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The War Against Noise

Despite doomed patrician attempts to shut it out, noise can never entirely be avoided — and a level of ‘social noise’ is part of convivial life.

Hugo Gernsbach is pictured wearing what he called his ‘isolator’, an invention that kills noise, in July 1925. (Photo by Bettmann / Contributor)

By the brink of autumn in 1853, the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle was nearing the end of his tether. ‘All summer I have been more or less annoyed with noises’, he wrote to his sister that August. There were next door’s chickens — those ‘demon fowls’ squawking at all hours. There was the neighbour on the other side who liked to play the piano — badly — with the windows open. The barking of dogs. The voices of coachmen. The wheels of carriages. Even a man with a bad cough was enough to get him worked up. More irksome than all, there were the street peddlers and buskers.

‘The question arises,’ he asked himself of one ‘vile yellow Italian’ with a barrel organ who had taken to performing in the road outside, ‘whether to go out and, if not assassinate him, call the police upon him, or to take myself away to the bath-tub and the other side of the house? Of course, I ought to choose the latter …’ It was time for drastic action.

‘Masons … [are] upon the roof of the house,’ Carlyle noted in his diary a week later, ‘after a dreadful bout of resolution on my part — building me a SOUNDLESS ROOM!’ Carlyle’s approach to soundproofing was remarkably similar to that employed by acoustic engineers today. ‘In practice,’ writes Philip Newell, an acoustic design consultant and former technical director of Virgin Records, in his recent book on Recording Studio Design, ‘the means by which isolation is usually achieved is by mechanically decoupling the inner structure of the room from the main structure of the building.’

Essentially, that’s what Carlyle’s builders did. They constructed a room within a room. Between the exterior walls and another set of interior walls, they left little ‘air chambers’ to soak up the noise. Even over his head, there was a kind of double ceiling, with a modern slated roof over it all and a vast door-sized skylight cut out of it to let in natural light. The whole thing took months to build and cost the considerable sum of £170 — the equivalent of about twenty-five grand in today’s money.

Carlyle would no doubt have sympathised with the anonymous narrator of The Silentiary, a short novel by the Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto, published in 1964 and recently translated by Esther Allen. Like Carlyle himself, ‘noise stalks and harries’ di Benedetto’s protagonist and he goes to great lengths in combating it. When an auto-repair shop opens up next door, he complains to the police about the noise, moves his bedroom to the other side of the house, tries to mask the sound with Beethoven’s Ninth and even sprinkles sulphur on the owner’s doorstep as a sort of sigil. Finally, he packs up and heads out to ‘a region of the interior where people do gentle work by old fashioned methods’ only to find the ‘pounding of iron against iron’: a blacksmith.

It’s an experience shared by many Europeans of former centuries, setting off in search of unspoilt idylls, from Regency-era British officials on the Grand Tour met with the ‘noises of Pandemonium all around’ to Enlightened Prussian polymaths trekking through the Amazon basin to discover only ‘horrible noises’ like ‘the explosion of a mine’. Nature has never been silent. Silence is best understood as a human creation, a cultural technology.

Carlyle’s soundproof attic would prove an unmitigated failure. When I visited the building on Cheyne Row earlier this year, the National Trust volunteer showing me around admitted it soon became the noisiest room in the house. A decade later, the author of the History of Frederick the Great was back to writing letters of complaint, now co-signed by such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, and John Millais and presented to Parliament by the Liberal MP Michael T. Bass (of the Bass Brewery). Around that time, correspondents fulminated weekly in the letters page of The Times, complaining of ‘a perfect Babel of sounds … the curse of every street in London.’

There is an unmistakable class dimension to these missives. Their authors sign off from Marylebone, Belgravia, and other fashionable districts. They make a point of noting their professional status as medical doctors, ‘a hard-worked man’, a ‘pen-and-ink’ worker, and so on. The complaints were also, frequently, highly racialised — think of Carlyle’s ‘vile yellow Italian’. Another letter bemoans ‘the yells and clatter of the negro melodists’. Most London street musicians at the time were immigrants, as the letter writers rarely failed to mention. ‘Why should we tolerate these foreign mendicants?’ one petitioner demanded to know.

Bass’s bill would finally pass in July 1864, becoming in effect the first modern legislation against noise. Many of its successors would share in its assumptions. When Julia Barnett Rice of the New York Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise redefined the target of her ire in terms of ‘social noise’ she effectively acknowledged this. Her organisation successfully lobbied for an ordinance banning street vendors cries in 1909, but it applied only to Manhattan, despite the incorporation of all five boroughs a decade earlier.

Henceforward, the legal suppression of noise would be ineradicably tied to property prices, from the use of zoning ordinances to cordon off pockets of quiet in suburban, majority-white middle-class neighbourhoods, to more recent struggles over the licensing of clubs and bars in New York, London, and Manchester. It turns out the real silentiary was capital all along.