A (way too philosophical) response to Schafer’s "Soundscape"

27 Jan
Schafer’s book, “Soundscapes,” is not only an insightful and enjoyable read into the history of sound and music, but is also written beautifully and poetically, drawing not only on the works of previous academic scholars, but from the arts, music, literature, and mythology. The narrative of sound from the rural and pastorale to the modern and urban not only told the story in terms of time, but also in terms of sound layers and the transition of sound as modernization progressed, and how rural sounds were replaced by urban sounds. And sadly, it does not seem like we can reverse the effects of the urbanization of sound in a city – we cannot turn New York City back into the rural place it was, the hi-fi place it was in the early 1800‘s. It is not as if we can strip away the sounds of modernization and find the layer of hi-fi pastorale sounds of nature underneath. The sounds of nature has effectively been eradicated by the citification of urban spaces.

The act of reading Schafer in itself was an act of active listening. The book seemed to rupture the veil we place between our conscious thought process and what we subconsciously hear every day. It turned what we hear into an act of listening, but ironically the act of listening was not done in the moment, like how experiencing sound actually is, but was done through the process of remembering, for example, what cicadas sound like. Through reading Schafer, we recall the sounds of cicadas, or birds, or the flow of water, and assign significance to those sounds from within our memory – significance that probably would not have been assigned had it not been analyzed and called to our attention in Schafer’s writing, which, ironically enough, are visual symbols of the English language – words and letters – rather than auditory signals. Hence, the assigning of significance to these sounds occur through time and space. Unlike the *real* act of experiencing sound, which emphasizes the present moment in which the sound occurs, the simultaneity in time and space, the reading of it assigned significance, but not in the here and now, but what we remember.

Ok, I think that got a bit too philosophical. But my point, to put it in simpler terms, was that Schafer’s discussion of the sounds of nature, of the flatline electric sounds of modernity, makes the readers more conscious of these sounds, even if they are not hearing them right at this point. This meta-level perspective of the reading illuminates the difference between audio/sounds and visual/writing. The visual can be transferred through time and space, but sounds cannot (unless they are recorded).

I found the part about how sounds of the city indicated time, with the town crier and the bells, particularly resonate for me, given my current interests in questions of time and how time has become structured in our modern-day society. Even now, the tick-tock sound of the mechanical clock is a trope for the passage of time. Because sound is so tied to the present, sound only occurs with the passage of time. Sound can only exist through the movement of time.
Another interesting bit that Schafer illuminates is that the authority to decide what is noise and what is not privileges certain kinds of power, while those who are able to make noise and get away with it also have power. Would it be accurate to say that the concept of noise only arose through the process of modernization and socialization? It seems like flatlining happened through technology. Is this when we started thinking of noise as a nuisance, a subliminal positioning of power, rather than the previous obvious and upfront display of power, with church bells or the town crier, or a king’s trumpet or hunting horns?

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Posted by on January 27, 2011 in Uncategorized


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