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Soundscapes: A Historical Approach

When talking about the origins of artistic interest in the sounds of the environment, apart from the instrumental descriptions of some baroque or romantic music, we have to go back to the beginnings of audio recording technology. Furthermore, the idiosyncrasy of the most noteworthy authors refers us back to the first steps of the art of the radio. A practical application of the interrelation between the arts in the early years of the radio, which in this case means the cinema and the radio, presents us with the German film-maker Walter Ruttmann and his Week-End. Made in 1930, this was a film without images, just a soundtrack. Week-End used the technological possibilities offered by optical sound on film of editing the different sound fragments.

Let's stay with Week-End. It reflected the transition from a working day to a holiday, Sunday in the open air with the languor so far removed from the return to work on Monday. Banal reality, if you like, but transposed and magnified by the logic of the cut and splice, of juxtaposition. By the narrative logic of film editing. There is another important aspect of Week-End which links the practice of film-making to that of the radio; Ruttmann's attitude displayed the same intention in recording specific sounds as in the filming of the shots which went into his Berlin. Symphony of a city. The acousmatic musician Michel Chion has called our attention to this parallel (Michel Chion: L'art des sons fixés. Ed. Metamkine, Fontaine, 1991, pp. 41-42), which allowed him, in Week-End, to extend the concept of "filming" to the sounds stored up by a sound - and radio - creator by means of the microphone.

"If we listen to the work today, it seems quite obvious that [the sounds] could only have been specially produced. Obvious, at least, for anyone who has made sound recordings, and knows just how difficult it is to obtain one sound in isolation from others. For instance, when in Week-End we hear what is supposed to be a saw, cutting wood, amidst a vast silence, we suspect that there is nothing spontaneous about it. Quite the opposite, it is a question of making sure that there are no simultaneous or nearby noises, choosing the right time or place to avoid the risk of a row arising to disturb the recording."

This concept of "filming sound", as Chion pointed out, is capital to radio work, as it was to be in many soundscapes, with the advent of the tape recorder, but it was a film-maker like Ruttmann who led up to it with the strategies of the cinema. Which also brought a more descriptive, artistic editing of specific sounds in line with the language - editing - of the cinema.

The Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti took a more conceptual approach in one of his Futurist Wireless Syntheses, created between 1927 and 1938. We refer to the work entitled Un paesaggio udito (A landscape heard), suggesting the juxtaposition of sounds captured in different physical spaces and circumstances which the radio adapted to its electronic space, to compose a reality of its own. Marinetti's text, reminiscent of the spirit of the haiku, reads as follows:

The whistling of the blackbird jealous of the crackling of the fire ends up silencing the murmur of the water.
10 seconds of splashing
1 second of crackling
8 seconds of splashing
1 second of crackling
5 seconds of splashing
1 second of crackling
19 seconds of splashing
1 second of crackling
25 seconds of splashing
1 second of crackling
35 seconds of splashing
6 seconds of blackbird whistling."

(Collected in J.A. Sarmiento, ed.: Marinetti. La radio futurista, Radio Fontana Mix, Facultad de Belles Artes. Cuenca, 1993)

From Schaeffer to Schafer

It may seem like a play on words, but this is not the case. Completely by chance, two creators who have been instrumental - for quite different reasons, as we will go on to explain - in the field that concerns us here have such similar names as to almost cause confusion.

Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer was the inventor of "concrete music". Starting in 1948, in the studios of ORTF, now Radio France, this musician and researcher set out to systematise, for compositional purposes, concrete sounds, which to some extent amount to the sounds on which soundscape authors have drawn. However, one of Schaeffer's particular obsessions was to create a "solfa of sound objects" in his Traité des objets musicaux, to recognise these objects as realities which could be abstracted beyond the "sound-producing body" which generated them. This explains his anger when one listener, upon hearing his Étude des chemins de fer, remained on the surface, delving no deeper than a recognition - still possible - of the whistling of a locomotive or its clattering on the tracks.

In 1948, Schaeffer wrote a series of reflections which perfectly illustrate this problem, at the same time suggesting a solution (P. Schaeffer: "Les Études", François Bayle [ed. and comp.]: Pierre Schaeffer, l'oeuvre musicale, libretto of the 4 CD release of the same name, Ed. INA-GRM, Paris 1990, p.29-30).

