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Electroacoustic Soundscape Composition

Originally published in Musicworks 70, February, 1998

The listener, and only the listener, is the composer of the music.

- Ola Stockfelt, in Cars, Buildings and Soundscapes, 1994


The Sharawadji effect is an aesthetic effect which characterises the sensation of plenitude sometimes created by the contemplation of a complex soundscape whose beauty is unexplainable. This exotic term, which travellers introduced to Europe in the 17th Century from their journeys to China, designates the beauty that comes about without perceiving the order or economy of the object in question. The effect comes about as a surprise and will carry you elsewhere, beyond strict representation - out of context. In this brutal confusion, the senses get lost. A beautiful Sharawadji plays with the rules of composition, manipulates them and awakens a feeling of pleasure through perceptual confusion.

Whether in a dreamlike or anxious state, we are sometimes completely deaf to the environment. However while on a walk or on a journey, our spirit can combine availability, attention, perspicacity and therefore become receptive to new things, including sonic fantasy.

The beautiful Sharawadji affirms itself in contrast with the banality from which it originates. Sharawadji sounds, as such, belong to everyday life or to known musical registers. They only become Sharawadji by decontextualisation, by a rupture of the senses. The sonic matter that encourages the Sharawadji effect is up to the appreciation of each individual, in a given context, however the soundscape, and in particular urban soundscapes can, as a result of their unpredictability and diversity, favour it. The sonic wealth of nature is also susceptible of creating the Sharawadji effect.

- Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue, À l'écoute de l'environnement, répertoire des effets sonores (a dictionary of sound effects) , 1995 (translated by Claude Schryer)

On November 11, 1997 (a day of remembrance) I walked into the concert hall at Théâtre Lachapelle in Montreal for the "Rien à voir" festival of acousmatic music and was confronted by a shocking contrast between electroacoustics and ecology : a dark room, little air, countless loudspeakers and 60 hertz-a-humming machines... There was virtually no living matter present (except we humans) and there I was rehearsing my "ecological" music for concert presentation... It was bewildering to be in this former chapel ­ in a quasi-religious listening experience ­ where we consumed virtual music in the hope of being taken on a journey inside  sound. This article is about my journey into the soundscape through the medium of electroacoustics and my quest to discover the "unexplainable beauty" in the music of the acoustic environment.

I call the acoustic environment the soundscape, by which I mean the total field of sounds wherever we are. It is a word derived from landscape, though, unlike it, not strictly limited to the outdoors. The environment around me as I write is a soundscape. Through my open window I hear the wind rustling the leaves of the poplar trees. The young birds have just hatched from their nests, for it is June, and the air is filled with their singing. Inside, the refrigerator suddenly comes on with its shrill whine. I breathe deeply then go on puffing at my pipe, which makes little popping noises as I smoke. My pen rides smoothly over the clean paper, the sound swirling irregularly, then clicking as I dot an 'i' or add a period. Such is the soundscape on this peaceful afternoon in my farmhouse home. Take a moment to compare your soundscape as you read these notes. The soundscapes of the world are incredibly variable, differing with the time of day and season with place and with culture.

- R. Murray Schafer, A Sound Education, 1992


Electroacoustic soundscape composition is most closely related to the visual field of photography. Images of the sonic environment can be captured, processed and represented as a reflection of reality and/or as an artistic creation. It is a technique where the acoustic environment is both the subject and the content of a composition, teetering ambiguously on the border between representation and abstraction. Electroacoustic soundscape composition has everything to do with context, as opposed to the "musique concrete" aesthetic of reduced listening (écoute réduite), where sounds are appreciated independently of their source for their abstract musical value as an "objet sonore" (sound object). For the electroacoustic composer an "objet sonore" is a sound source among others for musical production, however for the electroacoustic soundscape composer the "objet sonore" is also a complex web of information including the potential of revealing "unexplainable beauty" in the form of the Sharawadji Effect (see Sharawadji sidebar).

Darren Copeland (Copeland, 1996) reminds us of the difference between environmental sound and music. "There is a communicative realm to environmental sounds that has nothing to do with music, but rather, has everything to do with the social context from which these sounds originate."

Thus social and spiritual context of a soundscape can be used as a compositional element on par with pitch, melody, harmony and timbre. The composer draws upon the conscious and sub-conscious sonic memories of the listener and uses these as an anchor for navigating in and around dimensions of sound which have the potential to communicate otherwise intangible emotions. Electroacoustic soundscape compositions can be presented on radio, in installations, in acousmatic diffusion, in interactive performance, etc. However the key common element in this form of composition is an interest and concern for the context and environment of a given sound.

