The final moments of President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural address took a decidedly sonic turn. Standing inside the rotunda of the Capitol building, Reagan said that he could hear “echoes” of the “American” past and then proceeded to list them off as if he were doing a voice-over for the trailer to a new History Channel miniseries:
A general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely President paces the darkened halls, and ponders his struggle to preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air. It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That’s our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still. (Reagan 1985)
For Reagan, the arc of U.S. history is an arc of sound: the crunch of knees on snow, the click of pacing heels, the shouts of soldiers, the songs of cowboys. A sound is “American” if it is “hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair,” and if a sound is “American,” then it is also a song, a song that reaches back to an imagined collective heritage and resonates through the throats and mouths of the living present. The “American” sound is the song “we” sing.
For practitioners of American studies and cultural studies, these broadly nationalist claims raise questions that are worth asking whenever one is formulating methodologies of listening around the keyword “sound.” Can a sound be a song? Can a sound have a national character? What is the relationship between a sound, its echo, and the walls of the building they bounce off? What are the sounds of settlement, of colonialism? What are the sounds of decolonialism—the audible rebuttals of empire, the screams of freedom, the murmurs of rebellion? And perhaps most importantly for all the references to the “sound” of “America,” the “singing of America,” and the “song of America” (references that have been repeated along the long arc of the U.S. political and cultural imagination from the sonic cauldron of the melting pot to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., urging us to “let freedom ring” with a remix of “My Country ’Tis of Thee”), are sonic metaphors traces of actual sounds? Answers to these questions were once the domain of acousticians, sound artists, experimental composers, and a small cadre of ear-obsessed scholars, mostly located in the disciplines of history, anthropology, and ethnomusicology. They were united by a collective sense of marginalization by the nagging dominance of sound’s alleged antithesis—the visual—largely due to what Martin Jay once dubbed the “ocularcentrism” of Western thought (Jay 1994, 3; Howes 2005; Attali 1985).
Over the past two decades, a broader palette of sound criticism and analysis has emerged as scholars across a range of disciplines have turned their attention to the audible world (Keeling and Kun 2011). The ethnomusicologist Veit Erlmann (2004) has put hearing and listening at the center of the study of modernity; the historian Emily Thompson (2004) has listened closely to the acoustic impacts of concert halls and skyscrapers on the formation of modern subjectivity; the media studies scholar Kate Lacey (2013) has turned to listening’s role in the making of media audiences and media citizenship. Both Karin Bijsterveld (2008) and Jonathan Sterne (2003) have reckoned with sound’s impact on society by focusing on technologies of sound and their role in brokering distinctions among sound, music, and noise. This critical focus on sound technologies has led to an expansive scholarly interest in sound’s relationship to the media that store, transmit, and distribute it and the recordings of sound that are produced and consumed through formal and informal industries of culture (Stadler 2010; Bijsterveld 2008; Brady 2009; Suisman and Strasser 2010; Hilmes 2005). The depth and breadth of this scholarship may mean that the visual focus of the Enlightenment has been displaced by the sonic possibilities of what Sterne playfully calls the “Ensoniment,” referencing the period between 1750 and 1925 when the world became audible in new ways, and new listening practices and sonic bodies of knowledge were born through the advent of sound reproduction technologies such as the stethoscope, the telephone, and the phonograph (2003, 2).
For all of the intellectual breadth and diversity of these approaches to sound studies, they all share a common jumping-off point. Sound is not treated as something that exists objectively and is then heard. It is contingent on an object that moves and a body that receives and translates the vibrations caused by that movement. Sound can be studied scientifically (as acoustic physicists do), but it also needs to be addressed humanistically (as literary scholars might), precisely because there is no sound without a mind and a body to create it. As Sterne has put it, “the hearing of sound is what makes it” (2003, 11). Sound is social and experiential, “a modality of knowing and being in the world” (Feld 2003). The social uses and experiences of sound imbue it with materiality and politics. Not all sounds are treated equally, nor is any sound universal. Yet all sounds have histories rooted in the layered bedrocks of culture, economy, territory, and identity.
To study sound is to track its trajectories while it exists, to follow it from source to listener, and to analyze its geographies and networks, asking both where sounds come from and where they go (LaBelle 2010). These geographical referents and frameworks mean that sound needs to be theorized as spatial. All sounds originate in space and move across territories, making sound a primary site for the study of political and cultural geography and for the mapping of identity and society. The most prominent and influential early work on sound and space emerged out of the World Soundscape Project at Canada’s Simon Fraser University under the leadership of R. Murray Schafer in the 1970s. It was Schafer who introduced into critical and artistic vocabularies the term “soundscape,” his shorthand for a grand theory of the world as sound, and the practice of “sonography,” the acoustic field of study and composition that aims to preserve that world (Schafer 1977; Hirschkind 2006).
