Schafer’s Soundscsapes

murrayschaferbwrectR. Murray Schafer [b: 1933] is a Canadian composer, writer, lecturer, music educator and environmentalist. His World Soundscape Project is one of the foundation texts of the field of acoustic ecology.  World Listening Day is held on his birthday, July 18 as part of the World Listening Project.


I was introduced to Schafer’s book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of The World by Guntis Sics.  Murray, in discussing John Cage’s 4’33” says:

… we hear only the sounds external to the composition itself, which is merely one protracted caesura …

A caesura [from Latin, for cutting] is a break between words, a pause, a complete pause in a musical composition, often marked ||.  It is the dramatic pause, or a rhetorical break,  the break in poetry which gives a rhythm or  creates musical interest.  With that in mind he goes on to say:

Today all sounds belong to a continuous field of possibilities lying within the comprehensive dominion of music. Behold the new orchestra: the sonic universe! And the musicians: anyone and anything that sounds!

This raises the issue of silence, again absent from the discussion. But Schafer looks to nature for silence:

In wintertime, the stillness, the absence of life or sound, is weird and oppressive. When the snow is on the ground, you may perceive indeed the footprints of animals, of birds, of deer, or occasionally of a bear, but you hear no sound, not a cry, not a whisper, not a rustle of a leaf. Sit down upon a fallen tree, and the silence becomes oppressive, almost painful. It is a relief even to hear at last the sough of the fall of the snow from the boughs of the cypress, the pine, or the yew, which stretch like dark horse-plumes high overhead.

Schafer argues that the mining and industrial incursions into northern lands have impacted on the cultural traditions.

As silence is chased from the world, powerful myths depart. That is to say, it becomes more difficult to appreciate the Eddas and sagas, and much that is at the center of Russian, Scandinavian and Eskimo literature and art. The traditional winter of the North is remarkable for its stillness …

After contemplating the silence of Arctic winters and the silence of a forest, he reflects:

It is as difficult for the human being to imagine an apocalyptic noise as it is for him to imagine a definitive silence.  Both experiences exist in theory only for the living since they set limits to life itself, though they may become unconscious goals toward which the aspirations of different societies are drawn.

His premise is that we have eliminated silence from our lives, so that it is seldom experienced, unless you are in outback Australia (one of his examples) or a third world desert environment, where the oppressive heat of the midday sun renders everything quiet.  Schafer considers the absence of silence in relation to theatre and radio.

One acoustic effect is rarely heard on North American radios: silence. Only occasionally, during broadcasts of One acoustic effect is rarely heard on North American radios: silence. Only occasionally, during broadcasts of theater or classical music, do quiet and silence achieve their full potentiality. A graphic level recording of a popular station will show how the program material is made to ride at the maximum permissible level, a technique known as compression because the available dynamic range is compressed into very narrow limits. Such broadcasting shows no dynamic shadings or phrasing. It does not rest. It does not breathe. It has become a sound wall.

And this sound wall  was challenged – and in Schafer’s case, he was particularly affected by what he called “the slop and spawn of Moozak and broadcast music in public places”.  This opposition was expressed so clearly the resolution unanimously passed by the General Assembly of the International Music Council of UNESCO in Paris in October, 1969.

We denounce unanimously the intolerable infringement of individual freedom and of the right of everyone to silence, because of the abusive use, in private and public places, of recorded or broadcast music. We ask the Executive Committee of the International Music Council to initiate a study from all angles—medical, scientific and juridical—without overlooking its artistic and educational aspects, and with a view to proposing to UNESCO, and to the proper authorities everywhere, measures calculated to put an end to this abuse.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Kindle Locations 2084-2089). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.

Schafer looks to the historical opposition to “noise” and finds the futurist experimenter, Luigi Russolo, and quotes from his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises (L’ Arte dei Rumori):

In antiquity, life was nothing but silence. Noise was really not born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sensibility.

And the affectation perhaps of the concert hall, in its many socially isolating vestments, including that of demanding concentration:

This is why silence is observed at concerts where it is performed. Each piece is affectionately placed in a container of silence to make detailed investigation possible.

Schafer’s colleagues investigated the number of mentions of silence in the musical literature over time, noting that it dropped from 19% to 9% over the matter of a century (1830 – 1940).  Not only that, as Schafer commented:

I am struck by the negative way in which silence is described by modern writers. There are few felicitous descriptions. Here are some of the modifiers employed by the most recent generation of writers: solemn, oppressive, deathlike, numb, weird, awful, gloomy, brooding, eternal, painful, lonely, heavy, despairing, stark, suspenseful, aching, alarming. The silence evoked by these words is rarely positive. It is not the silence of contentment or fulfillment. It is not the silence toward which this book is modulating.

Schafer is Canadian, but well aware of the origins of the ‘one minute silence’.  He mentions that in the park near the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne [now called Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria] there is a sign:

A Melbourne journalist, who,
living in London, first suggested
the solemn ceremony of

now observed in all British countries
in remembrance of those who died
in the War.

Schafer finally contemplates the fate of ‘Western Man’:

Man likes to make sounds to remind himself that he is not alone. From this point of view total silence is the rejection of the human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. As the ultimate silence is death, it achieves its highest dignity in the memorial service.

Since modern man fears death as none before him, he avoids silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life. In Western society, silence is a negative, a vacuum. Silence for Western Man equals communication hangup. If one has nothing to say, the other will speak; hence the garrulity of modern life which is extended by all kinds of sonic jabberware.

The contemplation of absolute silence has become negative and terrifying for Western Man. Thus when the infinity of space was first suggested by Galileo’s telescope, the philosopher Pascal was deeply afraid of the prospect of eternal silence. “Le silence etemel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.”

Finally the duality of man and silence becomes the central question:

When man regards himself as central in the universe, silence can only be considered as approximate, never absolute. Cage detected this relativity and in choosing Silence as the title for his book, he emphasized that for modern man any use of this term must be qualified or assumed to be ironical. Edgar Allan Poe touched on the same thing when in “Al Aaraaf” he wrote: “Quiet we call ‘Silence’—which is the merest word of all.”

Silence has power over humankind.

Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. As the ultimate silence is death, it achieves its highest dignity in the memorial service. Since modern man fears death as none before him, he avoids silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life. In Western society, silence is a negative, a vacuum.

The consequence of our relationship with silence, sometimes a portent, makes it even more potent, or even omnipotent.

Because music represents the ultimate intoxication of life, it is carefully placed in a container of silence. When silence precedes sound, nervous anticipation makes it more vibrant. When it interrupts or follows sound, it reverberates with the tissue of that which sounded, and this state continues as long as the memory holds it. Ergo, however dimly, silence sounds.

And Schafer noted that “philosophy too terminates in silence”.

Wittgenstein wrote:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”


Interview in 2011 with Murray Schafer in Corfu, Greece
Word Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) Conference

Schafer, 2011@Corfu, GR. from Rafael de Oliveira on Vimeo.


Image courtesy of Canadian Music Centre