13/03/2015, by CLAS

Noise and Silence

We remember the tragedy of the First World War by observing a two minute silence. Today, we recognize this as a mark of reverence and respect. In the 1920s, however, enacting silence on Armistice Day was interpreted more literally as a sonic response to the noise of the war. The deafening and nerve-wracking sounds of mechanized warfare produced a new age of sonic sensitivity after 1918. It was feared that shell shock, or versions of it, might be replicated in ordinary people on noisy city streets. The rumble of industry and motor traffic was celebrated by some, but treated as a pathogen of the utmost severity by many more. Just as the battlefields of the war had been enveloped by noise, so too, it was feared, would towns and cities become cauldrons of auditory torture.

It was in this context that the Science Museum in South Kensington hosted a Noise Abatement Exhibition in 1935 promoted by the newly-formed Anti-Noise League. Among the exhibits were two replica homes, one built using standard fittings, the other kitted out with the latest ‘soundproofed’ designs. Visitors were encouraged to buy ‘soundproofed’ typewriters, for example. The exhibition’s main purpose, though, was to convince the public and lawmakers alike that noise was a danger to individual and social wellbeing (see, for example, the thermometer installation, measuring different severities of noise, in the image below). Even those who didn’t notice noise, it was claimed, were being subjected to its unceasing vibrations. Leading doctors claimed that hearing unrhythmical noise upset the natural rhythms of the body. Writer H. G. Wells opened the Exhibition, arguing that ‘Just as people were able to detach themselves from each other visually, so they ought to be able to achieve auditory isolation.’ And yet, as we know, silence is among the scarcest of resources in the modern world. The Anti-Noise League failed to hold back the tide of noise.

Eighty years on, the Science Museum is once again turning its attention to sound. This time the aim is not so much to confront the problem of noise (others are doing this), but rather to understand the historical and cultural connections between noise and other sonic categories, particularly silence and music, in industrialised societies. The AHRC-funded project ‘Music, Noise and Silence’ run jointly by the Science Museum, the University of Nottingham and the Royal College of Music, aims to collect ideas and narratives for a future Science Museum exhibition on sound. Three workshops are being convened in 2015 bringing together academic researchers, museum professionals, performers, acousticians and others, to sketch out ideas for this future exhibition through talks, performances and debates.  The network’s first meeting, exploring connections between music and silence, took place 25-26 February 2015 at the Science Museum and the Royal College of Music. It included a trip to an anechoic chamber (a perfectly silent room) and performances of works by composers interested in silence as a creative medium as well as academic talks.

The second workshop will take place at the University of Nottingham, 26-27 March 2015. Focussing on the relationship between noise and silence, the workshop will have a number of events open to all. At 6pm on 26March, sound art group Audialsense will unveil a specially-created sound installation in the tunnel between Portland and Trent buildings. On the 27 March from 2.30pm, a number of public talks will take place by leading scholars in the field of noise research. For full details, please see the project webpage. We hope to see you there! The final workshop, exploring connections between music and noise, will take place at the Science Museum and around London in April. Keep checking the project pages for details.

James Mansell

Posted in Culture, Film and Media