2. A Complex Kind of Training: Cities, technologies and sound in jazz-age Europe

James Donald

Table of Contents

The machine age
The jazz age
Sound of the city/dissonant modernism

Writing in the 1920s, Robert Musil opens his novel The Man Without Qualities by evoking Vienna in the final days before the Great War changed everything. His visual imagery recalls contemporary experiments in abstract and rhythmic film-making by Walther Ruttmann, Hans Richter or Viking Eggling. Blocks of light and shade are cross-cut by lines in motion—speeding automobiles in Musil’s case—while the movement of pedestrians negotiating their way through the city’s streets creates more fluid, fractal patterns. The way Musil ‘hears’ the city, however, is more ambivalent and less assertively modernist. His ‘wiry texture’ of sound shares the jagged angularity and dynamism of the visual images, but the way in which he then anchors this particular soundscape to Vienna seems to hark back to an earlier, more traditional aesthetic that assumed sound to be characteristic of, and specific to, place.[1]

It was a fine day in August 1913.

Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike strings. Where more powerful lines of speed cut across their casual haste they clotted up, then trickled on faster and, after a few oscillations, resumed their steady rhythm. Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. By this noise alone, whose special quality cannot be captured in words, a man returning after years of absence would have been able to tell with his eyes shut that he was back in the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna. Opening his eyes, he would know the place by the rhythm of movement in the streets long before he caught any characteristic detail. It would not matter even if he only imagined he could do this.[2]

Had this imagined exile returned 10 years later—when Musil was writing—would the sound of the city still have identified it so immediately and unchangingly as Vienna and nowhere else? And would our exile, with eyes shut or wide open, have listened to the city in the same way? It is doubtful. He would now have found himself in Red Vienna, struggling to recreate itself in the straitened aftermath of war and revolution, rather than in Imperial and Royal Vienna in its final spasms of self-deluding pomp. The purr and jangle of ostentatious wealth and the brassy folies de grandeur of autocratic power would to a large degree have been silenced. More striking would have been the noisy business of building a liveable social democratic city, and the sounds of a city opening up to more demotic, international and commercial forms of culture and communication. Vienna’s particular political make-up, its demographic changes, the speed of its economic recovery, the particular emphasis on building workers’ housing and constructing a social infrastructure, the density of public and private transport, the new types of leisure and entertainment venues to be offered to the public and the emergence of new media technologies—all these factors, and others, would have combined to produce a distinctive mix that would have made the city still sound different from Berlin, Paris or London. Equally, however, new sounds associated with social changes were increasingly common to all these cities, and so their soundscapes were inevitably becoming more and more similar. Perhaps as a result, the idea of sound as the acoustic genius of a place was giving way increasingly to the idea of noise as an intrusive and wiry-textured aspect of the urban environment that needed to be measured, managed and controlled.

This new, more modernist style of listening becomes dominant as Musil switches the emphasis of his narration from the uniqueness of Vienna’s historical soundscape to its modern typicality:

So let us not place any particular value on the city’s name. Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of its contending rhythms. All in all, it was like a boiling bubble inside a pot made of the durable stuff of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.[3]

The sociological imagination behind these metaphors is still that of Georg Simmel, whose 1903 essay, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, had not only prefigured Musil’s theme of the loss of ‘qualities’ (or the individual, subjective characteristics Simmel termed ‘personality’), it had offered an explanation for the phenomenon. ‘The individual,’ wrote Simmel, ‘has become a mere cog in an enormous organisation of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life.’ What he calls the ‘overwhelming fullness of crystallised and impersonal spirit’ is identical to Musil’s ‘durable stuff of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions’.[4] The difference between the two accounts lies in the novelist’s ability to convey what the implosion of ‘personality’ felt like by presenting an almost synaesthetic conflation of the social with the sensory—with vision and movement, but also with hearing and sound. Modernity in Vienna was experienced as cacophony and syncopation: ‘the chronic discord and mutual displacement of its contending rhythms.’

Simmel’s pupil Walter Benjamin also tried to capture the somatic or sensory level at which people felt and adapted to the rhythms of a changing world. In Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, he distinguishes between Poe’s nineteenth-century ‘Man of the Crowd’ and the contemporary pedestrian whose habits of looking, seeing and movement have been changed by the development of motor traffic and even by the traffic signals that first appeared in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz in 1926.

Moving through [the traffic of a big city] involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous crossings, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’. Whereas Poe’s passers-by cast glances in all directions which still appear to be aimless, today’s pedestrians are obliged to do so in order to keep abreast of traffic signals. Thus technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training.

