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R Murray Schafer “The Tuning of the World” & “Rorschach Audio – Art & Illusion for Sound”

July 2, 2012

One of a very few typographical errors that made its way into the “Rorschach Audio” book is a misprinted reference on page 190 that gives the publication date for the Canadian composer and sound theorist R Murray Schafer’s book “The Tuning of the World” as “1997” instead of 1977 (reference [45] should read – R Murray Schafer “The Tuning of the World” McClennand & Stewart, Toronto, 1977, quoted in “The Jungles of Randomness: Mathematics at the Edge of Certainty” Ivars Peterson, Penguin, London, 1988, p.88). The quotation in question states that “The sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will. There are no earlids. When we go to sleep our perception of sound is the last door to be closed and it is also the first to open when we awaken”. Ivars Peterson also quotes the same statement in a Science News article entitled “Sounds of the Seasons” (Science News, Dec 1996, vol. 150 No. 25/26 p.400).

As “Rorschach Audio” states, the fact that we have no direct auditory equivalent of eyelids is self-evident, but, as the book also says, the question of whether “the sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will” is a good deal more complex, to put it mildly. Murray Schafer’s book was reprinted by Destiny Books as “Our Sonic Environment and the Soundscape – the Tuning of the World”, which I just bought, to read the original quote in context. Echoing Friedrich Nietzsche’s characterisation of the ear as “the organ of fear” [1], “The Tuning of the World” goes on to quote Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan as stating that “terror is the normal state of any oral society”, and to conclude that “the ear’s only protection is an elaborate psychological mechanism for filtering out undesirable sound” (page 11). “Tuning” is an extraordinary book, and one aspect that inevitably caught my attention is the extent to which it anticipates “Rorschach Audio”, because although the filtering mechanism referred to is alluded to in Schafer’s discussion of audio equivalents of the “figure” and “ground” distinctions made by visual psychologists, unfortunately that’s as far as discussion of that theme seems to go – readers can however pick up that story and read alot more about it in “Rorschach Audio” (pages 177 to 191). Schafer rightly argues that “it is not surprising, noting the visual bias of modern Western culture, that the psychology of aural perception has been comparatively neglected” (page 151), and it is that neglect which “Rorschach Audio” seeks to directly address.

R Murray Schafer goes on to state that “much of the work done” on psychology of aural perception “has been concerned with binaural hearing and sound localization… quite alot has been done on masking… and some has been done on auditory fatigue… but taken as a whole such researches leave us a long way from our goal, which…” (in context of his book) “would be to determine in what significant ways individuals and societies of various historical eras listen differently”. Schafer goes on to state that it is therefore “inconceivable that a music or soundscape historian should get quite the same thrill out of the preparatory work the laboratories have provided as that which has stimulated art historians such as Rudolph Arnheim and EH Gombrich, whose work owes such a heavy debt to research in the psychology of visual perception”.

For any GEMs who might try to take issue with the fact I’ve taken this opportunity to correct one very small typographical error, in fact Schafer himself mis-spells Rudolf Arnheim’s name, nonetheless, referencing both Arnheim’s “Art & Visual Perception” and EH Gombrich’s masterpiece “Art & Illusion” (footnotes, “Tuning” page 286), Schafer states that “in the work of men like these it has begun to be possible to comprehend the history of vision”, and that “the soundscape historian can only speculate tentatively on the nature and causes of perceptual changes in listening habits and hope that psychologist friends may respond to the need for more experimental study”. As a case in point, Schafer states that “it is still not clear whether a term like closure – which refers to the perceptual tendency to complete an incomplete pattern by filling in gaps – can be applied to sound with anything like the confidence it has stimulated in visual pattern perception”, and since publication in 1977, psychologists (Albert Bregman) and sound designers (David Sonnenschein) have indeed answered Schafer’s question in the interim (see “Rorschach Audio” pages 34 to 38). What Schafer failed to mention however is that Rudolf Arnheim was deeply concerned with sound – writing his book “Radio: The Art of Sound” as long ago as 1936, and that in “Art & Illusion” many of EH Gombrich’s ideas about visual perception were not based on laboratory experiments, but were also based on Gombrich’s own work, with sound, conducted as part of military intelligence gathering during WW2, and it is this (in a manner of speaking) historiographic anomaly which gives “Rorschach Audio” the “Art & Illusion for Sound” sub-title, and gives much of its relevance in terms of debate about mainstream art-world prejudices against sonic art. In fact Schafer goes on to quote one incredibly famous visual artist talking about sound, but fails to mention that the quote in question also appears in “Art & Illusion” (Schafer page 160, Gombrich page 159). The purpose of the present discourse is however categorically not to find fault with R Murray Schafer’s exceptional book, but to point out the extent to which “Rorschach Audio” complements Schafer’s book. Finally, on a point of detail, it’s also worth pointing out that the reason I became interested in Gombrich’s work, was partly because his ideas offered a partial explanation for EVP research (see the first post in this archive), also however because my grandad worked alongside Gombrich during WW2.

Joe Banks, 2 July 2012

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche “Daybreak”, quoted in Richard Humphreys & Joe Banks “The Analysis of Beauty” (exhibition catalogue) Arts Council National Touring Programme, 2003 (this quote was used to accompany a Disinformation sound installation at The Foundry sub-basement in London).

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