Who’s afraid of R. Murray Schafer?



It has become fashionable in some sound and new music quarters to sneer and snipe at R. Murray Schafer and his ideas on the soundscape. In particular I’ve noticed that the ideas set forth in Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World come under attack for being nostalgic, romantic (without defining what this means), idealist, utopian – the list goes on. Of course the detractors rarely come up with any positive ideas themselves. And no I’m not going to name names – that’s for the reader to discover. The critics, if I may dignify them with such a title, range from academics seeking to distinguish their own second-hand ideas to the composer who seeks to validate his or her compositional aesthetic. Personally I doubt if many of the snipers have actually taken time to read the book from cover to cover. I confess openly that after years of taking for granted the comments and half-baked opinions of others I took the plunge just the other week and, in a fit of self-righteousness, sat down and enjoyed every page.

I can’t see the problem with Schafer. Here we have a man of the ’70s, writing before some of the critical hipsters were born (or even their parents), setting forth some of the most revolutionary ideas ever heard on sound awareness, soundscape research, acoustic design, noise abatement, soundmapping and progressive educational initiatives designed to improve our collective lot. The book is accessible, meaning that ordinary people like me understood every word without having to re-read anything. It’s accessible because Schafer uses examples from the real world of human experience and hence doesn’t write like an academic talking in rarified abstractions to his pals. This book speaks to everyone – it succeeds in communicating complex and sophisticated ideas in a language that I can understand. This is what I expect from an academic publisher. Jonathan Sterne comes to mind as another author capable of communicating elaborate ideas simply and with ample illustrations.

I think that Schafer’s detractors suffer from a mixture of envy and fear, which probably amounts to extreme jealousness. They are jealous of the fact that he came up with so many groundbreaking ideas, definitions and programmes of study for future generations and they’re afraid that that they might not be able to come anywhere near to emulating his achievements or his breadth of vision.

His definition of the soundscape as ‘any acoustic field of study: musical composition, radio program, acoustic environment’ seems fine to me in its breadth and open-ness. It needs to be revived and re-promoted because the word ‘soundscape’ has been hijacked on the one hand by the largely Canadian school of soundscape composition which privileges a referential and narrative style of making work, and on the other hand by a seething mass of ambitious academics and institutional types who seek to reap various professional rewards out of all the hard work that Schafer and others did several decades ago.

Sounding a less harsh note I can fully appreciate the benefits that soundscape research has brought to the world of sonic art but there still seems to be far too much indolence as researchers continue to wallow in abstract mapping, scholastically counting the number of angels on pinhead.s Schafer’s definition of a soundscape researcher as someone who is concerned with changes in perception and behaviour reminds me that I’m still waiting for qualitative research to show an edge on quantitative research and the endless measuring of sonic phenomena.

I will always vigorously defend Schafer’s description of the hi-fi and lo-fi environments because the drift towards lo-fi environments, cool as they might be for hip urban types, signal environmental degradation and a lessening of human sensitivity to the signals of such destructive processes. It’s a political issue that helps to expose the fallacious (and stupid) liberal humanist orthodoxy whereby everyone can do what they like as long as nobody gets in anyone else’s way. You don’t have to like the hi-fi, as many hip urbanites do so smugly, but you should surely acknowledge that what Schafer says is undeniably true, that the lo-fi city abbreviates the facility for distant hearing and that there is cross-talk on nearly every channel, that a hi-fi environment has a favourable signal to noise ratio, discrete sounds are heard clearly because of a low ambient noise level, sounds overlap less frequently and a background/ foreground perspective is clearly available. Whilst some of the attributes of lo-fi environments are useful in the creation of electroacoustic and noise musics, they are not so good for peace and quiet in the dwelt environment, regardless of fashionable urbanism where the listener is largely anaesthesised by traffic noise. Since when did traffic noise add to the quality of life? Growing traffic machine and aircraft noise is a sign that we’re further down the road to self-destruction. Or have I missed something obvious?

Schafer also set the compass towards a very productive programme of educational research in which environmental sound, of whatever provenence, would be appreciated in the sense of evaluated, given value, positively or negatively. This is how we arrive at consensus and as a result influence policy makers. I can’t imagine a generation of sonically well-educated youngsters asking for more bad architecture, traffic and the destruction of wilderness areas and green space. Finally, Schafer also promotes the benefits of slowing down and listening as physical and psychological therapy and God knows we need some of that!

At conferences on sonic matters over the past decade and in amongst the plethora of pap(ers) on soundscape studies I’ve come across some very harsh criticism of the notion of acoustic ecology. To be honest these people sound like the far right of the Tory party talking about environmentalists – tree hugging, sandal wearing, bearded, whale loving losers (of dubious sexual orientation no doubt). This is unfortunate and  shameful because if these regressives took time to read the source material they’d find out that acoustic ecology is defined as ‘the study of the relationship between living organisms and their environment.’ Acoustic ecology is ‘the study of sounds in relationship to life and society’. It’s a study which take place on location, not in the laboratory (budding researchers please take note) and as such is essential as a preliminary activity to acoustic design. I think this is perfect. It’s radical (from radix– gets to the root of the problem) and revolutionary at the same time. It challenged the status quo then and still does today. We still don’t have enough awareness of acoustic ecology at the level of executive power largely because the implications challenge capital in general and specific corporate interests in particular. While I’m on this tack Schafer could be seen as a good Marxist, or Marxian if we want to be less controversial, in his contention that the soundscape is a musical composition. We human beings create or better still produce the soundscape, in much the same way that Henri Lefebvre talks of the production of space, and as such we can change it. Of course that depends on the prior existence of  a ‘we’ which is becoming less and less of a possibility in today’s political climate, at least in the UK. Schafer always maintained that the power required to retrieve a significant aural culture should never come from above.

Although there are some fine individual and institutional initiatives out there, usually working with limited resources, composers still aren’t ready yet to assume a leadership role, something that Schafer noted in the 70s. We can’t expect visual artists to do the job for us, can we?






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