· 4 min read
Push the Soundscaping Tempo Forward
Written by Karsten Osterby.
In our little Sound Studies corner of the world, we recently passed a landmark birthday. In 2019, the term “Soundscape” celebrated 50 years around the sun. Damn that’s old. Has it aged gracefully? The term does seem to have outgrown the legacy of the not-so-saintly man who popularized it. Now, “soundscape” is used ubiquitously across many disparate realms, like Acoustic Ecology research, Game Audio development, SEO for boutique audiophile companies and marketing for Outdoor A/V installation. However, a definition of “soundscape” in this diverse plethora of contexts often appears murky or convenient. Perhaps the term is simply destined to fossilize within the pool of amorphous usage next to “landscape”, “thing”, and “stuff”.
If you’ve made it this far, you may be interested in protecting “the Soundscape”. No, not actual soundscapes, of course (that’s for another article, you hippie), but rather the term itself. Hopefully, the following guidelines are useful for those looking to push the soundscape conversation forward.
TEAR DOWN YOUR GODS
Ray Murray Schafer, the Canadian God of Soundscapery was…complicated. His idea of the “aural field of study” was not perfect on several fronts (ever use the term Earmark? Nope?) and some of his personal beliefs were pretty problematic. He intended for much of his work to reverse what he saw as the rising ugliness of the urban noise soundscape back into a more pure, harmonious, and natural one. It’s easy to read between the lines here. Are we trying to “RETVRN 2 TRAD”? We should be wary of excessively citing this man in such a way that the flaws in both his character and his scholarly contributions are ignored. It’s possible the word “soundscape” itself, entirely without his prescriptive definition of it, is Schafer’s most lasting contribution to our lexicon, which is funny considering he acknowledged to have adopted it from a paper on civic planning.
Along with Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp, Schafer parented (and grand-parented) his concept into its maturity with sustained woodshedding at the World Soundscape Project beginning in the late 1960s. These Canadian rock stars have toured the world’s academic conferences, debuted compositions across North America and Europe and have been immortalized in the citations of countless influential journals. Is it a coincidence that this movement took off in Canada of all places? I have no idea. But yes.
The mass of these World Soundscapers’ contributions weigh heavily on soundscape studies. In just the past 10 years, Schafer’s works have been cited roughly 8 billion times in academia. The faster we can solidify these contributions (asterisks and all) and make room for a new diversity of ideas, the better off we as soundscapers will be.
How do we accomplish this? We’re not studying philosophy, this is sound studies— support the new generation! Many great contributions have emerged in recent years and will continue to do so. Here are some new and valuable soundscape works. Read them. Cite them. Love them.
STAY IN YOUR LANE (OR AT LEAST USE YOUR BLINKERS)
Soundscape Studies. Acoustic Ecology. Those are the lanes. Wait, here are a few more: Biophony, Geophony, Anthrophony (thanks Bernie). Noise Pollution. VR Game design. Bioacoustics. Sound Poetry. Eco-Theatre. Field-Recording. Sound Art Installations. Soundwalking. Habitat Ambience. Environmental Music.
Is that all of them? Yep, Definitely not.
Schafer’s fundamental definition has been lazily co-opted ad infinitum—there is no use in trying to lasso strays from the herd. But pay attention to where these terms are used. Is it written for Academia? If so, does it fall under humanities or sciences? Music or physics? Acoustics or biology? Is it completely outside of Academia? Possibly poetry, prose or proselytizing? Maybe an article? Marketing material? A way to sell a meditation app?
As sound fetishists (admit it), we often wear many hats—Engineer/Musician, DJ/Producer, Composer/Professor. Because of the widening definition of “soundscape” and because sound operates within so many media (physical, psychological, cultural), writing about it requires us to frequently wade through an interdisciplinary or antidisciplinary bog. Fortunately for us, this bog is now known as “Sound Studies” (sup Klangifesto) and encompasses a vast field of study regarding the technology and culture of sound. Be wary of the bog. Sound studies is exciting with all of its shiny newness and potential, but when grabbing from different disciplines to assemble a new journal or reader, it’s important to remind your audience that the references are extracted from pre-existing spheres of study. Your selective data scraping of bat Bioacoustics studies should maybe be left out of an explanation of The Contemporary Club Soundscape. Stay in your lane!
K.I.S.S. YOUR AUDIENCE
Borrowing terminology again (as we soundscapers do) from engineerspeak—Keep It Simple, Stupid. The best Soundscape writing communicates in the simplest way possible. The Canadians deserve points here because they consistently conveyed their ideas with clear language; this is a key to their longevity.
On the flippy side we have Sonic Warfare by Steve Goodman aka Hyperdub Label capo Kode9. This Necronomicon of contemporary sound writing appears on many electronic musicians’ shelves, but remains largely unread and inaccessible due to clobbering jargon. It’s also relatively uncited in academia (Steve, I love you). Who was Goodman’s intended audience? If it was a doctoral thesis committee, great, but ultimately Sonic Warfare has attracted a narrow audience (despite La Meme Young’s attempts to get Zoomers to read it).
The challenge in both academic and genpop lanes is to know your audience and to design your work for them. Engineer your writing to be effective, but also accessible! We won’t know how people will write and read about soundscapes in another 50 years, so it’s in our interests as United Sound People to establish an ethos of not alienating our readers.
Now go forth! You! The Certified Soundscape Writer! Affect the hearts and minds of all those willing to suffer your soundscaping texts. Remember these tips are not ironclad and are possibly, even completely, made up and meant to be broken (which has certainly been done throughout this article). Always keep your ears open.
Karsten Osterby is a musician, sound artist, and writer based in Los Angeles, CA.