The Vancouver Soundscape
R. Murray Schafer, Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, Susan Frykberg, Darren Copeland, Claude Schryer, Sabine Breitsameter and Hans Ulrich Werner
CD1: The Vancouver Soundscape 1973
CD2 : Soundscape Vancouver 1996
Cambridge Street Records
This is a two CD set - excerpts from the original soundscape recordings from 1973 and Vancouver revisited 1996. This is one of the finest CD's I have heard. Many Canadian Electroacoustic Community readers will be familiar with the term acoustic ecology and the ideas laid out by R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project in 1973. For those that are not, the liner notes set out the aim of the project quite clearly
The aim of the World Soundscape project is to bring together research on the scientific, sociological and aesthetic aspects of the acoustic environment.
These discs are about the listening experience. Where the listening experience is intertwined with musical composition it seems to involve us even more. We live in a lo-fi environment where we are constantly bombarded with redundant sound information. Here is a truly hi-fi experience. (Hi-fi environments are those that offer a high degree of information for the active listener. Conversely, lo-fi environments provide relatively little information exchange between listener and environment: The listener is essentially passive.) Just how well has this compact disc captured the soundscape environment? This is impossible for me to tell as I have never been personally acquainted with Vancouver. I am however sensitive to the concerns of the artists involved here and in that way I trust that their representations are as clear and as informed as they can possibly be. In fact one can hear the attention that has been paid to the `capturing' process.
With these two compact disc recordings from the 70's and the 90's you can compare with extreme clarity, the changing soundscape. Not just the ambience but the people, the life, the emotion and the feeling.
The first Compact Disc consists of recorded extracts from the original recordings of the Vancouver Soundscape, a project initiated by participants in the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in 1972. This detailed study of the acoustic community in Vancouver is pervaded by water, horns and planes, quite naturally so. There is a vast sense of space. The subtle juxtaposition of `soundshots' captures the essence of the soundmark.
(Soundmarks are similar to landmarks in that they offer a high degree of information).
Attention to detail and timing provides the listener with a sense of place. I do not visualise myself being `there' but I can imagine what it is like to be listening in Vancouver in 1973. The haunting quality of track 5 `the music for horns and whistles' resonates with (or against) my city upbringing and perhaps the melancholic thought that with radio and satellite communication these distinctive voices are gradually being silenced; another reason for the foresighted documentation of these sound objects. Not what they are but what they do, what they mean.
The music of various city quarters provides a welcome break from the deeper political comment hidden within earlier tracks and informs us that the acoustic community naturally includes its citizens. The informative accompanying booklet goes on to explain that acoustic soundmarks of potential may inspire the many but infuriate the few and by trying to please everybody is how the acoustic sound world has become so inadvertently `noisy'. These acoustic resonances have stayed with the artists who recorded them and have followed them into their own compositions. The Vancouver O Canada Horn is one such idée fixe, a 100 plus decibels that can be haunting and romantic from a distance, ugly and intrusive on closer inspection.
So CD 1 enlightens us with ocean sounds, a harbour ambience, important soundmarks and a recording of New Year's Eve in Vancouver Harbour (with all the serendipitous events that accompany these festivities) and offers us the chance to hear the cultural exchange that is Vancouver and the reflections of Squamish Indian, Herbert George with his `white-man' interjections.
Finally, we are invited to a talk given by R. Murray Schafer on good and bad acoustic design in Vancouver. This is indeed most fascinating.
I have tried to stay clear of the word music as has the first booklet but at certain points the word comes to the fore and it's presence is more strongly felt in the second compact disc. Schafer suggests how we all can compose with this palette that is acoustic design. Describing the Music of the world is not trying to find sounds that we think are musical but a process of composition with the sounds of the world in the world.
And so we move into the 90's with composers Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, Susan Frykberg, Darren Copeland, Claude Schryer, Sabine Breitsameter and Hans Ulrich Werner continuing the thread so to speak.
One can make comparisons between the Vancouver Soundscape as it was then and as it is now not just from our own perspective (by listening to one compact disc after another) but hearing the interpretations of these soundscape composers on the material now and then.
The booklet informs us that the sounds and the methods of documenting the sounds have changed significantly. The biggest change is that technology has empowered more people than ever before to capture and recontextualise the soundscape. CD2 presents a more individual appreciation than the documentary style of CD1.
Track 1 presents the familiar sounds of the harbour in a style similar to CD 1. Following this, Darren Copeland's Recharting the Senses is taken from his one hour masterpiece entitled Life Unseen. It is concerned with the blind community's heightened perception of our essentially visually dominated world that we take for granted. It offers us the opportunity to listen beyond any `latent musicality' of sounds and search for the varied, essential meanings that can be discovered by attentive listening.
I was intrigued to learn that artists were invited to listen to and work with recordings from the archive. Sabine Breitsameter's approach appears interesting in that she was sent materials whilst living 5000 miles away. Now I am listening to her listening to these materials. And she has worked with these sounds to bring out their own `Eigenleben', an inner life that suits presentation and dissemination over the compact disc medium.
I think it is wise that material has been taken from the early recordings. All the works bring highly personal views and issues into the framework of new and transformed soundscapes. Such is the case with Hans Ulrich Werner's Vanscape Motion. The ebb and flow of an essentially musical syntax has a hidden conductor which is perhaps this `latent musicality' and it's varied meanings.
Sometimes this world orchestra refuses to play in time and elongates our perception, giving us time as Barry Truax says for sounds to `resonate' in our memories. Pacific Fanfare offers this contemporary `view' on 10 Vancouver soundmarks.
Claude Schryer revisits the Vancouver soundscape with a more traditional approach, orchestrating to CD a selection of material categorised by the characteristics intrinsic to the sound such as spectrum, category, function, pitch and context. Depending upon one's familiarity with the Vancouver soundscape, by the time you listen to track 7 on this CD, it may appear an exciting collage or an uninhabitable nightmare scene.
Finally in a similar style to the first Compact Disc, Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp retrace the steps of the 1973 recordings in another recorded lecture. A shame there were no predictions for the future - or perhaps it's in the music ?
If this review has been a little long, let me summarise: One of the finest produced, humble, creative, documentary catalogues of space, sound, music, place and time. Something for us all to think about. I am honoured to be able to retain this copy of the CD as it is a rare edition.