Friday, January 28, 2005

When I Listen To The World It’s An Act of Aestheticism Or Else

We tentatively reach for new works by David Toop, what with his penchant for descriptions more evasive then illuminating and eschewment of fully flushed linear writing in favor of a kind of episodic assembly of ideas, personal ruminations, and tangents that are oftentimes frustratingly fleeting when they’re most intriguing and long-winded when at their dullest. Still, his books are good for generating inspiration and offering interesting ideas or anecdotes in need of further exploration. In his latest, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory (a title way too alluring to pass up, right?) he talks about the Canadian composer/teacher R. Murray Schafer, one of the founders of the acoustic ecology movement and coiner of such terms as soundscape and sound mark. In the late 60’s and early 70’s Schafer taught college classes that explored “Cageian concepts of creative hearing,” published the influential book, The Tuning of the World and founded The Vancouver Soundscape in order to document and protect sonic environments from a historical perspective (i.e., acoustic ecology) which Toop describes as such:

He devised the term ‘soundmark,’ a derivation from landmark, to describe ‘a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community.’ This established the conservationist agenda in Schafer’s work, as well as seeding poetic and socially constructive links between soundscape and memory. In the late 1960’s, Schafer founded the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and in the early 1970’s, members of the Project created a highly influential publication (a book and two LP records) entitled The Vancouver Soundscape. Here was the historical perspective otherwise missing from audio recordings. Statistics on the introduction of telephones mix with documentation of police signals, bellringing and muzak, photographs of sound generators such as steam trains, and written accounts of the noise of the Hastings Saw Mill Company or the spooky sound of the Point Atkinson foghorn, echoing under a sewing machine. The book concludes with a suggested soundwalk through a historic part of Vancouver, a guided tour past the whirr-click of Fleck Brothers’ clock, the Western Electric neon light and the varying road surfaces by Young Iron Works.

Toop goes on to offer critiques of Schafer’s acoustic ecology/conervationist postition, calling it ‘aversive to urbanism,’ confusing ‘issues of health and environment with aesthetic judgment (Schafer is quick, supposedly, to let us know what sounds he thinks are “rich”) and even his belief that future soundscapers have an activist role rather then a sensual, purely aesthetic one.

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