Chattering Classes: an interview with David Hendy

March 2013

The historian and radio broadcaster talks about the power of eavesdropping and the roar of the crowd, as heard in Noise: A Human History, his new 30 part series for BBC Radio 4. By Nathan Budzinski.

“Before the 19th century, people would go to a concert and they'd be chatting away throughout the entire thing… in classical concerts, people would be applauding in the middle, people would be selling food, people would arrive halfway through. There's a culture of going to a concert and actually behaving and listening carefully that only starts in the 19th century. It obviously could be quite oppressive. You go to a Wagner concert at Bayreuth, and you know if you so much as breathe you could be thrown out. It was a new form of snobbery.”

Media historian, writer and broadcaster David Hendy is telling me about his Noise: A Human History, the 30 part series started on 18 March on BBC Radio 4 (with an accompanying book published by Profile Books). It broadcasts at 1:45pm during the week, dubbed the "Neil MacGregor slot" after the narrator of 2010's A History Of The World In 100 Objects, an ambitious history told through a selection of artefacts from the British Museum.

A sonic answer to MacGregor’s narrative history told through objects, this series was written by Hendy and made with producer and recordist Matt Thompson. Comprised of on location field recordings and narration done around the world, it begins with speculations on the pre-history of sound (most of its material long dissipated, and only recently become recordable) moving through the ancient world, through the Medieval ages, 18th and 19th centuries, then towards now. Along the way Hendy investigates sound’s dynamic historical role in shamanism and religion, roaring crowds in the brutal spectacles of ancient Roman games, the powerful eavesdropping of domestic servants, the enforced silence of African-American slaves, the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation, war, technology and into the amplified age.

Iegor Reznikoff, expert on cave acoustics, imitates animal sounds in Arcy-sur-Cure, France

Hendy is well suited to the role of popular historian: he's knowledgeable and clear speaking, has the right academic qualifications, and an appropriate accent for the job – all traits that he's no doubt aware of, having previously written a history of Radio 4. Noise follows in the social history vein, with a listener-friendly style of storytelling that's at home in the erudite and populist-yet-polite Radio 4 schedules: “It's from radio that I developed a broader interest in listening, but I'm essentially a cultural historian… I'm interested less in sound in the abstract and more in the way that sound has had a role in human history.”

I heard of Hendy's Noise project in early 2012 on an academic email bulletin about 'sound studies' events in London. A philosopher and writer called Hillel Schwartz was planning on visiting the UK as part of a promo tour for his new book, Making Noise: From Babel To The Big Bang, And Beyond. Weighing in at close to 1000 pages in hardcover form, its proportions intimated that maybe something unusually urgent was going on in the seemingly sedate field of sound studies. Hendy mentioned his own project in a subsequent chain of emails. At 30 episodes, his task seemed only slightly less ambitious than Schwartz's.

I ask Hendy what interested him about Schwartz's writing. "In many ways it helped to clarify what I was trying to do with the series, which was to make it a human history… Essentially it struck me that [Making Noise] was an intellectual history of sound. It was about how sound as a philosophical, aesthetic, abstract concept has evolved… The Hillel Schwartz approach is an interesting intellectual approach – sound as a kind of entity, an aesthetic entity, a philosophical entity. But actually I was interested in sound as something that was felt by people, and actually has a real role as it were, on the street, in the home."

It's contentious as to what ‘noise’ exactly is: a too loud sound? A harmful sound? A cacophony of disorganised sounds? To this Hendy says “People say noise is a sound out of place... I prefer to think of it as a sound that someone doesn't like and doesn't want to be heard... ultimately when people want silence – or when people complain about noise – there's a power struggle going on.”

David Hendy recording in the Colosseum, Rome

Over the past few decades, more attention has been focused on understanding the historical and theoretical implications of sound and listening, much of this research taking place in academic circles: the applied listening – and implied conservatism – of theorist R Murray Schafer (who coined 'soundscape', along with the less successful ‘soundmark') and the Vancouver Soundscape Project's acoustic ecology. Or Alain Corbin's study of village bells in 19th century France and Emily Thompson's work on soundscape and modernity in 20th century American urban architecture: two authors who Hendy cites as inspirations. They have all, broadly speaking, come out of institutional cultures.

