Towards a new theory of the early modern soundscape?

In 1664, Richard Flecknoe made the following observations about how plays were performed in the Restoration in comparison to how they were produced in the first half of the seventeenth century:

Now, for the difference betwixt our Theaters [sic.] and those of former times, they were but plain and simple, with no other Scenes, nor Decorations of the Stage, but onely old Tapestry, and the Stage strew’d with Rushes, (with their Habits accordingly) whereas ours now for cost and ornament are arriv’d to the heighth [sic.] of Magnificence, but that which makes our Stage the better, makes our Playes the worse perhaps, they striving now to make them more for sight, then hearing; whence that solid joy of the interior is lost, and that benefit which men formerly receiv’d from Playes, from which they seldom or never went away, but far better and wise then they came. (sigs. G7r-G7v)

Flecknoe’s comments suggest that there is a fundamental difference between how drama was understood in the two periods, and this difference revolves around the senses: plays in the 1660s were more concerned with visual effects, whereas plays of earlier times focused upon the words that were heard. Sound on the early seventeenth-century stage, Flecknoe suggests, was thus used to paint the scene and through this scene painting, had an ‘interior’ or cognitive effect upon the listener. In so doing, the plays had a transformative affect upon the body and the mind; the didactic quality of the sound of drama played upon the imagination of the auditor, transporting them and enabling them to visualise the setting of the play. Early modern plays thus form a soundscape that connects the interior and exterior worlds of their viewers.

Sound, in Flecknoe’s construction is not only aural, but also has a visual texture; this gestures to how different sensory experiences both create and recreate soundscapes. But what is a soundscape? Murray Schafer made the first concerted effort to engage with the term and seemed to have answered this question when he founded the World Soundscapes Project in 1969. For Schafer, its basic principle centres upon how an environment is understood through sounds by the people who inhabit it. Yet this term and its meaning has been contested. For Tim Ingold, these definitions mean sound is objectified instead of treated as a sensory experience that enables us to be immersed in our environment. Furthermore, as Ari Kelman has pointed out, the term has been used in different and sometimes contradictory ways – raising the question of whether it is even useful at all. Taken together, these criticisms show that sound is not just something that happens to us. We act upon space and hear the sounds of the space we inhabit, but the sounds of the space we inhabit also act upon us. For example, the noise from a pedestrian crossing can tell us when to cross the road, and the tuning of instruments before a performance will tell us to settle into silence as the orchestra is about to play the music we have congregated to hear. When considering early modern soundscapes, there are further conundrums as we try to understand the experience of hearing historic sounds.

This network brings together scholars who work on the sounds of the early modern world to interrogate the term ‘soundscapes’. It asks what ’soundscapes’ adds to our understanding of historic sonic experience that cannot be grasped through other discipline-specific or interdisciplinary ways of approaching the sounds of the past. In scholarship, the term ‘soundscape’ has become ubiquitous, and yet many studies often assume that readers (regardless of their disciplinary perspective) will know what the term means. By working collaboratively across disciplines, this network does not aim to produce a definitive theory of the early modern soundscape. Instead, carefully and cautiously, it will examine our understanding of ‘soundscape’ to discover how it can enable us to engage with past utterances. By reappraising the soundscapes, we aim to examine both the exceptional and the unexceptional in order to understand how sounds governed, regulated, disrupted, interrupted and shaped everyday life. In so doing, we seek to uncover the relationship between sound and human agency in the early modern world.

Feature image: ‘Musical Clock with Spinet and Organ’, c. 1625 by Veit LangenbucherCC0


Works cited:

Richard Flecknoe, ‘A Short Discourse of the English Stage’, in Love’s Kingdom. A Pastoral Trage-Comedy. Not as it was Acted at the Theatre neare Lincolns-Inn, but as it was written, and since corrected. (London, 1664)

Tim Ingold, ‘Against Soundscape’, Autumn Leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, ed. A. Carlyle (Paris: Double Entendre, 2007), 10-13

Ari Kelman, ‘Rethinking the Soundscape: A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Sound Studies,’ Sense & Society, 5 (2010): 212-24.

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