The question here is how in the post-World War I period technology subjected the sense of hearing and the practice of listening to this complex kind of training. It is not just that people were hearing new sounds—often sounds made by machines, and sometimes machines designed to produce sound. As the second quotation from Musil suggests, people were also beginning to think about hearing in new ways.[5]

Although I emphasise the new ways of hearing described and enacted by writers and musicians, the early decades of the twentieth century were a time when scientists and technologists were also rethinking the mechanics and meaning of sound along similar lines. Acousticians in the 1920s would have thought about the link between sound and a specific place less in terms of the audible character or aural experience of a place—Musil’s exile returning to hear an unmistakable Vienna, for instance—than in terms of the reverberation that constitutes the acoustic signal of a particular space or place. And they would have thought of it as a problem insofar as it was seen as an impediment to the clarity of sound as signal or information. The aim was to make sound clear, direct and functional. This meant making it less reverberant, thus divorcing sound from place and making spaces sound increasingly alike. This principle applied equally to the emerging technologies for the reproduction of sound: the telephone, the gramophone and radio. Here again the aim was efficiency: faithfulness in reproducing an inevitably fuzzy and unfocused original was less important that stripping the reproduced sound of extraneous noise and interference so that a hearer or listener could easily decode and understand it.[6]

The machine age

In his documentary novel, The Life of the Automobile (1929), Ilya Ehrenburg describes the sounds of the Citroën factory outside Paris in a way that harks back to Simmel’s image of the individual as a cog, forward to Charlie Chaplin’s satire on the assembly line in Modern Times and tangentially to the concerns of acousticians.

The Citroën works had twenty-five thousand employees. Once, they had spoken different languages. Now they kept silent. A close look revealed that these people came from different places. There were Parisians and Arabs, Russians and Bretons, Provençals and Chinese, Spaniards and Poles, Africans and Annamites. The Pole had once tilled the soil, the Italian had grazed sheep, and the Don Cossack had faithfully served the Tsar. Now they were all at the same conveyor belt. They never spoke to one another. They were gradually forgetting human words, words as warm and rough as sheepskin or clods of freshly plowed earth.

They listened to the voices of the machines. Each had its own racket. The giant drop-hammers boomed. The milling machines screamed. The boring-machines squealed. The presses banged. The grinding-lathes groaned. The pulleys sighed. And the iron chain hissed venomously.

The roar of the machines deafened the Provençals and the Chinese. Their eyes became glassy and vacant. They forgot everything in the world: the color of the sky and the name of their native village. They kept on tightening nuts. The automobile had to be noiseless. Engineers sat and thought. How could they build a mute engine? These valves had to be silenced. The buyer was so nervous! The men along the belt had no nerves. They only had hands: to tighten a nut, to fasten a wheel.[7]

This passage brings together a number of features in the modern soundscape. First, and most obvious, there is the brutal, deafening sound of the machinery of mass production. This is what people working in factories would have heard. Second, however, the passage connotes ways of thinking about the fact that these workers were being subjected to this deafening and deadening environment. There is Ehrenburg’s Marxist critique, in which the only concern for noise reduction is aimed at assuaging the sensitive ears of bourgeois car-buyers. In fact, as Ehrenburg implies, noise at this time was being seen increasingly as a problem in need of technical solutions—and for reasons rooted in the production process as well as in consumer culture. Excessive noise was recognised as a health hazard needing treatment by physicians, and one that could indeed have a negative impact on the productivity of workers. Engineers and technologists were therefore developing new electro-acoustical instruments to measure and quantify sound with a view to mitigating its undesirable side-effects. Thirdly, there were increasing efforts to act on the material and social causes of noise. As noise pollution became an issue, noise abatement emerged as a significant progressive and/or conservationist political cause, engineers sought ways to make machines quieter and architects paid unprecedented attention to sound proofing and the acoustic design of buildings. Such problems, and the solutions being sought to them, reinforced the sense of noise as something independent from time and space, as decontextualised signals hitting the ear rather than the sort of unique audible dimension of a place that Musil heard in Vienna.

Ehrenburg’s description of Citroën’s workforce adds a fourth element, which can be found in many contemporary accounts of the soundscape of the 1920s. This is the image of the modern metropolis as the new Babel, as the number of languages to be heard in the European capitals multiplied. Here, Ehrenburg lists this linguistic diversity only to note how it is silenced, drowned out by the desensitising machines. In doing so, he is pointing to a paradox of capitalist development. The type of mass production represented by Citroën acted as a magnet for people, attracting them from around the world to the great industrial centres of Europe and America. As it did so, however, it obliterated their specific differences—as it also tended to do through its colonising appropriation of large parts of the globe.

