Acoustic Space

Exploring the Aural World
R. Murray Schafer


1. [Ed. note] The full text of this article is available on the Circuit website. This article was originally published in: Schafer, R. M. (1993), Voices of Tyranny, Temples of Silence, Indian River (Ontario), Arcana Editions, pp. 29-44. This book is available here.

2. Carpenter, Edmund (1973), Eskimo Realities, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston pp. 35-37. Multifaceted American anthropologist Edmund (“Ted”) Snow Carpenter (1922–2011) was an ethnologist, archeologist, filmmaker, and communications theorist. An authority on the Arctic peoples of the circumpolar regions, their art and archeology, he has also studied and written about the peoples and art of New Guinea, Borneo, and Tibet. He was, in addition, a leading figure in the Toronto School that developed modern communications studies and a pioneer in the visual anthropology movement that used film to document cultures. Carpenter also provided feedback and extensive editorial contributions for the book that would transform his friend McLuhan into an international superstar and media “guru”: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

3. McLuhan, Marshall (1960), “Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath,” Carpenter, Edmund and McLuhan, Marshall (eds.) (1960), Explorations in Communication: An Anthology, Boston, Beacon Press, p. 207.

4. Proust wrote of the sound of the bell as “oval.” A few years ago, when I had a group of students draw spontaneously to sounds played on tape, the bell was one of the sounds evoking the greatest circularity. The other sound was that of the air conditioner. See Schafer, R. M. (1973), The Music of the Environment, Vienna, Universal Edition, p. 21.

5. See European Sound Diary, p. 16.




R. Murray Schafer


Acoustic Ecology

According to such influential books by Marshall McLuhan as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), the shift from the aurality to literality and print culture went hand in hand with a shift in the hierarchy of the senses from the primacy of hearing to the primacy of seeing.


According to McLuhan, the medium of electricity brought us back to aural world:

Visual man is the most extreme case of abstractionism because he has separated his visual faculty from the other senses, giving him unlimited powers of blue-printing knowledge and experience of political programming. Only Graeco-Roman man has ever had this visual faculty in isolation, and today it is threatened, not by any single factors such as television or radio, but by the electric speed of information movement in general. Electric speed is approximately the speed of light, and this constitutes an information environment that has basically an acoustic structure. At the speed of light, information is simultaneous from all directions and this is the structure of the act of hearing, i.e., the message or effect of electric information is acoustic.

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987.

The clearly dominant element of seeing and the visual element in academic studies and education was challenged in Vancouver in the late 1960s by Raymond Murray Schafer, Barry Truax and later, Hildegard Westerkamp. They proposed a concept of “soundscape,” which links the external reality with the cognitive processes which enable humans to understand these processes. The Soundscape Project also included the aim to map past and present soundscapes as a way to preserve “soundmarks” and “sound environments” which are in danger of disappearing. Schafer, Truax and Westerkamp proposed combining an increased awareness of our sonic environment with an active agency, or “tuning of the world,” to contribute to a higher quality sonic environment and to transform the “lo-fi” soundscapes caused by industrialization and mechanization through the means of sound design and soundscape composition into a “hi-fi” soundscape.

In the autobiographical book My Life on Earth and Elsewhere (2012) by Canadian writer, philosopher and composer Raymond Muray Schafer, he states that probably his first real ecological work was the composition Music for Wilderness Lake from 1979:

I had been canoeing around one of the many unpeopled lakes in the Madawaska area and had noticed how the sounds changed throughout the day and evening. I decided to write a work for the lake and take advantage of those changes,” he wrote. “Just at this time I was approached by a group of 12 trombone players who wanted me to write a piece for them. I suggested my idea and they liked it.

