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Sounds of Footsteps
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Barry Truax

      . . . is an internationally recognized electro-acoustic composer. Professor of Aural Communication at Simon Fraser Universtiy in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, he is author of the classic text, Acoustic Communication. A pioneer in granulated sound compositions, Mr. Truax has now also created theatre-based operas being staged trans-nationally. His music is available on CD.

Excerpts1:07 secs

      What do traffic, Gilgamesh, air conditioning and Muzak have in common? Sounds that silence people -- Call it noise. And pay attention. Our soundscape keeps us in touch with our environment, says sound activist and an internationally recognized electro-acoustic composer, Barry Truax. It's a way we interact with our environment, inform ourselves, communicate and stay involved. And for most people, today's soundscape is totally permeated by technology says this acoustic ecologist and professor of aural communication at Canada's Simon Fraser University.

      Barry Truax is smitten with sound. He embraces the technology which has allowed him to think about sound in a completely different way somewhat gingerly. It's changed the way he hears and organizes sound. But he's also looking for "balanced variety" in the acoustic community. Beware of anything that corrupts that balance, he urges. Where we have stress and energy, we must work to balance them with silence and contemplation. And always - always - insure that the communication link is open. That requires the difficult link in the communication process: listening.

      Mr. Truax champions a human scale to sound. An out-of-balance acoustic ecology is more than annoying, Mr. Truax assures us. It diminishes life. And that's before accounting for the reality that we are loosing natural sound at every turn.

      Silence is a vital part of Barry Truax's domain -- without silence, we have no sound. Silence, both external and internal, has healing powers, he reminds us. It's egalitarian, putting everyone on an equal footing where no one dominates. Next time a crisis looms personally or in a group, try a little silence, he suggests.

      Mr. Truax is on the Vancouver, B.C., urban noise task force. He's grateful to the local community's early warning system -- people who are especially sensitive to sound and willing to speak up. He thinks of them as the canary in the mine, alerting everyone to trouble ahead before others recognize the symptoms.

      But he is adamant that he is not out to change anyone's lifestyle. Simply consider both the positive and negative power of sound in the creation of the soundscape. Sound delivers great beauty and richness. It can also secretly raise one's blood pressure and heighten stress.

      Tune-in to the sounds which constantly immersed us, he counsels. That Walkman may cover up the sound of traffic but consider that it also isolates us from our community. Weigh the costs. Consider how sound impacts us for good and for ill. And engage in creating the kind of soundscape which best suits the human spirit, says this internationally recognized composer and teacher. Think of it as the price for being born without earlids.

Conversation 1

Barry Truax introduces Paula Gordon and Bill Russell to his multi-leveled music with his environmental composition "Song of Songs." Mr. Truax speaks to its symbolism. He offers his version of virtual reality and offers his perspective on what makes us human.

Conversation 2

Listening is fundamental to humans, says Mr. Truax, reminding us of pioneer Murray Shaeffer's quip, we have no "earlids," and expanding. Mr. Truax shares exercises he gives his Beginning Acoustic Communication students. He describes the oppressive stress that noise places on our bodies and minds. Concerned that we do not realize how much our soundscape is permeated with a vast range of technology sounds, he gives examples. He considers what happens to us when we cut ourselves off from the natural acoustic world. Instead of simply romanticizing natural soundscapes and criticizing technology (or vice versa,) he calls for balance and an ear to the human scale. Mr. Truax describes the World Soundscape Project. With a nod to bio-acoustics, he notes that "noise pollution" goes back to Gilgamesh.

Conversation 3

Mr. Truax recalls the 1993 formation of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. Noting the central role of language among humans, he gives sound a central role in communication. Mr. Truax talks about the harm sound can do, as well as sounds' profoundly positive aspects. He speaks to sound's interiority, beauty and usefulness. He describes people who are particularly sensitive to sound as "early warning systems." He gives examples of how people can and do get involved at the community level in local issues around noise, from his experience as a sound activist in Vancouver, BC, Canada. He explains when acoustical professionals can be particularly helpful. He defines "acoustic ecology."

Conversation 4

Mr. Truax calls us to regain a positive sense of silence, with a series of examples, reminding us that if we didn't have silence, we would not have sound. He calls for "balanced variety" in our acoustic communities. He describes how many ways sound has been central to his life. He compares internal and external silence and the importance of each. He declares the context inseparable from the meaning of environmental sounds and explains.

Conversation 5

From a variety of different levels, Mr. Truax describes his electo-acoustic musical compositions. He speaks to the trade-offs between technology and natural sounds. He remembers the early days of his own discipline and the traditional role of artists. He explains how technology has allowed him to think about sound. He uses his composition "Song of Songs" to describe the many levels on which he approaches his music. He celebrates complexity. WALTER FREEMAN's ideas about the importance of rhythm in human development are considered. Reminding us of the origins of Muzak (created to synchronize work-forces,) Mr. Truax suggests people can regain control over their own soundscapes. He shares his excitement about taking his music to a theater setting.

Conversation 6

Sound's positive aspects are Mr. Truax's passion. He tells us why and offers us a variety of ways to find music. Bill Russell relates Mr. Truax's ideas to MARY CATHERINE BATESON'S. Listening, says Mr. Truax, is a vital two-way link to our environment. He urges us to take the time and patience it requires.


We have had the great good fortune to build a friendship with Barry Truax since first we met in the mid-'90s. We thank him for his warm welcome when we reunited in Burnaby and for sharing his excitement with us in Atlanta as a freshly minted University of Florida Composer-in-Residence.

Related Links:
For a fuller consideration of the profound implications of sound in the world, visit the World Forum for Acoutic-Ecology - "Serving the listening community around the world."

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