One night this past summer, my family and I were driving home from the beach when a segment came on the radio that literally changed the way I saw- or in this case, heard the world. The programme was on R. Murray Schafer. In the simplest of terms, some would describe him as a musician. Schafer is from Canada and received formal training from the Royal Schools of Music (London), the Royal Conservatory of Music, and the University of Toronto. He created many musical theories and concepts including that of soundscape and schizophonia. He has produced extensive written works and composed operas, spoken work, mixed aural media, choral and orchestral arrangements and produced theatrical works. I feel as though these generic labels for the way we experience music are unfit to classify his medium. After learning about Schafer, I would classify him as an artist; a facilitator; an acoustic ecologist. And his genre? Sublimely experiential.
Perhaps I should explain.
R. Murray Schafer specializes in acoustic ecology (also sometimes referred to as ecoacoustics or soundscape). His philosophies were instrumental in the emergence and founding of this scientific, artistic, and social field in the 1960s. In an effort to explain acoustic ecology in the most precise way, here is how the Acoustic Ecology Institute “defines” it:
“Prominent themes in acoustic ecology today are:
- The effect of soundscapes on humans, in cities, nature, and buildings, including urban planning and architectural design that takes sound into account.
- Ways to become more aware of the sounds we are making, so we can make these choices more consciously.
- Reflection on the soundscapes we encounter day to day.
- The effects of human sounds on wildlife.
- The “right to quiet,” which comes into play in wild lands recreation debates about motorized use, as well as in urban settings.
- The idea of acoustic windows or acoustic niches, employed by various species in a given habitat to avoid masking each other’s vocalizations.”
The legitimization of sound study is a relatively new concept. Before this notion, people did not think to investigate sound beyond face value. In fact, people often associate sound as background noise- something to be blocked out, ignored, or a nuisance. The appointment of sound as a “thing” opens our minds to exploring the world in new ways. Sound studies investigate where sounds happen and how they interact with their physical, visual, and aural environments and their various meanings based on context.
Part of Schafer’s work has promoted the preservation of sounds and he has discussed the importance of creating sound archives. The archives would catalogue everything from church bells in a rural town in Germany from its earliest recording decades ago to a subway pulling into Penn Station today. Think of the most distinctive sounds in your environment here and now. The Clinton fire horn, the clink of forks on commons bowls, the Glen House door opening and closing, and the chapel bell are a few that come to mind for me. How do sounds in combination regenerate the experience of a place? This is what a soundscape is; a collection of sounds from a certain place and time. A soundscape is akin to a landscape painting of a certain place and time. They are not simply sounds but representations of people, memories, moments in time, places, and the objects that produce those noises. Acoustic ecology points out that sound exists much in the way that objects can be black boxes or unfolded.
Schafer’s ideological perspective of sound is the foundation upon which he constructs his art. The orchestral and vocal arrangements are all unique in terms of what instruments are meant to be used, what setting the piece is intended to be performed in, what time of day, accompanied by what kind of celebration etc. His scores have traditional music notes but are often arranged in a formation that is in itself evocative of some sort of feeling. They are often accompanied by expressive drawings that attempt to direct his performers to arrive at such an abstract product. The scores might also include notation like this example from RA, “ a sundown to sunrise outdoor musical and theatrical ritual performance.” 
“At approximately 2:40 a.m., the Initiates are left alone, in darkness, for nearly an hour, to rest, perhaps to meditate. At the end of this period, called Suspension, the Initiates are gently roused and served small cups of tea. At the same time (around 3:30 a.m.), the voice of Amente-Nufe (‘Beautiful West’) is heard, accompanied by the tolling of 75 varied gongs and bells (corresponding to the 75 magic names of Ra).”
The performances themselves represent a refined mastery of acoustic ecology. The ways in which the musical mood of the piece will be interpreted is dependent upon the space it interacts with, the other “performers” (like wind, water, birds), the lighting, the emotional state of the audience and so on. The music transgresses the stark isolationism of traditional performance structures: Music. Performer. Audience. Schafer explains, “I think we should try to break down the impasses between various groups,” and not only in the sense of artistic media, as he hopes it will harmonize the experiences of the “young and old, amateur and professional.” 
Schafer’s work in the academic field of acoustic ecology awakens us to a new way of experiencing sound, but more impressively, it exceeds simple theoretical musings. The music is created with the intent of realizing the fullest potential of this new dimension. Vibrations of sound are invited to converse with the features of its surroundings, animals are welcome choir members, and “soundwalks” may be used as a means to frame the entire experience. These performances are also about relating to other guests present. It is an irreplaceable shared human experience involving all of one’s senses.
What I take away from Schafer’s work is that, not only does it “express the inexpressible” but the end at which it arrives is inexpressible in itself.
*I could not find access to my favorite piece of Schafer's work, Music for Wilderness Lake, in which 12 trombones encircle a remote lake to play. I think a performance of it was actually videotaped in 1980.
BUT: check this video out that explains a bit more http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bo2zvmKNiA
 Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._Murray_Schafer
 Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._Murray_Schafer