Soundscape Composition and the Subversion of Electroacoustic Norms1
The field of electroacoustic presents a number of potential challenges to assumptions about what Western art music is: as John Cage noted as early as 1937, it opens up the entire field of sound as musical sources. Barry Truax states that “the serious use of environmental sound in music is potentially disruptive and even subversive to the established norms of the artistic field” (1995: 1). Electroacoustic music can shift attention from pitch relationships to timbral possibilities of sounds. As a result, much electroacoustic music confounds traditional forms of musical analysis (Tenney 1986: 4). Soundscape composition, with its focus on environmental sound, could be considered a type of electroacoustic music that is particularly resistant to traditional analysis and categorization.
I will limit my discussion here to the place of the serious use of environmental sound (which I will refer to as soundscape composition) within the field of electroacoustic music, since this will give me a manageable field to consider. Electroacoustic music is a specific genre of Western Art music which has developed only in the last hundred years or so, requiring extensive financial expenditure for equipment and therefore practised ? at least until recently ? mostly by people in industrialized nations, in large publicly or commercially funded studios. My discussion of the place of soundscape composition within the field of electroacoustic music will raise issues that also apply to the larger field of Western art music, while retaining a focus on the norms of electroacoustic music. The discussion will be in three parts: (1) what is meant by the phrase “the serious use of environmental sound,” (2) what are the established norms of electroacoustic music, and (3) To what extent does soundscape composition in itself disrupt or subvert these norms?