According to the YouTube video documentation, Schafer’s composition is actually performed on a lake. Some trombonists stand on a raft in the middle of the lake, others are on shore and, in a boat, the conductor gives commands using white and red flags. In fact, it was not entirely original, not even in the field of contemporary classical music. The composition of Arseny Avra’s Symphony of Sirens, which premiered in 1922, took place throughout the city and port of Baku. It used not only the sounds of factory sirens, but also cannons and the engines of flying planes. Alvin Curran, too, performed the sounds of marine sirens and other sea sounds, including the voices of animals from the east coast of the United States, in a series of ten environmental radio concerts he composed in 1985 under the title Maritime Rites. However, Curran connected it with improvisations by John Cage, Joseph Celli, Clark Coolidge, Jon Gibson, Malcolm Goldstein, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros and Leo Smith, and listeners were also seated on boats in the middle of the music.

However, Shafer’s composition for lake and trombones modestly and chastely leaves more space and time for the sounds of the lake itself, including the sound of waves lapping against rafts, the calls of birds, the wind blowing, the leaping fish on the surface — the polyphony of nature itself. Of course, Schafer was neither the first nor the only one to proclaim that there were too many human sounds, noises, and rumbles in the modern world; that there is too much of a riot around us to feel happy in it. Seventy years ago, Schafer’s voice as a musician and sound ecologist pointed to the archaic animistic myths of natural peoples that perceived everything around them as part of living nature. The world around us and within us is something that requires our attention and protection: animals, rocks, rivers, the sea, clouds, the moon and sun. Taken as a whole, it’s the only living thing people have to take care of, or else it will take them down with it. And Schafer named these voices; he called it a soundscape. As with other religious constructs such as the universe, visible, tangible, or fragrant landscapes, these are stories of how we can be settled in the world, how we seek and find home within the world. As with the dream world in which the Aboriginals lived, a world that must be constantly maintained through rituals accompanied by singing and dancing, otherwise it will disappear and people will not be with it.

Editor’s Note

Exploring the Aural World

(An excerpt from Voices of Tyranny, Temples of Silence, 1993.)

As far as I know, the first scholars to use the term “acoustic space” were Marshall McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter in their magazine Explorations, which appeared between 1953 and 1959. There, McLuhan wrote:

Until writing was invented, we lived in acoustic space, where the Eskimo now lives: boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition, terror. Speech is a social chart of this dark bog. 1 Speech structures the abyss of mental and acoustic space, shrouding the voice; it is a cosmic, invisible architecture of the human dark. Speak that I may see you. Writing turned the spotlight on the high, dim Sierras of speech; writing was the visualization of acoustic space. It lit up the dark. 2

This statement permeates all McLuhan’s writings from The Gutenberg Galaxy onwards. For McLuhan, the electric world was aural; it moved us back into the acoustic space of preliterate culture. Carpenter developed the theme in Eskimo Realities, where “auditory space” is employed as an interchangeable term: Auditory space has no favoured focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed-in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. It has no fixed boundaries; it is indifferent from background. The eye focuses, pinpoints, abstracts, locating each object in physical space against a background; the ear, however, favours sound from any direction … I know of no example of an Eskimo describing space primarily in visual terms.3

Despite McLuhan and Carpenter’s infatuation with the concept, acoustic space did not attract critical attention until the World Soundscape Project was established at Simon Fraser University in 1970. The project’s intention was to study all aspects of the changing soundscape to determine how these changes might affect people’s thinking and social activities. The project’s ultimate aim was to create a new art and science of soundscape design complementary to those in other disciplines dealing with aspects of the visual environment.

Anyone who has tried to hone a new concept for delivery to the public knows how essential it is to find the right tag words to describe it. “Acoustic space” is too awkward a term to have conferred fame on its inventor. Perhaps one reason is its hybridity, marking it as transitional, caught between two cultures. The fixity of the noun “space” needs something more than the application of such a restless and vaguely understood modifier as “acoustic” to suggest the transition from visual into aural culture as McLuhan perceived it. Nor is it easy to subject aural culture to the same systematic analysis that has characterized visual thinking. The world of sound is primarily one of sensation rather than reflection. It is a world of activities rather than artifacts, and whenever one writes about sound or tries to graph it, one departs from its essential reality, often in absurd ways. I recall once attending a conference of acoustical engineers where for several days I saw slides and heard papers on various aspects of aircraft noise without ever once hearing the sonic boom that was the object of the conference. This lack of contact is characteristic of much of the research on sound still, and one aim of this essay is to show the extent to which considerations with space, the static element in the title of this essay, have affected the active element, sound.

