “Wolf Hall” and “Bringing Up the Bodies” in the winter, fantastic in many ways, but she is very evocative with the scents and smells and sounds of England in the early 16th century. And, the smells of London, esp., would have been pretty vile, given the fact that Europeans weren’t big on bathing in that era. Thanks for reading!

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    @finnhbeggerling I agree, but strictly speaking, cacophony is defined as a mixture of harsh, discordant noises. But the word has been re-apprpriated for what MLK did, or for emotions, etc. I just use it in its strict meaning.

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