Cause For The Ages


Click the image to the right to go to the story at the New Yorker website. We are not the only generation to be concerned about the boundaries between the beautiful and necessary sounds of life, and the excessive sounds of noise pollution. Even a century back in New York, sound had its judges and quiet had its activists:

…Sound does not persist, neither across space nor across generations, so the tremendous rattle of horse-drawn drays, the clink of cupboards, the sneezes and shuffles of domestic life fall into the vacuous, silent crevices of history. “How did diners respond to the switch from pewter to china?” Schwartz wondered aloud. “How did a midwife register the sound of a new baby coming into the world? How did a person walking out in the woods register the sound of thunder or lighting?” In the course of nearly two decades of research, he had examined diaries, listened to wax cylinders, poured over digitized copies of the Brooklyn Eagle from 1901, and yet these subtle historical shifts in the soundscape eluded him. (“Even,” he said, “for a book of nine hundred pages, too intimidating.”) Schwartz paused to imagine what sounds might have penetrated Villa Julia in 1905, might have bounced off its mahogany and marble, its hard plaster echoing, on a clear night. “There was a constant flotilla of barges taking construction detritus away from the city, toward the Jersey shore,” he said. “All of these Irish tugboat captains probably knew the service staff, and they would be signaling to them, ‘Hi, I’m coming by!’ But they would be signaling with these huge horns! And they would be signaling late at night, also, to their complement of workers, who were now on shore, drinking heavily in a nearby tavern: ‘O.K., time to call it quits!’ The number of horns recorded over the course of an evening amounted to thousands. I hesitate to call them toots. They were horn swarms.” One day’s tally: one thousand one hundred and sixteen toots, a number that would triple in the fog. An electric fan by Julia Rice’s bedside did little to mask the penetrating, ever more powerful whistles…

Read the whole piece here:

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