Barry Truax (Truax, 1984, 207) further explains this difference specifically in the context of electroacoustic music :

The essential difference between an electroacoustic composition that uses pre-recorded environmental sound as its source material, and a work that can be called a soundscape composition, is that in the former, the sound loses all or most of its environmental context. In fact, even its original identity is frequently lost through the extensive manipulation it has undergone, and the listener may not recognise the source unless so informed by the composer. In the soundscape composition, on the other hand, it is precisely the environmental context that is preserved, enhanced and exploited by the composer. ... Part of the composer's intent may also be to enhance the listener's awareness of environmental sound. Whereas the use of concrete sources leaves the environment the same and merely extracts its elements, the successful soundscape composition has the effect of changing the listener's awareness and attitudes towards the soundscape, and thereby changing the listener's relationship to it. The aim of the composition is therefore social and political, as well as artistic.


Industrialisation and new technologies have transformed our sound environment. New sounds have appeared, have transformed our concept of hearing and have modified our aesthetic criteria in a decisive fashion.

The notion of ecology has emerged recently in the domain of electroacoustics. Artists from diverse disciplines explore and employ the soundscape in their work. Their interesting and timely reflections on problems of acoustic ecology expand the debate and nourish discussions on the quality and organisation of the soundscape in urban and natural environments.

Artists can become a conduit of our collective memory and help us better understand our acoustic environment, which we rarely actually hear. Thus, the sound artist can propose new associations, acoustic games, poetic metaphors and pose fundamental questions about the coexistence of electronic technology and ecology.

What are the aesthetic and ethical criteria of the environmental electroacoustician?

I feel that a possible solution to our problem is to slow down and stop producing so much. We could return to a form of orality and talk to each other a little more. To listen, as opposed to always doing.

- Dan Lander, Sound artist, in interview in Toronto, 1991

Montreal-based acousmatic composer Francis Dhomont (Dhomont, 1992) criticises the sometimes uncomfortable co-habitation of electroacoustics and ecology:

One important aspect of sound ecology is, of course, that it should not be too... sonic. But what should one make of the torrents of decibels spewed out by our loudspeakers, with ever more powerful lows, ultra-lows, mids, highs and ultra-sonics? Are we the most qualified to preoccupy ourselves with the eardrums of our contemporaries? Just like you, I am cornered by this dilemma, torn apart, trying to invent all sorts of good excuses. Like you, I consecrate kilometres of polyester to preserve the songs of cicadas, frogs, streams and nightingales, to avoid losing them forever. But I am not taken in by these subterfuges and I know very well that we have already entered the age of simulacra. Will they compensate for the disappearance of real life? I am an electroacoustician and like you, Francis, I consider myself also to be an environmentalist. The two activities should not be necessarily incompatible, and yet... I love machines. I love to touch sound. I love to indulge in virtual sound and to immerse myself in the endless metaphoric and metamorphic potential of electroacoustics. And yet I am constantly faced with the paradox between my electronic art and ecology. Sometimes, I have the impression that I am more a part of the problem than of the solution...

The wise and poetic French composer Luc Ferrari (Ferrari, 1991), while walking in the streets of Paris, reminded me that "one has to learn to recognise sounds on top of each other. In relation to each other, that it to say in layers and this can be learned by the sensitivity that we develop and by awareness."

Indeed, Luc, we need to learn develop our sonic awareness and hope that the electronic technologies of today and tomorrow will help us "tune" our perceptions to and with our environment, so that a balance can be found between natural and virtual sound environments, and also in between natural and virtual listening... Increasingly, artists are searching for an ecological balance not only in the content of their work, but also in their compositional process. Composer and acoustic ecology activist Hildegard Westerkamp (Westerkamp, 1995) has found some common ground between electroacoustics and her ecological and musical convictions. She underlines the value electroacoustics in soundscape composition as a practical tool for expression and for listening, but also warns of some of the dangers...

Much as technology can annoy and frustrate me and much as the environments in which sound studios exist tend to be unhealthy, it works better for me than composing for instruments I use technology in my work because it is the best tool for me to express what I want to say through composition. As well, the sound studio allows for immediate interaction with sound, an intimacy, a conversation, like a slow motion improv. In a sound studio one can be a musician and composer at the same time. But I also perceive sound technology as a dangerous tool for composition: it can distract endlessly from the content of what we want to say; it can demand an inordinate amount of attention to technical detail and it can also distract our audiences from really hearing our work. But no matter how much technology we put between our composing selves and our final composition, between ourselves and our audiences, it is still ears and bodies and psyches that perceive our pieces.

