Tuning in to Soundwriting

Soundscapes: Rhetorical Entwinements for Composing Sound in Four Dimensions

by Kati Fargo Ahern

2. Soundscape Studies within Rhetoric and Composition

The term soundscape is often attributed to R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer who started the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s. However, the term also appeared in print as early as 1967 in a master's thesis by Michael Frank Southworth, titled "The Sonic Environment of Cities" and submitted for a degree in city planning at MIT. While Southworth (1967) used the term soundscape approximately 28 times and cited writings about city sound as early as the time of Julius Caesar (p. 2), he did not offer an explicit definition and often used soundscape interchangeably with sonic environment. This may suggest that fields had commonly used the term soundscape prior to the 1960s.

The more-frequently-cited Schafer (1977) defined the term soundscape in a very expansive sense to include "any acoustic field of study" (p. 7). He went on to say, "We can isolate an acoustic environment as a field of study just as we can study the characteristics of a given landscape" (p. 7). Since then, Schafer's student Barry Truax (2001) has more narrowly focused on the role of the participant in the soundscape, as well as the ways in which soundscape studies must focus on function, relationships, and communication.

For myself, a soundscape must be usefully distinguished from other sound compositions, such as a soundtrack, in addition to bringing together Truax's emphasis on communication and Steph Ceraso's (2014) on embodied experience. For these reasons I tend to only consider a composition a soundscape if it meets the following criteria: (1) it communicates some purpose or potential to an audience, (2) it can be experienced in some multimodal, embodied way, and (3) it includes some aspects of spatialization in addition to sound sources, simultaneity, and arrangement in time, which can be found in soundtracks. Of these criteria, the embodied, multidimensional, multimodal experience and the spatialized experience of the soundscape are probably the more difficult to create in a digital, audio-track format. However, that is not to say that there cannot be purely digital, online soundscapes, but simply that this definition departs from Schafer's more expansive definition of a soundscape as "any acoustic field of study."

Many disciplines currently use the term soundscape to discuss spaces of sound and arrangements of sound in space in research areas from history to media studies, acoustic archaeology, architecture, and so forth. Some contemporary work on soundscapes includes Emily Thompson's (2002) The Soundscape of Modernity, Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter's (2007) Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?, Jordan Lacey's (2016) Sonic Rupture, and Salomé Voegelin's (2014) Sonic Possible Worlds.

However, this is not to say that the term soundscape is without critique or objection. In fact, Lacey (2016) cited Brandon LaBelle and Steve Goodman, among others, as raising objections to the term soundscape. These critiques include concerns that the term soundscape has become related to anthropocentrism, the devaluation of urban sound, and sonic tourism, as well as critiques based on the early history of soundscape studies in the World Soundscape Project with its connection to the preservation of "natural" sounds and noise abatement (Lacey, 2016, pp. 29–32). Additionally, Dominic Pettman (2017) has criticized Schafer's tendency to revere sounds "that matter" in opposition to "those that don't" (p. 69). However, as Lacey (2016) argued, the term "soundscape" has gained traction in a variety of contexts and thus is useful even as it may have problems and limits (p. 32). Additionally, as Southworth's (1967) thesis showed, the term soundscape has possibly been in use prior to the 1960s and thus carries with it communicative potential across disciplines.

Within the field of rhetoric and composition, the term soundscape has largely been accepted in connection to "sound studies" and may even evolve into its own separate area of "soundscape studies." Although scholars in rhetoric and composition have expressed concerns about sensory rhetorics fragmenting into increasingly smaller subfields, a subfield of soundscape studies may in fact open up possibilities. First, as Jonathan Sterne (2012) has stated, the notion of "studies" is not trivial but denotes a specific disciplinary approach that combines object and method in a critical fashion aware of its own history (p. 5). Sterne explained, "Sound studies names a set of shared intellectual aspirations; not a discrete set of objects," such that not all study of sound is "sound studies" (p. 4). I similarly agree that not all study of soundscapes is "soundscape studies," but soundscape studies could help name a particular intellectual trajectory in the theories, methods, design, and critical intervention within soundscapes. Second, to the point about increasingly narrow research areas, I do not think that smaller subfields inherently necessitate isolated scholarly conversations. (For instance, elsewhere I argued for a closer conversation across areas of soundscape studies and learning spaces design [Ahern, 2018].) Furthermore, just as sound studies and rhetoric have intersected in productive ways in approaching larger notions of sound, "rhetorical soundscape studies" or rhetorical approaches to soundscape studies may offer more productive holistic approaches to theory, method, design, and critical analysis.

Regardless of disciplinary name, there has already been rich scholarship produced in the field of rhetoric and composition on the subject of soundscapes. In 2006, Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks published a piece titled "Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies" in Computers and Composition Online. Within that piece, they drew on Schafer's definition of the soundscape as a "culturally situated" space from which to listen by noting, "Acoustic environments point to many meaningful elements—some subtle, some blaring—of cultures echoing in a certain location" (Comstock & Hocks, 2006, "2. Sonic Literacy"). Additionally, Steph Ceraso (2014) outlined a specific possible soundscape composition in her description of a class assignment called Sounding Pittsburgh (p. 117). Also, Thomas Rickert's (2013) Ambient Rhetoric not only attended to sonic objects but also suggested ways in which sound should not become cordoned off from other sensory experiences. Finally, in Comstock and Hocks's (2016) "The Sounds of Climate Change," they reviewed sound artists' work in moving climate change from an abstract idea to present, immersive, and affective soundscapes for listeners. Therefore, while the study of soundscapes within rhetoric and composition is relatively new, it is not without history in terms of pedagogy, design, theory, and critique. In fact, rhetoric and composition scholars are also themselves composing soundscapes as scholarship as well, as can be experienced in the Intermezzo ebook Rhetorics Change / Rhetoric's Change, edited by Jenny Rice, Chelsea Graham, and Eric Detweiler (2018).

Finally, before I discuss some of the challenges for soundscape design pedagogies, I want to note some potential differences between the terms soundscape design and soundscape composition. Within this chapter, I will use these terms somewhat interchangeably, but they could indicate substantive differences. For instance, Stuart A. Selber (2004) suggested three approaches to literacy: (1) functional literacy (the ability to effectively make something); (2) critical literacy (a capacity for informed critique about a text or type of text); and (3) rhetorical literacy (based on notions of reflectively designing a text or texts within a genre) (p. 25). Following Selber's taxonomy, it is possible that "design" could indicate planning/mapping literacies and purposes regarding soundscapes, whereas "composition" could refer to the literal making or instantiating of a design. This distinction should not indicate a hierarchy in which one set of literacies is considered more valuable; rather, a sense of purpose should drive any distinction between composition and design. In other words, in some cases a purpose may be better served by an assignment or activity that gives students opportunities with soundscape design, and at other times students may benefit more from soundscape composition. Despite this distinction, I will for the most part use design to indicate a wider range of possible approaches including design, composition, and intervention (as a kind of intentional redesign).