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Remembering R. Murray Schafer
By Jaymee Salisi
R. Murray Schafer, former professor in the School of Communication and acoustic ecologist who popularized the term "soundscape," died on August 14, 2021 following a struggle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 88.
Schafer was a faculty member at Simon Fraser University between 1965–1975.
During his time at SFU, he created soundscape as a field of study and founded the World Soundscape Project in 1969.
As recognition for his groundbreaking accomplishments, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws from SFU in 1997.
Soundscape can be defined as the acoustic environment as perceived by humans, ranging from urban design to wildlife ecology to computer science.
“A soundscape is any collection of sounds, almost like a painting is a collection of visual attractions. I think when you listen carefully to the soundscape it becomes quite miraculous when you listen and marvel,” Schaefer explained in a film produced for the 2009 Governor General's Performing Arts Award.
Schafer created the World Soundscape Project with the intent to “find solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape where the relationship between the human community and its sonic environment is in harmony.”
With the support of the Donner Canadian Foundation, he led a group of young composers and students to study sound in Vancouver. Their findings were published as The Vancouver Soundscape.
Eventually, this evolved into Schafer leading a larger group of researchers on a European tour to conduct a detailed analysis of the soundscapes of villages in Sweden, Germany, Italy, France and Scotland.
This area of study was further explored by Schafer in his book, The Tuning of the World, where he tells readers to listen, analyze, and make distinctions from “acoustical overload” despite ongoing sound pollution.
Researchers continue to uphold his legacy to this day.
I arrived at SFU in the summer of 1973, following my postgraduate work in The Netherlands, at the invitation of Murray Schafer to join what he was calling the World Soundscape Project located in the newly formed Department of Communication Studies and the Sonic Research Studio. He assured me, with characteristic understatement, that they were doing “probably the world’s most important work” and so the allure was irresistible.
Once at SFU, I joined an enthusiastic group of research assistants who were putting the final touches on the first major publication project The Vancouver Soundscape (a booklet and two LPs), soon to be followed up by a cross-Canada recording tour, and in 1975 a European tour which involved studying five villages in different countries which could be regarded as acoustic communities, all of which is now documented in the online WSP Database.
However, I and my new colleagues were also impressed by the intellectual milieu that this new Department offered, with scholars coming from a myriad of social science and humanities backgrounds and establishing a new interdisciplinary model of human and social communication. They in turn recognized that those disciplines had traditionally ignored the acoustic aspects of communication, and hence a fruitful exchange of ideas and practices began to emerge within a critical interdisciplinary framework.
Little did I imagine then that after two years I would become Murray’s successor when he left SFU in 1975, and that my entire academic career would be focused on what I called Acoustic Communication and Soundscape Composition. Even less that it would grow into a worldwide organization called the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, and that a few decades later, the field of Sound Studies would emerge and regard SFU’s early involvement as pioneering and inspirational. With today’s concerns over environmental sustainability, these efforts seem more urgent and relevant than ever. ~ Barry Truax, Professor Emeritus
“We can add more noises, or we can add more beautiful sounds. It’s up to us” — R. Murray Schafer