I share your enthusiasm and your hesitations, Hildi. For years, I've been struggling with my identity as an electroacoustic soundscape composer and as acoustic ecology activist. Your sense of equilibrium and wisdom is an inspiration. Indeed, we must be aware of the shortcomings of the electroacoustic medium while keeping in mind the importance of offering an ecological voice to the loudspeaker.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

- Margaret Mead


In the early 1990's, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki (Suzuki, 1990) warned that the next ten years were "our last chance to change...".

The questions of the survival, responsibility and interpretation of our environment have haunted me ever since, and have incited me to compose music with and about our acoustic environment, but also to become active politically and socially. For the last few years, I've noticed that we are suffering from a disturbing wave of greed and excessive materialism which is choking the fruits of our environmental passions, both locally and globally. That is why in 1993, in Banff, I became involved with a group of some 150 acoustic ecology activists in founding the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE), an interdisciplinary association for researchers and practitioners from social, scientific and cultural disciplines who meet and exchange information about their work and interests related to acoustic ecology. Among other things, the WFAE is participating in the organisation of an international conference on acoustic ecology organised by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, to be held in Stockholm (June 9-14, 1998). The principal theme of this conference is "from awareness to action" and is in tune with the international acoustic ecology's desire to evolve from an initial period of awareness to direct action.

That is also why in 1996, in Haliburton, Ontario, I coordinated a group or 30 or so Canadian acoustic ecology activists and helped found the Canadian Association for Acoustic Ecology (CASE). CASE's focus is on local activities, including sound walks, anti-noise campaigns, workshop, information presentations, radio documentaries, etc. Similar groups are coming to life in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Australia, Brazil and Japan.

These organisations and their activities have as goals to find new methods to teach and encourage sensitive listening, to increase awareness of the acoustic environment and to promote both internal and external listening as a tool for growth and sustainable development.

"Not only have there been enormous changes in the soundscape itself but also in the way the soundscape is documented and thought about. Audio technology and recording equipment can now be used in similarly portable ways as a camera. As a result, the soundscape can be recorded, reproduced, composed and processed by more people than ever before. The activity of 'sketching' a city's acoustic image has become a new forum for speaking about place and environment."

- Hildegard Westerkamp, Soundscape Vancouver 96 CD booklet, 1996


I had the shock of my life in 1985, when composer Luciano Berio told me, sincerely, that he did not think that I was a very good composer. However, he also mentioned that he thought there was a place for me in the world of music... The piece Berio was referring to was my 1985 solo cello piece On the Edge , written for cellist Shauna Rolston. He thought that the piece sounded like "film music" and was not of the calibre of contemporary concert music, however what I think he really  meant to say was that I curiously did not seem to be interested in "music" so much as elements around  music: space, noise and silence.

Indeed, since 1989, I have progressively detached myself from the concert music tradition and have allowed myself to touch sonic matter through electroacoustics.At the same time, in response to the growing world ecological crisis, I have felt a need to become involved in the environmental movement, at both political and artistic levels, and since I had musical training, I chose a path that combined the ecology of sound with music, in the form of electroacoustics.

It seemed most natural for me to become concerned about the sonic  quality of our environment. Therefore, I began following in the tracks of composers R. Murray Schafer, Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax, among others, of the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and adopted the notion that artists can help design a more imaginative and balanced soundscape.

I find myself continually fascinated by the evocative nature of recorded soundscapes. I sometimes think of it as a "voice" within the environment reaching out to me. As a result, I want to bring the listener inside a space, experience or sensation, with or without words, with or without transformation, and also with or without "music"... My artistic practice involves essentially a five step process: listening, recording, analysing, transforming, and orchestrating recorded soundscapes into electroacoustic portraits for concert and radio.

I want to use the wind as a verb, water as a noun, the beep of a truck as an adjective and silence as a comma. I want to conjugate noise in the future and in the past and bring the listener inside a story, space, experience or sensation, with or without words and perhaps also, with or without music.

When we walk, as time passes, we enter into an interior rhythm and pass into another state which is much more receptive and pensive.

Knud Viktor, sound artist, in interview in France, 1991

Whenever possible, I record my own soundscapes as a kind of performance where I literally play the microphone like a musical instrument. I have found that an essential part of the composition process occurs during field recording. Apart from a DAT machine recording two dimensional stereo sound on tape, a parallel recording process takes place during field recording. I call it "emotional recording", wherein the body and spirit also record sensations and vibrations from the space. These emotions can subsequently be called upon to guide the inner structure and spiritual map of the composition. I try to record sounds which upon repeated hearing resonate  in me and which cleanse me and shake me up. I listen for sounds which evoke the fragility of our environment and of the importance of awareness, listening and silence...

