Presentation to the Electroacoustic Music Studies Conference 2007

De Montfort University, Leicester, June 2007


Given its by now lengthy history, the idea of listening to environmental soundscapes as if they were music can now be regarded as a tradition. What appeared radical to John Cage's musical world and to R. Murray Schafer's more environmentally concerned audiences has now established itself as a useful, if not absolutely necessary condition for living in a sonically imbalanced environment. The genre of the soundscape composition has also emerged from this basic idea, largely inspired by the work of Schafer's World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, but with a European detour via Luc Ferrari. At one end of the continuum of soundscape composition practice is the "found soundscape", or what is referred to as phonography, that is, recorded soundscapes with minimal or no alteration that can be listened to as if they were music, in the sense of an organized sound structure with differing levels of meaning. At the other end of the continuum I have proposed is the abstracted soundscape which remains clearly identifiable as to subject matter, but which incorporates sonic elements that have been abstracted to varying extents from their original source.

This paper suggests inverting this increasingly familiar concept to suggest that we listen to electroacoustic music as if it were a soundscape. What analytical insights would result and which analytical techniques would be the most useful for obtaining those insights? In fact this idea is not entirely unprecedented in the sense that various forms of audio-based communication, beginning with radio and background music, evolved to create extended artificial environments of sound over the last century. Even the early Telharmonium was piped into upscale restaurants in New York to create a pleasant musical ambience &endash; and coincidentally to increase liquor consumption, a side-effect that has been observed in modern times as well and no doubt accounts for its longevity as a popular practice! George Orwell, among others, noted the use of radio as what we now call an "accompaniment medium" in middle class households in England before and after the Second World War, and by the 1960s in North America with radio targeting particular demographic subgroups, the use of radio (and even television) as a surrogate environment was widespread. The contemporary forms of personal portable audio formats extend this idea with mobility and greater user selectivity. Film soundtracks are designed to create sonic environments according to a set of conventions understood by the audience (and only loosely related to the real world), but arguably the largest amount of capital for auditory environment design today is invested in the digital game industry where complex and detailed soundscapes are the norm, both for realistic and fantasy worlds. Since surrogate electroacoustically designed environments are a familiar feature of most listeners' daily experience, certain types of electroacoustic music may seem to be simply a more concentrated or specialized type of soundscape to be listened to in a similar manner.

Basic Soundscape Concepts

I find it striking how easily applicable the basic, and rather simplistic, soundscape categories still are for the analysis of all such electroacoustic soundscapes. It is significant that those categories are strongly related to perceptual habits, such as "keynote" sounds for background listening, sound signals for foreground perception, and "soundmarks" for those sounds recognized as having cultural and symbolic importance within a community. These concepts rely heavily on the listener's understanding of and ability to interpret such sounds, as well as pointing to the shifting levels of listening awareness and the importance of social, cultural and psychological context for soundscape perception. With a typical radio music format, the recorded music often functions as a background ambience, with recurring elements such as the station logo functioning as keynote sounds. The station attempts to attract foreground attention to the ads through a variety of strategies, and within the ads highly symbolic and culturally interpretable sounds are used to provide associations and reinforce a product image, often in the manner of the soundmark.

In terms of their structural function, keynotes provide background continuity, signals provide foreground encoded and interpretable information (which can become a keynote if heard frequently enough) and can be become soundmarks if given uniqueness by cultural and social associations that transcend an immediate situation. Unlike the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, the specific aural qualities of environmental sounds become tied to their interpretation, and such sounds cannot be changed arbitrarily without cognitive disruption. It can be noted that electroacoustic music as a form of intensely designed communication may also provoke these basic kinds of listening and interpretation strategies even if the sound material doesn't particularly resemble environmental sound.

The theory of acoustic communication expands on these concepts to include how information is extracted from sounds (i.e. listening) and exchanged, both acoustically and in the modern mediated forms of electroacoustic discourse which among many of its effects includes extensions of the sonic repertoire and their arbitrary sequencing and embedding, whether through amplified sounds imposed on an environment or the personal layering of sounds such as with the Walkman and iPod. Historically, this technological development involves not only the expansion of the language of electroacoustic sound, but also the expansion of the electroacoustic listener's listening strategies in both directions of attentiveness along a continuum from what I've termed distracted listening (e.g. habituation to media and music as environment) to analytical listening (e.g. the discernment of sound qualities, good and bad reproduction, separable parameters of sound, and on to spectromorphology). Denis Smalley has similarly classified different levels of surrogacy related to different listening strategies provoked by the distance between the sound and any real-world references.