The themes of migration, standardisation and atomisation again recall Simmel’s account of the impact of the modern metropolis on subjective life. The overload of external information and stimuli in the modern metropolis, he believed, had provoked a new armouring of the modern self evident in a blasé attitude towards others and a purely aesthetic individualism. That adaptation of metropolitan stimuli to the ends of self-creation can be seen in the embrace of Berlin’s noise and mechanisation by the novelist Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz: ‘The city as a whole has an intensely inspiring, energizing power; this commotion of the streets, shops and vehicles provides the heat I must have in order to work, at all times. It is the fuel that makes my motor run.’

The defensive response, in contrast, is exemplified tellingly in a 1926 article, ‘The Blue-Black Rose’, by the philosopher and social critic Theodor Lessing. He found modern Berlin just too noisy: ‘I hate the cries of the street merchants and newspaper vendors. I hate the ringing of the church bells, I hate the senseless noise of the factory sirens, but what I hate most are the stinking autos.’

For Lessing, as for Schopenhauer with his diatribes against the infernal cracking of whips in the nineteenth century, the sounds of the city and its machines represented something worse than an intrusion on his right to privacy. Their noise destroyed the silence necessary for inner reflection, thought and so self-development and artistic or intellectual creation. Driven to distraction, Lessing fantasised desperate measures.

Banish the ‘symbols of culture’ from the thoroughly wired landscape, filled with advertisements and smokestacks; perhaps one site will remain holy and unspoiled. I’ve decided to steal a pocketwatch at some point—with the hope of being arrested. In prison I will at least have peace from the rug beating, the piano playing, the car horns, the gramophones, and the telephones.

In his irritation and distraction, Lessing does not discriminate between different kinds of noise: long familiar interruptions such as church bells, rug beating and piano playing, the side-effects of modernisation such as factory sirens and cars with their horns, and machines designed specifically to produce sound as a means of communication (such as the telephone) or a commodity (such as the gramophone). He therefore fails to notice, or to address, what Benjamin saw in technologies such as the telephone or gramophone. They did not simply disrupt old habits of perception and selfhood; through their complex training of the senses, they reconfigured ways of relating to oneself, to others and to the world.

As many historians and critics have observed, a key feature of this modern experience was a new dynamic of time, space and presence, the transcendence of distance. Looking back on the achievements of his fellow acousticians in 1929, for example, Harold Arnold, a physicist who had helped to develop techniques that improved the sound quality in telephones, radios and gramophones, declared: ‘Now with one broad sweep the barriers of time and space are gone.’[8] The new machines created the possibility of virtual communication: talking to people not physically present, for example, or hearing music recorded long ago or far away. This world-shrinking and experience-expanding capacity of radio is invoked by Ehrenburg in an early section of The Life of the Automobile to frame his portrait of the first man to be killed in an automobile accident in France. The victim is presented as addicted fatally to the new experiences offered by new machines and technologies—not just radio, as here, but automobiles and cinema.

Then a new serpent moved into his home. It hissed sweetly. It was the radio. Bernard’s days still had an appearance of well-being. But at night he went crazy. He wore warm slippers with pompoms. But he wasn’t sitting at his fireplace; no, he was whizzing through the world. His lips moved suspiciously. He was looking for waves. Here was Barcelona…Here was Karlsruhe…The German word ‘bitte.’ Bach. Spaniards. A charleston. The winner of the race at Oxford. The Royal Dutch rates. An Italian lesson: forte, morte, cannelloni. The victory of the Conservatives in Sweden. The bells of the Kremlin: The Internationale. Another charleston. The world moohed, bleated, meowed.

The 1920s were the decade of radio. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) began its broadcasts from Savoy Hill on the evening of 17 September 1922, to be followed on 6 November by the first private radio transmitter in France—called initially Radiola but soon renamed Radio Paris—and then a year later, on 29 October 1923, by the Vox record company’s broadcasts from Berlin. Ehrenburg seems to have been right to stress the cosmopolitanism of the content—a cosmopolitanism born largely of necessity, as radio stations were forced to broadcast whatever appropriate material they could lay their hands on. Here is the Illustrated London News’s description of the type of listening offered in the BBC’s earliest days: an afternoon concert from the Eiffel Tower, a Tuesday evening concert from the Marconi works at Chelmsford, Thursday evening concerts from the Hague and the Sunday afternoon ‘Dutch concert’.[9] The mastery of nature and the annihilation of time and space celebrated by Harold Arnold were not, however, just technical breakthroughs. The ability of film to bring images of the world to a cinema near you and the power of radio to make sounds from around the world available to you in your home—dressed, if you liked, in your slippers with pompoms—were major factors in the appeal of the two media. They seemed to promise a new universalism transcending differences of language and culture.

