BBC Radio 4

    Noise: A Human History – Week 6 – A world full of noise

    Curator, British Library

    Dr Janet Topp Fargion, lead curator of world and traditional music at the British Library, previews the final week of Noise: A Human History. The thirty-part series explores the role of sound in the past 100,000 years of human history.

    The final episodes of the series describe humans as being overwhelmed by noise in modern life, painting a picture of a world in which there’s no getting away from noise and where there is limited time and space to think.

    Imagine, for example, what World War I might have sounded like with the constant battery of gunfire and loud explosions. We’ve probably all seen movies and read books and poems set at the time depicting the horror, so often intensified by the overwhelming noise of it all. 

    In Shell Shock, Prof David Hendy takes us on a journey into the noise of war and the psychological damage it did to so many of the soldiers involved, through the work of army medics such as Charles Samuel Myers and W. H. R. Rivers.

    Interestingly, these are the same two gentlemen who accompanied Alfred Cort Haddon on the first British anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898, resulting in many ground-breaking sound recordings which offer a hint of the sound of life of Torres Strait aboriginal communities.

    The argument goes that it was during this time of intensity that modern humans developed sensitivity to noise. It was also during this time that the radio as a source of sound became woven into daily life delivering news, information and, perhaps most importantly, entertainment.

    Epsiode 27: Radio Everywhere 

    Thus, with the rise of radio, records, CDs, ipods, TVs, muzak, motorized cars, amplification and a loud array of industrialized noises, sounds became a permanent complement to our lives.

    Episode 28: Music While You Shop, Music While You Work 

    Add to this the ubiquity of personal computers and mobile devices by which we access information 24/7 and we have an overload. This is described by Prof Hendy as a tipping point – when we started talking of noise as pollution and we began to run for cover with quiet zones on trains and double glazing in our windows. 

    Episode 29: An Ever Noisier World 
    Episode 30: The Search for Silence 

    We have also begun to realise that certain sounds are being drowned out or, indeed, are becoming extinct: certain animal sounds, certain acoustic musics, certain indigenous sounds.
    What this series shows us most of all is that noise is all around us and it’s changing all the time. It’s what we do to manage that sound and to preserve the noise we risk losing which will dictate how the sounds of our age are remembered.

    Download Noise: A Human History

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