Soundscape in the Arts

Symposium, April 8 - 10, 2010


Norges musikkhøgskole
Sound of Mu
Norsk kulturråd
Institusjonen Fritt Ord

In recent years there has been renewed interest throughout society in sonic environments. This interest is apparent in academic research and artistic works, and in environmental concerns expressed in public debate. Actions to address these issues assume different forms, including political action to protect and develop better sound environments, academic analysis and discussion, and most relevant for this symposium, the artistic use of soundscape material and ‘listening’ across traditional genre boundaries.

Soundscape is a broad term with a large variation in focus, interest, and artistic work, encompassing all types of signals in the auditory environment and theoretically approached at many levels of analysis. Many environmental perspectives have also been developed with a focus on acoustic ecology – how soundscapes inform us of the conditions for modern life in urban and rural contexts, and in nature – in antropotopes and biotopes.

This surge of interest in what was first ‘discovered’ and developed by the group that formed around Murray Schafer in Vancouver in the 1970s stems from several sources. Our acoustic environments have undergone dramatic changes, and the air is filled with different types of signals, and with higher density than earlier; we live and listen to other things. What Schaefer labeled schizophony – a disjunct between sound and acoustic source – is more a norm now than earlier due to digital processing technologies and the proliferation of electronic devices. In parallel with this development, greater attention is now given to sound as embodied with cultural significance, evidenced, for example, in such conservation efforts as BBCs social technology-driven website Save Our Sounds, and Electronic Music Foundation's curated website and festival Ear to the Earth. Sounds that might be deafened or overwhelmed by current developments are considered significant carriers of meaning, identity and cultural history.

It is tempting to suggest that this increased focus has been triggered also in a positive manner by audio technology, namely that the price/performance ratio has dropped so much that advanced tools for recording, processing and reproduction are now easily available for most people in Western societies. This relatively sudden availability has opened up the area of sonic arts to new types of users and audience, which in turn has resulted in a large influx of new ideas and desires for revisiting and reconsidering older perspectives. Much of the new interest in soundscape has evolved among artists with little formal background in music performance or composition.

Soundscape listening requires a wider awareness than what traditional musical listening relies on; it is contextually and socially oriented, and traces salience in sound's ontology and epistemology – what the sounds reference and the knowledge they can be said to embody. Works that have developed these perspectives have been produced by for example, composers John Cage, Bill Fontana, Francisco Lopez, Chris Watson, and Natasha Barrett, to name a few. In addition to the well-defined and widely accepted sonic art these composers represent, a more cross-modal approach is common in sound art, where installations frame the sonic experiences with visual elements in gallery and museum contexts. Sound is integrated in the works in ways that embrace soundscape techniques and listening, wide and contextual.

In film, sound has been important since the invention of ‘talkies’, and there is a long list of films with exceptional sound work, from filmmakers Orson Wells, David Lynch, Francis Coppola, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Marc Caro, among others. At this juncture it is interesting to revisit film sound, and to hear how it has developed through new approaches made available with emergent technologies. The idea of sonic art as ‘film for the ears’ originated as a perspective on the nature of acousmatic music, but is applicable also for the presentation of soundscape compositions, and presentations of the relatively recent genre of field recording art in various contexts.

In sum, the term soundscape has come into focus for a broad range of artists and audiences, and this coincides with both social and technological developments. A more contextual and inclusive listening method is making itself felt in contemporary music and sound art as well. This symposium aims to investigate current artistic practices with soundscape perspectives, and to contribute to reflection and discourse in this rapidly developing field.