Sound Escape Conference Text

Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, July 1, 2000

Soundscape Composition as Global Music

Barry Truax
Schools of Communication & Contemporary Arts
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C. Canada V5A 1S6
email:; website:


The paper covers the background of soundscape composition, as initiated by the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, and soundscape documentation as an activity that is being increasingly practiced worldwide. Today there are two striking manifestations of this work: the increasing globalization of the electroacoustic community, and the increasing sophistication of digital techniques applied to soundscape composition.

I. Introduction

I grew up hearing the old cliché about music being "the universal language". After the failure to establish a universal written or spoken language, such as Esperanto, I suppose it seemed, at least to the Western mind, to be a plausible alternative. However, as I gradually became aware of the music of other cultures and started being deeply affected by some of them, it also became clear that even though music as a social practice seems to be found everywhere in the world, musical thinking - and the concepts and social practice it leads to - is far from uniform. In fact, the more I learned about music that comes from another cultural tradition, the more aware I became of listening to it (particularly through recordings) with very different ears. At best, one can hope there is some analogy between what we may call listening from inside and listening from outside.

On the other hand, there are two terms in common usage today: world music (or world musics) and economic globalization of the media (Herman & McChesney, 1997), both of which seem linked to McLuhan's "global village" concept. First we have the diaspora of various cultures which often extends worldwide and which inevitably brings about musical cross-fertilization and evolution - one only has to think of the history of black African music and its transition to North America and popular culture to find a dramatic example. Cultural critics, however, point to a more disturbing facet of this globalization: the increasing hegemony of American popular music worldwide. As Attali (1985) reminds us, music is not only a reflection of the social order but is tightly allied to economic power and its interests. We are in danger of coming full circle to a new version of the old cliché: Muzak as the universal language!


II. The Soundscape Concept

In the late 1960s, Murray Schafer (1969, 1973) suggested a radically different concept: the soundscape as the "universal" composition of which we are all composers. This bold concept, intended as an alternative not to music but to the problems of noise, led to the formation of the World Soundscape Project (WSP) at Simon Fraser University in the early 1970s. Although in common usage, the WSP often got abbreviated to "the soundscape project", Schafer clung to the idea of its global basis, and in 1975 conducted a tour through Europe to make recordings and study five villages in each of five different countries.

The main purpose of the WSP's work was to document acoustic environments, both functional and dysfunctional, and to increase public awareness of the importance of the soundscape, particularly through individual listening sensitivity. In current terminology, the goal is to put "acoustic ecology" on the environmental agenda. However, given the importance of local action, one of the WSP's first major publications was The Vancouver Soundscape, a booklet plus two records which appeared in 1973. Twenty years later, we have re-issued most of the recordings on a double CD, where the second CD consists of documentary recordings and soundscape compositions derived from digital recordings made in Vancouver in the 1990s. Not only was the Vancouver project probably the first systematic study of the soundscape of a city, but the 20-year span with the follow-up project gave a unique aural portrait of the rapid evolution of the city and its soundscape. Such longitudinal work is rare in acoustics and noise studies, and should be encouraged in soundscape documentation, since both personal and cultural memory lacks the ability to track such aural changes in the environment.

The Vancouver study also set the frame of the city for other work to follow. In the last decade, city "portraits" on CD, varying in the degree to which they mingle documentation and composition, have appeared for Madrid, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Brasilia, and others. Many other unpublished compilations and individual research results have also been carried out. In other words, it can be argued that the WSP's influence has spread worldwide as a concept practiced by locals, rather than by outside "experts". In fact, following the 1993 Tuning of the World conference in Banff, Alberta, the international organization known as the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) was formed, which maintains an extensive website and soundscape newsletter, as well as an on-line discussion group. In 1998, a Swedish group organized an international conference in Stockholm on the theme of acoustic ecology, and an administrative structure was set up during the conference for the WFAE consisting of both national or regional groups and individual members. In other words, the type of system that has emerged from this evolution can be described as an international network with local nodes.

So does this mean that the soundscape is a shared global experience? Although it is clearly the concern of a dedicated group of individuals who are networked worldwide, soundscapes are inherently local and particularized. To be sure, there is a disturbing analogy to economic and cultural globalization which is a force for homogenization, and that is the pervasive and invasive influence of technological sounds and noise. Almost everything about technology promotes standardization and uniformity, right from the micro level of hums and broad-band noise, through to the influences that produce "lo-fi" soundscapes in every urban centre, as well as their surroundings (Schafer, 1977, 1993).

It is a simplification, but one which is suggestive: hi-fi soundscapes are varied and uniquely local; lo-fi soundscapes are uniform and about the same everywhere. From an ecological standpoint, the hi-fi soundscape is populated by many individual "species" which are the result of local conditions. They are information rich, and most importantly, are most richly interpreted by locals who understand their contextual meanings. The lo-fi soundscape is created by the hegemony of only the most powerful sounds which eradicate, or at least mask, all local varieties. Even more seriously, the lo-fi soundscape seems 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, 1984).


III. Soundscape Composition and the Electroacoustic Community

Today, the electroacoustic community is becoming increasingly global. Here I refer both to the group of student and professional practitioners, and to the common experience of people in industrialized countries to hear more sound via electroacoustic reproduction (Truax, 1992). Schafer (1969) originally described the electroacoustic listening experience as "schizophonic", suggesting it as an aberration. Today, such "aberration" is increasingly the norm. I have described one aspect of this trend as the creation of "surrogate" environments through the use of background music, radio, television and recordings. Foreground information comes as often as not from national and international media sources, rather than from one's neighbourhood, perhaps even more readily in most cases. So-called "virtual reality" is increasingly becoming an aspect of "normal reality" and one wonders whether the younger generation is capable of distinguishing the difference, or even if they care to.

