The Audiopolitics of a World Revolution
By Michael Denning
Verso Books, 2015
The usual stories about the early record industry rarely venture beyond U.S. borders. They are set in the Appalachian coal mines, where producers from Victor and OKeh recorded the first country music records, and in the Mississippi Delta, where folklorists collected the raw sounds of the blues.
They take place in New Orleans, where the spirit of jazz was etched onto the early “race records,” and in Camden, New Jersey, where the Victor Talking Machine Company introduced the first electric phonograph in 1925. As the recording industry developed and regional sounds spread across the country on discs, vernacular musical traditions such as jazz and folk were incorporated into mainstream popular culture.
As it turns out, this story goes far beyond the boundaries of the United States. A similar musical process was taking place around the world at nearly the same time. In Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Revolution, Michael Denning explores how this process played out in cities across the globe, focusing in particular on the port cities of the black Atlantic, the gypsy Mediterranean and the Polynesian Pacific. In these cities, commercial record companies, mostly from Europe and the United States, brought local musicians from nightclubs, cafés and the streets into hotel rooms and makeshift studios to record their unique sounds. The products of these recording sessions were thousands cheap shellac discs that were then disseminated across the globe, catalyzing a “world musical revolution.” It was in these sessions, many of which took place in the latter half of the 1920s, that musical styles such as samba, rumba, hula, son, calypso, flamenco, fado, tango, marabi, rembetika, kroncog, hula and tzigane were first recorded for a commercial audience.
Denning’s history touches on each of these musical styles, arguing that however distinct their sounds, they were all part of a single, global turning point — what he calls the “decolonization of the ear.” In other words, the development of new musical technology in the first half of the 20th century — which popularized new vernacular musical idioms — created conditions for the development of new nations in the latter half.
The idea that decolonization was a cultural as well as a political process is certainly not new, and the influence of cultural figures, including musicians, on anti-colonial movements has been widely studied. But Noise Uprising does not dwell on individual musicians, or even on individual songs and lyrics. Instead, Denning is concerned primarily with how the transformation of sound and the introduction of new genres and musical forms contributed to “the remaking of the musical ear.” He reframes the common narrative of the record company as a colonial force that appropriated indigenous sounds for commercial profit, focusing instead on what happened when vernacular sounds spread across the globe and eventually returned to local markets, where working-class consumers were able to play them in their own homes as alternatives to European and North American musical imports. Denning does not deny that exploitation and appropriation were present in the early music industry, but his focus is less on the process of collecting sounds and more on the power of the sounds themselves.
This book is not written with a popular audience in mind — the language is dense and academic and Denning’s arguments rely heavily on critical theory. As one might expect of a study with such a wide scope, the pages of Noise Uprising are often crowded and the narrative frenetic, rarely dwelling on one genre or musician for more than a few pages at a time. This approach can be disorienting but also exhilarating, taking us through an “archipelago” of music scenes at breakneck speed. Denning’s description of the fiddles and flutes filling a Dublin hotel just pages away from his discussion of the cafés of working-class Lisbon, where sex workers and thieves developed the fado, reminds us that these musical events reverberated side by side and, despite their structural differences, were part of the same revolution.