What acousmatic music and soundscape composition share is the primacy of listening, the ability to extract information at different simultaneous levels, a recognition of the ability of sound to shape space and time, including the creation of sound spaces through diffusion practices. Where they diverge is more of a matter of emphasis regarding the role of context. Electroacoustic music recognizes the abstracted aspects of its language while acknowledging its movement towards some point of absolute abstractness, whereas soundscape composition begins in complete contextual immersion and moves towards the abstracted middle ground. In terms of the balance between inner and outer complexity, phonography resides largely in outer complexity, abstract composition in inner complexity, with soundscape composition and some of the more abstracted forms of acousmatic music based on the interplay between the two.

Electroacoustic Music Analysis as Soundscape

Returning to my theme of listening to electroacoustic music as if it were a soundscape, perhaps the first point to emphasize is that in terms of the intention/reception dialectic, I am mainly referring to the listener's perceptual strategies, whether or not they correspond to the composer's intentions. Electroacoustic music analysis as informed by soundscape concepts would seem to apply best to works that range from "realistic" to "abstracted", and less so for works that tend towards abstraction either in sound or syntax. However, even with more abstract works where sound have little resemblance to the real world or to its syntactical structures, those works may still be listened to "as if" they were soundscapes, i.e. at the level of metaphor. Also keep in mind that the soundscape of the real world is not static and that it increasingly includes electronic additions (both as sounds and gestures) that listeners become familiar with in everyday life. The jump cut that is so foreign to the acoustic world of connected transitions and that was introduced in visual form in the film montage, then the tape edit, the cueing of dissimilar segments in radio broadcasts, and today the even faster digital edits and sequences that are now commonplace in the everyday soundscape (e.g. the rapid switching between sounds in digital alarms). Likewise, the layering and cross-fading of the mixing studio finds expression in iPod listening, cellphones, and background music soundscapes. One can ask: is the acoustic environment becoming more abstract and is the abstract becoming more environmental?

Two of the structural strategies I have observed in the practice of soundscape composition are works which rely on a fixed spatial perspective (or series of such perspectives) and those which rely on moving perspective. Fixed perspective works imply a continuity of space, with temporal flow created by sonic events. Wishart's landscape with real and unreal elements, or Emmerson's mimetic sounds or abstracted syntax come to mind here as electroacoustic equivalents. Denis Smalley's Valley Flow, Natasha Barrett's Little Animals, Wishart's own Red Bird (with its inner and outer soundscape in conflict), Simon Atkinson's Nocturne, and Bernard Parmegiani's Dedans/Dehors seem to work well as examples of this fixed perspective, at least in some extended sections. Works with moving perspective rely on spatial transitions, usually simulated or evoked, such as the classic use of doors as transitional spaces in acousmatic music. These works create a sense of travel and narrative. Francis Dhomont's Espace/Escape and Novars seem to juxtapose the fixed and moving perspective as their main structural concept, Justice Olsson's Upp! takes us on a incredible Freudian journey through sexuality and the subconscious world, showing that such journeys needn't occur only in physical space. I would argue that the "outer world" of such pieces may include the inner world of memory, dreams, and metaphor as fluid imagery unconstrained by the acoustics of real spaces; hence the variable perspective offers an unlimited range of approaches.

Soundscape composition has yet to be mentioned in any standard textbook (though with the expected publication of Leigh Landy's new book that gap will start to be filled). However, it risks being treated by future commentators, analysts and historians as merely another style or subgenre of electroacoustic music, rather than as an organizing principle, a set of listening strategies and therefore a reference point for all electroacoustic music with real-world references. This paper therefore concludes with a call for electroacoustic music studies to integrate soundscape concepts within its standard analytic practices.



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Truax, B. 2001. Acoustic communication, 2nd ed., Ablex Publishing.

Truax, B. 2002. Genres and techniques of soundscape composition as developed at Simon Fraser University, Organised Sound, 7(1), 5-14.