David Hendy: Noising up the historians

Write political history and the centres of power quickly suck you into their orbit. Before you know it, you’re buried in official documents at the National Archives, or describing the ebb and flow of influence at Westminster, perhaps charting the rise and fall of courtiers at Whitehall or Hampton Palace.

Write a history of sound and you find yourself facing the giddy, thrilling prospect of a world without centre. Does any one place have a greater claim to attention than any other? Who is to say the chimes of Westminster Abbey are any more important to the human story than, say, Edinburgh’s “great bell” once rung at ten every night to send all good citizens to their homes – or any more important than the rolling thunder of wooden planks beaten vigorously with hammers in order to call the faithful to prayer in Orthodox churches across rural Romania or Greece?

When it comes to understanding the role of sound in the social life of ordinary people, I’m drawn to the wooden “semantron” every time. Here was a piece of simple technology, around since the days of the Roman Empire. It offered an inspired and deeply practical response in Constantinople and across the Balkans to the later Ottoman ban on loud, metallic Christian bells. Its sound conjures up for us a period of history in which Christianity and Islam struggled to find ways of accommodating each other’s traditions and rituals. Listening to it, we hear the traces of a wider human drama enacted over half a millennium ago. We’re reminded, too, that the struggle for freedom of expression has so often come down to a struggle to hear and be heard. When today’s Indignados protest against austerity economics in Spain they choose to bang pots and pans loudly because it’s the easiest way for someone who’s poor to say, in effect, I’m here, I exist, I won’t be ignored.

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Sometimes when writing the history of sound the centres of power don’t melt away. They just shift. In the early 19th century, it was Edinburgh that was, after Paris, the leading medical school in Europe. So it was in the buildings around Infirmary Street, just off Cowgate, that we would have witnessed a revolution in the way we all listened to our own bodies. The stethoscope had been developed first in Paris at the end of the 18th century. But it was Edinburgh’s university doctors who had the idea of replacing a rigid wooden design with flexible tubing, making it altogether more practical. It was they who allowed patients’ bodies to speak for themselves in the consultation room, who first mapped in detail the rattles, gurgles and beats lurking in the internal soundscape of our fleshly cavities. And it’s at the National Museum of Scotland that I was able to hold in my hands the very earliest stethoscopes and tell their story.

Scottish locations loom large in my history of sound. Edinburgh provided perhaps the most dramatic example of how the soundscapes of domestic life changed in the 18th century – at least for the better off. In the Old Town: the crush of noise in the communal staircases of the tenements, or outside among the bustling vegetable-sellers of the Lawnmarket. In the Georgian New Town: the peace and calm of the self-enclosed four-story family home, the cacophony of public life shut out. The city’s contrasting soundscapes provided a vivid example of how a once promiscuous intermingling of poor, rich, and middling folk gave way to rigorous zoning by class.

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But lest we start thinking of Edinburgh as just another centre monopolising our attention, we should travel further north. Five thousand years ago, Orkney was the centre of one of Europe’s greatest Neolithic cultures. And many of its great monuments have uncanny sonic properties. On a clear, still day last September, the chambered tomb of Maeshowe encased me in silence while the Ring of Brodgar echoed spectacularly as I stood inside its standing stones and banged a goatskin drum. Its original builders must surely have noticed a dramatic change in sound whenever they entered it. A deliberate design feature? Or accidental by-product? No one knows. But such resonance hints tantalisingly at a rich and complex ritual life centred, perhaps, on extraordinary multi-sensual experiences. Which is why Orkney is as good a place as any in the world to contemplate the origins of organised religious ceremonies.

The historian’s abiding difficulty, of course, is that sound is horribly ephemeral. Until the technology of recording came along, the noise of the past always melted away as it was born. So when we walk the streets of Edinburgh or stand at Brodgar with our ears open and microphones aloft we are witnesses only to the sounds of the present. We have to imagine the noises that once drifted through these spaces – and then find a way of evoking them for the reader or radio-listener. It’s frighteningly easy to go into a studio and use digital sound effects or actors to recreate the Roman Games at the Colosseum, the riots in Paris in 1789, or the wretched life in the trenches of the First World War soldier assaulted by the din of artillery. But there’s something phoney about this, I think. For the listener or reader to imagine a scene a few words from a diary or letter and then the sonic equivalent of a few light brush-strokes might suffice. In South Carolina, the radio series producer, Matt Thompson, and I stood in a field telling the story of the crushing of the Stone slave rebellion in 1739. We’d got away from the main road but the microphone caught a distant pick-up truck, some dogs barking, a bird of prey flying overhead. Could these evoke something of the menacing atmosphere unleashed by the plantation-owners more than 275 years ago? We hoped so.

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Is it possible that Scotland shapes the texture of this history of noise in other, more subtle ways? The radio programmes are made by Rockethouse. Its creative director, Matt works out of an old, well, Rocket House, just yards from the beach in North Berwick. What’s created lovingly by him in this ramshackle space is handcrafted radio – miles away, geographically and metaphorically, from the assembly-line version so often generated in the characterless production offices down South. During a tea break, Matt and I sit on the stone wall just outside, looking out to sea, listening to the gulls, the waves. Almost without noticing, sound seeps into our subconscious. It helps keep us alert to the richly varied cacophonies of the world, not shut-off from them. We hope that this, too, is something listeners and readers will be able to detect in the fabric of our tale.

• David Hendy is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Sussex and author of Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, which is published by Profile Books, priced £16.99. It has also been adapted into the 30-part series currently being broadcast on Radio 4.