"My composition fluctuates between two sides: dramatic sequences, musical sequences. The dramatic sequence compromises the imagination. It follows events: the departure, stops. It can be seen [the underlining is ours]. The locomotive moves, the tracks are deserted or being crossed. The engine huffs and puffs... anthropomorphism. This is all quite the opposite of music.

Yet I have managed to isolate a rhythm, and contrast it with itself in a different sound colour. (...) This rhythm may well continue for a long time without changing. This creates a kind of identity, and its repetition makes us forget that we are dealing with a train.

Could we call this sequence musical? If I take any sound element and repeat it, not concerning myself with its form but varying its material, I practically cancel out that very form, it loses its meaning; only the variation of its material emerges, and with it the musical phenomenon.

Any sound phenomenon can be taken, then (like the words of a language), for its relative meaning or its actual substance. In that its meaning predominates, and this is what we play with, it is literature and not music. But how can we forget its meaning, isolate it from the sound phenomenon?

This requires two prior operations: Distinguishing an element (listening to it in itself, for its texture, its material, its colour). Repeating it. Repeat the same sound fragment twice: the event is replaced by music."

With these considerations, Schaeffer lays an excellent methodological foundation not just for radio art, but also for the entire soundscape movement and its miscellaneous consequences. And if the French composer and theoretician dignifies sound objects - what we are interested in here are those of the natural and urban acoustic environment - as elements of a composition, the Canadian musician and researcher R. Murray Schafer gives them an ethical dimension.

This is a suitable point to state that soundscapes are forms which, for the materials they comprise and the use made of them, are situated between so-called acousmatic music - a category of electro-acoustic music - and artistic reportage and documentaries. The soundscape movement was initially based on Murray Schafer's considerations and studies on the sound environment, starting in the early seventies. Following on from the task of Pierre Schaeffer, and with certain analytical similarities, his work involved investigating sound objects by isolating them with the assistance of the tape recorder and gauging them individually for subsequent classification using the acoustic spectrograph. The Canadian composer's utopian undertaking was ultimately to impose some kind of order on the sound environment, with the basic aim of "sound ecology". But with an aesthetic background, which is what his followers - researchers in the acoustic environment and composers using the sounds identified - have applied in their own works.

As Murray Schafer wrote in his famous book The Tuning of the World (A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1976), "to grasp what I understand by acoustic aesthetics, we should consider the world as a vast musical composition which is constantly unfolding before us".

Various tendencies in soundscape

Right up until the present day, the Canadian followers of Murray Schafer have drawn on this spirit of ecological ethics marked by the recovery of the natural environment and an aesthetic in which authors treat environmental sounds as instrumental sounds in a composition which acoustically represents a given environment, be it natural or urban. One project with a particular array of nuances is Droit de cité, produced by Mario Gauthier and Claire Bourque for the CBC in Montreal, which was held from 15 to 21 June 1992. It formed part of the "7th Electro-Acoustic Spring", in a section significantly entitled "Radio Sound Ecology". With works lasting between 10 and 30 minutes, the various authors - Gilles Artaud, Jocelyn Robert, M. Gauthier, C. Bourque, Robert Racine, Claude Schryer, René Lussier and Yves Daoust, among others - interrupted the music programmes being broadcast with their "sound portraits" of different aspects and places in the city of Montreal. The sounds were taken direct to the studio, where they were mixed and partially transformed according to the criteria of their respective authors. In other countries, the art of soundscape has been developed along the lines of the acoustic aesthetics sketched out by Murray Schafer, but with only a small following of his ethical postulates, with the exception of some circles of researchers and composers, such as Luís Carles and I. López Barrio in our country in recent years. Carles' work, El Ciclo Diario, deserves particular mention here; it reconstructs the sound environment of the Valencia of bygone days on the basis of the impressions of chronicler Vicente Boix (the work was released as an LP).

In this way, sound artists have used the tape recorder to capture the world around them, scrutinising and fixing it as they use the microphone as an extension of their own ears. We have to bear in mind that soundscape did already exist in embryonic state when the French composer Luc Ferrari abandoned the approaches of Pierre Schaeffer's "school" to use sound sequences obtained using reportage techniques in his Hétérozygote (1963-1964); but it was during the eighties that it really began to take off.

