Histoire publique

Listening to the Sounding Objects of the Past : The Case of the Car

This chapter will provide historical context for sonic interaction design by writing a history
of sounding objects with a particular focus on the 20th century, the West, and the history
of the car as a sounding object.
The chapter’s introduction will clarify why it is useful to have historical knowledge of the
everyday sounding objects of the past and the auditory cultures in which they functioned.
Such historical knowledge will help to enhance the designers’ awareness of the changing
cultural meanings and evaluations of particular sounds, and the potential differences in
the response to such sounds. We will illustrate this by starting with an early twentieth
century description of the many sounds of the car, and our contemporary lack of
understanding of these sounds: they do not speak to us in the same way as they spoke to
the historical author of the description. In addition, this chapter helps to historicize and
situate the rise of sonic design itself.
What do we know about the sounding objects of the past? Our second section will provide
an overview of the historical literature on sounding objects in the ages before the 20th
century. It sketches the different approaches to this history, such as those from acoustic
ecology, socio-economic and environmental history, history of the senses, cultural history,
cultural geography and cultural studies, musicology, media studies, history of medicine,
and science and technology studies. Pending on the perspectives behind these
approaches, the focus in such work is either on the rise and fall of particular sounds as a
consequence of new processes of production and consumption; the changing cultural
hierarchy of the senses; the complex symbolic meanings of sound, silence and noise;
cultures of musical performance and listening; the use of recording and amplification
technologies; or the contributions of science and medicine to the understanding of
sounding objects. At the end of this section, we will explain which of these traditions are
most useful to us in understanding how sounding objects (and cars as sounding objects in
particular) have been sources of information, centerpieces of artistic veneration, occasions
for noise control, and facilitators of acoustic privacy.
Subsequently, the third section will focus on how sounding objects, notably the sounds of
the automobile engine, have been sources of information in the 20th century. This section
will show how engineers, car mechanics and drivers struggled with making sense of what
the engine sounds “said.” Highly important in this section is to show how not only the
sounds themselves changed, but also the meaning of these sounds and the vocabulary to
describe them. Linked to the difficult verbalization of car sound experiences, the section
will analyze the distinction between who was allowed to speak about and interpret these
sounds, and who was not. As an example we’ll look at the acoustic detection of engine
malfunctions. In order to describe the symbolic struggle between car experts and lay
motorists on who is the real car sound expert, this section will use both secondary
literature and primary sources, such as trade journals, special interest journals for drivers,
car manuals and technical handbooks.
As long as we have recorded history, the sounding objects of everyday life have been
used as musical instruments, most often for drumming. Yet, in the 20th century, the
sounds and recorded sounds of mundane objects and machines even became centerpieces
of aesthetic celebration and the basic elements of composition. The fourth section of our
chapter only shortly reviews the well-known history of the Futurist music, musique
concrète, the rise of electronic music and sound art. The larger part of this section will be
devoted to how and why today’s sound artists, notably in the Netherlands, use everyday
sounding objects in their compositions, and which strategies they deploy to make these
sounds artistically interesting. Our discussion of their views will be based on a set of
interviews with sound artists, and gives yet another twist on how sounding objects can
speak to people.
Despite the artistic relevance of the experiments with sounding objects in contemporary
music, many members of concert hall audiences still consider such music “noise”. This
brings us, in our fifth section, to the history of sounding objects as sources of noise, and
more specifically to the history of traffic noise. This section will be largely based on
Bijsterveld’s “Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture and Public Problems on Noise in the
Twentieth Century” (MIT Press, 2008). It shows how traffic sound in Western cities
became unwanted sound, how noise changed from being a chaos of sounds to a high level
of sound energy, and how noise control started.
The history of noise control will provide a natural bridge to the topic of our sixth section:
the role of sounding objects in enabling acoustic privacy. By drawing on recent literature
by Jonathan Sterne, Heike Weber and others on the history of headphone and mobile
listening, work by Karin Bijsterveld on the rise of the car as acoustic cocoon (including the
car radio), and primary sources on making the car interior a quieter space, this section
clarifies how the car is not only a sounding object that emits sounds, yet also a sounding
object that insulates drivers from environmental sound and has given them control over
the recorded sounds they want to listen to. In this sense driving your encapsulated music
chamber repeals social restrictions, and thus facilitates a listening experience which can’t
be easily achieved at home. This has made the car into a mobile listening booth or
acoustic cocoon, enhancing the kinesthetic experience of the car’s acceleration and
movement. This section will underline, however, that it is never solely the technology that
creates cultural practices such as acoustic cocooning in the car. Instead, consumers had
and have to appropriate new audio technologies in existing practices, and may use new
sounding objects in unexpected ways. Moreover, where listening to recorded sound
crosses the boundaries between private and public space, it will highly probably become
the subject of public debate.
In our conclusions, we will return to the issue of the relevance of historical knowledge on
sounding objects for sonic interaction design today, and will make the claims in our
introduction more specific with help of the historical examples discussed in the middle
sections of the chapter.

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