Schizophonia vs. L'objet Sonore: Soundscapes and Artistic Freedom
By Francisco Lopez
The concept of soundscape has been developing over the last twenty
years. Speaking more properly, it has been the term, rather than
the concept, since "soundscape" embraces not only different
types of works and aural systems but also antagonistic conceptions
of the relationships between art and life. Leaving aside purely
instrumental creations that are presented under this term, it usually
refers to a concern with real sound environments. It is precisely
the definition of this concern which makes the difference between
the different conceptions of soundscape.
"The tuning of the world" (1) by Canadian composer R.
Murray Schafer, first published in 1977, is considered by many as
a "bible" on soundscapes. It presents a throrough revision
of many issues and ideas with regard to the situation of the real
sound environments in our present world, as well as a very clear
aesthetical and philosophical position in relation to the assessment
of this situation, including suggestions on what should be done.
This position has defined the basic guidelines of thought of a whole
school of what could be called as "Schaferians", gravitating
around the label of acoustic ecology (first within the frame of
the World Soundscape Project in the 70s and more recently through
the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology in the 90s).
I think that the essence of Schaferian propositions can be synthesized
-through my personal criticism- in two deeply related points: (i)
The "tuning" is basically a "silencing", as
if "noisy" were an evil condition in itself and also an
exclusive feature of post-industrial human-influenced world (the
latter being something in which I think even Russolo was wrong).
A good recent example of this perspective is the "Manifesto
for a better sound environment" of the Royal Swedish Academy
of Music (2), for which I could propose the more fitted title of
"Manifesto against loud sound environments". In the case
of Schafer, this supposed evil condition of certain noises or noise
environments is tried to be justified by untenable relational assertions,
as puerile and amazing as, for example, that "the drone in
music... is an anti-intellectual narcotic" or (speaking about
motor sounds) "despite the intensity of their voices, the messages
they speak are repetitive and ultimately boring" (3). The problem
is that health or communication aspects are merged and confounded
with aesthetic judgement. Besides this, many natural sound environments
are quite noisy (waterfalls, seashores, certain tropical jungles...)
and the sonic steady-state condition is a very common feature in
nature (regardless of the noisy or quiet character of the environment).
For northern people as Mr. Schafer or the Board of the Royal Swedish
Academy of Music, many Mediterranean or African towns must probably
be unbearably noisy, but the conceptions on sound environments are
not uniform and noise abatement, per se, could also be bad. More
importantly, it is a misleading, simplistic view for our understanding
and appreciation of soundscapes.
(ii) The schizophonia as a negation of (or at least an opposition
to) the possibility of isolating sound properties from an environment
and using them -by themselves alone-for any human endeavour, such
as artistic creation.
The idea of sound object (objet sonore) developed by Pierre Schaeffer
(4) summarizes the main achievement of musique concrete: the conception
of a recorded sound as something with its own entity by itself,
independent of its source. This experience has only been physically
possible since the technical development of electromechanical means
of fixation and reproduction of sound. As brilliantly highlighted
by Michel Chion (5), it is this technological isolation, and not
the use of sounds from the environment, that defines the idea of
"concrete". For Schafer, this separation of the sound
from its source -which he calls schizophonia- is an aberrational
effect of this twentieth-century development. Therefore, schizophonia
and objet sonore are antagonistic conceptions of the same fact.
Recently, this confrontation between Schaferian and Schaefferian
views, which I am trying to make explicit here, has been more specific
regarding the question of musical creation. Thus, Darren Copeland
(6) heavily criticized the modern defense of musique concrete in
Chion's "Art des sons fixes" (5) since he thinks that
the electro-acoustic abstractionism caused by the source-sound split
closes doors on the worlds located within the experiential world.
Similarly, Barry Truax (7) questioned also this split, stating that
the soundscape composition is characterized most importantly by
its refusal to separate sound entirety from its source and context,
and also that its ultimate goal is the re-integration of the listener
with the environment in a balanced ecological relationship.
I will be concise and clearly Schaefferian here. I am professor
of Ecology and I have been recording and composing with sound environments
for more than fifteen years. Although I am quite aware of the obvious
relationships between all the properties of a real environment,
I think is an essential feature of the human condition to artistically
deal with any aspect(s) of this reality.
I believe that what is under question here is the extent of artistic
freedom with regards to other aspects of our understanding of reality.
There can only be a documentary or communicative reason to keep
the cause-object relationship in the work with soundscapes, never
an artistic / musical one. Actually, I am convinced that the more
this relationship is kept, the less musical the work will be (which
is rooted in my belief that the idea of absolute music and that
of objet sonore are among the most relevant and revolutionary developments
in the history of music). The "abstractionism" of the
art des sons fixes is precisely a "musicalization" and
- somewhat paradoxically in this comparison-right the contrary to
the abstraction in music, i.e., a concretization. It can obviously
close doors in the experiential description of sounds and their
sources, but it opens new doors of artistic creation; to me, the
latter are much more essential and relevant to the human condition
than the former. A musical composition (no matter whether based
on soundscapes or not) must be a free action in the sense of not
having to refuse any extraction of elements from reality and also
in the sense of having the full right to be self-referential, not
being subjected to a pragmatic goal such as a supposed, unjustified
re-integration of the listener with the environment.
I think it is very useful for this discussion to compare this situation
with that of visual creation, in which the freedom to deal with
similar separations of elements of reality is not only evident and
widespread but also artistically developed far beyond than it is
in music. What would be an equivalent critique to what, for example,
Van Gogh did with the landscapes he saw? Schaferians: please, let
us Schaefferians have the freedom of a painter.
This essay is an extracted and modified version of parts of the
in-progress larger essay "The dissipation of music"; it
was originally published in the on-line journal eContact!
1.4, 23 ii 1998. [WEBSITE]
About the Author - Francisco
Lopez is a professor of Ecology and a composer, based in Spain.
The Big Picture -
Peruse other writings on soundscapes. [WEBPAGE]
Environmental Sound Matter
- Another essay from this author. [WEBPAGE]
(1) Schafer, R.M. 1980. The tuning of the world. University of Pennsylvania
Press, Philadelphia (paperback edition).
(2) Royal Swedish Academy of Music, 1996. Manifesto for a better
sound Press, Philadelphia (paperback edition). (2) Royal Swedish
Academy of Music, 1996. Manifesto for a better sound environment.
Publication of the RSAM, Stockholm.
(3) Schafer, R.M. 1986. The thinking ear. Arcana Editions, Toronto.
(4) Schaeffer, P. 1966. Traite des objets Musicaux. Editions du
(5) Chion, M. 1991. L'Art des sons fixes. Editions Metamkine / Nota-Bene
/ Sono-Concept, Fontaine.
(6) Copeland, D. 1995. Cruising for a fixing in this "art of
fixed sounds". Musicworks, 61: 51-53.
(7) Truax, B. 1996. Sound and sources in powers of two. Towards
a contemporary myth. Contact! (Canadian Electroacoustic Community),