Schafer’s neologisms echoed earlier invocations in U.S. culture of an “American” soundscape. Walt Whitman focused Leaves of Grass (1855/1965) on the sounds of the spaces around him, sounds such as autumn winds, church organ pipes, sounds of the city, chattering children, the cries of the sick, the shouts of dock workers, the ring of alarm bells, and the whirr of steam engines. Henry David Thoreau believed there was something he called “the broad, flapping American ear” (1854/1966, 43). In Walden, he listened for the sounds that, as Leo Marx (1964/2000) later argued, were active in shaping “the pastoral ideal” of “America.” Thoreau heard the train’s whistle—a signal “that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of town” (1854/1966, 96)—the rattling of the cattle train, and all of the natural sounds he praised above all else: the chanting of the whippoorwills, the wailing of the owls. Schafer’s “soundscape” was more apt to tune into the physical properties of sound and the sound environment, while Thoreau conceived of the soundscape of Walden Pond as the product of both the environment and the listener. It was closer to the “acoustic communication” approach that Schafer’s own colleague Barry Truax advocated decades later (1984). Sound could not be abstracted from the social; sound is a social network with the listener as the central node.
In all of these instances, there is a politics to audibility, to what is heard and what is not heard, what is listened for and what is ignored, what is accepted as sound and what is policed as noise, and what is silenced and what is amplified. In current work in American studies and cultural studies, the story of sound is both the story of the powerful silences that sound can cover up and a push for new methods of listening—a close listening, a listening differently, a more just listening, a listening anew (Lipsitz 1990a). The assumption is that any organization of sounds is, as Jacques Attali notes, a “tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, a totality. It is what links a power center to its subjects, and more generally, it is an attribute of power in all its forms” (1985, 6). Democracy, for example, rests on the utopia of all voices being heard, the oratory of leadership, the rhetorical promise of freedom, the declaration of independence (Fliegelman 1993). Yet the distinct sound of the founding of the United States as a nation was one that excluded African Americans, Native Americans, and women. “Americans” made “American” sounds; blacks and Indians made noise. As listeners, the founders of the United States were strategically hard of hearing, selective listeners who used sound to shape an exclusionary auditory politics of self, citizen, and Other.
The sound of the “free American” was built on rendering sonically incomprehensible or silent the Others that freedom refused. The Ohio abolitionist Sara G. Stanley framed it this way in 1860: “As the song of freedom verberates and reverberates through the northern hills, and the lingering symphony quivers on the still air and then sinks away into silence, a low deep wail, heavy with anguish and despair, rises from the southern plains, and the clank of chains on human limbs mingles with the mournful cadence” (1860/1977, 286). Stanley’s nineteenth-century commentary reminds us that the sonic character of U.S. conceptions of race and racial equality is not a new idea. W. E. B. Du Bois does the same in The Soul of Black Folks (1903/1997), his pioneering study of African American identity and culture. Using transcriptions of the sorrow songs of slaves as chapter preludes, Du Bois shaped the entire book through the sonic imagination of the black freedom struggle, making it a “singing book” (Baker 1987b, 68).
Sounds are constitutive of national imaginaries and national possibilities, each of which are interwoven with racial formations, racial identities, and racial imaginations. Studying sound helps us put an ear to “the audio-racial imagination,” which refers to the aurality of racial meanings, and to sound’s role in systems and institutions of racialization and racial formation within and across the borders of the United States (Kun 2005, 26; Vaillant 2002; Tahmahkera 2011; Lott 2011; Eidsheim 2011). Scholars in American studies and ethnomusicology have called our attention to the profound ways in which the U.S. racial imagination is a sonic formation and how the famous problem of “the color line” once envisaged by Du Bois is also a “sonic color-line” (Stoever-Ackerman 2011, 54; Radano and Bohlman 2000). Others have highlighted the interweaving of sound with gender and sexuality, with particular attention to the gendering of certain sounds as masculine or feminine (bodily noises, pitches of voice, decibels of speech, “soft” versus “hard” sounds) and the management and regulation of listening practices along gender and sexuality lines (K. Brown 1996; Norton 1996; Karpf 2006; Koestenbaum 1994/2001; P. Bailey 2004; Rodgers 2010).
Across all of this scholarship, a methodological question remains: how do we study certain sonic formations from a historical perspective when no recorded audio evidence exists? “The world of unrecorded sound is irreclaimable,” writes the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt (2000, 15). The emergence of “historical soundscape studies” has gone a long way to foreground listening as a historical methodology, allowing us to trace sounds in literature, historical documents, memoirs, political texts, and visual art in order to construct sonic portraits of social formations before the advent of recorded sound. Mark M. Smith, for example, has shown how nineteenth-century ideas of progress were linked to sounds of work and industry (the cadence of hammers), how plantations ran according to an aural social order of managed sound and noise, and how racial and ethnic otherness, while traditionally rooted in visual terrains of exclusion and biological racism, were also aurally constructed, from the “whoops” and “peals” of Native American “savagery” to the incomprehensible “noise” of black speech and black song (2000). Present and future work will continue to listen for the mechanisms of power and injustice and to listen for sound as a battlefield over which struggles for community, subjectivity, and citizenship are waged.
What is the song of twenty-first century “America”? Is there such a thing as “the American sound” in the age of twenty-first-century economic globalization and mass international migration? What will sound studies of future audile techniques—Spotify playlists, SoundCloud embeds, musical discovery and sharing applications, sonic surveillance, and YouTube streams—reveal about the new cultures and technologies of sound? The echoes of the past reverberate all around us, but so do the emergent sound cultures of the future, which we can now engage with a critical toolbox that is better equipped than ever before.