The sound was different, not only in magnitude but in quality, from anything known to me…It hung over us. It seemed as though the air were full of vast and agonized passion, bursting now with groans and sighs, now with shrill screaming and pitiful whimpering, shuddering beneath terrible blows, torn by unearthly whips, vibrating with the solemn pulses of enormous wings. And the supernatural tumult did not pass in this direction or that. It did not begin, intensify, decline and end. It was poised in the air, a stationary panorama of sound, a condition of the atmosphere, not the creation of man.

An NCO of the 22nd Manchester Rifles describes the bombardment during the attack on the Somme 1916, quoted in Wade Davis, Into the Silence

For what does a literary work ‘say’? What does it communicate? It ‘tells’ very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not a statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential.

Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator


Easy Listening explores the material and conceptual parameters of the literary and vocal artifact known as the audiobook, reflecting on the vexed processes of translation, interpretation, adaptation and representation that arise in rendering an event into text, a text into speech, and experience into its future recollection. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Luigi Russolo’s manifesto The Art of Noises, as well as addressing speculations about the current and future state of the book, Easy Listening investigates what it means to listen,read, speak and act in a world of absolute media saturation that does not ‘begin, intensify, decline (or) end.’[1]

Defined as either a sound, or combination of loud, confused or disturbing sounds, noise became a conspicuous feature of the urban environment with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. While the sonic environment of pre-industrial societies consisted of mostly ‘discreet and interrupted’[2] sounds, the new, mechanised soundscape was transforming into one of low-information, high-redundancy sounds, ‘continuous drones… rough edged… or punctuated with rhythmic concatenations.’[3] Disenfranchised agricultural workers, now operating machines in factories, were the first to experience sound’s ‘powerful relationship to affect’[4] as well as its ‘power to terrorize and dispossess.’[5]  The atomizing, destabilizing effect of industry on the social fabric and on the subjectivity of the labourers themselves, was addressed by Marx who described the manner in which it dispelled

all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail function, to make him superfluous… (a) mere fragment of a man.[6]

Experience itself likewise ‘fell in value.’[7] ‘A world of qualities without a man’[8] emerged, a world ‘of experiences without the person who experiences them’[9] and with it, the ability to relate one’s experience ‘mouth to mouth’[10] began to dissipate. Walter Benjamin charted the decline of the oral tradition of storytelling and the increasing domination of the printed novel in the years following the end of WWI in his 1936 essay The Storyteller. The ability to impart one’s experience to another, to be an adequate, competent and worthy narrator, and likewise, the ability to be an adequate, competent and worthy listener[11] was something that seemed to finally wither in the face of the war’s annihilation of subjectivity, of physical and psychological form and sense.[12]

All through this period, amidst the radical transformations and upheavals taking place in and between industry, society and the individual, new forms of speaking, reading and listening were slowly beginning to develop. In the 19th Century, the electric telegraph, Morse code, the electric telephone and long distance telephone lines were invented, while the first radio signal was transmitted by Marconi from Cornwall to Newfoundland in 1901. Thomas Edison, who patented the phonograph in 1877, held great hopes for its eventual application as a talking machine which would ‘speak to blind people with no effort on their part,’[13] envisioning its possibilities as a new means of recording works of literature that could then be ‘read by ear.’[14] As the magnitude of the cities and of the new commodities being enjoyed by the middle class continued to grow, the sounds of industry, crowds, motor cars and trams, of radio broadcasts and phonograph recordings, gradually came to form a familiar part of the urban landscape, its background noise.

The futurist painter Luigi Russolo was one of the first artists to recognize noise as a singular phenomenon that had emerged along with the Industrial Revolution, and to grasp its inherent possibilities. His argument, set out in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises was, as Michael Kirby observed, ‘simple, profound, and far-reaching’[15] – a demand for the recognition and inclusion of all sounds in a new form of music.

