Nature’s Decrescendo

In Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world, the author begins to postulate how changing sounds affect human life. The study of this was explained in a way I hadn’t before considered. Though I knew that daily life and images of the past were studied through first-hand accounts from that era, either through written or artistic works, I had not previously considered that the sounds of the time needed first-hand accounts. The author mentions knowing “the ambient sound level” at the time of a diary entry from the amount of miles away Niagra Falls could be heard. The increased ambient sound level is–at least for me–a seldom considered effect of industrialization. Though this increase may not be as negative as increased carbon emissions, it still harms human’s relations with the environment. As electronic noises increase, we are increasingly detached from nature and can picture with greater ease a world with less nature. Our norm becomes traffic rather than birds, leading us further down a path of industrialization.

The author also argues that the health of the community can be discerned from the tone of their music: rigid music in a time of stability, chaotic music in a time of unrest, and so on. This idea can be applied both to the ambient sounds of the modern world and to modern music. With increased congestion in cities, ambient noise worldwide has increased to a frantic pace, mirroring the increased rush of modern life. Instead of waking up to soothing bird calls, we are awoken to blaring horns reminding us to get a move on. This is also mirrored in our music in the increased use of electronically produced sounds. Instead of invoking images of nature, most modern songs reflect the chaos of daily life. Harsh drum beats of rock’n’roll has replaced the soothing tones of cellos for most modern music enthusiasts. These changes have both reflected and encouraged a more human-centric lifestyle; our separation from the sounds of nature has pushed nature to a lower priority than humans as we are increasingly less reminded of its existence.

Listen and learn

Picture found on Pixabay
By: Christian Birkholz

Reading “Voices from the Land” reminded me that there are so many ways in which we take for granted the environment around us. We assume it will always be there and we rarely give it a second chance. One section in the chapter really stood out to me though, the story about the Wy-am tribe and their sacred waterfall. Their lives for generations had revolved around this one waterfall. They not only fished in this specific area but they considered it a sacred voice where divine messages were conveyed to them. Unfortunately on the morning of March 10th, 1957 US Army Corps of Engineers had the steel gates of the Dalles Dam to shut tight which in turn submerged the sacred water and fishing site for the Wy-am tribe. 

This story reminds me about how a great deal of our conversations in class have emphasized the fact that minorities and the most vulnerable people in our population will be the first ones to feel the effects of climate change. The indigenous tribes in the US treat the land with more care and compassion than we have as a whole and they respect the earth in a way that we have yet to learn and put into practice. 

Fragmented Solutions

Image result for broken ecosystem
Forest fragmentation. Photo from by Ellen Damschen.

A soundscape, like an ecosystem, cannot be evaluated on the basis of a single organism. As discussed by Bernie Kraus, sound fragmentation takes noise out of context where it can be manipulated for other purposes. Listening to a fragment of a soundscape removes meaning and value of the sound; the power of sound stems from its interactions with other sounds. This idea of fragmentation is similar to how we are approaching climate change solutions.

The global climate is a complex and deeply interconnected system. Currently, many approaches to climate solutions are unilateral and fragmented, only dealing with one issue or one side of an issue. There are local regimes put into place to try and address with deforestation, but they don’t deal with the root cause of deforestation. We have sustainable energy systems dispersed to some, but nowhere near all, locations on earth while the rest of the population relies on fossil fuels. There exist laws and regulations on fishing and poaching to regulate species population, but these address one species and often fail to explain the importance of species’ larger ecologic impact (although they do often focus on the economic impact). These fragmented actions, while beneficial for their own sector, often lose sight of the intrinsic interconnectedness of ecosystems. Regimes, laws, and individual states strive to regulate one aspect of the global ecosystem, and similar to sound fragmentation, neglect to account for the interactions among the varying components. Instead of approaching solutions from a case to case basis, we would benefit from stepping back and evaluating the environmental crisis as a whole. This would allow for better understanding of the complexities and nuances that so intimately bind together our planet. Similarly, states would benefit from working together to build international regimes to manage international resources and issues, as opposed to focusing on resources within their own borders. Nature does not adhere to political borders, and neither should we.

