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Sam Halliday, Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013, 224 p., ISBN 978-0748627615
Fabio L. Vericat
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Sam Halliday, Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013, 224 p., ISBN 978-0748627615

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1Sam Halliday’s dashingly titled Sonic Modernity starts off with some big questions: ‘What is “modern” about sound, and what is the significance of sound for modernism? How is sound represented in literature, and the other arts?’ (1). Ambitious? Perhaps, but there is nothing wrong with ambition if one gets what on sets out for. Yet, the first thing the reader does not quite get is the kind of subtle distinction Halliday is sketching between ‘modernity’ and ‘modernism’. That ‘sound in modernism, in whatever art form, is irreducible to sound alone’ (3) is a provocative premise, but why not use the word ‘modernity’ instead? Halliday is adamant that ‘modernity […] is not historically specific’, but he is equally more than happy to speculate about its periodization, ‘let us say that modernity begins at some point in the eighteenth century’ (16). Immediately following we are introduced to Joyce, Proust, Woolf, et al as ‘modernist’ (17. Not my italics) writers, but who—Halliday insists—are no closer to the heart of modernity than ‘their non-modernist predecessors’—this time no italicized suffix. (Who are these predecessors and why are they not modernists?) Yet, Halliday, goes on to announce in chapter 1 his intention to focus on ‘literary and other artistic modernism’ (20). Now I wonder where its predecessors went. I may be splitting hairs, because I, for one, encourage such revisionist approaches to Modernism as does Halliday; and establishing contiguities with nienteenth-century modernity is one way to do it. Yet Halliday would seem to falter when it comes to spelling out what he really means, and we can just about overhear his heart quietly telling him: ‘Modernism is dead, long live modernity!”’

2And the truth is that this book has great stories to tell in what is one of the hottest approaches in cultural studies of the last few years. Sound is finally receiving the sort of attention the history of aesthetics has traditionally reserved for the image. Halliday himself refers to Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (2002) and J.M. Picker’s Victorian Soundscapes (2003), but many others crop up on the way: Ivan Kreilkamp’s Voice and the Victorian Storyteller (2005), Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (2006), James Lastra’s Sound technology and the American cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity (2000), Douglas Kahn’s Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (1999). The book is terribly well informed, full of wonderful theoretical, historical, literary and philosophical anecdotes that would make the delight of any reader, even if s/he is not an specialist in the subject. Halliday’s argument that there is something peculiar about how modernist art and literature tackle sound is certainly enticing.

3However, his focus on representation of sounds over a range of disciplines—mainly literature, but also painting, opera, philosophy, history of science, linguistics—covering a period of about one hundred years (the mid-nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth century), not to mention its allusions further afield, condemns it to a schematic, if superhuman encyclopedic effort. It is a vertiginous tour de force, but one also wonders whether less breath would have meant more depth. Its five chapters plus and introduction are not self-evident in the journey they delineate: from aesthetic theory and philosophy, to social life, vision, music and, finally, listening, in that order. Ultimately the author struggles to orchestrate his material, which is seemingly bursting at the seams. One must complement Halliday for his stitching in the form of great writing and an enchanting rhetoric, but which still requires a confusing mesh of signposting throughout. Expressions such as ‘as I also mentioned earlier’, ‘considered in this books introduction’, ‘it will be seen how this anticipates’, ‘we have quoted from this text already’ overpopulate his prose with adverse effects. It betrays a structural insecurity evidenced by a lack of an explicit discursive thread. Instead we are offered a palimpsest-like reading experience, where we encounter a series of often very enlightening critical analysis of cultural artifacts (poems, paintings, film), but which never fuse into a coherent discourse. It feels as if the author could not bring himself to leave anything out. This extract from Chapter 4 ‘Modernising Music’ reveals Halliday’s stifling sense of insecurity about the scale of his task, and which goes for the book as a whole: ‘The chapter as a whole aspires to cover most if not all major developments in musical history of the first half of the twentieth century, though this coverage is often partial and condensed–necessarily so, in a non-specialist volume such as this. And it is both for this and for connected reasons that this chapter, more than any other in this book, requires certain disclaimer at its start”’ (127).

