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Soundscapes without centre

September 11, 2007


Following up on my post about the New York Times’s enthusiasm for the West Queen West stretch of Toronto: I realise now that what I was responding to was a feeling of environmental embarrassment: the piece was obviously appealing to would-be hipsters, or non-hipsters who share the hipster’s compulsion to be at the centre of things. I’m all about an aesthetics of periphery without centre — little wonder, then, that my response to a piece that placed me, approximately, near the centre of things, was to start thinking about bats and insect songs and quieter features of the local soundscape.

The reason why I work with sound, and why I often find film, when mishandled, a very tiring medium, is that the ear’s capacity for hearing in all directions at once. Sound can, of course, become “imperialistically dominating”, and the increasing misuse of sound in this way is the story that R. Murray Schafer tells in his seminal book The Soundscape. But an attentiveness to marginal sounds is a good way to surprise yourself with the persistence of things that have been cleared out of the way.


The area of the city that was being celebrated by the New York Times as a new hub is also the site of Garrison Creek, a short stream, now almost entirely filled in, that shaped much of the landscape of the western side of downtown Toronto, sculpting the natural ampitheatres and ravines in the Christie Pitts and Trinity Bellwoods parks. As far as looking goes, you’d only know that the creek used to be there from the plaques placed around the area to commemorate what was built over; but taking a sound-walk through these areas in during the right seasons proves that the creek as a habitat is still audible. Crickets, beetles and bats all throw their songs around in this area — sounds that have been nudged to the periphery, but refuse to go away entirely. Listening to the soundscape of this part of the city, you get a good sense of various pasts of an environment co-existing.

Crickets are fantastic because they are almost always heard but not seen. Unless you get right in amongst them and pick out individual voices, the sound they produce en masse is a dense one, almost entirely without spatial perspective, “seemingly without foreground or background”, as Schafer has commented.


R. Murray Schafer describes the industrial revolution’s main impression on the soundscape of the western world as being the introduction of the flat line of sound, produced by the hums or drones of traffic, power-lines, air-conditioning units and purposely-built white noise generators to act of “sound walls” to eliminate “distraction” (otherwise known as the perception of the world) in the workplace. The result of all this is a lo-fi sonic environment, an environment with a low signal-to-noise ratio. Natural voices are the kind of keynote sounds, or “signals” that would often be eliminated in these industrialised, lo-fi soundscapes, but brilliance of the urban crickets consists in the fact that they were always already dealing in flat lines of sound, in proto-electro drones. They remain right at home, then, in an urban sonic environment — one which, if you walk through the park at the right time of night, seemingly has no centre.

There are also insects living in the trees in my local park that make a sound that completely disrupts my understanding of acoustic space. The noise, made mostly on sunny afternoons, is like the buzz of a very over-active powerline, and seems to travel right over my head from one side of the park to the other.

I’ve no idea what’s making these sounds, and part of me thinks that I really don’t need to know. I love their heard-but-not seen, acousmatic quality (and the term “acousmatic” is historically linked to Pythagoras, who supposedly instructed his students from behind a screen, so as not to distract them from their instruction — which is a much healthier type of screen than white noise screens, because it’s used to provoke rather than prevent thought). Returning to my R. Murray Schafer, though, I find myself reprimanded for my ignorance. Talking about birdsong, Schafer comments:

“I heard a bird” is a frequent reply I receive following a listening walk in the city.
“What bird?”
“I don’t know.” Lingustic accuracy is not merely a matter of lexicography. We perceive only what we can name. In a man-dominated world, when the name of a thing dies, it is dismissed from society, and its very existence may be imperiled.

In that case, I have a whole catalogue of Singing Insects of North America that I’d better be searching through.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Virginia permalink
    September 11, 2007 9:36 pm

    When naming animals, insects, etc… do you think we got a bit lazy?
    “Hey whats that thing doing? eating ants? Let’s call it……. Anteater, next!”

  2. September 11, 2007 9:45 pm

    I like the Germanic practicality of that, though.
    Lord Byron had a horse called Oateater.

  3. Virginia permalink
    September 11, 2007 9:55 pm

    I don’t think I would want to be named or classified by what I eat… “Chocolateater” or “McNuggeteater” but thats just me.

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