The Soundscape

If you spend even a moment doing research into sound, you’ll stumble onto R. Murray Schafer’s groundbreaking book from 1977, and so I came to Schafer from a handful of other sources. How can you not a love a man who describes Muzak/Moozak as schizophonic musical drool? (And a man who invents the term “schizophonia,” the splitting of sound from its origins and where it is heard). While listening to stonemasons in Iran, he realized that in earlier societies sounds were discrete and interrupted but today most sounds are continuous. The montage of constant sounds is jolting in juxtapositions (like of Vietnam war reporting interrupted by Wrigley gum jingle to Chew your cares away). He illustrates the irrationality of electroacoustic juxtapositioning with a few stories.

He takes as earwitnesses those sources I was considering delving into for their reportage of sound—Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Dickens, Woolf, the ancient Greeks, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Whitman, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Proust, the whole gang. Noise has been problematic throughout human history, something I’m constantly forgetting as I grit my teeth and cover my ears to protect from the daily sirens screaming past my window. Schopenhauer (Cheery old Arthur, as I like to call him) describes the cracking of whips to be the worst distraction: “I denounce it as making a peaceful life impossible; it puts an end to all quiet thought… No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at this sudden, sharp crack, which paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought” (from “On Noise” in The Pessimist’s Handbook).

I knew Thomas Carlyle struggled with noise, attempting to build a soundproof writing room in his London house. Schafer mentions that he added his name to a letter also signed by Dickens, Tennyson, and various other London intellectuals complaining of street musicians. “[We] are even made especial objects of persecution by brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads; for, no sooner does it become known to those producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.” (Quoted in a pamphlet/collection of letters circulated in 1864 as Street Music in the Metropolis)

Hilarious quote from 1899 Scientific American article: “The improvement in city conditions by the general adoption of the motorcar can hardly be overestimated. Streets clean, dustless and odourless, with light rubber tired vehicles moving swiftly and noiselessly over the smooth expanse, would eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction, and strain of modern metropolitan life.” Yet here we are, drowning in traffic sounds.

Schafer created the World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s.