And if there's currently one main axiom of sound studies, it emanates from the dull clatter of 19th century industrialisation: a time when the peaceful rural landscape (of Western Europe and North America, specifically) was shattered, our noisy soundscape transmitting its distress back to us. But Hendy is sceptical of this oft-repeated truism: "I worry that there is a tradition in sound studies that is romantically attached to the past, and to nature, and is slightly misanthropic about the effect of humans," he says. "I'm suspicious of that not only because I think that historically it's a bit misleading, this idea of a division between a kind of wonderful, rich sonic then, and a soundscape destroyed through modernity,” saying that it not only brought new complex sounds and techniques of listening, “but also there's a danger in it that you start to require people to shut up. Silencing people is problematic, it's an exercise of the powerful against the weak.

“For instance, African-American slaves who were not allowed to use drums in South Carolina in the 1730s – because the plantation owners were utterly convinced that drums are being used as a secret signalling. They've heard about it in Africa, they've heard about it from Christian missionaries... So you know, silence the drumming.” But, Hendy also notes that this power to silence what one deems noise isn’t final. There’s a constant to-ing and fro-ing between censors and noise-makers, with the latter responding to oppression with ingenuity: “if they can't do it through drumming, they do it through fiddles, hand-slapping… There are all types of creative responses to the fact that drumming is banned.”

Describing sound’s role in shamanistic cultures, he looks at its utilisation to create a magical, religious atmosphere, coaxing participants towards states of awe: “[Shamans] had helpers to create the idea of voices moving through the air. It absolutely created the right atmosphere for people to imagine that they were hearing spirits flying through the air.” Later, cathedrals would also use sound and architecture to create dramatic atmospheres. “It's not just about [visual] spectacle, it's about aural spectacle as well: creating effects that only some people are privy to... If you look at the way in which we move historically in the world, to actually creating and manipulating our own sounds, you are to some extent looking at an issue of the division of labour in human society, between those who have control of a sound as it were, and those who are excluded from the control of the sound.”

But for Hendy, the role of spectatorship and listening isn’t necessarily a servile or passive one. “I've often read about interactivity and new media, with the implication that old media – like listening to the radio – was a passive activity, and I've never trusted that idea... listening to the radio or listening to a piece of music, you are not being passive. You are being active because you're having a huge emotional response to it!”

Though this emotional response can have implications in the way that listeners might subsequently act, there’s still a considerable leap between listening to a song and then taking part in local politics or public protest. Hendy gives a more specific example, describing a programme looking at power dynamics between master and servants in 18th century households: “Even when a servant is off-scene, that servant is actively listening, in order to know when they're wanted to lay the fire or bring in a drink. It also gives them the opportunity to listen to things that they shouldn't have heard. Indiscretions, affairs, sexual liaisons and so on... it might put them in a very valuable position, because of course when it comes to divorce proceedings, or accusations of adultery, it's very often the servants who are the witnesses [in court]... people in supposedly passive positions in some sense become quite powerful through casual listening as it were, through eavesdropping.”

Hendy also looks for similarities of how sound is used in different cultures, how something like eavesdropping is an important, and recurring phenomenon around the world: “It's been encouraged in human culture as a way of monitoring behaviour. In the middle ages the Church wanted people to eavesdrop in order to discover immoral behaviour... some forest-based cultures that have been studied by anthropologists, the idea is that there is something suspicious about being private, that everything should be eavesdrop-able and that if you're preventing eavesdropping, you've got something to hide.”

Near the end of the series – with the dreadful hum of the world's soundscape intensifying – Hendy looks at a fashion for the pursuit of silence, with people trying to escape the noise by heading back into nature, or going on monastical retreats. Again, Hendy is dubious: "If your response to too much noise is to ask for silence, you're setting the bar too high… Sound is social, it exists in the atmosphere, and the cost of enforcing silence is that you're silencing people and you're silencing cultures, and it can turn very quickly into something quite discriminatory. Look back into the 19th century and people like Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and a lot of writers who wanted peace and quiet, and very quickly you see them complaining about street musicians who are invariably foreign, and before you know it, your desire for silence has turned into something that is anti-immigrant."

When I first arrived at Hendy’s home to interview him, he mentioned some of the clips that he was still trying to source. We talked about a recording of George Osborne, the UK’s Chancellor Of The Exchequer being booed by the audience at the 2012 Paralympic Games. Osborne’s reaction – cringing under a nervous laugh to mask extreme discomfort – represents one of the most important ideas in Noise. It’s a poignant example of the dynamics of sound, power, listening and noise-making that Hendy looks at – starting with ancient Roman games and the Coliseum: “[It was] a multi-sensory spectacle, something visual, something aural, something with smells. But the crowd kind of takes on a life of its own, and the mood can turn.” It’s in this undisciplined chatter and roar of the crowd, with its spontaneous noises of irreverence that so much power resides, however unpredictable and fleeting it might be.

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