In general, when I record, I try to meditate on and analyse the space. How does it speak to me? What are its microscopic and macroscopic components? What is my rapport and my emotional relationship with the space? How can we capture and transmit the multiple dimensions of a space by means of a microphone and loudspeakers? When I record I also try to be aware of the limitations of my recording equipment and to plan how to frame my recordings in terms of my specific needs. Therefore, each recording ­ the movement of the microphone, the choice of perspective, the background, the levels, the presence of breath (or not), the stereophonic angle ­ is unique for each project.


It is interesting to note the reaction of Le Devoir  classical music critic François Tousignant (Tousignant, 1997) in a review of my CD Autour.

"Musically speaking, this is elementary electroacoustics, which, far from magnifying its subject, discourages the listener, even the best intentioned. There is no call, nor interpellation from our poet in becoming; only an applied report on tape of things here and there which offer no perspective. ... Maybe acoustic ecology is just that: a canvas on which you can do whatever you want without really listening to it. ... And yet, I agree with Murray Schafer, one of the instigators of this discipline: the environment (le paysage), is beautiful, but one must do something with it."

Indeed, François, my work is a simple use of electroacoustics but I think of it as transparent rather than elementary. It is more difficult than one might think to resist transforming a sound in studio and allowing it to "breathe" on tape... You don't seem to hear the voice of the environment, nor understand the notion of the Sharawadji effect as I do. This is your choice as listener and I respect it. However, it is shocking that you think this kind of work has no perspective. It is all about perspective! In my case it is a relatively clear perspective based on the poetry of sonographic representation.

Acoustic ecology is all about listening and awareness of the acoustic environment and though I agree that one must indeed "do" something with the acoustic environment, as Schafer and others have done so very well, I think there is more than one way of being "active", including being actively passive by allowing an environment be musical by itself....

Your review certainly shook me up and I thank you for this. It has encouraged me to question our ability to appreciate this kind of music with "classical" ears and to consider new models of listening and appreciation, as Murray Schafer suggests "to not only strip down the walls of our theatres and recording studios, but also the walls of our senses." Ironically, in another review in La Presse that same (November 22, 1997), journalist Philippe Tétreau (Tétreau, 1997) seems to be much more in tune with the nature of this kind of work.

"This electroacoustician manipulates the microphone like a camera, choosing his angles, enlarging this or that detail, defining a sound image to vary the effects and therefore demonstrating the art of acoustic ecology with audio images that recreate remarkable atmospheres. We are more closer to a cinematographic process here than that of music written on manuscript. ... The sounds of nature and of the city are retained in our memory, rather than the spectacular artifices of cybernetics. Avoiding to overwhelm the listener with overcharged effects which are easily forgotten, Schryer gives an important place to silence, therefore favorising the memory of the chosen soundscape and the sensation of plenitude that he is seeking."


With Chasse , in 1989, I began a five part cycle of electroacoustic soundscape compositions which have come full circle with my most recent composition Au dernier vivanÝ les biens . My research began in 1989 with a period of listening and awareness of my immediate external environment. I composed two "home" pieces : Chasse  (1989), about a family duck hunting trip and Les oiseaux De Bullion  (1990), a contrast between my urban home in Montreal and my wilderness home in Banff.

My next step was to figure out what I was talking about. I asked questions about acoustic ecology and the history of the acoustic ecology movement in Canada and composed two experimental radio documentaries : Marche sonore I (Le Matin du monde)  (1991-92) and Revisiting the World Soundscape Project  (1992-93). In 1993, I attempted to compose my first "musical" ecologically inspired concert music pieces with Les voix de l'écologie  (1993), based on Schafer's book "The Tuning of the World" and Mono Real  (1994), for voice and mono tape. However both of these pieces proved unsatisfactory, as I had not yet done enough listening and did not understand the delicate art of electroacoustic soundscape composition.

After an extended depression and healing period of meditation and listening in 1995, I came back to composition in 1996 with a set four electroacoustic soundscape compositions based on locations in North America: El medio ambiente acustico de Mexico, Vancouver Soundscape Revisited Musique de l'Odyssée sonore  (Québec City) and Autour d'une musique portuaire  (Montreal), a co-composition with Hélène Prévost.

1997 brought about the conclusion of a seven year cycle of electroacoustic soundscape compositions with Au dernier vivanÝ les biens  (1997), a set of fourty-nine electroacoustic soundscape meditations.