Radio was not just cosmopolitan in its content. It also created a new audience, a new community, that was at least potentially universal in the sense that, however widely scattered it may have been across cities and nations, it was nonetheless linked together in time ‘with a simultaneity that made physical travel seem antediluvian by comparison’.[10] Paradoxically, however, this experience of hearing the world in your living room did not lead to more extensive or less constrained communication. Instead, it made people conscious that where they happened to live was not the world, but one place in an increasingly complicated and mysterious world. It emphasised the atomisation and aesthetics of defensive self-creation diagnosed a couple of decades earlier by Simmel. The virtuality of radio also added an uncanny dimension to the objectification of modern life; a sense of placelessness as everyday experience was mediated increasingly through the sounds and stories carried electronically through the air. In 1928 Berlin, Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer wrote a song, Es liegt in der Luft (There’s Something in the Air), which captures something of the novelty and the paradox of this new media environment. First, they notice how telephone, radio and cinema ‘informationalise’ culture, turning it into something like electricity, into signals even more than signs.

There’s something in the air called objectivity (Sachlichkeit),

There’s something in the air like electricity…

But then they go on to conjure up the disconcerting, incredible barrage of sounds and images being carried by those signals.

What has come over the air these days?

Oh, the air has fallen for a brand new craze.

Through the air are swiftly blown

Pictures, radio, telephone.

Through the air the whole lot flies,

Till the air simply can’t believe its eyes.

Planes and airships, think of that!

There’s the air, just hear it humming!

Trunk calls, Trios in B flat

In the gaps that are left a picture’s coming.

This was a strange and confused new world, an immaterial yet compelling soundscape populated by mechanically reproduced voices and sounds that changed the very nature of subjective being. ‘As society becomes progressively aestheticized,’ writes Michael North, ‘as audiences begin to consume imaginative and symbolic materials as they had previously consumed material goods, then everyday life acquires an inherently ironic distance from itself.’[11]

Marcel Proust was an astute observer of the way in which new media and communication technologies produced this experience of internal distance. In The Guermantes Way, published in 1920 and 1921, for example, the narrator, Marcel, is thrown by his first telephone conversation with his beloved grandmother, as the ‘tiny’ and ‘abstract’ sound of her voice, divorced from her face and her physical presence, is translated into pure signal.

It is she, it is her voice that is speaking, that is there. But how far away it is!…

Many were the times, as I listened thus without seeing her who spoke to me from so far away, when it seemed to me that the voice was crying to me from the depths out of which one does not rise again…for always until then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely; but her voice itself I was hearing that afternoon for the first time.

For Marcel, the uncanny experience of hearing this disembodied voice acts as an intimation of mortality, accentuating as it does the finitude of the body.

‘Granny!’ I cried to her, ‘Granny!’ and I longed to kiss her, but I had beside me only the voice, a phantom as impalpable as the one that would perhaps come back to visit me when my grandmother was dead. ‘Speak to me!’ But then, suddenly, I ceased to hear the voice, and was left even more alone…It seemed to me as though it was already a beloved ghost that I had allowed to lose herself in the ghostly world, and, standing alone before the instrument, I went on vainly repeating: ‘Granny! Granny!’ as Orpheus, left alone, repeats the name of his dead wife.[12]

The uncertain borderline between life and death also provokes Leopold Bloom to reflect on the uncanniness of another sound technology in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). This time it is the gramophone, which Bloom speculates about as a means of recording and perpetuating the human voice.

How many! All these here once walked round Dublin. Faithful departed. As you are now so once were we.

Besides how could you remember everybody? Eyes, walk, voice. Well, the voice, yes: gramophone. Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather. Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeagain hellohello amawf krpthsth. Remind you of the voice like the photograph reminds you of the face. Otherwise you couldn’t remember the face after fifteen years, say.[13]

In The Wasteland, also published in 1922, T. S. Eliot invokes the more usual use of the gramophone as a music machine in the passage about a typist’s casual sexual encounter with a ‘small house agent’s clerk…on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire’. Here it is not death that is summoned up but rather the deadening of affect in modern life. The recorded music in the typist’s squalid flat conveys not just Eliot’s disgust at her mechanical and disengaged coupling, but more generally his disdain for the dehumanised, automaton-like quality of contemporary culture.

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.

A thread running through these various accounts of mechanically reproduced sound is their sensitivity to the double reality of an emerging post-war world. On the one hand, the noise of modern life and the technologies of sound reproduction are part of a changing external reality: Simmel’s crystallised spirit, Musil’s durable stuff or simply ‘objectivity’. The other reality, no longer conceivable in terms of individual human qualities, is subjectivity mediated through mass-produced sounds and technologies that dislocate or subvert the familiar coordinates of space and time. This learned estrangement of the senses transmutes into a disturbing rhythm that is sometimes stultifying and sometimes febrile. This is the inner reality and rhythm of modern life lived to the tempo of jazz.