The contemporary composer as a soundscape „super-listener”

Music is an element of the global soundscape and a kind of soundscape itself. All definitions of music are deeply related with the soundscape – they usually divide the world of sound into “music” and “the rest”. Of course we used to study relations between music and other phenomena. In musicology nowadays there are many studies considering for example the relations between music and politics, music and gender, or music and literature. But those studies compare two different fields of knowledge – similar to comparing two different figures.

While studies of the relationships between music and the soundscape are like analyses of the relationships between a figure and its background.

An analogical study could be that of poetry and the whole language in which it was created.

Composers are very active in acoustic expressions – that is obvious. But what about their acoustic impressions? Traditional musicology was not interested so much in that matter, but this should be definitely revised. Soundscape studies – mostly created by composers themselves – are opening new gates for the theory of music.

The composer in a soundscape
In 2011 I interviewed five contemporary composers (four Polish and one Lithuanian) of both sexes and different ages. I asked them about their attitude to the soundscape, and about the impact of soundscape on their music. These interviews later became the basis for my bachelor thesis about the relation between the contemporary composer and the soundscape [1]. The shortened versions of the interviews were also published in Polish contemporary music magazine Glissando [2].

I was interested in various opinions about the soundscape so I had selected composers with different backgrounds as my interlocutors. Let me briefly introduce them: Dobromiła Jaskot is one of the most important representatives of the young generation of Polish composers, her music is inspired by spectralism, just intonation, and Easternphilosophy [3]; Anna Maria Huszcza is a student of composition at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, she is specially interested in electroacoustic music; Krzysztof Knittel is a pioneer of soundscape composition in Poland, since 1970s many of his pieces and projects were deeply related to the acoustic environment; Arturas Bumšteinas – the only Lithuanian in that group – is a composer and multimedia artist inspired by minimalism, fluxus and conceptual art; Marcin Piotr Łopacki is, like Huszcza, a student of composition at The Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, his compositions are often inspired by mathematics and 20th century avant-garde.

During the interviews, it occurred that all of them refer to the acoustic environment in their creative work in various ways. Not all of my interlocutors were familiar with the concepts of soundscape and acoustic ecology. Nonetheless, each of them had fascinating thoughts about the acoustic environment, which together formed complex theories.

Their descriptions of the everyday acoustic environment were unusually detailed. Composers are very attentive to human voices in the soundscape, and to other sound events, but what more, they are sensitive to the aesthetic aspects of the acoustic environment. Thanks to their constant work with sound, composers are also very conscious of all its physical properties. While describing any kind of soundscape they use a lot of professional acoustic terminology. Each composer simply understands the acoustic phenomena much better than an ordinary listener. My interlocutors also used a lot of musical terminology to describe various aspects of soundscape. And in the cases where they wanted to describe some sound, of which features were hard to define by acoustical or musical terminology, they simply created its proper metaphorical description. Of course, all these tendencies we can easily find in the writings of R. Murray Schafer and other acoustic ecologists [4]. But their presence in all of my interviews would suggest that the idea of soundscape is rooted deeper in our culture than it might seem to be.

My interlocutors expressed their various opinions about the soundscape of modern civilisation too. Their opinions about the noisy lo-fi acoustic environment are not univocally negative. For example Dobromiła Jaskot is generally very critical of the soundscape of modern civilisation, nonetheless she admitted that the sounds of a “bubbling” engine of a public transportation bus, or the sound of an airplane taking off, they were – for her as a composer – important auditory experiences. Marcin Piotr Łopacki, asked to describe a tiring soundscape, spontaneously created a definition, confusingly similar to the definition of lo-fi environment by R. Murray Schafer. Anna Maria Huszcza admitted, that she feels uncomfortable in the silence of her family village, where she “tries to find sounds, but she cannot find them”. So the opinions of my interlocutors about hi-fi environment were also not univocaly positive.

Definitions of “noise” by Polish composers are also very interesting. In Polish language there is a separate onomatopoeic word szum to call an acoustic noise (which is free of any negative connotations). While, the word hałas, which is nearest to the English “noise”, forms in Polish an impressive, unambiguously pejorative, aesthetic and ethical category of a boring and disturbing sound.

