Contextualisation: Soundscape Composition

The term ‘Soundscape’ was created by Canadian composer R Murray Shafer (b1933) who used it to describe a genre of audio composition that creates the sensation of a specific acoustic environment through the use of sounds to be found there such as animal, environmental, people and mechanical sounds. Shafer originally suggested that there are three main elements to soundscape, he called these keynote sounds, sound signals and soundmarks. Keynote sound is a musical concept referring to the innate key of an environment. Sound signals are near field sounds listened to consciously. Soundmarks are analogous to landmarks and are completely unique to an aural environment.

Previous to and at the same time as Shafer was developing these ideas, what we now consider to be ‘sampled’ real world sounds had been used as part of electro-acoustic compositions by the likes of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros and John Oswald. In this sense the use of soundscape-type sound sources was also a facet of wider electro-acoustic composition, although usually these sources were used out of their original aural context.

Cue Barry Truax and Hlidegard Westerkamp, two Canadian-based composers at the forefront of branching the form of soundscape into ‘soundscape composition’. In soundscape composition, sounds from a given environment can be manipulated substantially, mimicked and sounds from elsewhere can also be used as long as the listener feels a connection to the subject environment and the compositional devices are used to enhance this connection.

Barry Truax outlined 4 principles of soundscape composition in his 2001 publication ‘Acoustic Communication’

1. listener recognisability of the source material is maintained, even if it subsequently undergoes transformation;

2. the listener’s knowledge of the environmental and psychological context of the soundscape material is invoked and encouraged to complete the network of meanings ascribed to the music;

3. the composer’s knowledge of the environment and psychological context of the soundscape material is allowed to influence the shape of the composition at every level, and ultimately the composition is inseparable from some or all aspects of that reality;

4. the work enhances our understanding of the world, and its influence carries over into everyday perceptual habits.

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