A history of listening tells how we heard the world

Jim Sullivan reviews Peter Hoar's The World's Din: Listening to the Records, Radio and Films in New Zealand 1880-1940, published by Otago University Press.

Like many lovers of good classical music, my favourite song is Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild Women, recorded in 1948 by Red Ingle and the Natural 7.

The only trouble is you could never hear it. The New Zealand Broadcasting Service banned the item because it includes the word ''bum'', so sending in a letter to a radio request session got you no joy. Peter Hoar's The World's Din tells us that these days there is almost no sound you cannot hear again.

Sure enough, thirty seconds later, I am listening to Red Ingle's Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild Women on YouTube, along with other inferior versions too (although Peter Sellers and the Muppets do a good job).

The book examines the history of recorded sound in New Zealand and the ''sonic revolution that changed New Zealanders' lives for ever''. Given that the book started life as a PhD thesis, it is inevitable that the odd burst of academic prose (''malaise of sonic modernity'') interrupts what is an easily-read, wide-ranging examination of recorded sound.

A wide variety of sources have been relied on and oral histories have been appropriately used in what is, after all, a story based very much on personal experience. From this rich trove the author has moulded an engrossing narrative. Once, listening to music obliged you to go to a concert or join in a sing-along , and hearing a politician meant going to an election rally.

Now, Robert Muldoon's voice can be heard anywhere, anytime, though he is perhaps Googled less often than Ed Sheeran. How do these changes affect our perceptions? Does an on-tap supply of overseas sounds affect our New Zealand-ness? Did hearing our own music at the drop of a needle enhance our sense of national identity?

Sound in records, film and radio form the bulk of the story, which has a cut-off point of 1940, although the modern gizmos get coverage simply because the rate of technological change in recent times is an important counter point to the relatively slow progression from Edison rolls to MP3 players.

Dunedin inventors in these fields get due credit, though Jack Welsh's pioneering sound-on-film use of Alf Cantor's radio commentary on the first rugby test at Carisbrook in 1930 is not mentioned.

In all three media we learn more about how we listened and the effect it had on us. Hoar has tackled the subject with gusto and Otago University Press are to be commended for publishing a book which might at first glance seem to be on an obscure topic. But it's not. The World's Din is all around us.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.


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