Three very different tendencies have emerged within soundscape in general. The first, as we have already seen, was represented by the more or less direct adherents of Murray Schafer. The second involved what we could call freer work with the sound environment, in some cases incorporating elements of poetry, documentary or reportage, and in others creating "sound bridges" between two natural or urban environments, relating them directly or with the help of telephone lines or communications satellites. The second tendency includes the work of North American Bill Fontana in this category. Here we highlight two well received projects which have been released on CD: Sound bridge Köln-San Francisco (1987) and Landscape Soundings (1990), with plenty of documentary material on the respective circumstances of their broadcasting, technological procedures and artistic concept.

For the first of the two, Fontana produced a live mix of sounds picked up by microphones arrayed on the Golden Gate Bridge with others on Cologne's rail bridge over the Rhine (the Hohenzollernbrücke), as great barges slid by beneath. The sum total of the two sets of signals created the work for radio, but was also presented in a square in the centre of Cologne as a "sound sculpture". Landscape Soundings transported sounds from a forest near Vienna to Marienplatz, where they were also presented in the form of a sound sculpture, with the sounds "interfering" live from time to time in the regular broadcasts of Austrian radio.

The two above-mentioned works involve the artistic use of the new potential of telecommunications technology, linking these initiatives with the differential line taken by the group Ars Acústica. In a recent global project (Sound Drifting: I Silenzi Parlano Tra Loro), organised by Heidi Grudmann at Kunstradio for the 1999 Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austrian artists Andrea Sodomka, Martin Breindl and Norbert Math created an "entirely virtual city in cyberspace". Their Alien City existed for Internet users, both visually and sonically, with the possibility of mutating the sound by user/navigator interaction. The sounds were taken from various cities - different spaces - and the recordings corresponded to different periods, different times.

As regards the incorporation of text or reportage, using verbal sound objects, situating the soundscape in the trend of the "new hörspiel", we find a great many examples in the Metropolis series produced by WDR's Studio Akustische Kunst in Cologne since the seventies. One of the most ambitious is the work of French composer Pierre Henry, the instigator of musique concrète in its early days along with Pierre Schaeffer, and then of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM). Henry created a "hörspiel" which, in addition to being a concrete soundscape of Paris made with sounds taken from different places and submitted to a complex process of partial transformation and editing, is the soundtrack of Walter Ruttmann's silent movie Berlin. Symphony of a city. In this way, he created a "film-cum-hörspiel", along the lines sketched out by the theoretician and producer of radio art, Klaus Schöning. The title of the work synthesises its author's obsession: La Ville. Die Stadt: Metropolis Paris (1984).

This same series includes the work of Austrian Gerhard Rühm, Wien wie es klingt (Vienna as it sounds, 1991-1992), which is constructed as 24 isolated soundshots of the day-to-day life of the Austrian capital, the acoustic equivalent of so many picture postcards. Other good examples of this same trend, though not WDR productions, are the works of the Australian Kaye Mortley, particularly Escale Bangkok and Des Rues: Paris-Tokyo. And La Ciudad de Agua, 12 aural postcards of the Alhambra and the Generalife, made by Concha Jerez and myself in 1994, featuring sounds taken from its rooms in a journey through memory and forgetting, true and false.

The third tendency has been represented in recent years by the work of sound artists like the Spaniard Francisco López. In his case, the acoustic environment is considered to all effects as the most complete "synthesiser", providing rich, diverse raw material for his work. The sounds are processed electronically, carefully mixed and edited to erase any reference to their original environment and comply with the composer's interests.

Memory and soundscape The soundscape presents us with a falsehood, or perhaps with an impossibility: it proposes an equivalence between the sounds of an environment, of a real given space, and these sounds once recorded and organised in the space of a sound work on a mono, stereo or multichannel support. If we do not accept this convention, the sounds of a soundscape cannot be seen to represent this basic acoustic reality.

