The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture, and the Arts

Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts. By Sam Halliday. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. 206 pp. $120.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Debra Rae Cohen, University of South Carolina

In taking on the topic of sound for Edinburgh University Press’s “Critical Studies in Modernist Culture” series—one of those arrays of relatively brief “Modernism and  …” volumes that have become such a feature of the changing publishing landscape, particularly in Britain—Sam Halliday has set himself a daunting task. Neither fish nor fowl, such volumes demand a complex balancing act between argument and coverage; if Halliday is not completely successful here, it may be in part because the emergent field of modernist sound studies already involves a dizzying array of disciplines, loci, and cultures. Charting a course through this complex terrain often involves gesturing at promising lines of inquiry that disappear all too quickly, as through the window of a speeding car. Halliday’s range of referents and unquestionable erudition make this a tantalizing journey, but often a frustrating one, as we carom from the implications of the coming of movie sound, to folklorists’ use of technologies of inscription, to the “assaultive character of urban sense impressions” (29), to the relationship between music and time.

The book is held together, perhaps necessarily, by the loosest of theses—that there is such a thing as “sonic modernity,” with a “distinctive and . . . unprecedented character” (5), one that is typified, especially musically, by the tendency to “confound, bestride and simply mobilise” oppositions (127). Halliday borrows three theoretical constructs to characterize the development of modern sound; the notion of the “acousmatic,” or the voice detached from its source; the advent of sound capture and reproduction; and Douglas Kahn’s notion that “all sound”—the production of more sounds, and the listening to more things in more different ways—is the mark of modernity. Each of these serves as a sometime touchstone for Halliday’s wide-ranging chapters, organized around theories of sound, sound and social life, sound and its visual analogues and expressions, ideas of modern music, and modes of listenership. But Sonic Modernity’s real core is Wagner, whose theories form the book’s beating heart, and to whom Halliday circles back repeatedly in the course of his idiosyncratic forays.

Wagner’s significance to modernist thought is not a new idea, of course—as a flurry of publications tied to last year’s bicentenary has reminded us—but Halliday brings a freshness and urgency to his treatment. In Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, the book finds its inspiration and impetus for the investigation of the mutual imbrication of the arts. One might wish, in fact, that the centrality of Wagner to the book had been made more overt. Instead, the need to build around coverage produces a reliance on taxonomies that often seem unconvincing or vague, and prompts some clunky and ungraceful signposting. Although Halliday does his best to stitch the book together with cross-referencing (“As we saw in Chapter 2 . . . ”, “[X,] who we met in Chapter 2 . . . ”), too often individual chapters feel frustratingly like topic checklists rather than coherent arguments—the outline for the book rather than the book itself. It’s not that there isn’t a distinctive voice here—quirky, scholarly and assertive—it’s that we don’t get to hear it give the full speech for which so much groundwork is laid. 

Yet there is much here to admire, and much that is thought-provoking. One intriguing section of Chapter 4, for instance, comments on the feedback loop of production and reproduction in popular music—taking off from Mark Katz’s idea of the “phonograph effect” as driving musical innovation across all genres—but then that line of inquiry is discarded in favor of rehearsing, in the course of three pages, the other ostensible determinants of the specificity of jazz (nationality, economics, and “race”) and two pages on the effects of jazz on non-musical media. This sequence is worth mentioning, however, in part because it represents one of the few moments in the text when attention is paid to cultural specificity, to sound as a local phenomenon. Despite the text’s repeated gesturing to “sonic cultures,” Halliday’s own bent is philosophical, and the most intellectually charged portions of the book are those that map the currents of nineteenth-century theories of music, of attention, of acoustic science, that bear on modernist-era practices. Chapter 3’s survey of modes of “modernizing music,” with its readable explication of Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, is particularly impressive, as is his discussion of sound theories from Aristotle to Benjamin in Chapter 1. 

In all of this music, and theories of music, take precedence. Halliday justifiably takes the position that music is “of course the sonic art par excellence” (23)—but why this need imply in an age of “total sound,” that theories of music best illuminate patterns of sound’s transmission and transmediation is not so clear. Indeed, the book is relatively silent on the cultural mechanisms and institutions that helped govern sonic experience in the period. And when it comes to tracing the effects of sound into print media, despite the book’s capacious subtitle, Halliday seems less assured; perhaps, again, because of space restrictions, few of his examples are as fully developed as the excellent reading of Heart of Darkness in the volume’s introduction. Often, in fact, especially with those examples drawn from the novels of Virginia Woolf, his references seem oddly decontextualized, cited as instances of cultural attitudes rather than in relation to representation—Louis’s observations, in The Waves, about media connectivity, for example, become exemplary rather than symptomatic. One misses in these references the careful attention to the formal processes of remediation that Julian Murphet showed in Multimedia Modernism (2009)—or that Halliday himself demonstrates in his insightful treatment of Mina Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird.” 

Overall, too, Halliday offers less attention to, and less parsing of, the differing protocols and implications of various sound media than one might expect from a scholar so versed in technology studies. The reactions to sound media he draws from literature span the early twentieth century, with little acknowledgement of the shift over this period of attitudes and consumption patterns, or of local or national differences in this regard. Chapter 2, disturbingly, elides the social effects of radio, telephone, gramophone while also reproducing without question the familiar, now debunked, myth of the “panic” engendered by Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds; similarly, Chapter 5’s concluding disquisition on the particularities of wartime listenership seems oddly scattershot, ungrounded by a historicized account of previous listening practices. Recent work by Christina Baade, Kate Lacey, and others could serve as a useful corrective here to a set of musings that seem perhaps too impressionistic. But all this is perhaps for a more exhaustive survey. Halliday’s book does succeed in calling attention to byways of the modernist sonic imaginary that one might not otherwise have noted—byways which are likely to repay more extended visits. 

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