Futurist musicians must substitute for the limited variety of tones possessed by orchestral instruments today the infinite variety of tones of noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms…The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty or THIRTY THOUSAND DIFFERENT NOISES, NOT MERELY IN A SIMPLY IMITATIVE WAY, BUT TO COMBINE THEM ACCORDING TO OUR IMAGINATION…[16]

The meaning of noise can also be understood within the context of information theory. In a system consisting of sender, channel and receiver ‘anything that arrives as part of a message, but that was not part of a message when sent out, can be considered as noise introduced in transmission.’ [17] When today we may distinguish the thirty thousand different noises Russolo envisaged, we can also consider that the noise is itself the effect or measure of some form of information being transmitted. If we apprehend an infinite quantity of noise, we can infer that there must also be an infinite amount of information. Information overload can be defined as information transmitted in excess of the receiver’s capacity to assimilate it, and is often referred to in the context of our participation in a newly democratized media, where anyone with access to the internet or a phone network can disseminate their views via blogging, social media, twitter and the like. Our immersion in this omnipresent, ‘naturalized’ media environment has arrived at a point where publications such as Forbes discuss the rise of the ‘digital detox’ – holidays and retreats where executives can take a vacation from technology.[18] The ideal expressed by Brecht of ‘a huge linked system…capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of allowing the listener not only to hear but to speak, and did not isolate him but brought him into contact’[19] has been realized, but only in its technological, rather than in its emancipatory form. Our capacity to be subject to information overload, as well as the subject of practices such as data mining, targeted web advertising, and in many jurisdictions, aggressive surveillance and censorship, suggests that our relationship with information technology in its various forms remains deeply problematic.

It can be increasingly difficult to distinguish the difference between information and noise, as more often than not the two have become interchangeable, deployed at different times and in different measures in an interminable play of appearance, concealment and subterfuge. Yet noise can also be understood as something that works against the predictable outcome of a communication process,[20] and that within the closed system of communication of which we are necessarily a part, we take an active role by calibrating, decoding, disrupting and overturning the transmission of information and noise, as well as combining them according to our imagination…continuously enriching the field of noise-sounds.[21] Easy Listening will explore this complex exchange between writer, reader and listener, and the circuit through which meaning and affect is produced, channeled and amplified, activating a new awareness of the tensions between writing and its sonic afterlives.


Philipa Veitch

May 2013


End Notes

[1] W Davis, Into the Silence: The Great war, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest , The Bodley Head, London, 2011, pp. 26-27

[2] R Murray Shafer, The Tuning of the World, Knopf, New York, 1977, p.77

[3] ibid

[4] S Knox, ‘Hearing Hardy, Talking Tolstoy: The Audiobook Narrator’s Voice and Reader Experience’ in M Rubery (ed.) Audiobooks, Literature and Sound Studies, Routledge, New York, 2011, p.127

[5] ibid

[6] K Marx, ‘Capital’, Moscow, 1954, cited in D McLellan, Karl Marx, A Biography, Palgrave MacMillan, Houndmills, 2006, pp.320-321

[7] W Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, in H Arendt (ed.) trans H Zorn, Illuminations, Schocken Books, New York, 2007, p.87

[8] R Musil, The Man Without Qualities, vol. 1, trans S Wilkins, Vintage International, 1995, p.158

[9] ibid

[10] Benjamin, loc. cit.

[11] D Carroll, ‘The Memory of Devastation and the Responsibilities of Thought: “And let’s not talk about that”, Forward to Heidegger and “the jews”, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p. x

[12] Two decades later, survivors of The Shoah would struggle with this simultaneous impossibility of / responsibility to speak, testify or bear witness to an event that became synonymous with ‘the unrepresentable’.

[13] M Rubery, ‘Introduction: Talking Books’, in M Rubery (ed.) Audiobooks, Literature and Sound Studies, Routledge, New York, 2011, p.3

[14] ibid

[15] M Kirby, Futurist Performance, Dutton, New York, 1971, p.33

[16] L Russolo, ‘The Art of Noises’, in U Apollonio (ed.) Futurist Manifestos, Thames and Hudson, London, 1973, p.87

[17] W R Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1988, p.67

[18] J Abel, ‘The Rise of the Digital Detox’, Forbes, May 2012, retrieved 17 May 2013

[19] B Brecht, ‘Theory of Radio’ 1932, cited in B Barber, ‘Radio: Audio Art’s Frightful Parent’, in Sound by Artists, D Lander & M Lexier (eds.), Walter Phillips Gallery, Toronto, 1990, p. 109

[20] S Berner, Information Overload or Attention Deficiency?, retrieved 22 May 2013

[21] Russolo, loc. cit.