Acousmatics Versus Soundscapers

I truly wish that it had been my lifelong dream to publish books about music, because it comes all too easily to me and I could have fulfilled my dream in short order. Unfortunately, in the late 1960s it became my passion to write music and get it performed, which 40 years later I still find a more challenging proposition (the getting-performed part, I mean). Writing a book is a solitary occupation that sometimes actually pays for itself; putting out a CD requires tremendous enthusiasm from performers and cooperation from sound engineers, plus a vast financial structure to make sure everyone gets paid, with virtually no money guaranteed to come back in return. Each book I publish feels like a cakewalk compared to the CDs I struggle like hell to put together. Yet had I put out 30 CDs in my life and no books, I would have been tickled pink with my career. Instead, I find myself writing a book now and then just to take up the slack.

In any case, the Cage book is basically finished, and I’m sending it off tomorrow. One of the topics I deal with in the chapter on the aftermath of 4’33″ is something I got from electronic composer Paul Rudy at UMKC: the debate between the acousmatic composers and the soundscapers. I knew the word acousmatic, but I hadn’t realized that it was a kind of official term for a certain approach to electronic music. (In fact, it seems to me that composers actually loooooove terms and -isms, except for postminimalism and totalism, because the latter two denote composers who write music that appeals to audiences, so it’s imperative that those groups be marginalized at all costs, and denying that those terms mean anything is the quickest way to effect that.) But Paul tells me – and I’d like more independent verification on this, though I’ve found some scattered around the internet – that the acousmatic composers believe in using everyday acoustic sounds that are divorced from their sound sources and rendered unrecognizable, while the soundscape composers like to record environmental sounds that are evocative of their origins. Paul is one of the composers who finds this an idle academic argument, as indeed it seems to be, and whose music moves back and forth between deliberate evocation and abstraction as a structural element; he’s pointed me to Jonty Harrison as a kindred spirit. This seems to be a particularly big issue in Canada, where the acousmaticians (if that is the proper term) are centered in Montreal, and the soundscapers on the West Coast, led by the indomitable R. Murray Schafer. This is an issue that seems to have mainly been written about in academia if at all, and while I get the point, my understanding of the differences is lacking in nuance. I’d be curious as to my readers’ knowledge of these categories.
UPDATE: You guys are amazing. (See comments.)


  1. says

    Your description of acousmatic composers harks back to Pierre Schaeffer’s original description of musique concrète and its objet sonore, and I have most commonly seen the term in reference to Schaeffer’s successors at the INA-GRM, especially Francois Bayle (who designed a playback system called the acousmonium). The Montreal label empreintes digitales is often stylistically similar to the INA-GRM work. IIRC, R. Murray Schafer explicitly took issue with Schaeffer’s positions in his book The Tuning of the World (although it’s been a while since I read it, and I don’t own a copy to verify).

  2. mclaren says

    It’s actually a 3-way split. The acousmatic approach is by tradition French, exemplified by Pierre Henry’s Train Etude in 1948. The soundscapers are more recent, and date probably from the 1970s with the advent of high-quality small portable tape recorders. But there’s a third stream, by tradition German, the synthesists, exemplified by Stockhausen’s early electronic works.
    The 3 groups blend into one another. William Schottstaedt’s Colony Five starts out with bird calls that morph by computer resynthesis into chimes and then cathedral bells: it starts as a soundscape and transforms into an acousmatic piece and then eventually into a fully synthetic piece. Jean-Claude Risset’s Sud imitates natural sounds with synthezied sounds and recordings of real-world sounds. Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori use acoustic sound-makers to synthesizer various types of sounds.
    Some hybrids prove hard to classify as either/or. Track 1 on Jon Hassel’s Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics makes extensive use of environmental recordings of crickets in the hills of Alhambra, albeit as a backdrop for synthesized drones. One of Paul Lansky’s compositions applies tuned resonant filters to an environmental recording of freeway traffic.

  3. says

    My idea about the difference between the two terms is that soundscape music doesn’t have to be electronic or prerecorded, but refers to its character and the intention with composing it, namely to describe a real or an abstract, fantasy landscape or other type of environment in sounds (this is also what in popular culture is called ambient music), while acousmatic music refers to how listeners will experience the sounds, namely as music (distinct sounds, not like a landscape) coming from an invisible and sometimes also unrecognized instrument/source (which strictly speaking will define all recorded music as acousmatic).
    There is also the possibility that the use of different terms may have something to do with differences in language, discourse and philosophy between English- and French-speaking groups of composers…

  4. mclaren says

    Urg. Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude Aux Chemin de Fer. Not Henry.
    Also I’m clearly and obviously wrong about soundscapes dating from the 70s. Henri Pousseur’s Trois Visages de Lieges dates from 1961.
    KG replies: Forgot about Trois Visages de Lieges. I should mention that, shouldn’t I?

