Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Sound Off

#341 Sound Off

Cruising through the antique mall the other day, a book of Norman Rockwell paintings popped up and asked to be noticed. Rockwell, as did Ronald Reagan, sought to depict or take us back to a time that never was. All those perfectly featured white guys. (There were a few African Americans. Usually railroad porters, dining car waiters and shoe shine men.) All those kindly elderly people -- the doctor, the dentist, the teacher. All those well behaved children (except a couple of 1920s or 1930s looking boys with taxi driver hats and the occasional black eye.

Life never was as Rockwell portrayed it. Mostly, we knew that in his heyday. Certainly we know it now. But he was an illustrator of grand ability, portraying with photographic reality things that could never be photographed because they didn't exist.

Near the book was a 1920s Royal Typewriter. (Owned a few of those. Wish I still did.) Hit a few keys on the thing, and realized how the wonderful clacking sound those things made has vanished. Wish there were a Norman Rockwell of sound.

As we cruise along in the 21st century, there are sounds from the past that today's young people will never hear and the rest of us never will hear again. The typewriter probably is the most familiar. But there are a slew of others.

Almost no one in a newsroom today has heard the sound of an active teletype machine. It's like a typewriter on usually much steadier. That's because people at the transmitting end typed with a regularity and a rhythm that no one has (or needs) today.

The only place you can hear a telegraph key is in a museum, and there's probably nowhere on the planet you can hear the music made by several of them in use simultaneously.

The sound of an electric car is, well, creepy. It's practically no sound at all. This does not make sense to the senses. Cars don't go uphill silently. Something's wrong.

The sound of an internal combustion engine has changed radically, too. Exhaust systems are now "tuned." They used to just rumble. And you could tell months in advance when you were going to need to replace them, because they got louder and louder and louder over time, and more raucus.

Cash registers, adding machines, record changers, door latches, windows, trains, propeller planes, horse-pulled wagons on cobblestone, the report of an M-1 rifle, a wind up watch, a dog-house bass fiddle, the sound the card catalogue drawer made in the library.

All of these are gone. The stuff that made those sounds was generally inferior to what has replaced them. No one wants to type when there's a word processor. Electric cars are good for the environment, or so it's said. What would you do with an adding machine that you can't do with a calculator and twice the speed, one tenth the cost and one per cent of the space?

We preserve images. We preserve textures. We preserve smells -- at least to an extent. But not sounds. And we should.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR

1 comment:

pipskippy said...

Wes, I have a WW2 aircraft engine starter motor in my mom's backyard just waiting for you (it's too big for her to throw away). The MG Midget I put it in when I was 17 rotted away, and all the lead acid batteries eventually died. In retrospect, I never should have been smoking pot and playing with high voltage, but the car ran and was a sweet, sweet ride (except for the occasional battery terminal explosion or contact relay meltdown). But the electric car did have it's own slight hum, and made me feel like I was living in the future.