Sound of the city/dissonant modernism

In 1922, John Cournos, a Russian-born Jewish American shuttling between New York and London, published a novel that attempted to capture the rhythms and dislocations of the modern metropolis. Babel is in large part a roman à clef that (rather like The Man Without Qualities) looks back from a post-war perspective to London in 1913. It starts with a reflection on the apparently universal spread of capitalism and mechanisation and their links to imperialism. The narrator, Gombarov, soon begins to question whether this universalism is desirable or sustainable. When he first arrives in London from New York, he is first struck by the distinctiveness of the city’s sounds as he boards a bus at Victoria Station. In contrast with the angular, wiry abstraction of Musil’s Viennese soundscape, Cournos creates something like a post-impressionist tone poem.

Having left Westminster Cathedral behind, the red ’bus almost noiselessly glided on, cunningly brushing past other red ’buses, with a gondola-like grace which was incredible; at times no more than a hair’s breadth separated them. And there was no sudden, sharp, shrieking noises of taxi-horns and overhead trains as in New York; but there was a trembling and a rumbling in the air, steady and constant, the even breathing of modern life over vast spaces. All the noises were swallowed up and became as one noise, vibrant like that of a ship’s turbine, incessantly throbbing, reduced to normal pulsation, diffuse mellowness of a tone painting, in which conflicting colours take their place without quarrelling with one another, and none shrieking. This, Gombarov had time to observe before reaching the end of his journey, had its counterpart in the physical contours of the streets, which were curiously free from sharp abutting angles so characteristic of the streets of the New World.[20]

Sitting on the top deck of the bus, Gombarov begins to grasp the intimate dynamic between the standardisation of the external world and the atomisation of subjective life—again, a theme of Simmel’s— as he notices the cosmopolitan entertainments on offer along the Charing Cross Road.

The soul of old England was left behind in Trafalgar Square; the ’bus rolled on through one of the corridors of the new England. Up Charing Cross Road, past a cinema house, announcing ‘The Grim Avenger: A Thrilling Romance of Three Continents’, past the Hippodrome, blazing with lights; past the buildings of new flats, utterly banal but for the curve of the old street; past a music hall, flaunting across its front the pirouetting figure of a Russian toe dancer on a coloured screen, while underneath, flashing for the world to see, letters of bright light proclaiming other attractions: a Cockney Comedian, a Spanish Tango Turn, a Swedish Acrobat Troupe, American Clog Dancers, an Argentine ‘Stunt’ Artist, Naughty Fifi the French Comic Chanteuse, and Mimi, her Eccentric Accompanist, and so on, and so on: ‘How amazingly international!’ mused Gombarov, and laughed to himself, as the after-thought struck him: ‘And here am I, a Russo-American Jew, looking on!’

Was this chaos or unity? It was chaos, and had a unity after a fashion. It was the unity of a many-tuned medley, each tune of which maintained its entity, losing it only at the moment of embracing another tune; at best, it was the unity of ultra-modern music, shaped out of discords, beaten but not molten into a harmony.[21]

This play on musical chaos and unity to capture the social complexity of the modern metropolis and the subjective life of its citizens provides a suitable metaphor to draw together the collage of quotations through which I have tried to recapture what a European capital in the 1920s might have sounded like, and how that noise might have been heard. Without, I hope, conflating the question of sound with the question of music, I have tried to show how modern music, primarily jazz, not only formed part of the new soundscape but also tried to make sense (or at least art) of it.

Through this evocation, however, I have also been making an argument about the sensual, preconscious dimension to the way in which historical change is experienced. Mass industrial production, consumer culture, post-war reconstruction and adaptation, the rise of America, a faltering democratisation, media technologies—all these powerful forces, and more, were experienced and to some extent made sense of through the senses, including the sense of hearing. Meaning, it has been said, occurs when sound meets prejudice.[22] ‘Prejudice’ is a nicely chosen word. Less technical than Raymond Williams’ ‘structure of feeling’ or Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’, it connotes something less definite and certainly less easily describable even than the shared stories, myths and images that constitute what we have come to think of as ‘cultures’. It suggests something more visceral and more elusive than that: unspoken and even unthought frames of perception, intuition, expectation and constraint that are nonetheless saturated by memories, desires and fears. These frames—subject to the complex training of technology and objective culture—are the way we hear and see the world, and thus the way we live history.

I have tried to indicate how strange was the modern sensory world coming into being in the 1920s. Even as scientists tried to remove extraneous distractions from recorded sound, the imaginative space of everyday life was becoming increasingly and uncannily over-populated by mechanical sounds and disembodied voices. The virtualisation of modern existence—accelerated if not caused by media technologies—could well have contributed to a characteristically modern sense of placelessness and even homelessness. This nostalgia is captured in David Vogel’s description of the look and sound of Vienna at dusk in his 1929 novel, Married Life.

In the mild spring air a pure, gentle stillness seemed to drop from the darkening sky. The deserted streets looked as if they had just been swept. The city was sinking into sleep in the orange glow of the streetlamps. From time to time, at increasing intervals, a tram split the silence like a nightmarish awakening. A distant train emitted a long, muffled hoot. And for a moment the imagination was captured by long journeys through the soundlessly breathing night, strange cities populated by millions of human beings.[23]