Hearing is Believing?

edgenyA recent story on the sounds of New York in the 1920s brings up a curious thing — whether the past is more real when listening to it (or seeing it, in old movies or photos, for example) rather than just reading about it (whether in so-called primary or secondary sources).

Is the past somehow closer to us in one case than another?

For it is not difficult, I think, to forget that making sense of anything — whether words on paper or sounds and images — requires decoding, interpretation, ranking, focus, exclusion, etc., all of which are inevitably happening within the observer when any of his or her senses are used, and not just when we read a text.

For example, the story (complete with a few audio recordings) starts out as follows:

We can hear the music of the Roaring ’20s anytime we want. But what if you could hear the day-to-day sounds of what it was like to live at that vibrant time?

That’s the basis of ‘s project “.” She’s a history professor at Princeton University who’s been mapping the sounds of New York City in the late 1920s and early ’30s.

Specifically, she’s interested in the sounds that drove people crazy. Her favorite?

“A man named Mr. Schmuck called to complain about the noise of the Colonial Pickle Works Factory where he lived in Brooklyn and somehow that just seems quintessentially New York to me,” she says.

The challenge is seeing (or hearing) what counts as the real day-to-day sounds (as opposed, I guess, to the highly produced sounds from recording studios — but aren’t they all “produced” and none natural?) or what qualifies as a quintessential New Yorker as not being a description of an obvious fact but a judgment made from a specific time and place — the time and place of the observer, who brings a modern set of assumptions and then projects them back (in this case) ninety years.

After all, depending how far back we go in our time machine, our idea of what sounds like a typical New Yorker will have to change considerably, no?

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