At the professional level, the electroacoustic community, like many other sectors of society, is becoming increasingly global in its communication practices, mainly through the internet. What started out as a "national" communication medium for electroacoustic composers in Canada sponsored by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), called "cecdiscuss", has quickly become an international discussion forum. Although "local" announcements are often made (where sometimes it's not always clear what city they refer to or the location of the person making the announcement), every topic is assumed to be of international interest. It is not coincidental that this group is increasingly using the same tools, and any topic related to a new technical development is guaranteed to provoke dozens of responses and a pooling of opinions and experience on cecdiscuss. Whereas the local studio used to be the centre of electroacoustic music, private studios and workstations using some variant of standard commercial hardware and software is now the norm. It is as yet unclear as to what the personal and artistic ramifications will be of this global network of individuals working separately with similar tools. Will it inspire uniformity or diversity?

A subset of the professional electroacoustic community overlaps with its "sister" organization, namely the "acoustic ecology" discussion group. That is, artists coming from the electroacoustic music community join with those coming from other acoustic-based backgrounds, such as field recordists, sound artists, and those involved with acoustic design in a variety of contexts, around a common interest in what I have called "soundscape composition" (Truax, 1996). At SFU, this activity evolved spontaneously from the documentation or "found" soundscapes of the WSP. Since most of the participants were composers, they began applying electroacoustic techniques towards processing the recorded sounds, creating compositions that range from those whose sounds are transparently manipulated to those that are much more transformed. However, to distinguish this latter approach from musique concrète and "acousmatic" music, I have argued that the original sounds must stay recognizable and the listener's contextual and symbolic associations should be invoked for a piece to be a soundscape composition. A recent issue of Contemporary Music Review (1996) devoted to this topic and edited by Katharine Norman was titled "A Poetry of Reality". Music created through soundscape composition cannot be organized with much similarity to instrumental music; in fact, a broader definition of music such as "organized sound" must be invoked if soundscape composition is to be included.

A particularly interesting trend in soundscape composition is the use of multiple loudspeakers for reproducing the work, a performance practice called "diffusion" in electroacoustic circles, originally pioneered in France and now increasingly practiced worldwide. So-called "classical" diffusion takes a stereo image and projects it during the performance into the performance space via multiple loudspeakers, guided by a performer at a mixing console, usually centrally placed. Given the visual and directional bias of most musical performance in theatres - audiences staring at a stage area - this experience is inherently more immersive. However, the stereo source, as developed as it has become, presents a "bottleneck" because of the limitation of two discrete channels.

At SFU we have been creating a multi-channel computer-controlled diffusion system (Truax, 1998) through a collaboration with a local engineer, Tim Bartoo, whose company called Harmonic Functions created an 8-channel prototype unit (the DM-8) and more recently a commercially available 16-channel unit (the AudioBox). The central idea is that a number of discrete source channels of sound can be projected either statically or dynamically onto a number of output channels connected to speakers. Despite the complexity of the signal routing involved, the result can be remarkably similar to situations found in the acoustic environment - discrete sources come from independent directions. There is no natural analogy to the stereo image created through panning where the same sound comes simultaneously from two different sources with varying loudness levels. Even echoes involve a delayed version of the source. The auditory system, presented with this paradoxical effect, resolves the ambiguity by creating the illusion called a "phantom image" which appears to emanate from somewhere between the two speakers (which in the case of headphones means inside one's head!). However, phantom images are very unstable and even a slight movement off centre from the two speakers shifts the image towards the louder source. In contrast, even just 8 channels of discrete source material (what is technically called "uncorrelated" signals) creates a convincing soundscape where component sounds can be localized in the manner experienced in acoustic environments.

In a recent composition using this approach, called Pendlerdrøm (The Commuter's Dream), I created the experience of being inside the Copenhagen train station using four separate stereo recordings, unprocessed but played simultaneously so that individual sounds came from different directions, as is typical in a busy station. A local train arrives, and the listener appears to get on it as the scene shifts to the inside of the enclosed train compartment. After a short ride, the doors open and the person (modelled as a commuter) gets off and walks home. However, at two points in this scenario (inside the station and inside the train) the sounds gradually become musically transformed, suggesting that the commuter through tiredness and familiarity goes into an inner world or daydream. Sounds that were previously heard in a more natural context in the station come back in loops or time-stretched (Truax, 1994b), emulating the processes of memory and dreams. Some event on tape triggers the return to reality just as it might in everyday life. Thus both the sound materials and the form of the piece are derived from soundscape experience. Moreover, through listening to a simulated soundscape in this manner, the listener may perceive it differently in the real world when it is next encountered. By combining a very specific environment with an experience analogously shared by many people in industrialized countries, this piece shows the unique blend of local and global that soundscape composition can achieve.


IV. Conclusion

The soundscape composition, with the interdisciplinary conceptual background of soundscape studies and acoustic communication, and the technical means of granular time-stretching and multi-channel diffusion, all of which have been developed at Simon Fraser University over the past 25 years, provides a well developed model for the musical use of environmental sound. The principles of the soundscape composition as derived from its evolved practice are: (a) listener recognizability of the source material is maintained, even if it subsequently undergoes transformation; (b) 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; (c) 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; and ideally, (d) the work enhances our understanding of the world, and its influence carries over into everyday perceptual habits. Elsewhere I have described the ideal balance that should be achieved in such work as matching the inner complexity of the sonic organization to the outer complexity of relationships in the real world, without one being subordinate to the other (Truax, 1994a). Thus, the real goal of the soundscape composition is the re-integration of the listener with the environment in a balanced ecological relationship.



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(1973) No. 1, The Music of the Environment
(1978a) No. 2, T
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(1977b) No. 4, Five Village Soundscapes
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