Reading List: Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears

Well, so much for schedules. I’ve been getting through the reading OK, but writing time has been scarce. Today the catch-up begins, and first up is Michael Jarrett’s 2001 article “Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears”. He proudly notes that it’s an expansion of an article that first appeared in the Tower Records in-house magazine Pulse, and that it is thus “a hybrid form of writing — a theoretically informed feature or popularized theory”, and while it’s true that it’s fairly digestible, I’m afraid bits like this —

Rather than speak of what I already know about railroads, I plan to interrogate, in this case, the sound of railroads as a possible site of my own sonic knowledge. Or to adapt a phrase coined by music critic Kodwo Eshun, I want to listen to the levels of science that inhere in railroads (1999, p. 70). What do trains already know about me, about my biases and prejudices regarding sound? How do I hear because of trains? Or more generally, How did trains train or even create modern ears? People, get ready; here are a few speculations.

— remind me of nothing so much as the proverbial Dad dancing at a disco. It also has nothing explicitly to do with sf, although Jarrett does frame his description of the perceptual shift introduced by trains as that most familiar sfnal operation, “literaliz[ing] the railroad-as-musical-instrument metaphor”. It’s easy enough to brainstorm a list of significant fantastic works that feature literal trains, and you might speculate as to whether the presence of the train shapes reader or character behaviour in the ways Jarrett talks about here. Mind you, whether such works have anything in common beyond that motif is another question: China Mieville’s Iron Council, Lucius Shepard’s “Over Yonder”, Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, Geoff Ryman’s 253, Patrick Tilley’s Amtrak Wars books and One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, are a pretty diverse bunch.

There’s also a slight overlap with Lysloff’s article; when Jarrett notes that “The railway brought noise — the sound of machinery — into rural and wilderness environments”, and that “What counts as music is all a matter of framing”, there are echoes of Lysloff’s concern with “natural” and “artificial” sounds. And if Jarrett was only making the small claim that “The railroad’s noise — its surfeit of stimuli — demanded that traveler’s adapt new modes of perception”, there wouldn’t be much to argue with in his article; it’s a rather obvious point that new types of experience promote new types of engagement. Where he falls down a bit is in trying to extend that argument. Without trains, he asks,

Would we have rock ‘n roll? Not likely, answers Albert Murray in his novel Train Whistle Guitar. His protagonist bluesman, Luzana Cholly, played guitar like “an engineer telling tall tales on a train whistle, his left hand doing most of the talking including the laughing and signifying as well as the moaning and crying and even the whining, while his right hand thumped the wheels going somewhere” (1974, p.8).

For starters, offering a novel as an answer to a sociohistorical question in this way is a pretty dodgy move, but more importantly, it’s not even a good start to an answer: the fact that one novel compares a guitar player to a train engineer in no way indicates an essential connection between train engineers and guitar players. He goes on to cite Houston Baker writing, in 1984, that “The dominant blues syntagm in America is an instrumental imitation of train-wheels-over-track-junctures“, which is a bit more useful, but a lengthier quote from Baker in which he ruminates that “Only a trained voice can sing the blues” seems almost parodic. (Jarrett’s comment that “groove is a way to declare that, while human beings always possessed the body part, asses were built by the railroad” surely is parody, but by that point I couldn’t really tell.)

There are useful, or at least interesting, or at least entertaining, observations scattered throughout the piece, and some of them do engage in the sort of riffing I’m digging at above; but the best bits of the article are the less flighty:

A number of scholars have explored how the railway prompted or, at least, reinforced distinctly modern ways of seeing (Schivelbusch, 1977; Stilgoe, 1983; Kirby, 1997). In brief, they note that all 19th-century railroad passengers, accustomed to pre-industrial modes of transportation, seemed to agree on one matter: “travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 58). Put even more analytically, the velocity that atomized and automated objects — making them dart or roll past train windows — mechanized and diminished perception. […]

The visual challenge of high velocity rail travel prompted a choice, actually two possible methods of coping with the new technology. Passengers could develop modes of perception adequate to the new form of transportation, or finding prolonged window-gazing exhausting, they could direction their attention inward.

Again, however, at least to my mind, Jarrett undermines his piece by making larger claims than his evidence warrants:

Upon the ears of its passengers, trains imposed new ways of hearing analogous to panoramic perception. In place of the focused, engaged listening espoused by partisans of the symphony and institutionalized by concert halls, the railroad’s incessant refrain prompted “deconcentration” or “dispersal of attention” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 69). Ears conditioned by the sound of trains are neither attentive nor inattentive. […] Encased in a womb of steel, a sonorous envelope, the chronically distracted rail passenger bathes in patterned noise: adrift, blissed-out, “enraptured with the inescapable” (1941, p. 27). This is, in fact, the mood habitually summoned by electronic ambient and dance musics.

That there is a line to be drawn between immersion in a technological environment and electronic music of various kinds I have no problem with; as Jarrett notes, there is a comparison to be made between listening to music for structure or texture/timbre. That trains are, as Jarrett seems to suggest at times, at one end of this line, rather than a point on it, seems rather more tenuous. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the mill or factory worker whose ears were conditioned by their environment were not, in a comparable way, chronically distracted, that the railroad was truly the first instantiation of “the technological sublime” shaping music.