Technology reveals information but annuls perception

No iPod and no headphones in that photo, instead I am listening to what Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently described as the Divine Radio. The photo was taken this morning and I am walking on the GR 4 hiking trail near Beaumes de Venise. Of course the scenery is breathtaking; but so is what R. Murray Schafer termed the soundscape - the sounds of the immersive environment. The very low ambient noise level in this unspoilt region means that sound carries for miles, and a distant dog barking becomes an aural event. Today we found ourselves on a ridge midway between Sainte-Madeleine and Notre Dame de l'Annonciation as the bells at both monasteries announced Sexte; the result was the camponological equivalent of the timpani duel in Nielsen's Fourth Symphony. No iPod and no music streaming is no problem at such a time, because as composer, educator and visionary R. Murray-Schafer tells us: "technology annuls perception as much as it reveals information". In 1973 Murray-Schafer, who was leading the World Sounscape Project at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, was invited by CBC to create a series of radio programmes on the theme of 'Soundscapes of Canada'. The following is an extract from the briefing note he sent to the students that worked with him on the project. I suggest that the new controller of BBC Radio 3 Alan Davey uses it as a template when he tells his inherited production team what he expects of them.
I want you, therefore, to begin considering ways to make our work the subject of household conversations across the country. These programmes must be radically inventive - unlike anything you have ever heard from a loudspeaker before. they must be rich, informative, shocking, bold, sweet, sad, urgent...
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Steve said…
Yes, yes, a hundred times yes! My wife and I sometimes retreat to a primitive cabin deep in the North Carolina mountains. No running water; no electricity; a place where cell-phone coverage goes to die. Within yards of the cabin, a mountain stream rushes downhill to join the New River many miles away. The beautiful white noise of the stream, punctuated by the odd bird call produces our Divine Radio. We experience sometimes the feeling there of one long mediation, a heightened experience of passing moments. Thank you, Bob.
Scott said…
An interesting item ...thank you.

I've seen the same thought expressed a few times recently. It's always struck me as sad that there seem to be so many who don't realize what they're doing to themselves. For whatever reason, I've never wanted a sound track when walking outdoors. I claim no superior insight or anything; I've just found that the sights and sounds go together and I don't want to disrupt that. I wonder if folks who talk about "the silent forest" have ever spent much time in a forest.

Also, I'm enjoying the comments about Murray Schafer, whose music of various types I admire. (For some reason I'm reminded of Michael Flanders' comments about The Gnu being "part of a series of animal songs that we wrote for Ian Wallace, an artist we very much admire" ... pause ... "We have several of his paintings at home.")

In any event, I had a most interesting 20 minute conversation with Schafer some years back in a bumpy graveled parking lot while waiting for our daughter to emerge from a few weeks in the woods as a flute player for the Wolf Project. Schafer said it was one of his favourite endeavours, a major factor being that the participants are the only audience.

There's a comment of his in this post on which I have a slightly different perspective - "technology annuls perception as much as it reveals information". To me, it's the use of technology that makes available that power, but you don't have to allow it. To use a woodsy comparison, the chainsaw neither increases your yield of pulpwood nor cuts off your foot; it's your appropriate vs inappropriate use (or skilled vs clumsy). I think this is a worthwhile distinction.

Look forward to more posts in what seems to have become a sort of thematic series.

You may well be familiar with these, Pliable, but I'd recommend both the Potrait of Murray Schafer ( and his string quartets (there are a few recordings). There are recordings of a number of other works as well.
Pliable said…
Thanks Scott. Yes, I am familiar with R. Murray-Schafer's String Quartets in the excellent recording of the complete cycle by the Molinari Quartet, for which many of the quartets were written. Bearing in mind my post I probably should not say this, but I have the complete cycle of Murray-Schafer's Quartets with me here in France on my iPod Classic!

The total neglect of both Murray-Schafer's music and of his pioneering ideas on music education and soundscapes baffles me. He became marginally fashionable after the publication of Sounding of the World in the late 1970s but has since languished in totally unjustified obscurity. This despite his visionary thinking speaking directly to the crisis of relevance that currently faces classical music.

On An Overgrown Path uncovers so many fascinating connections and I am thrilled to hear that your daughter participated in the Wolf Project. That is a project that could teach Max Hole and the other latterday revisionists a thing or two, if only they knew who R. Murray-Schafer was.

His books Patria: the Complete Cycle and recently published memoir My Life on Earth and Elsewhere are essential reading for anyone concerned about the future of art music.
Philip Amos said…
First, Bob, may I just mention, so as not to strew confusion among those new to his music and searching indexes, that Murray is Shafer's preferred first name, so his name takes no hyphen. I seem to recall that the NML catalogue lists him under both M and S, which helpeth not.

Secondly, I just a few minutes ago discovered that Sony most kindly saves you the trouble of loading the ipod if you should be driving. I don't know if this is part of a series, but they have an issue entitled Drive Time: The Pacific Coast Highway. I've driven most of that in summer and in winter, and during neither did I require a soundtrack to accompany the glories along it. But I was just intrigued by the producers' notions of suitable music, thus:

Beethoven Symphony No. 6. 1st move.
Grieg Holberg Suite. 1st. Move.
Sibelius Symphony No. 2. 1st. Move.
Rodrigo. THAT Concierto. Adagio.
Torke Javelin
Nielson Symphony No.3. Andante.
Hovhaness Symphony No 2. 1st. Move.
Sibelius Symphony No. 5. 3rd Movement.

On my part, I've never cared for the Grieg and never heard the Torke, apparently written for the Olympic Games. Otherwise, the Sibelius 2, Nielsen 3, Hovhaness 2 are works of which I'm very fond, and the Sibelius 5 a work very special to me. But how these befit that highway I have no idea. And even if thought they did, the last thing I'd want is to be listening to them, for my very fondness for some would distract me from the wonders to be seen moving along, and seen and heard and smelt on the frequent stops I, certainly, would want to make.

I suspect from the fact that half the pieces are first movements may reflect the amount of thought given this, coming as it does from the corporation that brought us 'Mahler's Complete Adagios'. (--: Perhaps the last movement of my beloved Sibelius 5 was chosen because they thought those final chords fitting as your drive South comes to an end, hopelessly lost on the freeways of San Diego or even wedged under a Mack truck.
Anonymous said…
I recognize that you don’t like it when someone disagrees with you, but this post is sloppy. The title is a nice phrase and has a seed of truth, but it’s inaccurate. Normal perception operates continuously except when it’s extinguished by sleep, drugs, or worse. What technology does is retrain focus from the sensorium to media. Because consciousness can deal with only a limited amount of perceived stimuli at once, media placed in the ear or close to the eye (e.g., handheld screens) have a tendency to mask the range of stimuli occurring in one’s immediate environment. People who are screenheads, wall-to-wall earbud listeners, and typically inveterate multitaskers generally elect to focus their attention on their gadgets, believing (falsely) in the value of the media found therein. But there is no lack of perception, just a shallow, distracted perception. Put a slightly different way, media addicts are living in their heads rather than their bodies and tune in mostly the prefab, debased products of media rather than, say, the glories of nature.
Pliable said…
Brutus, let me explain why I greet comments like this with less than alacrity. On An Overgrown Path is a blog - a personal weblog on which I express personal views. It comes as no surprise that many people disagree with my views; because I write posts like this to present an alternative viewpoint that needs to be heard. Comments of disagreement are almost certainly not going to change my views, and all they do is degenerate into tedious circular arguments which generate a considerable administrative overhead. (As background, this discussion is being enabled via a flaky public network in France.)

This is a personal blog, not an open forum. Which is why I have often considered disabling the comments facility - as an example Alex Ross' blog does not allow comments. But on balance I still consider that comments pointing out errors of fact or adding new information justify - for the moment - retaining the facility.

There is an additional reason why I am not enthusiastic about comments such as yours. A considerable amount of work goes into checking and cross-referencing the content here. There may be contentious views, or, indeed, errors of fact. But dismissing a considered view supported by quotes from an authority such as Murray Schafer as "sloppy" I find unhelpful in the extreme.

You say "this post is sloppy" when in fact you mean you disagree with it, and there is a big difference between those two viewpoints. "Sloppy" and other perjoratives used in comments of disagreement are the argot of the social media and, for me, they are a barrier to considered debate. Which is why you are right in one respect, I am not too keen on comments of dissent such as yours.
Philip Amos said…
Just an unexpected train of thought, Bob, and I apologize in advance if you have already made reference to this. For some reason, the comment of Brutus, which seems to me a wholesale ignoratio elenchi, brought to mind Hildegard Westerkamp, an erstwhile colleague of Shafer's still associated, I think, with Simon Fraser University.

And she in turn made me think of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. I cannot but think that the various ideas you have put forward in this particular thread will stimulate the curiosity of many -- it's surely got me thinking the more about a subject of which I did already have some knowledge, but now I think far from enough -- for while the essence of what Schafer says is really quite simple, it has a multitude of aspects that make it complex indeed. And so, I would recommend that those interested to learn more look at the articles in Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, of which I believe Westerkamp is a member of the Board. It serves as the journal of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and while I should say Schafer wrote the theme, the variations to be found therein are immensely varied and often fascinating.

I very much hope you won't find it for the better to abolish comments, Bob, but I must say that I should myself bar those written under pseudonyms, the more so when the person has his/her own blog and won't even identify themselves on there.
Pliable said…
Thanks Philip. I am afraid that my tolerance of the smart put-down that is the currency of social media diminishes as I grow older. The social media measures of 'likes' and 'friends' just don't interest me. The way that I look at it is that if just one reader has learnt about the work and music of Murray Schafer as a result of this post, it will have been worthwhile.

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