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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

12 December 2011

Our synthetic sound environment

IN 1962 THE American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin wrote an ecological critique of contemporary urban life titled Our Synthetic Environment. The book lacks the tight focus of Rachel Carson’s landmark work on the effects of pesticide use, The Silent Spring, which was published in the US a few months later that year, and it’s not been reprinted since perhaps the 1970s.

Nonetheless Our Synthetic Environment is a minor classic of ecological writing and its roots go back at least as far as Peter Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops.

Our Synthetic Environment


In Our Synthetic Environment, Bookchin begins by challenging the belief that living conditions in cities have improved in every way:

[. . .] but by no means are all the advances as beneficial as the historians would have us believe. Recent changes in our synthetic environment have created new problems that are as numerous as those which burdened the men of the past. For example, soon nearly 70 per cent of the American population will be living in large metropolitan centers, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They will be exposed in ever-greater numbers to automobile exhausts and urban air pollutants.

In Chapter Three he describes what would now be called noise pollution:

Mechanical noises are everywhere. They invade even the hours of sleep as a result of the growing web of highways that reaches into every part of the city. Advertising media assail the senses with garish images and sounds; their message is crude and elemental, designed to startle and perhaps to shock the viewer into a response. Recreation seldom furnishes the average urban dweller with the experiences denied to him in the daily bustle of life-moments of genuine serenity, silence, and gentle changes of scene.

Bookchin contrasts this with medieval city life as imagined by the historian Lewis Mumford in his book The City in History, which was published the year before in 1961:

One awoke in the medieval town to the crowing of the cock, the chirping of birds nesting under the eaves, or to the tolling of the hours in the monastery on the outskirts, perhaps to the chime of bells in the new belltower. Song rose easily on the lips, from the plain chant of the monks to the refrains of the ballad singer in the market place, or that of the apprentice and the house-maid at work. As late as the seventeenth century, the ability to hold a part in a domestic choral song was rated by Pepys as an indispensable quality in a new maid. There were work songs, distinct for each craft, often composed to the rhythmic tapping or hammering of the craftsman himself. Fitz Stephens reported in the twelfth century that the sound of the water mill was a pleasant one amid the green fields of London. At night there would be complete silence but for the stirring of animals and the calling of the hours by the town watch. Deep sleep was possible in the medieval towns, untainted by either human or mechanical noises.

Sources such as Fitz Stephens’ twelfth-century panegyric A Description of London have to be read with caution. Bookchin uncritically accepts Mumford’s upbeat account, but you can read a necessary counterbalance in Emily Cockayne’s recent Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England: 1600–1770.

It’s not easy to give a concise answer when asked ‘How has the urban sound environment changed?’ Here are some trends or processes which might inform it:

1. Increasing extent of urban sprawl together with decreases in local population density.

2. Greater levels of social and technical organisation meaning fewer riots, stampedes, fires, collapsing buildings, or other mishaps.

3. Limits placed on street life through policing, traders’ permits, licensing, building control, and volume of traffic.

4. Fewer percussive sounds, including those of horses’ hooves, workshop-level craft industry, heavy industry, and goods being manhandled.

5. Homogenisation of the urban sound environment with fewer differences heard between parts of the city, between weekdays and weekends, and between day and night.

6. The rise of pervasive broadband noise from road and air traffic, and air conditioning.

7. A decline in public broadcast speech in all spheres of activity except transport, due to increasing literacy, social atomisation, and the near-removal of absolute poverty by welfare systems.

All kinds of other factors could be added and there are inevitably exceptions. A compressed and lossy formulation might be: The urban sound environment grows more monotonous as the city becomes more organised.

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