[Stanford music professor Jonathan] Berger then said that he tests his incoming students each year in a similar way. He has them listen to a variety of recordings which use different formats from MP3 to ones of much higher quality. He described the results with some disappointment and frustration, as a music lover might, that each year the preference for music in MP3 format rises. In other words, students prefer the quality of that kind of sound over the sound of music of much higher quality. He said that they seemed to prefer “sizzle sounds” that MP3s bring to music. It is a sound they are familiar with…
Our perception changes and we become attuned to what we like [...] The context changes our perception, particularly when it’s so obviously and immediately shared by others. Listening to music on your iPod is not about the sound quality of the music, and it’s more than the convenience of listening to music on the move. It’s that so many people are doing it, and you are in the middle of all this, and all of that colors your perception. All that sizzle is a cultural artifact and a tie that binds us. It’s mostly invisible to us but it is something future generations looking back might find curious because these preferences won’t be obvious to them.
It’s vital to understand that solitude, like silence, have rarely been available to human beings. Try reading Bruce Smith’s extraordinary (though too jargony) account of The Acoustic World of Early Modern England if you’re prone to think of the pre-industrial Western world as a silent one. Especially in cities, the noise — often literally deafening, in areas where blacksmiths and other craftsmen lived — went on twenty-four hours a day; though of course things were quieter in the countryside.
But not more solitary. In country and city alike, whole families slept in single rooms, often sharing those rooms with animals. Only the enormously wealthy could spread out into multiple rooms. (It’s worth remembering that throughout human history the vast majority of couples have had to have sex in the same room, and often in the same bed, with other people.) And all of these noisy and crowded conditions that we see in our studies of the European past are, of course, present-day realities for many people today; perhaps most humans on the planet.
As Diana Webb has recently shown in her new book Privacy and Solitude: The Medieval Discovery of Personal Space — reviewed here — medieval Europeans in general simply accepted their lack of “personal space,” but others valued it and desired it sufficiently to retreat from the world, as hermits and anchorites, in order to get it. But these were necessarily special cases. Until the nineteenth century in Europe and other economically developed parts of the world, very few people have been able to find either solitude or silence.
Here is Carnegie Hall. You have heard something of the great Beethoven and it has been charming, masterful in its power over the mind. We have been alleviated, strengthened against life—the enemy—by it. We go out of Carnegie into the subway and we can for a moment withstand the assault of that noise, failingly! as the strength of the music dies….
But as we came from Anthiel’s “Ballet Mechanique,” a woman of our party, herself a musician, made this remark: “The subway seems sweet after that.” “Good,” I replied and went on to consider what evidences there were in myself in explanation of her remark. And this is what I noted. I felt that noise, the unrelated noise of life such as this in the subway had not been battened out as would have been the case with Beethoven still warm in the mind but it had actually been mastered, subjugated. Antheil had taken this hated thing life and rigged himself into power over it by his music. The offense had not been held, cooled, varnished over but annihilated and life itself made thereby triumphant. This is an important difference. By hearing Antheil’s music, seemingly so much noise, when I actually came up on noise in reality, I found that I had gone up over it.
Hyperprism was performed again in November by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with a siren borrowed from a local fire company. The Philadelphia premiere went “splendidly,” according to the conductor; “practically all the audience remained to hear it.” Olin Downes, music critic for the New York Times, could only describe it as a medley of “election night, a menagerie or two, and a catastrophe in a boiler factory,” but others were more willing to accept the piece on its own terms. The Herald-Tribune‘s Lawrence Gilman thought the work “a riotous and zestful playing with timbres, rhythms, sonorities.” While the audience “tittered a bit” during the performance, after its conclusion they “burst into the heartiest, most spontaneous applause we have ever heard given to an ultra-modern work.”
The first public performance of the noise orchestra took place on 21 April 1914 at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. According to Russolo, the audience of conservative critics and musicians came only “so that they could refuse to listen.” As soon as the orchestra began to play, the crowd broke into a violent uproar. The musicians continued undaunted while fellow Futurists hurled themselves into the audience and defended the Art of Noises with their fists. In the end, eleven people were sent to the hospital, none of them Futurists, as belligerence was a central component of the Futurist approach to art and life, and many were talented boxers.