SOUNDSCAPE COMPOSITION: A POSSIBLE FRAMEWORK
Research on artistic strategies for the use of field recordings in sound art, exploring the concepts established by the work of the World Soundscape Project (WSP).
Juan Pablo de Lucca
With current concerns surrounding environmental issues and the concept of sustainability, many artists and musicians are considering what responsibility they might have as a result and, in particular, what practical contributions they are qualified and able to make (Truax & Fraser 2016).
The term "soundscape" found its way into media theory, sociology, urban and landscape planning, and music practice at the end of the 1960s through sound researcher and composer R. Murray Schafer, co-founder of the World Soundscape Project (WSP) in collaboration with Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. This interdisciplinary group of architects, artists, and sociologists explored audible environments while examining soundscapes and their interaction with people and other living beings. This emerged against the background of increasing industrialization and urbanization. These works, characterized by the presence of recognizable environmental sounds and contexts, invoke the listener's associations, memories, and imagination. It is possible then to create listening experiences that influence how listeners interact with the world beyond the artistic context while enhancing environmental listening awareness.
R. Murray Schafer defines a soundscape as the interaction of all acoustic events in one place. This includes natural sounds, language, work, and machine noises as well as music (Truax 1999). Soundscape composition grew in North America out of the work of the WSP who originally used soundscape recordings in a documentary or ‘‘phonographic’’ mode. Early examples from Europe include the work of Luc Ferrari and that of various radiophonic sound artists and composers. Today the term covers a wide range of approaches from phonographic to abstract, assisted most spectacularly by multichannel reproduction where speakers are deployed around the audience on one or more vertical levels to create an immersive sonic experience.
Nature soundscapes are varied, uniquely local, information-rich, and populated by many individual “species”. On the other hand, the urban modern soundscape is dominated by sounds of never-stopping broadband noise and electrical hum. Cities “seem to create a common habit of non-listening, one which soundscape theory argues is detrimental both to the individual and to the soundscape as a whole since it can deteriorate unchecked” (Truax 2008).
Soundscape composition is characterized by the presence of recognizable environmental sounds and contexts. The purpose is to conjure the listener´s own context associations, memories, and imagination. To compose with environmental sounds implies a relationship—a dialogue—between composer and recorded materials, just as there is a relationship between soundscape and listener in daily life. The soundscape composer aims to draw the listener back into the real world, perhaps to stress an ecological perspective, or to make the listener aware of their aural surroundings.
The compositional process, most of the time, begins with field recording. Rather than isolating sounds from the outside world by bringing them into a studio, the sound artist goes to the place where the sounds occur. In principle, the practice of field recording begins as a type of auditory scene analysis. The actual recorded materials are of course important, but the listening experiences while recording and while going about one's life are just as important. These always play a part in the compositional process in some way.
Sound is identified and classified mainly in three levels of relevance: "Figure" stands for the most important sound or group of sounds in a given setting that a listener relates to or interacts with. This may be an interlocutor, the melody of a piece of music, or a sound that stands out from the everyday soundscape. "Ground" sounds belong to the listener’s social context, they are often perceived in passing, only registered when they suddenly disappear. And finally, "Field" represents a broader cultural context in which figure and ground are positioned. Taken together, these three levels constitute an acoustic frame of reference within which sounds are assigned varying degrees of importance (Schafer 1977).
Artists working with field recordings allow themselves to be guided by the found sounds, rather than approaching the compositional task with preconceived expectations. Listening is central to the process. The sound itself is the medium, directing the composer through the social and environmental context. In this way, the artist composes and is composed at the same time.
With these artistic strategies, it is possible to make sounds and their meanings ambiguous, leaving the listener unsure of their origins. The connection between a sound and its source, the context and referential character, is eroded. This requires active listeners willing to undertake some of the work, who do not wish to have their expectations confirmed, but who bring with them a certain curiosity and openness to the world. The vagueness of the recordings invites subjective interpretations, challenging the listener's familiar auditory experience and knowledge of the world. What we hear may not always make any actual sense, but we do become aware of a fundamental requirement of our sense of hearing: we have no choice but to constantly construct meaning (Bick 2009).
Barry Truax offers four succinct divisions of the characteristics of soundscape compositions, dividing them into points that he considers to be the most workable and the least aesthetically pre- or prescriptive. These are:
(1) Listener recognizability of the source material is maintained, even if it subsequently undergoes transformation; (2) The listener's knowledge of the environmental and psychological context of the soundscape material is invoked and encouraged to complete the network of meanings ascribed to the music; (3) The composer's knowledge of the environmental and psychological context of the soundscape material is allowed to influence the shape of the composition at every level, and ultimately the composition is inseparable from some or all of those aspects of reality; (4) The work enhances our understanding of the world, and its influence carries over into everyday perceptual habits (Truax 1996).
Well-designed soundscape compositions can influence how listeners interact with the world outside the artistic context while enhancing environmental listening awareness. In fact, if listeners do not experience such alternatives to their everyday negative soundscape experiences, will they realize that the world could be different? Such work presents a powerful means by which artistic vision reinvigorates its social role (Truax & Fraser 2016).
Schafer, R. M. (1977). The Tuning of the World. New York, NY: Knopf
Truax, B. (1999). Handbook for acoustic ecology. Vancouver, BC: Cambridge Street Publishing
Truax, B. (1996). Soundscape: acoustic communication and environmental sound composition. Contemp Music Review.
Truax, B. (2008). Soundscape Composition as Global Music: Electroacustic music as soundscape. Organised Sound.
Truax, B., & Fraser, S. (2016). Music, Soundscape and Acoustic Sustainability.
Bick, A. (2009). Listening is Making Sense. Field Notes, fieldnotes.gruenrekorder.de