The contemporary composer as a soundscape “super-listener”
On the basis of my interviews I find the contemporary composer a very specific type of earwitness – attentive to the aesthetic value of the soundscape, and extraordinarily conscious of the technical aspects of the acoustic phenomena in the environment. Every kind of musical education – and studying contemporary composition especially – is a kind of ear cleaning training. The mere traditional instrumentation lessons require knowledge in certain branches of acoustics. While extended techniques, microtonal music and spectral composition require deep understanding of sound properties. The growing role of space in contemporary music encourages composers to study room acoustics and sound engineering. Also creating electroacoustic and electronic music – in which a composer has to transform music data skilfully – improves the sonological competence of its author. Most composers nowadays have experience with sound recording too. All of these trends make contemporary composers a kind of “super-listeners” – people remarkably sensitive to all properties of sound.

Soundscape in composition
What distinguishes composers from other groups of extraordinary soundscape listeners (for example the visually impaired), is those activities in the field of acoustic expression. In a certain sense, the process of composing music is a process of re-composing the elements already known from the soundscape. Can we talk about music as a meta-soundscape? If the answer is yes, then soundscape studies could benefit greatly from the analysis of relationships between contemporary music and soundscape. But musicologists too, should not overlook that fact in studies of actual music. Contemporary music is related to the soundscape in many ways. It can be incorporated into composition in the form of recordings, but various structures from soundscape can be as well (consciously or unconsciously) included into compositions for traditional instruments. Present-day music is also often intentionally performed in unconventional spaces, in which the soundscape sometimes becomes an essential part of a composition. The study of relationships between a contemporary composer and soundscape could enable us to learn not only about the interesting case of a “super-listener”, but also to better understand the phenomena of contemporary music.

On the basis of interviews with five contemporary composers, regarding attitudes to the soundscape, the author builds a concept of the contemporary composer as a “super-listener” – a person remarkably sensitive to all properties of sound. He analyses the language, which was used by his interlocutors to describe soundscape and opinions about various aspects of acoustic environments. The author points out, that elements of education of contemporary composers can function as a kind of ear cleaning training. He notes the various ways in which soundscape can influence contemporary compositions. The author stresses the need of further studies on the relationship between a contemporary composer and soundscape.

[Krzysztof Marciniak: The contemporary composer as a soundscape „super-listener”, in: Sabine Breitsameter/Claudia Söller-Eckert (Eds.): The Global Composition 2012, Conference on Sound, Media, and the Environment, Proceedings (Darmstadt 2012) pp. 364-366.]

[1] Krzysztof B. Marciniak: Interpretacja relacji współczesnego kompozytora z pejzażem dźwiękowym. Na podstawie wywiadów z Dobromiłą Jaskot, Anną Marią Huszczą, Krzysztofem Knittlem, Arturasem Bumšteinasem i Marcinem Piotrem Łopackim [in Polish: The interpretation of relation between contemporary composer and soundscape. Based on interviews with Dobromiła Jaskot, Anna Maria Huszcza, Krzysztof Knittel, Arturas Bumšteinas and Marcin Piotr Łopacki.], bachelors thesis written under the advisement of dr. Agnieszka Chwiłek in the Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (manuscript, 2011).
[2] Krzysztof B. Marciniak: Wywiady z Krzysztofem Knittlem, Anną Marią Huszczą, Dobromiłą Jaskot, Marcinem Piotrem Łopackim, Arturasem Bumšteinasem [in Polish: Interviews with Krzysztof Knittel, Anna Maria Huszcza, Dobromiła Jaskot, Marcin Piotr Łopacki, Arturas Bumšteinas], Glissando, no. 18 (Warszawa: Fundacja 4.99 2011), pp. 71-79.
[3] The interview with Dobromiła Jaskot was also published in German language in a special German issue of Glissando magazine: Glissando, no. 19 (Warszawa: Fundacja 4.99 2011), pp. 110-112.
Maksymilian Kapelański: Koncepcja ‘pejzażu dźwiękowego’ w pismach R. Murray’a Schafera [in Polish: The concept of the ‘soundscape’ in the writings of R. Murray Schafer], Master’s thesis written under the advisement of Prof. dr. hab. Maciej Gołąb in the Department of Theory and Aesthetics of Music of the Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (manuscript, 1999).


Jedna uwaga do wpisu “The contemporary composer as a soundscape „super-listener”

  1. Seems like you would be in agreement with R. Murray Schafer’s viewpoint that composers are those who are best suited to assess the state of the soundscape, but you are extending your study beyond the idealistic attitude by looking at actual evidence. Some of this evidence, such as the composers’ stated relation toward some noises, offers somewhat alternate views to those expressed in Schafer’s writings. The value of systematic social studies is in their offering a counterpoint to philosophy.


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