May 13, 2008

American Sonics

After the American Century

Public space in United States does not sound like Scandinavian public space. Take Logan Airport as an example. The passenger waiting in its international terminal is subjected to a soundscape that is quite unlike that one finds in the airports of Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, or Amsterdam. I name these because I travel frequently enough through them to feel certain that I can generalize. Boston's Logan is all about commerce and cacophony. There are frequent loudspeaker announcements about flights, delays, and the like. There are TV stations hanging from the ceiling that all broadcast CNN the last few times I was there. And there is a third sound, a airport radio station bombarding the trapped passengers with music and advertisements.

They have arrived hours early, as required for security, and for several hours they must negotiate waves of sound. In certain locations they can hear CNN fairly well, but move a few steps and the airport "radio" sets up an interference pattern. The three layers of sound – announcements, radio, and television – further compete with the hundreds of cell phone conversations (often annoying loud), plus there is the tintinnabulation of tiny headsets chipping away at the brain cells of younger travelers. Conversation can then only take place at a higher decibel level, producing a roaring cacophony in the departure zone. After several hours in the maelstrom of sound, the already weary passenger climbs into a plane. By then one may have decided to buy one of those special headphones that cancels out background noise.

The comparison between these American soundscapes and those in Scandinavia and Holland could not be more striking. In Copenhagen or Oslo, where I sit as I write this, all three of the sounds amplified in Logan are absent. I hear only human voices, of people who are nearby. If I close my eyes, I can hear the sound of luggage being wheeled past or the laughter of a woman behind me. I can hear myself think because most people speak softly and apparently think that others have what might be called sonic rights.

Is Logan airport an exception or a typical case? Compare it to an American sports stadium, and it seems rather typical. In the stands one hears continual announcements, organ music, the radios of fans who want to hear the sportscaster tell them more about what they are seeing, and most important of all, there is a giant scoreboard, showing instant replays and producing pyrotechnic displays as needed in response to the game. If a fan goes to buy a hotdog down behind the seats, small televisions are positioned so that the game is still visible.

The American public soundscape is multivocal and competitive. It is commercialized, and the sales pitch is seldom far away. It is loud. It demands concentration. And it forces my fellow Americans to speak loudly. Many develop a vocal range from forte to fortissimo. Meanwhile, Scandinavians are sotto voce. They can spot an American without looking, from their sonic voice print. Yesterday I heard every boring word of a conversation between two American men, who were seated at least 20 meters (yards) away in an Oslo restaurant. They were not boors. But they were loud, having been conditioned by tens of thousands of hours in the American soundscape.

In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman declared he would sound his "barbaric yawp" over the rooftops of the world. That was in 1855. He knew then that Americans as a tribe did not go quietly about. That was before the loudspeaker or the radio, back when a singer or a speaker needed a room with good acoustics, and just as importantly, the audience had to know how to restrain itself or no one would hear. Whitman's audience also could communicate back to the stage far more easily than one canm today in the electrified soundscape. For as sound was electrified and broadcast, the communication changed. But I begin to digress. If the historical background for American sonics might sound like it needs to be researched more fully, the book is already out. Get hold of a copy of Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (MIT Press, 2002). Please do not try to read it in Logan Airport.

The American today is not only a multitasker, but adept at hearing many things simultaneously and filtering out all of it except a single conversational thread. It is also a kind of skill to block out everything entirely, in order to concentrate on a laptop while sitting in a coffee shop. Or, in my case, sitting on a train, as I am now in Denmark. But train has a "quiet car" where talking and cell phone conversations are banned. American concentration, Scandinavian sonics.