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What I've Been Reading This Past Week - 1

This past week I've been reading Victorian Soundscapes by John M. Picker. It gives a literature based review on soundscapes in Victorian London based from the writings of many of the leading authors including Charles Dickens and George Eliot.


Many interesting takes on the Victorian soundscape, particularly as many key technological and philosophical advancements happened. The ideas of creating a permanent record of the voice. In the first chapter there is the idea put forward by Charles Babbage that all sounds would slowly dissipate but never fully disappear, a sort of precursor to the idea of the conservation of energy and momentum. He posited that all sounds would exist in an imperceivable ether, a permanent record of sound. This stasis of sound goes against all other perceptions and insights on sound as a temporal phenomenon that is fleeting by nature. This is compared with the seeking of permanence of literature by rereleasing older books as budget models for lower classes and for commuters. This idea would be realised some years later with the invention and prominence of the microphone and recording technology. Dickens took to this idea and made a point of being known as a public speaker and a reader of his own works. He would travel around the country and read aloud his writings for the general masses. Permeating the sound of the book both through the distribution and redistribution of literature, but also through the dominating and permeating through speech in the airwaves as per Babbage.


This idea of sound as dominance was also of key importance in this era. Sound has always been used to territorialise space and turn it into place. This was a more simple process in cultures that were less dense and loud than Victorian London. When planning to put together spaces for people to live, city planners and architects delineated borders and boundaries with walls, ceilings, and district markers. These manufactured boundaries could work with allocating space in many ways, but fell short as far as audible territories were concerned. This combined with the influx of multiculturalism and the proximital living of many disparate classes resulted in many tensions and oppressions. There are stories of xenophobia, classism, racism, and sexism all throughout this era. Street music was seen to be of war, not an unheard use of music by any means, and whether the "foreign" organ grinders were intending to reterritorialise London or not is unclear, but the middle and upper classes who pushed the noise abatement legislation and drew the cartoons depicting them as sub-human scum were strongly waging war against street music. The writing of the time longed for a bygone era where they didn't exist, but also this bygone era did not in turn exist. London was never as quiet as they dreamed it once was. Likewise, after the era of organ grinders and street music had passed, at the end of the century writers wrote longingly for the bygone era of peaceful and community enhancing street music, seemingly ignoring or forgetting the hostilities and tensions of the time. Nostalgic thinking at its finest.


The third chapter, which I am still reading is built on the research of Helmholtz and how that affected the literature of the time, particularly focused on George Eliot. Among many ideas put forward by Helmholtz was that of sympathetic resonance, when a pitch caused by one object can cause a sympathetic reaction in another object that can naturally produce that pitch. This was explored poetically in the time with descriptions of large immovable bells being stirred into life by tiny flutes and whistles, as well as on a more metaphorical approach. In Eliot's work [insert name, I forgot, Darondo?] there is a lot of focus on silence and silencing as coming from violence and oppression. This seems particularly apt as George Eliot was a pseudonym for the author as she did not believe that her work would gain traction under her real name. In the middle of this, there is a character of Daniel who is seen as a sympathetic resonator for certain oppressed characters and his voice and words 'resonate' with theirs. This led onto some really interesting ideas on using this idea of sympathetic resonance in other symbolic ways through sound and spoken word pieces.


Interesting reading all round, a lot of detail on the literature that is largely irrelevant to my direction but helped contextualise the ideas as I read them anyway. Particularly inspired by the symbolic resonance, somewhat intrigued by the idea of permanence of voice and potentially subverting that by making the voice purely singular in time again. This goes back to some early ideas of mine that have been fermenting in the back of my head for years. The middle chapter on noise as territory and war will provide a really useful resource when talking about Schafer and Acoustic Ecology as it is the predecessor to these fields and ways of thinking .


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