Posted by: kaleidophonic | October 5, 2012

Who REALLY invented ‘the soundscape’??

Aldo Leopold, Mexico 1938. Photo courtesy of U. Wisconsin, State of Wisconsin Collection.

Hey Kaleidolings!

I’ve had soundscapes on the brain.

Our little reading group is re-visiting R Murray Schafer’s classic, and talking all things soundscape, but did you know that he may not have invented the concept?

Turns out that a wildlife professor named Aldo Leopold, who took extensive notes about the morning birdsong he heard from his cabin in 1940s Wisconsin, might have had a jump on Mr. Schafer.

Liat Clark, at The Wire online, has written up a nice little article about it, which you can access here.

Here’s a paragraph to tweak your interest:

Leopold, a professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 30s and 40s, lived on a 32-hectare estate in Sauk County that had been logged and farmed to within an inch of its life. There, lacking a sound recorder of any kind, he spent countless hours in his twitcher’s shack putting pen to paper to record the sounds of dawn. Recording the species and light conditions, he mapped out the birds’ territories and in doing so left a detailed analysis of what the ecosystem looked and sounded like — an ecosystem that has since been displaced by the sounds of cars from a new interstate highway built nearby and planes flying overhead.

Although Leopold didn’t have sound recording technology to record his soundscape, his notes were detailed enough for some acoustic archeologists to re-create the soundscape, drawing from a database of bird calls.

To resurrect the sounds of a distant 40s Sauk County, Temple and his colleague acoustic ecologist Christopher Bocast used a database of bird calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. After analysing Leopold’s notes, the emerging chorus of song was then set to a background of the noises of the Wisconsin countryside. This is what proved most difficult, however, considering the damage done to the natural landscape in the past 70 years.

“There are combustion engines on the edge of hearing all the time,” says Bocast.

“The difference between 1940 and 2012 is overwhelmingly the anthrophony — human-generated noise,” added Temple. “That’s the big change. In Leopold’s day there was much less of that.” He explained that today, in 48 US states, there are no locations more than 35km from the nearest road.

You can read the rest of Clark’s article at The Wire, where there is also a link that lets you listen to the re-creation of Leopold’s Wisconsin soundscape.

– K


  1. Interesting… Acoustic ecology. Anthro-acoustics? Socio-acoustics? Psycho-acoustics? Acoustic ethnology? Geriacoustics? Metacoustics? Wah?? See, Schafer, I can make up words too. 😉

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