The Beauty of Our Soundscape May Not Last Forever

“The general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society” (Schafer, 7). As the acoustics of our environment change, it is clear that our society is trending towards destruction of the natural Earth. Because of our relentless extraction and depletion of the Earth’s resources, we are forcing landscapes and our environments to change in ways that have the potential to damage life beyond repair. The acoustic environment around us, may never be the same either. As Schafer puts it in The Tuning of the World, there may be no earwitnesses left who have borne witness to the sounds of nature untouched by humankind. Further, the powerful sounds of wind, water, forests and more result in a world that is distinctly impoverished (Shafer, 10). This is a convincing sentiment, but one that almost seems like a privileged thought when compared to the myriad of maladies climate change has and will cause.

Shafer’s discussion of the power of soundscapes bears similarity to, but also stark contrast, to that of Krause’s awe and fascination. As she puts it in chapter 2 of her book, The Great Animal Orchestra, the world is “abounding with life.” Krause discusses the animals of nature, “performing their unified chorus as they have each day and night since the beginning” (Krause, 11). Cynically, I can not help but think, ‘not for long.’ I could not help but grow saddened as Krause describes the inherent value found in wild sounds and how integral they are to life. If we aren’t careful, we might never understand this information before it’s gone. I think for too long, we have been hearing without truly listening. We can stand in awe of the power and beauty of the music of nature, yet we do nothing to understand, nor preserve.

A Small Tangent: while I deeply agree with the significance of wild sounds, I think some thought on this topic must be given for those who are deaf. This argument for the value of the sounds of nature is strong, to be sure, but how the value is imparted unto others should not be weighted the same. I do not think I have the tools to discuss this concept in full, but I wanted to bring awareness to a concept that I think is important.

Can We Listen to the Climate?

As I read through “Soundscape- The Tuning of the World,” by R. Murray Schafer, I had one primary question in mind: how does this topic relate to the Anthropocene and the climate crisis? By the end of the chapter, I feel that I was able to logically connect previous readings and the excerpt by R. Murray Schafer.

R. Murray Schafer describes a soundscape as “any acoustic field of study.” To elaborate further on a soundscape, R. Murray Schafer provides three examples of soundscapes: a musical composition, a radio program, or an acoustic environment. A soundscape is created as a result of the climate and the features and organisms within it. R. Murray Schafer also describes the function of a soundscape and its interaction with man and society. R. Murray Schafer describes the tone of the soundscape as being indicative of the “health” of the environment or government. For example, the grace and sophistication of the works of Mozart were created during the reign of Maria Teresa. Additionally, R. Murray Schafer relates this to tribalized and detribalized areas, where tribalized areas have structured music (community controlled), while detribalized areas often have individuals signing sentimental songs. 

R. Murray Schafer briefly touches on the importance of the ears versus the eyes. Before the Renaissance Era and the creation of the printing press, the ears were the most vital sense. Before the Renaissance Era, R. Murray Schafer describes God as heard, not seen. In most African communities, the ears are still the most dominant feature, yet this has changed for the developed world. In Western Europe and the United States, sight has become the most vital sense, where “seeing is believing.” Noises are often filtered out, with only warning signals creeping through. 

These descriptors of what a soundscape is, and how the soundscape interacts with man and society brought me to the conclusion as to why this excerpt from R. Murray Schafer was relevant and how it related to the Anthropocene and the climate crisis. As described above, the soundscape reflects the “health” of the environment and government and during Maria Teresa’s reign, Mozart was the most influential musician. The dominant genre or type of music isn’t classical, it’s hip hop, R&B, and rap (some would argue country as well). These songs often aren’t soothing, and many of the popular songs are written about death and tragedy and judgement. Today, the United States government is arguably falling apart, with resignations occurring weekly. The entirety of the United Kingdom is arguing about Brexit. And the world faces the threat of Islamic Extremism and terrorism. This both indicates a social/political and ecological crisis. When our governments aren’t healthy or productive (cohesive and working together), how are they supposed to combat the climate crisis and humanitarian issues? 

R. Murray Schafer brings up the concept of noise pollution, quite literally how construction and cars and other human made sounds cover up/ block the natural soundscape. Humans have also become skilled at filtering out noise, with sight being the most dominant of the five senses. Yet, even though humans in Western countries have become so good at ignoring sounds, we recognize noise pollution. And through it we recognize the failing health of our environment and the failing health of our government. Humans recognize the ecological crisis and have a desire to put an end to it. Humans (some) are listening to the planet and working to find a solution.