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.

Sound and the Ancient Senses

Continuing with my investigation of soundscapes through time, this collection of essays touches on various aspects of sound in ancient Greece and Rome, handed down to us through what does survive time, unlike sound itself. Sound leaves behind no trace, no ruin or residue; the ephemerality of sound can represent the impermanence of human existence. The introductory essay by Sarah Nooter and Shane Butler is a great start, and for once it makes sense to go deep on etymology, tracing the historical roots of how we felt about sound through the words that were used. Voice, song, music hugely important (Homer’s opening lines of Iliad, “Sing, divine wrath/ ménin a-ei-de” ). Poetry (then as now, but much more then) was spoken, stories passed down through the ages orally.

Seneca’s Epistles give us a detailed glimpse into the Roman soundscape:

Petrarch, reading Cicero 14 centuries later reminds us that ancient texts can be experienced as soundscapes, voices from the past.

Where sound doesn’t observe its proper boundaries, it disrupts our sense of place sometimes violently, a common problem in urban environments.

Most entertaining essay award goes to Joshua T. Katz’s Gods and Vowels, with a delightful playful tone and topic that refreshed after many pages of a bit dry academic prose. Also enjoyed the acoustic rendering of late Republican Rome by Erika Houlter, Susanne Muth and Sebastian Schwesinger (Sounding out public space) and Pamela Zinn’s Lucretius on sound.

The End of Silence

As part of my quest to inhale all things acoustic/soundscape related, I holed up at the library to read the long article, The End of Silence, in the November issue of the Atlantic. Hugely recommended for anyone interested in the futile quest for quiet.

  • Noise pollution doubles or triples every 30 years, according to a study by the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.
  • Slow TV…”It’s a sailboat that runs 10 hours, and all you hear is the ship breaking water. That’s it. Every now and then you’ll hear bruhhhhh—another ship that passes by. That’s it. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.”
  • Lovely site called “which offers its more than 15,000 daily listeners an encyclopedic compendium of noise-masking tracks that range from “Distant Thunder” to “Laundromat,” a listener request.”
  • Ecuador has a lovely Quiet Park: “For $6,450, not including airfare, you too can take a plane to a car to a motorboat to a canoe to a hiking trail to spend three days with a tour group along Ecuador’s Zabalo River, which was recently named the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park… (The Zabalo River qualified for Wilderness Quiet Park status by having a noise-free interval of at least 15 minutes, during which no man-made sounds were audible.)” (Certified by Quiet Park International)
  • People who seem worth investigating more: Gordon Hempton (acoustic ecologist), Arjun Shankar (acoustic consultant), Arline Bronzaft (NYC’s noise czar who’s theory on why Trump ran for president was to kept planes from flying over Mar a Lago – it worked.), R Murray Schafer (composer, acoustic ecologist), Antonella Radicchi (architect mapping the quiet spaces in cities).

The Acoustic World of Early Modern England

“How is it possible,” my sister asked, “that an entire book was written about that?” And here I am clamoring for more than the nearly 400 pages that the book contained, a second volume! It’s the kind of book that makes me giddy and giggly, completely over my head at times with thick academic prose and formulas and illustrations, but otherwise perfectly in tune with something I’ve been curious about—the historic sounds of places.

Smith forgoes an introduction and dives right into a confusing chapter that requests readers to make sounds and observe how they feel in the throat and sound via vibrations in your skull. He discusses how literacy has begun to creep into society, overtaking the oral tradition of storytelling, noting that those who recorded what was going on were of middle class, neither of the court royals or the peasantry.

“About hearing you have no choice: you can shut off vision by closing your eyes, but from birth to death, in waking and in sleep, the coils of flesh, the tiny bones, the hair cells, the nerve fibers are always at the ready.”

“Hearing is a physiological constant; listening is a psychological variable… all of what you hear of yourself comes not from the air around you but through vibrations in the bones and tissues of your skull.”

Quoting from William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1584), the sounds heard from a London street corner is Dr. Seussian: “barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wauling of cats, rambling of rats, gaggling of geese, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, gaggling of ducks, singing of swans, ringing of pans, crowing of cocks, sowing of socks, cackling of hens, scrabling of pens, peeping of mice, trulling of dice, corling of frogs, and toads in the bogs, chirping of crickets, shutting of wickets, skriking of owls, flittring of fowls…”

Erasmus’s 1522 De Conscribendis Epistolis: “the wording of a letter should resemble a conversation between friends… a letter is a mutual conversation between absent friends, which should be neither unpolished, rough, or artificial, nor confined to a single topic, nor tediously long. Thus the epistolary form favours simplicity, frankness, humour, and wit.”

“In early modern England bells signaled mandatory church attendance on Sunday, trumpet blasts heralded a proclamation, guns were fired at regular intervals from castles.”

With electricity came machines, and the death of natural sound. In early England, “few high intensity or continuous sounds exist in the preindustrialized world. More ‘smaller’ sounds can be heard, more detail can be discerned in those that are heard.”

Sounds that could be heard in the city: singing, whistling, drumming, horn calling/blasting, talking, crying, screaming, moaning, wailing, ululating, tide rising and falling, church bells ringing, hammering, ringing of blacksmith, birds, wind, bells on horses, hawking wares, conversation, horse clopping, cart wheels turning, feet shuffling, clinks and thuds of printing press, constant sound of running water from the Thames, burps and belches of fellow diners, roaring of animals in the zoo, tumult from the playhouses, loud chomps from munching fruit in the streets, clacking of beggar dishes, pleas of inmates in jail, music and shooting of cannons for ceremonies, barking dogs, speeches, cries of approval from crowd.

In the country: wind in trees, birds, water, domestic animals, frogs, crows, barking dogs, church bells, creaks and rattle of the mill, distinctive sounds of human activity in forest/meadow/fields, lowing cows, bleating ewes, neighing horses. At harvest, working together people laugh, sing, shout, talk, clap. Celebrating, they dance to music. In an acoustic environment that lacked any sounds above 60 decibels (apart from barking dogs, occasional gunshot, lightning bolt, church bells), “all sounds would be present with an intensity quite beyond anything imaginable on the same site today.”

At the royal court: loud talk (proclamation) and soft talk (rumor), elaborate clocks striking the hour, organs, music boxes, splashing fountain, birds, trumpets and drums, the crash of glass from an overburdened table.

Incomplete list of musical instruments: bells, pipe, fiddle, drum, trumpets, cornets, recorders, flute, trombone, harp

Bizarre digressions into the acoustics of the Globe and Blackfriar Theaters, morris dancing, the difference between oratory/conversation/liturgy/theater, his notation of human sound as [o:], this was a weird and delightful book.