When one first tries to conceptualize acoustic space, the geometrical figure that most easily comes to mind is the sphere, as Carpenter evoked it above. One would then argue that a sound propagated with equal intensity in all directions simultaneously would more or less fill a volume of this description, weakening towards the perimeter until it disappeared altogether at a point that might be called the acoustic horizon. It is clear at once how many spatial metaphors we must use to fulfill this notion. In every sense it is a hypothetical model. In reality, what happens is that sound, being more mysterious than scientists would like to believe, inhabits space rather erratically and enigmatically. First of all, most sounds are not sent travelling omnidirectionally but unidirectionally, the spill away from the projected direction being more accidental than intentional. Then, since there is normally less concern with the transmission of sounds in solids than with their transmission through air, the model should be corrected to be something more like the hemisphere above ground level. Experience shows that this hemisphere is distorted in numerous ways as a result of refraction, diffraction, drift and other environmental conditions. Obstructions such as buildings, mountains and trees cause reverberations, echoes and “shadows.” In fact, the profile of any sound under consideration will be quite unique, and acknowledgement of the laws of acoustics is probably less effective in explaining its behaviour than in confounding it. Finally, and most importantly, the sphere described is assumed to be filled by one sound only. That is to say, a sound-sphere filled is a dominated space.

The sphere concept may have originated in religion. It is in religions, particularly those stressing a harmonious universe ruled by a benevolent deity, that the circle and the sphere were venerated above all figures. This is evident in Boethius’ Harmony of the Spheres, in Dante’s circles of paradise, and in the mandalas that serve as visual yantras in numerous Eastern religions. I will not dwell on this symbolism which, as Jung explained, seems to suggest completion, unity or perfection. The sounding devices used in religious ceremonies such as the Keisu or Keeyzee of Japan and Burma, the temple gongs of India and Tibet, and the church bells of the Western world all retain something of the circle in their physical forms, and by extension their sound may seem to evoke a similar shape.4

This circling is quite literally true of the church bell, which defines the parish by its acoustic profile. The advantage of the bell over visual signs such as clock faces and towers is that it is not restricted by geographical hindrances and can announce itself during both day and darkness. In one of the studies of the Soundscape Project, it was determined that a village church bell in Sweden could be heard across a diameter of fifteen kilometers and there can be little doubt that in past times, given a much quieter ambient environment in the countryside, this kind of outreach was general throughout Christendom.

In the late Middle Ages, the intersecting and circumjacent arcs of parish bells quite literally gripped the entire community by the ears, so that when Martin Luther wrote that every European was born into Christendom, he was merely endorsing a circumstance that was in his time unavoidable. Those who could hear the bells were in the parish; those who could not were in the wilderness. The same thing happened in Islam, which centered on the minaret, from which the voice of the muezzin, often blind, could be heard giving the call to prayer. To increase the sounding area, or to maintain it against increasing disturbance, Islam eventually adopted the loudspeaker, which can be seen throughout the Middle East today, hanging incongruously from mosaic-studded towers, booming out over perpetual traffic jams. Like Islam, Christianity was a militant religion, and as it grew in strength, its bells became larger and more dominating (the largest of those in Salzburg Cathedral weighs 14,000 kilograms), responding to its imperialistic aspirations for social power. There can be no doubt that bells were the loudest sounds to be heard in European and North American cities until the factory whistles of the Industrial Revolution rose to challenge them. Then a new profile was incised over the community, ringing the workers’ cottages with a grimier sound.


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