Soundscapes

Whatever is capable of a competent difference, perceptible to any sense, may be a sufficient means to express cogitations. This may be visual, such as colors or scripted language, or aural and at times abstract.

On the surface, Soundscapes by Murray Schafer would quite seem like the tale of an environmentalist trying to put together a periodic table of all the sounds one could possibly hear on earth. However, what is truly sought over the course of this book is a documentation of all the sounds that man has produced and how much of it mimics the earth itself and its accepted behaviour. This is not surprising as Schafer is known for his work in acoustic ecology and heavily uses it to point out recurring ideas of symbolism in music from a cultural standpoint.

Sonic Imperialism is the earliest, and perhaps one of the striking points raised in the book, outlining various ways in which man has associated strong sounds with divinity – such as thunder and earthquakes – and has used domination of sonic space as a method of establishing control over a community.  Schafer cites solid examples in support, like the church bell and pipe organ, before moving on to more complex forms of symbolism attached to sounds such as the post horn. He uses this to establish a crude definition of the keynote, relating it to the rough quality of sound that is characteristic to the geography and culture of a region. Here, he introduces a number of binary criteria for classifying sounds – transient/continuous, natural/artificial, centripetal/centrifugal.

In its second act, Soundscapes deals with the plethora of sounds that came into existence as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution followed by widespread usage of Electricity. Schafer talks about the machine-created drones becoming a persistent part of the modern soundscape, creating a globally consistent keynote resonating at 50 or 60Hz – the frequency of alternating current. The machine-driven “noisy” soundscape is further explored in terms of its cultural context, specifically noting the reaction of civilizations to it. A stark of example of this is the initial dislike towards the explosive roar of automobiles, causing the industry to work towards making quieter cars; to the radical shift in attitude where the loud sound came to be associated with domination of sonic space and morphed into a form of assertive expression for a modern human.

In Noise,  Schafer explains how defining it accurately is of paramount importance to addressing issues of noise pollution. He explains that while most government and regulatory bodies quantify noise in terms of their intensity, the sonic quality of noise and its highly subjective perception play an equally important role. A great example supporting this is the metamorphosis of the church bell from an object of familiarity and security to that of disturbance in modern suburbia. He also supplies data from all around the world on what their top noise complaints are and how it reveals a great deal about what is perceived as noise in each region.

Having discussed at length the issues of a lo-fi sonic environment, Schafer explores various ideas of mitigating the issue by drawing from history of art and architecture to look at the responsibilities of an acoustic designer in building a healthy soundscape and drawing a list of criteria to satisfy. He also brings up a number of examples where designers have managed to augment natural sounds without the usage of electro-acoustics, such as the Helmholtz resonator, the intricate water-fountains of the Baroquian era and the Chinese Feng Cheng  – a wind-organ setup on a kite.

Schafer also notes on how composers have aimed at imitating predominant elements of the soundscape in their time. Drawing from examples like the relationship of birdsong with numerous works of Oliver Messiaen, he prophecies modern electro-acoustic means of creating music to symbolize a post-industrial world, either directly or by sonifying events across media. A great example of this today is Fracking Fluid Injection  by The Knife, which uses ADSR parameters of a pluck synth sound to create an instrumental composition about a dialogue between the earth and abusive oil-rigs.

There are multiple instances that show poor aging of Schafer’s arguments – most prominent being his skepticism towards schizophonia, which he backs citing poor quality in electronic reproduction of sound detached in space and time. Nearly forty years since, there has only been improvement in quality of schizophonia, inching towards achieving audio as immersive as the original soundscape. But while some arguments have concerns that have diminished with time, others such as sonic imperialism have come to become more prominent over the years. The centripetal and centrifugal effects of medieval bells and horns have today been replaced by staggered vibrations and trademarked notification tones on portable electronic devices. It is also not surprising to see advertising and branding industries capitalize by creating sonic logos – such as the five note melody of Intel Corporation, or the mild roadside thud of Audi.

In a dramatic fashion, Schafer chooses to conclude his book with a note on Silence,  and the cultural negativity that surrounds it. In the brief note, he talks about the need to re-establish Silence in positive light, for the absence of sound is when human hearing is at its highest level of alertness and sensitivity. It is interesting to see that in the final stages of the book, this goes on to be connected with other cyclical processes (cosmic and otherwise) that occur with almost musical regularity but are beyond the human aural perception. While it ties back to the modern ideas of data-sonification, there is also an implication on our dependence over cyclical nature of sounds to keep up with the redundancies of nature itself – an objective that is often viewed as primary among living species.

Soundscapes is a book that treads over a large number of concepts in attempts to classify or describe sound in very linguistic terms, hence help attach very clear attributes that people may choose to focus on in specific. Schafer’s binary classification techniques are a substantial head-start to research that heavily employs machine learning models to understand sonic energies and respond to it. But while the book is a great gateway into sonic research, acoustic design and an introduction to understanding human perception juxtaposed with cultural biases, the book heavily falls on its own limitations of currently accepted form of sound representation in a lattice based system that is drenched in lack of sound technology. It would be interesting to see a more updated description of the sonic space we live in, now that we have greater control over sound and its parameters – both in active synthesis as well as passive response.

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