World Listening Day 2013

It’s R. Murray Schafer‘s birthday today. In 1973 he research the Vancouver soundscape, later extending it to compare five European villages from a soundscape point of view.

The research became the basis of ‘Acoustic Ecology’, a discipline that R. Murray Schafer developed to further investigate ‘soundscapes’, which are understood as the sonic interface between living beings and their environment.

World Listening Day is held on his birthday to celebrate Schafer’s contribution to the art of listeing to the world, rather than just hearing it. I’ve usually aimed to try and isolate sounds, other than in the lo-fi urban environment where you just can’t do that. However, in tribute to R. Murray Schafer’s ideas, I had a go, starting off with the birds at dawn. It’s a bit past the time for the classic dawn chorus, but these birds in a semi-rural location in Rushmere made a decent attempt at a soundscape for me.

XY recording


For a change I tried an urban field recording at Ipswich Marina, this recording starts with oystercatchers at the beginning, to the right is the sound of some construction work that has been restarted after a couple of years. A woman in a RIB motors to her boat moored somewhere in the marina which is mainly to the left. Some foot and bicycle traffic passes. The waterfront has been redeveloped for leisure over the last decade.

Binaural recording with Soundman OKMII

Finally I gave in to the separator in me and recorded the sound of this tarmac laying crew and their machine, in particular the backing up sound.

The reversing sound is an electronic noise played through speaker, which highlighted one of the issues R. Murray Shafer picked up –

R. Murray Schafer conceptualized the splitting of sound from source, made possible by modern technology, with the term ‘schizophonia’.

You used to be able to instantly tell where an ambulance siren was coming from, or which phone in an office was ringing, because these sounds were produced by mechanical devices, each with their own foibles and tone-colour. No two ambulances or phones sounded exactly the same, but more importantly the mechanical sound was easily locatable from the tone-colour of the struck bell or the air passing the siren slots.

We have lost this facility with the electronic simulacrum of real sounds, you can see it in an office with electronic ringers, or even a bunch of people with their mobiles. Although everybody has their own ringtone, actually locating where the sound is coming from isn’t always easy. The ringtone tells you it is your phone rigning, but it doesn’t tell you where your phone is, exactly, whereas you can home in on a mechanical alarm clock bell even in a different room. Designers have tried ot make ambulance wailing noises mroe directional by adding a burst of white noise, which is better but not as good as the original.

Schizophonia has become worse in the intervening forty years – the reversing sound could be the reversing sound of any goods vehicle, from a minivan to an articulated lorry. The electronic simulation dissociates form and scale from the alarm device, which presumably is why the tarmac laying machine driver had to toot his horn with so many of the crew around and on his truck. It was the horn that drew me towards the sound, and allowed me to track it aurally, because it is still a mechanically vibrating real device with a complex form, not a single vibrating diaphragm…

We need more real things to make alarm sounds, though the economics will always trend towards the 2kHz beeping of a piezo disc. When alarms had to be real things struck with mechanical hammers, they had more character and the extra cost made the designers sit down and think properly ‘does this thing really need to make a noise’ 😉

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