But our acceptance of this convention paradoxically attenuates the force of conviction of "sound ecology" as postulated by Murray Schafer. Indeed, if we have to rescue the sounds of the world to prevent them from disappearing, it is plain - as it is to the Canadian author and theoretician - that all that remains of them is a trace, an imprint: the recording. This is more than remains of bygone times whose sounds are only preserved - if we can call it that - in the descriptions of writers and local chroniclers. But this is still less than sound ecology could wish, as its postulates advocate the conservation of natural environments with their own, characteristic sounds, without the acoustic addition of machines or other technologies.

When constructing a sound work in the genre of soundscape, we are obviously composing with these basic sounds as our raw material. This is an important fact to remember: it is a composition using sounds, which means that we have recourse to techniques and technologies. And to a sociology of listening. And to a kind of psycho-acoustics.

On the basis of these considerations, all the authors of this genre present composed images, and ultimately use the sounds of the acoustic environment as the richest, most plural synthesiser possible. Even if they use complete, apparently unmanipulated sequences - remember the work for radio Wolf Music (1997), by R. Murray Schafer, in which a group of musicians spend a whole day playing his scores in a Canadian nature reserve - the manipulation lies in the way the microphones are set up and specific venues chosen. In short, it is a kind of sound mirage: an acoustic image which may aim to represent the reality in question, while actually presenting a distorted reflection which, at best, captures the aroma of the original. Only by deliberately erasing the memory of that original can we embark on a composed soundscape with any probability of success. We could go as far as to say that in these works, memory appeals to forgetfulness to endow the work itself with aesthetic meaning.

But can we talk of soundscapes which are not composed? Perhaps we have to reserve this term for soundscapes which are heard directly, with no technological intervention, by the observer's own ears. Because the use of technology - and we must insist on this - means a choice, whether or not it is a conscious one. And because technology is, in itself, a filter of the very reality which it captures, stores, broadcasts. In the works of Bill Fontana, for example, which refer us to both natural (Landscape Soundings) and urban (Sound bridge Köln-San Francisco) environments, the American composer picks up his sounds live, but mixes them according to his own criteria - in real time, it must be said - producing a composition, a composed image of the reality which is taken as a reference. If this were not enough, a year before, Fontana takes a systematic look at the sounds in the places in question, allowing him to establish the best possible position for the microphones to be set up. This involves a highly meditated decision-making process which we could term compositional attitude.

Without audio technology, there would of course be no soundscape. We could even extend this, depending on the project, to media such as the radio or Internet, if we can consider the latter to be a medium. That is to say, soundscapes form part of what we call "electronic art" and could therefore not exist without the electronic technology of recording, telecommunications and manipulation of information. If soundscapes are the sum of multiple times which merge into just one - the reception by the listener of their contents, at least when we consider the work itself - they also comprise multiple spaces. In the case of a radio broadcast of a work of this nature, the time is reduced to that of the broadcast, an experience which is shared at one time by people in different places, while all the spaces it alludes to are dissolved into the space of the medium, the "hertzian" space which is invisible but as real as electromagnetic radiation.

There is another point I would like to make here: these days there is a great deal of talk about the possible destruction or subordination of physical spaces by electronic spaces, and, taking it to extremes, by so-called "cyberspace". But we must not forget that, in our time, our perception of space and time has been marked by measuring machines - that is, technology - ranging from the wrist watch to radio-frequency telescopes. We may be capable of measuring space and time without actually knowing what either of them is. Our approach to these concepts, essential to the evolution of our Western model of civilisation, may have been conditioned, perhaps fatally for the understanding of some phenomena, by the considerations we inherited from Ancient Greek philosophers. And an optimistic interpretation of the potential of new technologies may, once again, involve blazing new trails to other models of what we self-importantly call "reality".

