Soundscape Composition as Environmental Activism and Awareness: An Ecomusicological Approach

Harnessing the Imagination: Between the Real and Abstract

As Parmar implies, the meeting of the soundscape composer’s personal vision with the recorded material puts the soundscape composition at a juncture, between the imaginary and real. The first element of this “meeting,” the composer’s personal experience, yields to Hildegard Westerkamp’s remark that a soundscape composition is inherently colored by the unique choices a composer makes. These choices will vary with the composer’s “cultural, social and political background and experiences, by age and gender, musical taste, past experiences with various soundscapes, as well as the present life situation.”[1] Another aspect of the composer’s experience that is worth noting is the extended knowledge a composer has with the soundscape if they were present for the recording itself. Factors such as “the smells, the air, the temperature, the time of day, the atmosphere, the feel of a place, the season, the social situation and significantly, the changes that occur when a microphone enters a space” all have the potential to shape decisions made during the compositional process.[2]
But with the onset of the second element of the “meeting,” the recorded material, intent becomes more malleable, now subjected to the influence of the sounds produced by the environment. As Westerkamp observes, “the materials speak with their own language, which emerge only with repeated listening and sound processing.”[3] A soundscape can shift intent because there is always more to discover. New sounds and phenomena can emerge and surprise after recording has already taken place. To what extent does this remove the voice and personality of the composer from the composition? Kyle Gann notes, for example, that one of the few qualities of John Luther Adams’s music that could fall to negative criticism is its “impersonal” quality. This quality deserves not to be seen as cold and unwelcoming, but rather as evidence that Adams, in the words of Gann, “trusts the material and considers sound itself more interesting than his own idiosyncrasies of character.”[4] Thus, this “impersonal” quality could be considered as a point of entry for a listener that entirely self-centered music can’t. Adams affirms this notion in his concern to move his music “beyond expression.” It is his desire to “move beyond self-expression and the limit of my own imagination to a deeper awareness of sound itself.”[5] While there is certainly nothing wrong with this activity of self-expression in itself, Adams believes that it is his responsibility as a composer to create art that draws awareness towards “the larger fabric of life – the life of the individual, the life of the community, the life of the land and the life of the animals and spirits that inhibit this place.”[6] This mindset aligns quite well with one of the core aims of soundscape composition as a genre – to leave listeners more aware of the environment around them and how they relate to it.
The “meeting” allows the to relate our personal expression to the expression of the larger world. In so doing, The “meeting” pushes the listener out from the illusion of isolation and brings them face-to-face with the responsibility they have towards taking care of the soundscapes we find ourselves situated in. For Adams, art “grounded exclusively in self-expression” also encourages the false notion that humans “somehow stand above and beyond the rest of life.” He goes on to imply that the alienation this stance imposes has contributed to human-caused “overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, deforestation and widespread extinction are both symptoms and results of this alienation,” and ultimately, climate change. The soundscape composer, through reconciling their own experience with a broader awareness, initiates a worldview shift from egocentrism to ecocentrism.[7] As Adams has described in his journey of creating The Place, “it’s like taking a journey. I can decide more or less where I want to go. I can make preparations for the journey. But exactly how things unfold is beyond my control.”[8] By recording whatever is encountered or opening up all possible sounds to the flow of natural events, a piece like The Place becomes open to chance, surprise, and stochastic processes - what Parmar calls “accidents of listening.”[9] This openness, of course, is in stark contrast to the months of tweaking that went on behind the making of The Place. Timbres, tuning systems, balance, the lighting display, and other elements were adjusted with care. Alex Ross notes this same paradox between indeterminacy and, describing that The Place, on one hand, “lacks a will of its own; it is at the mercy of its data streams, the humors of the earth. On the other hand, it is a deeply personal work.” He calls this observation a “probably irresolvable philosophical contradiction.”3 But that’s part of the beauty of the “meeting” – it adds an element of complexity to a work. Soundscapes do not offer instant gratification for a listener. They leave with more questions than answers – but in a way, that’s what good art is supposed to do. In a sense, meaning has not been determined. That is up for the listener to decide.
