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Acoustic Environments in Change/ Five Village Soundscapes

27.6.2010 James Andean <> M.Mus., Sibelius Akatemia
Järviluoma, Helmi; Kytö, Meri; Truax, Barry; Uimonen, Heikki; Vikman, Noora (toim.)/ Schafer, R. Murray (toim.): Acoustic Environments in Change & Five Village Soundscapes.. TAMK University of Applied Sciences, 2010. 431 sivua. ISBN 978-952-5264-78-4.

Acoustic Environments in Change is a publication of recent Finnish research in soundscape studies, coupled with a reprint of an older, seminal Canadian study of the same sites. The appearance of a major new soundscape text is a rare and important occasion.

Despite being nearly forty years old, the fascinating field of soundscape studies is still seen as being somewhat in its infancy. Having begun on the west coast of Canada in the early 1970s, much of the work in this field remains focused around a few centres of activity, of which Canada and Finland are currently of central importance. Soundscape texts tend to be few and far between; major works on the subject include founder R. Murray Schafer's seminal work The Tuning of the World (1977), Barry Truax's Acoustic Communication (2001) (although this has a somewhat broader mandate), and several publications by the World Soundscape Project (of which Schafer and Truax are central members), including Five Village Soundscapes (originally published in 1977, but reprinted as part of the publication under review). Thus, the appearance of a major new soundscape text is a rare and important occasion; the publication of Acoustic Environments in Change by the TAMK University of Applied Sciences is just such an event.

The field of soundscape studies was founded in Canada at Simon Fraser University by composer R. Murray Schafer in the early 1970s. Intended to address a critical lack of attention to our sound environment and its effect upon our lives and well-being, it posited a model in which people and their environment are linked, engage and interact through sound. Rejecting the rather simplistic methods of sound measurements and noise levels, Schafer attempted a detailed analysis of our sound environment in terms of our relationship with the sounds around us, developing terminology for different elements of this sonic environment, theorising regarding the possible impacts and interactions between communities and their sound environments, and proposing new methods and approaches for addressing pressing issues which have developed primarily as a result of the rush of change brought on by rapid urbanisation.

The publication under review is a particularly fascinating and rare proposition from a number of points of view. It combines recent Finnish scholarship in soundscape research with a reprint of the seminal Five Village Soundscapes publication of the 1970s, together with four compact discs which combine the field recordings of the 1970s publication with new field recordings by the Finnish group. It is also remarkable in that the Finnish researchers chose for their subjects the same five villages studied in Five Village Soundscapes (with the addition of a sixth site - the Finnish village of Nauvo), with the goal of combining their own individual research interests with a comparative consideration of changes in these soundscapes over the years since the earlier study. This offers a unique opportunity, rich in possibilities.

Although the earlier study comprises the second part of this volume, we will consider it here first, as the later study is predicated on this work. Five Village Soundscapes remains an important study in the literature of soundscape research; out of print for a number of years, its inclusion in this volume is extremely welcome. The text has been diligently reproduced, with full inclusion of all of the charts, diagrams, and photographs of the original publication; the inclusion of compact discs containing the recordings which were included on cassette with the original publication is a particular delight. The World Soundscape Project's recordings in the 1970s are a wonderful combination of field document and artful condensation and commentary; these recordings still sound wonderful more than three decades later, and have acquired further value, both as a sonic window into a time now gone, and as a comparison with the more recent recordings.

The Five Village Soundscapes study makes for very interesting reading, and is a groundbreaking study, though not without its flaws. The Canadian research group selected five European villages for study: Skruv, in Sweden; Bissingen, in Germany; Cembra, in Italy; Dollar, in Scotland; and Lesconil, a Breton village in France. A number of methods were developed with which to collect data regarding the soundscapes of these villages. Key sounds in each village were listed, measured, and mapped; researchers were dispatched to different areas of each village, to note at regular intervals over a twenty-four hour period the sounds heard; traffic counts were taken over the course of a given day; local school children were asked to list their favourite and least-favourite sounds; older members of the community were interviewed regarding changes in the soundscape and local sounds which might have disappeared. The results are generally informative and interesting, and provide a launching pad for discussion and consideration of the various soundscapes involved.