In my opinion, beyond the considerations of opposition/confrontation of "natural", traditionally accepted, spaces - including those created by the art of architecture - and technological spaces - created by electronic technology - the debate is exercised by a true-false dualism. By the reality of culture as a "commonplace" and also as a "setting" for our sociability, and by the precariousness and provisional nature of its conventions. By the trompe-l'oeil and, more importantly here, in our concern with sound, by the trompe-l'oreille which present us with a clichéd yet inconsistent image of the world. An image which serves as a description but is not operative, as it does not provide us with the tools to construct this world of reference. It is like memory: it allows us to remember and organise personal experiences, but not to live any similar experiences or those on which it draws. Like the soundscape, which may or may not refer us to a real acoustic environment or scape and which takes its aesthetic force from this true-false dualism. Christina Kubisch's installation, The Bird Tree, is an illustrative example of some of these concepts. It involves the spectator, equipped with wireless headphones, pursuing the sounds of birds around the space, intercepting and mixing them in/with his itinerary, as he pleases. But the author warns us: "if we move along the wall, opposite the electric tree, we can hear incredible songs and combinations of birds, which are far from realistic. Some songs may be completely new to the listener. Others may evoke personal reminiscences; some of them can no longer be heard, because the birds do not exist any more." And Christina Kubisch, who also tends towards an optimistic view of the use of technology in our world, concludes her commentary with these words: "Walking round the sound tree with their headphones on, the visitors and listeners can recompose their own piece of music and, once they leave the hall, try and listen to the birds outside in, perhaps, a different way." There is no doubt that electronic technology is a magnificent tool in this true-false debate, because, among other reasons, it serves to accelerate this debate, by giving rise to perceptions, contributing arguments about the world around us, which were hitherto beyond our grasp. This technology is also capable of multiplying the mirage effect. But we have to remember that this is a perceptive phenomenon: it has existed since we have had memory as a personal filter for filing away and prioritising our experiences of the world.

Soundscapes: installations and performances

We have seen how the sounds of the acoustic environment can form part of an installation or, to put it another way, how the sounds of a soundscape can be used by an installation. This is another field of application for the sound artists who, myself included, have been working on and with the sounds of the world around us. The exhibition Zeitgleich, held in Hall in the Tyrol in 1994, included examples of this tendency in works by Andrés Bosshard, Bill Fontana and Roberto Paci Dalò. We have already commented extensively on the installation presented by Christina Kubisch in the exhibition El espacio del sonido/El tiempo de la mirada (The Space of Sound/The Time of the Gaze, San Sebastian, 1999), and we could also refer to performances in which the action revolves around sounds from the acoustic environment, stylised to varying degrees and composed. In this final category, along with the sound works using multiphonic systems presented by Andrés Bosshard, from Switzerland, and Francisco López, from Madrid, in both cases with a subtlety which urges the listener to meditative contemplation, I should also like to include a recent work of my own: La ciudad resonante (The Resonant City, 1999). In it, the sounds of a city, Madrid, are mixed, evaporated, with those from many others and partially transformed by practically ongoing live interaction with an electronics improviser, Pedro López, creating an almost antiphonal development, in which each of the two performers establish a specialised part of a monologue for two voices. The city provided the raw sound material, but the point was not how these sound sequences represented the instants and experiences during which they were recorded; they were merely anecdotes which served as elements in the construction of the final form. The city as a setting for our flux. This is another ethical approach to what we call "reality", based on a here and now which dismisses one era - of enlightenment - and is preparing for a hyperspace - cyberspace? - which, we hope, will lead us to a true understanding of space and time, the concepts underpinning our knowledge of the beings and things of this world.

Selected discography

Ferrari, L.: L'Escalier des Aveugles, CD, ed. La Muse en Circuit, París, 1992.

Ferrari, L.: Matin et soir, CD, ed. INA-GRM, ADDA, París, 1989.

Fontana, Bill: Ohrbrücke/Soundbridge Köln-San Francisco, CD, ed. Wergo, Mainz, 1994.

Fontana, B.:Landscape Soundings, CD, ed. ORF, Viena, 1990.

Henry, P.: La Ville. Die Stadt. Metropolis Paris, CD, ed. WERGO, Mainz, 1994.

VV.AA.: Abriendo la ciudad del sol habitado (Madrid: a soundscape collective), CD, Zwerg Prod.-Instituto Goethe, Madrid, 1995.

VV.AA.: Abriendo la ciudad del sol habitado (Madrid: a soundscape collective), CD, Zwerg Prod.-Instituto Goethe, Madrid, 1995.

VV.AA.: Broaden/in/gates, Cd, ed. RTVE Música, Madrid, 1992.

VV.AA.: Broaden/in/gates, Cd, ed. RTVE Música, Madrid, 1992.

VV.AA.: Rios Invisibles, CD, ed. Hyades Arts, Madrid, 1994.

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