The freedom a listener gains from being shifted into a position of active participation allows the listener to explore and find significance in the soundscape on their own terms. While a composer may have a certain idea in mind (e.g. Adams and ecocentricism), it ultimately remains the listener’s task to reconnect through their own imagination the sounds the composer has fragmented, reduced, and transducted from the soundscape. Norman compares the experience to poetry. “Poetry takes words out of their usual context and seeks to defeat the power of language, the rational ‘conditioning of forms’ that gives words their ‘normal’ sense. In this imaginative space, standard expectations are shaken. Real-world music, similarly, takes real events out of their usual context, defeating our rational balance of recognition.”3 Kim-Cohen argues that recorded sounds possess an even greater ability to decontextualize compared to poetry because in order for words to reach us they must ultimately pass through “the bottleneck of the signifier,” compressed and reduced in the process. The recorded sound, on the other hand, deliver ‘acoustic events as such,” unhampered by symbolic language and free to be transformed by the composer in ways that remove all previous associations and meanings.5 Regardless, when we have surpassed the syntactical limitations of the written word, or in this case, our normal association of a particular sound to a particular event, we are left with “the free play of our creative imagination.”3 This gives the listener an important degree of agency. No longer do they feel as if they are passively following a narrative or plot prescribed by the composer.
In this freedom, a listener listens simply for the sake of listening, and in so doing allows oneself to, as Hildegard Westerkamp has described for her own works, “‘invent new codes, invent the message at the same time as the language. [It is] playing for one’s own pleasure.” Westerkamp describes this playful approach as listening to one’s own inner world, which she ties to our notion of fantasy by comparing the activity to “giving children the time and space to develop their ‘inner life,’ by allowing them to daydream and fantasize.”[10] In this inner world, in this imagined space, Westerkamp describes that “imagined content produces metaphors for complex behaviour that would otherwise be interpreted as chaotic and meaningless.”[11] By giving them space to dream, the soundscape composer allows the listener to discover their own meaning and order out of the soundscape they hear, as Norman describes: “While not being realistic, real-world music leaves a door ajar on the reality in which we are situated. I contend that real-world music is not concerned with realism and cannot be concerned with realism because it seeks, instead, to initiate a journey which takes us away from our preconceptions, so that we might arrive at a change perhaps expanded, appreciation of reality..”[12] In the realm of soundscape composition and other works that incorporate real-world sounds, the imaginary and real do not occupy distinct spheres. Rather, the imaginary becomes immanent in the real, and the journey from the real to the imaginary and back again is a continuous path, a journey taken by the listener.[13]
[1] Westerkamp, Hildegard. "Linking soundscape composition and acoustic ecology." Organised Sound 7, no. 01 (2002): 51-56.
[2] Westerkamp, Ibid.
[3] Westerkamp, Ibid.
[4] Adams, John Luther. Winter music: composing the North. Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
[5] Adams, Ibid.
[6] Adams, Ibid.
[7] Adams, Ibid.
[8] Adams, John Luther. The place where you go to listen: In search of an ecology of music. Wesleyan University Press, 2010.
[9] Parmar, Robin. "The garden of adumbrations: reimagining environmental composition." Organised Sound 17, no. 03 (2012): 202-210.
[10] Kolber, David. "Hildegard Westerkamp's Kits Beach Soundwalk: shifting perspectives in real world music." Organised Sound 7, no. 01 (2002): 41-43.
[11] Westerkamp, Hildegard. "Listening and soundmaking: A study of music-as-environment." PhD diss., Simon Fraser University, 1988.
[12] Norman, Katherine. "Real-World Music as Composed Listening.” Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 15, Part 1 (1996).
[13] Norman, Ibid.