A couple years ago I went to the Portland Art Museum to look at the Monet and van Gogh on the first floor of the Jubitz Center for modern and contemporary art. Suddenly I realized how quiet the building was; it felt like everything receded a bit, footsteps and distant sounds faded into the background. Were they playing pink noise over speakers? I asked an attendant who said she didn’t know: it must be the HVAC system in the building. Did the designers of the gallery intentionally make the air conditioning so pleasantly mellow?
If nothing else, it illustrated how important sound is to our perception of space and the environment. Museums and libraries are designed to be quiet, offering a space for study and deep thought: bars and restaurants are loud to facilitate socializing in a busy atmosphere. Popular music is mixed to be as loud as possible in order to be heard over supermarket speakers and arena PAs. Human civilization has been working through this issue since–at the latest–the 3rd Century BC, with the construction of Rome’s first amphitheatres.
R. Murray Schafer, who passed away last month at the age of 88, reoriented our perspectives on sound and the place of sound and listening in our society, especially as we face down the existential threat of climate change. As the nexus for the discipline of Acoustic Ecology, Schafer’s life-long concern for the environment and sound remains with us as an essential pillar of contemporary musical aesthetics.
There’s the obvious biographical stuff: he won the first Jules Léger Prize for new Chamber Music; he founded the World Soundscape project at Simon Fraser University; he was a laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize, alongside the company of Pierre Boulez, Yo-Yo Ma, Andre Previn, Oscar Peterson, Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass and Toru Takemitsu. One of his students, Hildegard Westerkamp, went on to form the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. Another fellow researcher at the WSP, Barry Truax, has also written dozens of articles on the subject of acoustic ecology.
But this is mostly trivia, and his work does not need the validation of the musical powers-that-be. What is pertinent to us is how his work continues to inform us today, how it reveals and helps us appreciate the world with greater depth and clarity.
You can trace his influence throughout Portland’s musical culture. Third Angle’s series of Soundwalks take a lot from Schafer–he invented the genre. I feel a strong Schaferian presence at Extradition concerts. His thoughts and those of similar sonic aestheticians feature heavily in the curricula in the sonic arts programs at PCC and PSU (I am an alumnus of this very program). We have mentioned him frequently at Artswatch and made use of his thought in understanding Portland’s musical concerns.
Books of his include The World Soundscape and The Book of Noise (available as pamphlets on the WSP website for any enterprising young zine publishers who want to use some of their printing budget). Another good read is the Europe Soundscape Project, chronicling his student travels from Oslo to Nice mapping the sonic territory. I am always struck by his knowledge of sonic traditions across the world, from Javanese Gamelan to the Yellow Bell tuning in Zhou Dynasty China (also known as Wang Chung or Huáng Zhōng) and the importance of sound in Hindu theology.
I have mostly known Schafer for his work on acoustic ecology, but he is also a great composer, maybe one of the best from our northern neighbors. One of my first articles for Artswatch discussed a string quartet by Schafer (although I embarrassingly spelled his name with two fs); at that concert the Rolston Quartet played Schafer’s second string quartet, a highlight of the concert–and not just because I find Mozart and Brahms’ string quartets boring as hell. Schafer’s music can be serene, chaotic, or haunting, but it is always beautiful. You can also see his love of graphic scores and experimental musical notation.
He may have been one of the first people to show concern for Noise Pollution in urban landscapes. The United States passed the first legislation regulating noise pollution in 1972 with the Noise Control Act, giving the responsibility to the newly-formed EPA–two years after the publication of The Book of Noise. It is a widely-accepted fact that the world is much louder than it used to be, and Schafer was early in pointing out how this noise can be detrimental to our physical and mental health.
However, some of his statements about noise pollution strike me as very hey you damn kids get off my lawn!–which I cannot endorse. Maybe this wasn’t his intention, but I can see some credulous reader interpreting it that way. The important thing to ask with respect to noise, like Schafer says, is: who is allowed to be noisy and who isn’t? Who decides what is unwanted noise and what is just a fact of contemporary life? Construction sites, traffic and airplanes are necessary, the products of mass industry and money, while block parties and protests are a nuisance. Police forces use LRADs to disperse crowds, justified as being necessary to maintain public safety–a “beatings will continue until morale improves” sort of logic.
Some artists have responded to the conditions of noise in urban areas by using music composed from noise, starting from Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises, inspiring generations of noise artists. The by-products of wartime tech (radio technology in particular) became the modern amplifier, electric guitar and synthesizer. Riot grrl punk, hip-hop, and whatever we’re calling that queer noise pop thing these days all use loud sounds to express their frustrations, invading the comfortable sonic spaces afforded to wealthy white listeners (although there’s plenty of examples from each genre who aren’t radical at all).
Despite all this, I do not consider Schafer “revolutionary”–the use of the word in this context is flaccid and worthless. Listening is important, certainly, and can dramatically alter the way we see the world, but don’t think that going to a concert or listening to Schafer’s music makes you a Freedom Rider or Bastille Stormer. The problems we face with climate change are global and require much more than thinking about the problems. But at the very least, we do need a vast change in how we interpret ourselves in relation to the Earth and to natural environments: our home is to be cherished as it is and not simply as a repository for resources we can extract, catalog and convert into fuels or unsustainable homes or weapons.
The most important thing I take from Schafer’s work is a deep commitment to live musical performance. The experience of hearing live music is all the more precious in a culture where silence and contemplation become rarities. There are very few places where so many people go to sit quietly in a room and just listen–church and group therapy are the only ones that come to mind. And surely enough, live music can be just as rejuvenating as those two things.
Ensembles interested in performing works by Schafer can find many of his published music and writings at Arcana Editions.