What does it sound like?

by Jen Paton


I remember material history seemed boring to me as an undergraduate. I could care less about some colonial lady’s crockery or her misshapen stony bead games. The only objects of interest were those allegedly imbued with “cultural import” – religious icons, certain paintings, particular grand spaces that made me wonder what it must have been like to be there. I was suffering, badly, from an over-reliance on words and pictures.

We see history through such words and pictures, sometimes video, often through blockbuster films or Ken Burns-effected photographs on television documentaries – the latter an effect that lends a sense of importance to an image that you can’t quite pinpoint nor fully buy into (especially now that you can do it yourself with iPhoto). But we live life with five senses, after all. People of the past felt, smelled, and heard things too. Perhaps this is why, where it seems one might get away with it, you can always catch people of today trying to touch the buffed Greek statuary or glowering Egyptian gods at the British Museum.

At the Met’s new, enveloping, Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia, surrounded by astounding and challenging visual beauty, I couldn’t touch much of the past, but there is a nice moment where I could hear a bit of it, when I scuttled across a large gallery full of rugs to stumble into the Damascus room from 1707. With the splashes of a fountain, you can imagine a bit of what someone’s life of the senses was like, here, then.

The life of the senses is examined, to an extent, in academic history, perhaps less so in popular history – barring the popular Smelly Old History series from OUP. As Richard Cullen Rath writes in his introduction to How Early America Sounded, how paying attention to sound, for example, opens new worlds: “These were worlds much more alive with sound than our own, worlds not yet disenchanted, worlds perhaps even chanted into being.” (People have captured the social value of sound from other angles, too. The World Soundscape Project‘s compendia of sound environments helped lead to anti noise pollution legislation in Canada.)

Though most of us feel deeply tied to music I think we neglect the less conscious, possibly beautiful, possibly annoying, non verbal, non musical sound around us – a lack Rath also identifies in scholarship. We meditate on an image, but sound can be more clarifying. I was reading about what an important time it is when you first wake, that if you rush through your morning routine, late for work, adrenaline pumping, you miss a special half-groggy, half-clarified mental state where you might have big ideas, come up with new solutions to problems you face. I think an important part of that morning time are the sounds you wake up to and with.

In my family’s home, the click of the coffee machine switching on, followed by my grandfather’s footsteps, followed by the tick-tick-tick-tick-tick of little dog nails on hard floor.

In a flat I lived in, there was a primary school five stories down. If I slept too long, I’d awake to an explosion of children laughing and playing and crying at their recess, a wall of sound that seems to be much the same wherever you are on earth, and that is delicious to wake to.

I find that in an unfamiliar place you hear those morning sounds keenly: the whoosh of water through strange pipes as someone turns on their shower, the way that police sirens sound different in a new “here,” the way people’s words, in a language you don’t quite know, merge into something soothing and threatening. Lately I wake up to the sound of a train rumbling toward Russia, but also the familiar tick-tick-tick-tick-tick of little dog nails on hardwood floor above me.

Sounds can make you feel far away and close at the same time. When I am skyping someone at home thousands of miles across steppe and sea and ocean, the uncanniest is to hear the honk of a car outside their window. The slice of street sound shows their closeness and their distance: to think the honk I hear from my struggling laptop speakers traveled so far.

Searching for the sound of the London underground, I stumbled on a way to hear new places. FreeSounds is not a huge library, but through their geotagged map of sound I have heard: New Years somewhere in Azerbaijan. A street in Istanbul. And one in Xian. In Harbin, the sound of a busker playing an Er-Hu, the clink clink of coins falling into his pot. And yes, the London Underground pulling up to Pimlico, but also the Transiberian express arriving at Irkutsk. In Arunachal Pradesh, women singing. On a beach near Easter Island, the sounds of waves on volcanic rock. At Kandahar Airfield, a man shuffling through the gravel , followed by, tagged a few paces away, the oddly quiet sound that warns of a rocket attack.

It is bracing to experience sound like this, without any commentary, immediate and familiar and strange. It reminds me that there is so much that can’t be known by reading or looking.