ï~~SOUND IN CONTEXT: SOUNDSCAPE RESEARCH AND COMPOSITION AT
SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY
School of Communication & School for the Contemporary Arts
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C. Canada V5A 1S6 Email: Truax@sfu.ca
ABSTRACT: Research activities at Simon Fraser University over the past 25 years that bridge
environmental acoustics and music are summarized, including soundscape studies, acoustic communication,
soundscape composition, and the granulation of sampled sound.
The current technological situation in music has brought sampled sound increasingly into the compositional
domain where it is at once both familiar and problematic. Western music theory, having followed
composition in its path toward increasing abstraction and the primacy of pitch relationships, finds itself
powerless to deal with the largely unpitched material of environmental sound. Timbre models have been
proposed (Erickson, 1975; Wishart, 1985), but are generally relegated to the periphery of music theory. The
lack of notation and the necessity to rely on aural judgement seem to present the most serious problems.
What is it about environmental sound that makes it difficult to introduce into the artistic domain? Why is it
unsatisfying to substitute such sounds for either instrumental or conventionally synthesized material in a
compositional process? At the most basic acoustic level, environmental sounds are much more complex in
their spectral and temporal shape than most other musical material; synthesized sound in particular has
been plagued by an artificial sound quality that has none of the corporeality of environmental sound. The
tools to shape and explore such sounds remain primitive and largely dominated by signal processing models.
Moreover, environmental sound is not easily parameterized, and hence does not fit into any of the
permutational ordering schemes normally thought of as compositional techniques.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle that environmental sound erects to its musical usage is the fact that its meaning
is inescapably contextual. Environmental sound acquires its meaning both in terms of its own properties and
in terms of its relation to context. Therefore it cannot be arbitrary as is the semiotic sign, because its own
aural properties become inextricably associated with its meaning. Electroacoustic techniques specialize in
taking sounds out of their original context and reproducing them arbitrarily in another - a "nervous"
condition described as "schizophonic" by Murray Schafer (1969) - and therefore it is not surprising that these
sounds have been used as source material for many electroacoustic compositions for nearly a half century.
The attractive acoustic richness of such sounds (in comparison to their primitively modelled electronic
counterparts) has been claimed to be the motivating force for the French acousmatic school since its
inception, but when such sounds are used less as abstract sound objects and more for their contextual
associations, the tendency, particularly among composers, has been to cry "anecdotal" or "programmatic." As
a tempting parallel to Risset's classic critique of the early concrete work - that the means to transform such
sounds were inferior to their richness - we could speculate that most compositional work with environmental
sounds has been inferior to the richness of their semantic content.
Finally, and perhaps the most subtly, environmental sound results in a different pattern of listening than one
might expect within a musical situation (Smalley, 1992). Despite the ubiquitousness of music, environmental
sound surrounds us constantly and the conventional modes of interpreting it are far more habitual and
operate at a lower level of awareness than a focussed attention for speech or music. Background music and
public address systems maintain their ambiguous position precisely on this point, that the reproduced,
disembodied sound is simultaneously speech or music and environmental sound. At the very least,
environmental sound compositions challenge what constitutes a musical form of listening, if not the most
appropriate venue (concert hail, radio, or public and private spaces) for their performance.
Given the range of problems which environmental sound presents to the composer, it is not surprising that
its use until now has been characterized as falling along a continuum between sound effects and abstracted
discourse, with serious composers treading cautiously the more that any hint of the former might pertain.
Simon Emmerson has added a useful second dimension to this continuum by separating material and syntax,
with each dimension ranging from abstract to abstracted, the latter being the most imitative of reality,
ICMC PROCEEDINGS 1995