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Canadian scientist amplifies acoustic ecology to the popular wavelength
Original member of the World Soundscape Project, Barry Truax has helped bring sound sciences to the world stage.
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Science of sound
Canadian scientist amplifies acoustic ecology to the popular wavelength
By Chris Mason

Words like “innovative” and “trend-setter” are often used to describe artists who cross musical genres. However, a composer who mixes cannon fire with a string section may not be what immediately comes to mind.

But that’s exactly what Barry Truax, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has done for more than 30 years by expressing natural sound as music. His song “ Dominion” begins with cannon fire and segues into an orchestra of strings and brass, only to be interrupted by a train sounding its horn before the piece continues.


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Soundmarks of Canada:
• Alberta
• British Columbia
• Manitoba
• New Brunswick
• Newfoundland
• Nova Scotia
• Ontario
• Prince Edward island
• Quebec
• Saskatchewan

That may be unconventional to some, but by mixing natural sounds with traditional music Truax, and others like him, are contributing to a growing field of study called acoustic ecology. It’s a discipline that analyzes how we interpret, and are affected by, natural and artificial sounds around us. Some researchers in this field come from musical backgrounds, while others work in social sciences or architecture. But they all share a love for natural sound and a concern for the impact artificial sound is having on our ears.

A 12-piece orchestra, representing the 10 provinces and then two territories, carries listeners through the song, along with the whistle of a CPR train, which represents the railroad that first connected Canada over a century ago.

“Dominion” takes listeners on an acoustic journey across Canada. The song begins with the firing of the noon gun in St. John’s harbour in Newfoundland and continues westward, recording sounds such as the Peace Tower bell in Ottawa and the O Canada Horn in Vancouver, along the way. A 12-piece orchestra, representing the 10 provinces and then two territories, carries listeners through the song, along with the whistle of a Canadian Pacific Railway train, representing the railroad that first connected Canada over a century ago.

“It’s incredible that it has spawned a world field of study.”
—Barry Truax, professor and composer of “Dominion”
“The piece is driven by the sound marks, which the live performers amplify,” says Truax, a pioneer in the field. He was part of a team of scientists that first explored the subject in the early 1970s.

“We were just a small group of 20-somethings around [Schafer] in the ‘70s,” Truax says, referring to his predecessor at SFU, Murray Schafer, who first studied sound as noise pollution in the late 1960s. But Schafer found a negative approach failed to spark a debate about the noise, which was tied to exploding development in Vancouver. So he started fresh and acoustic ecology was born (although the term itself did not appear until 1990).

Truax began composing music while studying physics and mathematics at Queen’s University almost 40 years ago. But he didn’t link music to natural sound until he met Schafer. The result was an award-winning series of soundscapes broadcast on CBC in 1974 that used sound to tell a part of Canada’s history. That work was a precursor to Truax’s 1991 production of “ Dominion”, which has since formed the basis for a project by the Canadian Music Centre.

Truax makes soundscapes using natural sounds. A soundscape is a two-dimensional project: first, researchers collect raw natural sounds and use them to create soundscapes, or “sonic environments.” Researchers then use those sounds to study how individuals and society interact with, and are affected by, natural and artificial sounds. This approach forms the basis for the industry — academically known as the study of systemic relationships between humans and sonic environments.

“An architect that truly considered the acoustic ecology of space would create healthier, more aesthetic work and living spaces.”
—Ellen Waterman, professor

Canadian work, such as “Dominion,” has received global attention. “It’s incredible that it has spawned a world field of study,” Truax says.

World field indeed. The World Forum of Acoustic Ecology is celebrating its 12th anniversary, with about 500 members worldwide sharing research.

“This was an international group just waiting to be formed,” Truax says. “It’s extremely inter-disciplinary with people from all kinds of backgrounds.”

The organization has held conferences around the world, with its next meeting scheduled for November 2006 in Hirosaki, Japan.

Acoustic ecology appears to be a discipline that has applications for many different fields. Truax will travel to Toronto in June 2006 for a groundbreaking conference studying the link between acoustic ecology and architecture, the architecture community never having held a conference to study how acoustic ecology can help their work.

Learn more:
• Psychoacoustics

External links:
• The World Soundscape Project
• The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology
• Landscape architecture in the light of sound
“An architect that truly considered the acoustic ecology of a space would create healthier, more aesthetic work and living spaces,” says Ellen Waterman, a professor in the University of Guelph’s School of Fine Art and Music. Waterman and Truax will be leading sessions at the conference. “For anyone who works in an institution [office building, factory, etc.], it’s clear that architects often fail to take the sound environment into account when designing buildings,” Waterman says.

Research on these topics has been around for several decades, but with technological advancements and the growing organization of acoustic ecologists into local, national and international groups, their work is creeping into mainstream discourse. It’s in that mainstream forum that an ideological appreciation for natural sound can be truly influential.

Documenting the increased influence acoustic ecology, formerly a little-known field of study, is having on wider research brings to mind words such as “mainstream” and “influential” — now those are the best words to describe research that is making a difference.

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