Saturday, January 12, 2008

Go read this book

I'm currently about halfway through R. Murray Schafer's study of The Soundscape, a book which should be essential reading for any musician. The first half of the book is an historical study of the development of our sonic environment before and after the Industrial Revolution; the second attempts to establish a framework for the study of soundscapes and to suggest an approach to acoustically informed design. Schafer, renowned in Canada as one of our foremost contemporary composers, is also one of the founding members of the World Soundscape Project, developed during his teaching career at Simon Fraser University. His own works ably demonstrate his concern with the natural soundscape around him, particularly the Patria cycle of musical theatre works. A visit to the Patria website is highly recommended; it now includes some short video clips from one of the Patria operas, performed on the surface of a lake in northern Ontario. As the opera unfolds, the musical sounds made by the performers mix with the sounds of the natural environment at daybreak.

Schafer's historical outline of the soundscape is riveting, linking musical and social changes to the sounds heard in our environment. He points out that humans in all periods have sought to reduce unpleasant noise but have identified certain sounds as above censure; thus, in the pre-industrial period anti-noise legislation targeted people shouting in the streets (mostly lower-class people, one presumes) but exempted the much louder sounds produced by churches, such as the ringing of bells or the playing of the organ. As the centre of gravity shifted from institutions such as the Church to middle-class industrialists, new sounds became exempt from censure. In the nineteenth-century, we read baffling accounts praising the "silence" of factories, since workers are not permitted to talk to each other - where in fact, everything done in the factory was accompanied by the sounds of machines. Industrial operations, the new power centres of their age, were above criticism for the loud noises they made, even as legislators passed laws banning the cries of street vendors. As the development of technology continued into the twentieth century, the association of loud noise with power continued unabated. Schafer cites the example of the snowmobile: experts advised at an early stage in its development that the motor was too loud and could cause hearing damage, even suggesting ways to make it softer, but it was felt that the full sound of the motor was more desirable. The result? Widespread hearing damage in the Canadian north and all other areas where snowmobiles are a common means of transportation.

The electric revolution further complicated matters, leading to the phenomenon of "schizophonia", a neologism of Schafer's referring to the splitting of a sound from its original source. Thus, one can walk through an empty room in an office building and hear the sound of a string quartet. The widespread complaint that music has become a product rather than an activity is a direct result of schizophonic technologies, making music increasingly divorced from its intended contexts. Another new phenomenon was the introduction of "flatline" sounds, such as the hum of a ventilator or car engine. Machines, unlike humans or anything in nature, can make unchanging, uniform sounds which have increasingly become the background to our lives. Almost inaudible in every indoor environment, Schafer writes, is the hum of electric current through the various fixtures, singing a continuous B-natural.

This is, to me, the creepiest part of the book. Schafer, who frequently leads workshops in schools, often performs experiments in which he has groups go through a relaxation exercise and then hum the pitch which comes most naturally to them. It is always in the vicinity of a B-natural. The one exception to this is in Europe, where the alternating current runs on a different frequency approximating a G-sharp. When Schafer performs his experiment with Europeans, this is the pitch they always select.

The horrifying thing about this for me is that I've always felt a particular resonance to the key of B major. The chorale-like opening of Brahms' B-major piano trio has always seemed to have a particular magic to it that's destroyed when you hear it in another key, and I noticed the same luminosity recently when I played a B-major section in one of Brahms' clarinet sonatas. I am now forced to face the unpleasant idea that my enjoyment of the music is largely dependent on my place as part of an electronic society - in other words, that it has nothing to do with the music. This is disturbing.

Enough about this. It is, in fact, possible to physically hear the B-natural hum of electric current, and after several tries I have finally managed to hear it. The way that worked for me was to sit in a quiet room - not necessarily silent, however, as I finally heard the sound over the noise of my computer fan - and hum the sound of a B-natural. The hum, when it comes, will be at a low frequency; I think it's the B below the bass staff. Hum, and listen for a while, then repeat. For me, the electrical hum took weeks of trying to isolate - then suddenly jumped into the foreground of my attention as though it had been there all along. The shift was extremely rapid, and I'm now surprised that I could ever not have heard the electrical hum. As I write this, the sound is quite noticeable and, if anything, slightly distracting. The shift you will experience is, in essence, a psychological one in which a sound you have blocked out as part of the background to your life suddenly jumps into the foreground. Try it! Fun activity!

There are, of course, more implications to Schafer's book, particularly for organists: our instrument has gone from being the loudest known sound in the environment to becoming simply another musical instrument. Amplified sounds now have the organ easily beat in terms of sheer volume. How should this knowledge affect our approach to the instrument, particularly when accompanying a congregation? I don't know, and haven't thought about this at length, but thought I'd throw this out there.

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