4It seems to me that the heart of the matter is not—as the subtitle of the book announces—so much about how sounds are represented, but about the modern irruption of sound in western culture and its impact on theories of representation. There is little mention, for instance, of the imagistic bias pervading over aesthetics resulting in an ideological ambivalence toward the arrival of sound in the nineteenth century; particularly sounds that could not be easily reified, such as those of speech. If T. S. Eliot may have expressed his admiration for the ‘auditory imagination’ in 1933, as Halliday notes (31), he also forgets to note that Eliot had already in ‘The Function of Criticism’ (1922) used the term contrariously to channel deep-seated fears, not only about the acoustic abstraction in John Milton’s poetry, but also in relation to the voice of the people as a political and ethical threat. On seeking representation, speech sounds would change the very ethos of aesthetics traditionally dominated by the image (originating in Aristotelian mimesis, culminating later in Horace’s ut pictura poesis) while it intimated dramatic changes in the political landscape. Sadly Halliday only skims over this key acoustic development, preferring the aesthetic lull of sound as music—and, ultimately, the sound of music. The entry for ‘voice’ in the index, for instance, pales in comparison to ‘music’. Whereas he devotes detailed attention to the fascinating question of sound transcriptions in the form of musical scores or the pictorial representation of sound in Chapter 3 ‘Seeing Sound’, one misses a comparable level of interest in the nature of the phonetic alphabet and about the relation between writing and human sounds, inscription and voice, semantics and phatic expression, that is, speech. In effect, by Halliday’s own definition that modern sounds are more than and 4irreducible to sound alone’, speech should feature at the heart of this book. He is sometimes close to doing so as when he asks: ‘what has literature got to do with sound itself, given that in most contexts […] it is generally read in silence?’ (11). He refers to the work of Garrett Stewart in a footnote but makes little of its account of the text as producer of acoustic reverberations within the skull of the silent reader–what Stewart calls ‘evocalization’ (Stewart, 1-3). It is impossible to read a text without sounding it in one’s head. Instead Halliday, once again, turns to the safety of music.

5Overlooking the possibility of devoting speech a special focus is all the more surprising given Halliday’s acknowledgement that the invention of nineteenth- century audio technologies had in mind the recording of voice, rather than music or otherwise. How the phonograph disembodied speech—acousmatics (13)—is, after all, one of the main premises this book offers as a definition of ‘modern sounds’. Such dissociation further intimated that reading is essentially an acoustic experience that only makes sense if one hears what one sees on the page–if only in one’s head. The opportunities to problematize sound as speech are everywhere to be found but never taken up; as when considering Mladen Dolar’s approaches to voice (37), Henry James’s on the speech of American women (65) or how Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ establishes an identification between music and the spoken word (150). I particularly missed a further exploration of the fascinating reference to Harry Partch who ‘devised a scale involving no less than forty-three named notes […] in the interest of better capturing in music the tonal subtleties of speech’ (135). Fittingly, Halliday finishes his study where he more or less began, with reference to Walter Pater’s ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’ (178), because ultimately for Halliday it is as music that sound is ‘irreducible to sound alone’. But, was not Pater one of the brains behind Pre-Raphaelitism? Not exactly what we would call ‘modern’, or is he? Halliday could have been ballsier. He could have tried to make a case for the ‘modernity’ of British aestheticism. He had, after all, made a connection between Joseph Conrad and Pater (39) earlier in the book. But the pull of music is too strong in itself for Halliday to truly delve in the sounds of writing. In fact, the last two chapters are effectively about music, while the artistic paradigm that pervades throughout the book is Wagner’s sound-world (5). If only modernity really was just a Wagnerian opera and us the quiet attentive listeners of worthy sonic objects. Fortunately modern life is a lot messier than that.

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Stewart, Garrett, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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Fabio L. Vericat, « Sam Halliday, Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 48 | 2015, mis en ligne le 23 mars 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fabio L. Vericat

Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain

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