A few rambling thoughts about Soundscapes, Corn Crakes and the abduction of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Flatbush Avenue is loud. Where I live there’s both a police station and a fire station nearby and their sirens make a sizeable contribution to the din. The reason emergency vehicle sirens are so loud is that they need to produce between 100 – 120 decibels just to rise above the traffic and contruction that’s constantly honking, humming, screeching, buzzing, braking and accelerating up and down Flatbush. If decibels mean nothing to you consider that a loud rock concert creates about 115db and pain begins at 125db. Then there is the subway. My room rattles every 15 minutes when the number 2 or 3 goes past beneath me. I’m living on the second floor.
Sometime in the 1960’s a canadian by the name of R. Murray Schafer coined the word “Soundscape”. He took his lead from the word ‘landscape’ which signifies our visible environment. ‘Soundscape’ then points to our sonic environment. Mr Schafer was all about drawing our attention to how our surroundings sounded and so along with ‘soundscape’ he developed some other interesting concepts to help us talk and think about the world we hear. Three of my favourite ideas of his are Keynote sounds, Soundmarks and Lo-Fi/Hi-Fi environments..
The word Keynote is a musical term that refers to the predominant key of a piece. Schafer was suggesting that each soundscape had it’s own key. As an example, take a look at this photo of Thornwood, West Virgina in 1912.
The sidewalks are made of wood, the road is made of mud. Wood and mud. These materials contribute to the keynote sounds upon which the soundscape of Thornwood circa 1912 is created; Boot heels on planks, wheels splashing in the road, a man knocking the mud from his shoes before entering a house, saws, axes, hammers and nails and so on. Today cement and asphalt have changed the keynote sounds of towns like Thornwood all over america. Other places and times would have different combinations of materials and activities resulting in different keynotes. Schafer suggests traditional Japan was a paper and bamboo culture, the roman empire was a stone and brick culture, many places in the middle east are a sand and pottery culture.
In the room I am writing in at the moment (no, not my bedroom which faces the noisier street), electricity is a major contributor to its keynote sounds; the whir of my computer fan, the buzz of my step down transformer which I use to power my european amp for my studio monitors, the click of my keyboard as I type and the click of the mouse. The strange thing is you rarely hear these sounds on a conscious level, but if they were suddenly swapped for the sound of a candle burning and the scratch of a quill pen you’d know all about it. Consider this; if you could somehow blindfold Leonardo Da Vinci in the fifteenth century and then drop him outside the Barclays Centre today, what would he make of it? We no longer hear all that background noise of cars and concrete but I’m sure such sounds would send Da Vinci’s curious brain into overdrive.
This is another lovely word coined by Schafer and takes it’s analogy from the word landmark. A Soundmark then is unique to an area or it is a sound that typifies a place like a church bell or gulls at the seaside. The call of the Corn Crake used to be a soundmark in much of Mayo where I grew up but modern intensive farming practices have all but destroyed their nests and their old habitats. As you can hear from the audio clip below they are pretty dreadful singers, which is nicely reflected in their latin name Crex Crex. However they were a vital part of the identity of Mayo at one time. Now there are a whole generation of people who have never heard one.
Once a Soundmark has been identified, it deserves to be protected, for soundmarks make the acoustic life of a community unique. – R Murray Schafer
Lo-Fi and Hi-Fi Environments:
I’ve decided to do this blog post in two parts so as to look less daunting to the casual reader. The next one will be about Schafer’s idea of Hi-fi and Lo-fi environments and I’ll be circling back around to Flatbush Avenue. I’m only lightly touching on some great ideas here so if you would like to dig a little deeper check out The Tuning Of The World by R Murray Schafer.