The Sound Collectors

There’s a great photograph from around 1972 of Bruce Davis and Peter Huse recording the sound of gravel. Davis is walking methodically back and forth over a mess of the stuff, while Huse captures the moment with what looks like a cumbersome array of sound equipment. Both men look deadly serious about their work.

At the time of the photo, Davis and Huse were members of the World Soundscape Project, a small but intrepid band of sound preservationists led by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer and based out of the communications department at Simon Fraser University, just outside Vancouver. The image catches them collecting material for one of the WSP’s more ambitious undertakings, a 10-hour radio series directed by Schafer and dedicated to the analysis and explication of Canada’s sonic environment. Airing over the course of several weeks in 1974, it was beamed out nationally by the Canadian Broadcasting Company to what must have been a rather bemused listening public.

The name R. Murray Schafer looms large in any discussion of “soundscapes,” on which he literally wrote the book. Schafer coined the term to refer to the aural components of the built and natural environment, long overlooked in favor of the visual ones. His interest in environmental sound owed a lot to 1960s environmentalism, and his texts outlined a grave and career-defining concern he shared with other WSP members: that the sounds of the world not only hung in a delicate balance but were in critical danger of being overwhelmed by a postmodern roar of homogeneous, indecipherable noise. Schafer and his compatriots founded the World Soundscape Project on this idea, that the sonic elements of the world they knew were disappearing rapidly and needed protection, that attention needed to be paid, at long last, to the planet’s “acoustic ecology.”

With tape recorders and armfuls of notebooks, the agents of the world’s first sonic conservation group leapt enthusiastically into the field, painstakingly notating the subtleties of foghorns, peeling apart the layers in crowd noise, carefully cataloguing the pitches produced by power lines, traffic jams, cobblestones, animals, airplanes. They published quickly and prodigiously, producing in short order an in-depth study of the Vancouver soundscape, a compendium of noise-abatement laws in Canada, and a comprehensive handbook outlining the principles of acoustic ecology for the amateur sound historian, among others. They wrote a great deal but the written output of the WSP pales in comparison to the miles and miles of tape they recorded. In addition to the “Soundscapes of Canada” program, the group produced several other audio projects and, purely in the interest of preservation and analysis, filled a stupefying number of tape reels with sounds exceptional and mundane, in locations ranging from Victoria to Vienna.

 

Simon Fraser University has become something of a home base for soundscape analysis and composition in North America, and the WSP’s entire sound library has since been digitized and currently resides in a database on the university’s website. Links to various reels are organized there both by location and by subject, grouped under such subcategories as “small town ambiences,” “antique and/or disappearing sounds,” and, perhaps most intriguingly, “soundwalks”. The WSP came to favor this last type of recording, in which the recordist attempts to recreate a particular setting by moving a microphone through a series of acoustic environments—walking from a noisy marketplace down to a harbor, for example. In the later years of the Project, the WSP began to assemble soundwalks from component selections rather than from one unbroken recording. One elaborate example carries the listener from the open ocean, to Vancouver’s harbor under the traffic of the Lion’s Gate bridge, to a baggage room in the inner harbor.

 

Barry Truax, a devoted member of the project, names this recording as an important turning point in his career. For him, it was the moment when the presentation of soundscapes became a creative act, a product that could be interpreted symbolically as well as analyzed. He was not alone in this realization. Hildegard Westerkamp, a research associate for the project who has since published numerous articles on the subject of acoustic ecology, discovered that for her, environmental sounds provided the “perfect compositional language.” Notably, many of the acoustic ecologists—Truax, Westerkamp, and Schafer himself—were also composers. And though the WSP more or less faded away in the early 1980s, several of its members and contributors went on to create music with the same principles—sonic awareness, soundscape preservation, environmental responsibility—in mind.

Soundscape composition—that is, composition using soundscapes as source material—is now a startlingly busy and diverse field. It has responded well to the last thirty years of advances in audio technology, which have enabled composers to process their sounds in a seemingly endless variety of ways, highlighting, shading, or rendering unrecognizable the field recordings they used as source material. A broader sonic palette opened the door wide to more abstract representations of the places depicted in field recordings, and soundscape compositions quickly became more intensely personal, more subjective. And the composers of this music, many of whom have spent time as acoustic ecologists, have found that the sounds they collect mean less as raw, objective fragments in a catalog than they do when deliberately manipulated to evoke a sense of place, transformed into works of art.

As a member of the WSP, Barry Truax helped contribute to an unbelievable library of field recordings that numbered well into the thousands. Some decades later in 1991, he composed a piece that combined field recordings with live instruments to craft a loving, stylized portrait of all of Canada in the space of 18 minutes. Of the two endeavors, it is hard not to feel that the latter more effectively communicates a sense of place. Another of Truax’s most notable compositions, Riverrun, is built from source recordings of moving water that have been electronically processed beyond any recognition, transformed from ripples and splashes into massive, ambient washes of sound and remarkably, despite the use of what should be radically unfamiliar material, the piece still gives an unmistakable impression of river-ness. Not only do its minute textural shifts encourage careful and attentive listening, but, in the words of fellow composer Mara Helmuth, they also render it a “fluid, transforming entity with such internal subtlety that it is only understood on a large time scale”: nature’s rhythm, if not its voice. The recordings themselves might have had the nature ironed out of them, Helmuth says, but the art of their arrangement—and the space this arrangement allows for subjective interpretation—“closely connects the listener to the physical world.” Which is, of course, what the acoustic ecologists had wanted to do all along.

After years capturing and pinning down sounds, the first generation of soundscape composers suddenly found combining this experience with personal impressions equipped them uniquely to show what a place—real or imagined—was really like, not only how it sounded. Place has at least as much to do with imagination as it does with objective reality, and as a result, the spaces represented in soundscape compositions tend to feel more tangible than the locations captured by field recordings. The difference between a piece like Riverrun and field recordings of an actual river could reasonably be likened to the difference between the idea of a favorite red sweater and that merely of the color red. Their creative work could—and does—accomplish what years of the most meticulous research could not. It wasn’t enough just to tell us to listen, or even what to listen for; they also had to show us how.

Westerkamp, by now the creator of dozens of works concerned with the acoustic environment, knows well the power and responsibility of the soundscape composer. The field, she says, is one of the very few “[w]here cultural production can speak with a potentially powerful voice about one of the most urgent issues we face in this stage of the world's life: the ecological balance of our planet.” She is not only talking about sound.

“The soundscape,” she continues, “makes these issues audible. We simply have to learn to hear it and to speak back. The soundscape composer has the skill and the expertise to do exactly that.”