Breakdown of city noise sources in the Roaring Twenties interactive site by Emily Thompson.

We came across this interesting study (via Studio-X NYC) into the historical soundscape of New York City. When you went out into the streets of New York in the Roaring Twenties, what did you hear? Written by historian Emily Thompson (author of The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America (1900-1933)) and designed by Scott Mahoy, the site attempts to foster an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of NYC. Thompson believes that a great deal of history is preserved through sound and the site helps to highlight some of the important (and not so much) sounds of close to a century ago.

In many ways, Thompson feels that this site is an extension of her work in the book. It fulfills an even more important role in many ways, especially today where sounds can be captured and spread very easily and quickly. She notes in her author’s statement:

When the book first appeared in 2002, I was often asked why I didn’t issue a companion CD filled with audio recordings of the sounds of the spaces I wrote about…I felt that it missed the whole point of the book, which was to historicize – and thus not to take for granted – the idea that the sound of a specific place could be technologically captured, dislocated from its origins and relocated somewhere else. Now, all these years later, I find myself doing the very thing that I resisted when my book was published, transcending the traditional connections between sound and place.

The site has several interactive features. It makes it easy to conceptualize the types of sounds that filled the city in the time period, from the loud neighborhood radio boxes to complaints about the Long Island Railroad whistling in Queens showed in the graphic above. Emily Thompson asserts, “People today listen to recorded sound anywhere and everywhere, and many engage in modes of listening that not only dissociate the sounds they hear from their places of origin, but also render themselves oblivious to the spaces in which they are physically located while they listen.”