Thursday, November 7, 2013

David Hendy's "Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening"

David Hendy is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Sussex. He has been a visiting research fellow at Wolfson College and the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge; Marjorie G. Wynne Visiting Research Fellow in British Literature at the Beinecke Library, Yale University (2010); and Helm Fellow at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington (2010). In 2011 he was awarded the James W. Carey Award for Outstanding Journalism by the Media Ecology Association of North America for his five-part BBC Radio 3 series, Rewiring the Mind. He worked as a journalist and producer at the BBC. His book Life on Air: A History of Radio Four (2007) won the Longman-History Today Book of the Year Award in 2008.

Hendy applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, and reported the following:
We’re in the world of bells – surely among the most iconic sound-making devices in the whole of human history. The earliest evidence for their use comes from China. But on page 99, we’re in the Catacombs of Priscilla, one of the less well-trodden networks of chilly underground passages and chambers hidden under the streets of Rome. Some 1900 years ago, it was lined with bodies – a quiet burial place for the ancient city’s earliest Christians. The Catacombs are silent now. But even back then, the only sounds would have come from simple funeral rites – accompanied, most likely, by the faint tinkling of small bells or ‘tintinnabula’.

A rather mute choice of location, then, for a history of sound. But even the modest, long dissipated chimes of the tintinnabula are a vital link in my unfolding story, which is about power: the remarkable power of sounds to shape our emotions and our social worlds over the past 100,000 years. Bells themselves had an extraordinary, sacred power. Their sound was seen as a ‘manifestation of universal essence’, helping to drive away those multitudinous evil spirits lurking all around. In fact, wherever they’ve been rung, bells have supposedly created a Godly aura of safety.

There’s another reason for being in the Catacombs. Some of the rooms here are stuffed full of inscriptions and frescoes: visual clues for lost soundscapes - scenes of banqueting and ceremonies, weddings and prayers - scenes that look Christian, but also perhaps Pagan, Greek, Jewish. In other words, scenes that conjure for us a turbulent melting pot of beliefs and rituals. What they show, too, is that whatever their precise religious persuasion, these earlier Christians appeared to believe that if sound really was an effective means of repelling troubling spirits, or attracting the attention of the Divine, there was no better way to guarantee access to the holy than by making a bit of racket: dancing, speaking in tongues, creating – quite literally – good vibrations.

The bishops of later centuries would soon put a stop to all this – as later pages of the book will show. But for a brief moment in time, religion has a delicious whiff of Dionysus about it. It remains (to quote the chapter’s title) an ‘ecstatic underground’: a dazzling kaleidoscope of sounds and songs somehow making their presence felt in the damp, still darkness below Rome’s noisy Via Salaria.
Learn more about Noise at the publisher's website, and follow David Hendy on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue