By Marcus Maeder

 In recent years, the arts and the natural sciences have come closer together. On the part of the sciences, indications for this new proximity can be found in the more intensive use of (and the changed requirements on) media and communication technologies, which increasingly raise aesthetic issues in relation both to the testability and representation of research objects and the communicability and societal handling of research results. From the arts, an increased focus on environmental problems, such as climate change and the sustainable use of natural resources, has been revealed. Behind this is the intention to render processes taking place in the environment into a direct, aesthetic, emotional experience – and hence one that can be culturally reflected upon, thereby arriving not only at new modes of perceiving nature but also a new environmental awareness. Consequently, the last few years have witnessed the emergence of artistic disciplines, such as Eco Art and Bioart, or collaboration programmes, such as «Artists in Labs», where artistic experimenting with research, presentation methods and insights gained from the natural sciences has taken place, and the scientific mode of working – the understanding of nature – reflected and transformed in aesthetic semantic fields and cultural contexts.

There exists great transdisciplinary and societal potential in collaborative projects from the arts and sciences. Method and theory transfers in both directions hold possibilities to come up with innovative experimental and communication designs and – beyond that – to altered avenues of reflection in each individual domain. Integrative projects on environmental themes are able to open up new communication paths for research results and thus directly and efficiently influence societal discourse concerning environmental awareness and behaviour.

The course advertised here is set up in a specific, practical overlapping area of art and science, i.e. Acoustic Ecology. In Acoustic Ecology, there is an overlapping of aesthetic and ecological issues when it comes to exploring, evaluating and communicating an ecosystem on the basis of its acoustic characteristics. Here, sound art and ecology have entered into a fertile relationship; the discipline was established in the 1970s by the composer Ron Murray Schafer and has undergone a strong development with the advent of computer and mobile technology. The intention of the Acoustic Ecology course is to put the encounter between art and ecology to the test using practical field exercises in a collaborative project involving students from the ZHdK and ETH. The aim is for the students to gain a deeper awareness at a qualitative level of medial and artistic communication and negotiating formats in relation to environmental problems. In this process, the ability of the students should be developed, so that they are able to reflect on their own research work not only in a cultural and environmental-ethical but also a scientific and societal context.

Acoustic environment: The Soundscape

The Canadian composer and founder of Acoustic Ecology, Ron Murray Schafer, gives the name “World Soundscape” to the whole acoustic environment, the totality of all possible sounds in the world. As an immanence layer, this encompasses everything audible, including the noises and sounds, which we can imagine – albeit not being able to hear. The World Soundscape is composed of a myriad of local acoustic environments and soundscapes. What Schafer perceives as a soundscape is not only a geographical area and its noises, but also every other formation of sounds and noises – whether a musical work, a radio broadcast or a sound installation. The world and landscape have also been established by us in the manner of an artistic work; they are acoustically designed and filled. A soundscape is an acoustic environment, which differs somewhat from the mere locality – in fact, it implies social indicators in the experience of, the classification of and the dealing with noises and sounds.

The term “environment” originates from the biologist Jakob von Uexküll: for him, the difference between the environment and the locality lies in the fact that the latter describes a mere spatial proximity of things and organisms, whereas the former is essentially defined and designed by organisms. According to Uexküll, an organism is always its own special environment – the environment of an organism is reflected in its inner world, while the environment is constituted by the interactions of the organism with it. One interesting aspect in Uexküll’s semantics of biological systems is his formulation of an “experiencing tone” of environmental experiences: in a musical vocabulary, Uexküll describes the significance, the hue, which things obtain in our experience of the environment, when we enter into an acting relationship with them. They become signifiers, which possess a “tone” corresponding to the type of relationship we establish with them. An accumulation of tones thus becomes the melody, the interaction of subject and environment. Uexküll speaks of the “… compositional theory of nature: as in the composition of a duet where both voices have to be composed together note by note and point by point, the significance factors in nature possess a contrapuntal relationship to the significance exploiters.”

Milieux Sonores

A soundscape is usually composed of differing, local acoustic milieux. These can be perceived as limited environments of an object of research, say, an individual acoustic object (objet sonore), and are therefore – as it were – the acoustic microclimate of an acoustic object. The term »milieu« denotes a characteristic configuration of environmental factors, into which an object of research is embedded. This term was used at the beginning of the 20th century – primarily in geography, and today is found in a wide range of research fields – both in the sciences and the humanities. The investigation of the spatial organisation of human societies has created its own topic of zones, regions, landscapes, territories in geography. Recent tendencies within this scientific field deal with acoustic milieux, the »milieux sonores«. The local and ever changing acoustic milieux structure a sound space, say, that of a city or landscape. A »milieu sonore« also describes a characteristic, acoustic environment of human beings. The milieu is always defined in relation to a location within space; it does not exist outside of itself, but is instead always the milieu of something or someone. It defines the local relations, for example the relationship of a society to its environment. A milieu corresponds to mental representations in the acoustic space; it is something arisen, created, an artefact in the original sense (cf. Frédéric Roulier: »Pour une géographie des milieux sonores«).

Objets Sonores

The term “objet sonore” was defined by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer. In his “traité des objets musicaux”, Schaffer describes the objet sonore as an acoustic object of human perception, which is perceived or measured as the smallest self-containing particle of an “ambiance sonore” – or as we refer to it: a milieu sonore. Objets sonores can usually be analysed by the characteristics of their envelope (the visual representation of an oscillating signal). The objet sonore is revealed as a referential, phenomenological acoustic formation (with a significance in our perception and interpretation of an acoustic object). An objet sonore is thus a symbolic, semantic or structural object of study, which can be explored and described. The objet sonore is part of a milieu sonore – in most cases, the objet sonore can only be adequately described from its context – its milieu, into which it is embedded, in which it sounds, or only through which it is made to sound or be perceived. The objet sonore differs from the pure and abstract sound event: although this is also the smallest particle of a milieu sonore, unlike the objet sonore it is only something that occurs at a specific location or during a specific time interval.

Morphology and Typology

When we investigate a milieu sonore or an objet sonore, it is important to realise that we do not perceive acoustic structures in isolation but as sense and semantic structures; they are shaped by our perception and cognition. We make classifications as we go along – and mostly subconsciously – of what we hear, say, whether noises are articulated in a specific way, and what references they have in our memory. Schaeffer proposes that attempts be made to articulate these processes in analysis. When we therefore investigate the acoustic environment, its acoustic milieux and the acoustic objects in the milieux, it is then our intention to undertake a morphology and typology of the milieux and objets sonores: a morphology, which can provide more information about the origin and functions of sounds, and a typology, which brings different sound collections into confrontation with each other, i.e., dividing up the various objets sonores and thereby being able to undertake meaningful distinctions between acoustic objects.


Acoustic Ecology/Soundscape Ecology

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Maeder, Marcus (2010): Milieux Sonores. Klang, Raum und Virtualität (Sound, space and virtuality), Bielefeld: Transcript

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Artistic Research

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