What next?

Is an end or a beginning?

I'm not sure where my listening will lead me next: towards more soundscape composition, or further into the contemplation of silence, but I'm quite sure I'll still be searching for a voice calling from the environment...


Barbara C. Matilsky (Matilsky, 1992) suggests that "since the 1970's, artists have responded to environmental issues in two ways: by proposing or creating ecological artworks that provide solutions to the problems facing natural and urban ecosystems; or by interpreting or framing the problems through a variety of media ­ photography, painting, sculpture, multimedia installations, performance."

My compositional works fall mostly into the second category. I have identified six distinct styles that I have used since 1989. Most pieces are either of a thematic treatment  (a concept, event or activity) or a portrait  (a city, forest, community, etc.).

1. Text based

This type of composition calls upon a counterpoint and rhythm of the timbre of human voices, of the content of the voices and the soundscapes in and around the voices.

Example #1 on the Musicworks 70 CD: Allo (1992) First movement of Marche sonore I (Le matin du monde)  (1992),(Soundwalk I)  is subtitled "The Morning of the World". In this French language radiophonic soundwalk I interviewed some 40 people and asked each participant in the piece to talk about their immediate sonic environment and to share some thoughts about acoustic ecology. Example #2 on the Musicworks 70 CD: RWSP MW70 Excerpt (1993). Excerpt from Revisiting the World Soundscape Project  (1993). Materials were taken from World Soundscape Project, Simon Fraser University and from interviews conducted from 1990 through 1993 with living members of the WSP and friends of the WSP. This radio composition explores how the research of the World Soundscape Project (WSP) relates to the sound environment of today and poses questions about the soundscape of tomorrow. I listened to former WSP participants ­ their ideas and emotions ­ and comment on their meaning and their thoughts.

2. Single take

A single take field recording that can stand alone as a composition. Example #3 on the Musicworks 70 CD: Wisdom (1997) Excerpt from Au dernier vivanÝ les biens (1997). Wisdom was composed using an immobile stereo recording of a creaking tree in a quiet forest in the eastern townships in Québec. Au dernier vivanÝ les biens  is a series of 49 electroacoustic meditations for ambient listening on a stereo CD player in random mode (see the Sound Letter II  CD included to Musicworks #70 subscribers).

3. Unaltered/edited

Simple editing and mixing techniques whereas the musical gestures of the recorded soundscapes guides the editing and mixing process. Example #4 on the Musicworks 70 CD: Transportación (1996). Excerpt from El medio ambiente acústico de Mexico  (1995-96), a piece about the musicality and poetry of the soundscapes I recorded in the fall of 1995 in Mexico City and the state of Oaxaca. 4. Processed

Unaltered edited soundscapes plus additional electronically processed sequences. Example #5 on the Musicworks 70 CD: Industry (1996) Excerpt from Vancouver Soundscape Revisited  (1996), an impressionistic portrait of the musicality and poetry of past, present and future soundscapes of Vancouver. Vancouver Soundscape Revisited  was composed during the Soundscape Vancouver 96  residency at Simon Fraser University in May, 1996. The piece was composed using archival sounds from the World Soundscape Project.

5. Processed with synthesis

Processed soundscapes plus additional synthesized sequences. Example #6 on the Musicworks 70 CD: Prologue (1996) 1st movement from Musique de l'Odyssée sonore  (1996-97) (Sound Odyssey Music) was composed in collaboration with sound designer Claude Langlois and is a collection of seven electroacoustic miniatures from Louis Ricard's National Film Board of Canada (NFB) documentary, Odyssée sonore , about R Murray Schafer's theories of acoustic ecology and the soundscape of Québec City.

6. Environmental performance

This style uses a recorded environmental performance and/or an instrumental improvisation as a point of departure for an electroacoustic composition realised in studio. Example #7 on the Musicworks 70 CD : Autour d'une musique portuaire (1997) a co-composition by Claude Schryer and Hélène Prévost. Autour d'une musique portuaire (Around Harbour Music) is an electroacoustic composition based on Musique portuaire pour sirènes et cloches  (Harbour Music for Horns and Bells) by Claude Schryer for six boats, two trains and the bells of the Notre-Dame Basilica. The musical and sonic energy generated by this work/ event inspired Hélène Prévost to invite musicians to improvise with and around the Harbour Symphony in Studio 12 at Maison Radio-Canada in Montréal. In the post-production mix of the composition various boat horn, train, bell and musician soloists were highlighted in an intriguing game of hide and seek.

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