The Father of Acoustic Ecology

A conversation with R. Murray Schafer


| July-August 2005



sound

Image by Flickr user: saraiva / Creative Commons

When it comes to listening more clearly, says R. Murray Schafer, society is in need of a big old Q-tip. “Our senses are clogged with too much,” Schafer says. He should know. The septuagenarian is a pre-eminent composer—when asked to name a great music teacher, John Cage answered, “Murray Schafer of Canada”—and writer who defined the field of “acoustic ecology” in his seminal 1977 text, The Tuning of the World (Knopf). More than a defensive tactic to fight noise pollution or block out sound, “acoustic ecology” seeks to accentuate—and revel in—the delicate balance between organisms and their sonic environment. 

“If we become too dominant and too unobservant about the other sounds in the environment—the communications systems between birds and animals, for example—then we’re ruining the richness of our whole lives,” Schafer says. 

Schafer recently spoke with Utne senior editor Anjula Razdan by phone about the lost art of listening and how we can pay attention to—and improve—our soundscape. 

Are we really noisier today than in the past? 

Complaints about noise go back to ancient Roman times. There are descriptions of vegetable carts arriving in Rome early in the morning, and some of the famous poets complain about them. One of the differences is that more and more people are living in cities, so there’s a congestion of sound that didn’t exist in the past for people who lived on farms or in small villages—those places were relatively quiet, except for the festival times, when people would get drunk and whoop it up. The types of sounds have changed too. A sound that does not exist in nature is a stationary sound, a drone. 

What produces this drone? 

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