99% Invisible is an incredible podcast run by Roman Mars. In focusing on architecture and design each story highlights the complexities of civilization and how much of our existence the collective we generally take for granted. I can recommend every episode for many reasons, but this one from a couple months back continues to stick out for its quality content and production.
With this week’s Sound Bite I bring you 99% Invisible-79- Symphony of Sirens, Revisited plus Soviet Design
From the podcast’s description:
For the ancient Greeks, sirens were mythical creatures who sang out to passing sailors from rocks in the sea. Their music was so beautiful, it was said, that the sailors were powerless against it—they would turn their ships towards these sea nymphs and crash in the impassable reefs around them.
In Homer’s Odyssey, there’s a story where Odysseus and his men are traveling near an area that Sirens are known to inhabit. Odysseus knows that if he hears the siren’s song, his ship is going to sink. But he still wants to hear what they sound like. So he comes up with a plan: Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship so that he can’t give commands. And then Odysseus has his men fill their own ears with beeswax so they can’t hear anything. They set sail in striking distance of the sirens’ call. The plan works: Odysseus gets to hear the music, his men don’t, and they sail on to safety—with Odysseus pleading with his crew to crash the boat the whole way.
And for the next 2000 or so years, that’s what a siren was: a creature that makes a beautiful sound.
But that all changed in 1819, when a French engineer named Charles Cagniard de la Tour decided to call the artificial noisemaker he was working on the siren.
And this new, mechanical siren became one of THE signature sounds of the turn of the century. Sirens warned people about immanent bombing raids during World War I. Sirens announced incoming fire engines, and ambulances, and police.
Thanks in part to the siren, the world of the the early 20th century had become a lot louder than any time in human history. And we can probably assume that these sirens that people heard in cities all over the world sounded NOTHING like the siren songs of Greek myth.
At least to most. One man, a composer, named Arseny Avraamov heard music in the cacophony of the modern world. And he tried to create a composition—a symphony—from the clatter of the newly formed Soviet Union.
Moscow-based producer Charles Maynes investigated the legend of Avraamov and his forgotten masterpiece. This is The Symphony of Sirens, Revisited.
This story was part of the Global Story Project, presented by PRX with support from the Open Society Foundations.
Plus, we hear a rebroadcast of “The Unsung Icons of Soviet Design.”