  5. Rod Jones says

    Perhaps soundscapers have a more or less explicit intention to represent a sonic environment, whether that representation takes a documentary form, as in the case of the composers associated with Schafer’s World Soundscape Project, or a more abstract form, as in the case of most of the composers mclaren mentions above and many others.
    Acousmatic composers would then be non-representationalists, formalists, for want of a better word.
    A composer like Francisco Lopez would then occupy an interesting bordeline position. His works are often based on processed recordings of particular environments but he disavows any representationalist intentions and calls for a kind of attention to sound that sounds very much like Schaeffer’s reduced listening.

  6. peter says

    Also in between these categories is the electronic work of Swedish composer, Palle Dahlstedt. For example, the music of his Gaudeamus Prize-winning multi-media collaboration “Anakolut” comprises sound recordings made in the port of Gothenburg speeded-up, edited and otherwise-transformed beyond any immediate recognizability.

  7. Marc Ainger says

    Simon Emmerson hasd written several books on the subject (actually, he wrote some and edited others). They make for great reading (the most recent, I think, is Living Electronic Music).

  8. says

    I think it’s too big a stretch to call Trois Visages de Liège a soundscape, any more than you would the Pastoral Symphony. Pousseur didn’t use any environmental sounds; other than voices, everything was electronically generated. But it wasn’t strictly acousmatic either, since it was written to accompany an outdoor light spectacle. Ferrari’s Presque Rien is probably the first soundscape to come from the European electroacoustic community. I agree with Rod and mclaren that the several artists (Lopez is a great example) deliberately blur the category, and with Maria’s observation that ambient composers often create fantasy soundscapes.

  9. manfred safken says

    I was under the impression that the word was coined by Michel Chion – who, while perhaps steeped in academia, is worth investigating for his detailed analysis of these matters.
    KG replies: I’ve many times now seen the word credited to Pierre Schaeffer, but I dunno.

  10. says

    I am currently finishing my thesis on exactly this subject. So soon you will be able to read all the gory details. :-)
    Definitely Schaeffer adopted the term acousmatic, but it was actually coined by theorist Jerôme Peignot (not Chion).
    Ferrari’s Presque Rien series were no doubt stellar early examples of European soundscapes. Indeed Schafer may have picked up some of his ideas from Ferrari while touring Europe. Which is fine except the latter gets no coverage in his book. Barry Truax redresses this omission in at least one of his papers.

  11. Ronald Kuivila says

    Hi Kyle,
    For what its worth, Wikipedia has
    “The term acousmatic dates back to Pythagoras; the philosopher is believed to have tutored his students from behind a screen so as not to let his presence distract them from the content of his lectures. The term acousmatique was first used by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer”
    (I think Christoph Cox’s anthology has the Schaeffer passage that invokes this.)
    I recall hearing Doug Kahn ask Cage about Schaeffer’s repudiation of his solfege of sounds, he said his rejection of sound object do re mi”. Without batting an eye Cage replied, “I think he should have gone further up the scale.” and went on to make comments to the effect that Scaheffer’s theoretical writing had more or less nothing to do with music….
    Here are a couple of dissident voices within the the acousmatic discussion:
    Francisco Lopex “Schizophonia v. l’object sonore”
    Trevor Wishart in the anthology “The Language of Electroacoustic Music” (or lot’s of other places) makes the argument that there one projects a ‘landscape’ (not meant literally of course) around the recording one hears. (Think Cecil Taylor vs Conlon Nancarrow for two different landscapes.) Trevor’s work reflects this constant passage between sound, language, and foley. Red Bird is a good example and is – in purely sonic terms – fabulously homely.
    Bernie Krause writes an unintentionally hilarious dis of Emily Thomspson’s Soundscape of Modernity as an Amazon reader review. It gives a nice example of a soundscape fundamentalist.

  12. Ben Barltrop says

    mclaren —>> yes the development of soundscape did derive from the 60s and following R M Schafer’s ‘The Vancouver Soundscape’ he and a few others set up the World Soundscape Project (WSP).
    He wanted to give the idea that the soundscape was the ‘universal language’ (more so than what popular music had been deemed as) and that in its composition we are all composers. This title of a ‘universal language’ in which we are all able to relate to is set as the idea and not in a literal sense. This is due to the state and location in which it is conceived, as it differs from others (unless in the same state) and therefore our understanding and reflection upon our intakes fluctuate. Be it due to certain developments of different climates or the social and political orders of a specific region or nation and its economic power. Thus meaning that this fear and danger which has been expressed by Attali (1985) of becoming ‘full circle’ is highly unlikely unless we are all bound by the same state and live by the same rule, resulting in the exposure of the same sounds in an equal organisation and time.