It must be noted, however, that there are problems with the study's methodology. While a great deal of effort has clearly gone into the collection of data, the analysis of this data is somewhat haphazard: while some of the data is considered in some detail, some is simply listed, without being explored further or developed. A larger problem, however, is a general tendency to draw sweeping conclusions without having sufficiently analysed the data, or which cannot be deduced from the data given. The primary culprit here is the systematic drawing of direct connections between recent changes in the soundscape and a reduction in the quality of life of the local inhabitants. While one may be in complete agreement with such statements, or at least sympathise with such views, it must be pointed out that, by and large, these conclusions cannot be made from the data collected in this study. The most obvious reason for this is the general lack of comparative data regarding quality of life, which would obviously need to be combined with the soundscape data for such extrapolations to accurately be made.

There is a related problem of tone in the writing, which tends to shift considerably between that of a formal study, and a surprisingly casual, conversational manner. While this often makes for a very readable text, it can also make it unclear how some statements should be taken. Again, the primary issue here is the lack of distinction between pure speculation, and conclusions based on analysis of the collected data. It is thus difficult to tell when this constitutes a methodological failure, and when a simple oversight; a series of speculative statements, noted as such by being conditioned with terms like "perhaps", "we wonder if", "we contend that", can suddenly be followed by sweeping statements which entirely lack such qualifiers, and which thereby have the appearance of grounded conclusions. It is possible that some of these are conclusions based on prior studies; if this is the case, however, these need to be referenced or footnoted. On at least one occasion, at the top of page 394, a vague reference is made to "previous studies" in support of the authors' conclusions, without reference to the studies in question.

Some of these flaws, it should be noted, are acknowledged or directly addressed, particularly in Barry Truax's new introduction provided with this new edition; they are also to some extent mentioned in the conclusion of the original volume. Curiously, the bulk of the book's analysis - arguably its most significant content -  is contained in this conclusion, yet this is only a few short pages long, compared with the long expositions of collected data.

However, these shortcomings are perhaps easy to forgive. Five Village Soundscapes is important not so much as a solid piece of social science research, but rather as an exploratory and groundbreaking attempt to develop new strategies for soundscape research, and to explore the subject villages using these methods. Taken on these terms, it remains a seminal and valuable work.

We continue with a consideration of the first part of the current volume - Acoustic Environments in Change. This offers a number of articles written by members of the Finnish research team, exploring specific aspects of research conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the same villages as the earlier study. This new study proposes to compare and contrast the soundscapes encountered with those described in the earlier study, while simultaneously updating methodology and approach in accordance with developments over the intervening years, and to match the somewhat different backgrounds of the Finnish research group (with backgrounds in anthropology, ethnomusicology, and cultural studies, in contrast with the Canadian group of the 1970s, which was comprised primarily of composers and musicians.)

Acoustic Environments in Change is immediately seen to be a very different study from its predecessor. For one thing, this collection of discrete articles by individual authors contrasts with the unified study provided in Five Village Soundscapes. Sites are discussed separately; subjects and methodologies change from article to article; and a significant amount of effort is made to make explicit, and to contextualise, the methodologies used, and to consider the authors' relationships with their subjects and methods. The authors are careful to situate their studies, comments and analysis within the broader context of both soundscape studies and a wider range of associated fields; their methods are discussed, as well as any resulting limitations. Some of the concerns raised with the Five Village Soundscapes study are thus directly addressed here; these are also perhaps placed in perspective as consequences of changes in philosophy and methods over the years between the two publications.

The book's article format has many benefits, for example allowing for a range of perspectives and angles to be given due consideration; however, it is not without its drawbacks. Not all of the articles are of equal quality; more importantly, some important elements of the book's theme fall somewhat between the cracks along the way. The articles provide an often fascinating look at the villages of the original study from very different perspectives, and often much more intensively; however, surprisingly little effort is given to comparison and contrast between the material, data and recordings of this newer study with those collected for Five Village Soundscapes, despite this being one of the study's primary raisons d'être. While some articles do focus in particular upon soundscapes of the past or changes in the soundscape, these are largely treated without reference to the earlier study. What little direct comparison is provided comes primarily in the final article, and mainly consists of pairing data collected with this study with similar data collected for the previous study, with limited analysis of the implications of the differences and similarities that can be observed between them. This analysis also occasionally shows the earlier study's tendency to confuse speculation with informed analysis - for example in discussion of differences between the sound preference test results of the 1970s and those of the more recent study, in which statements are made concerning the motivations of the students filling out the earlier tests, of which these authors, thirty years later, can have had no direct knowledge. Occasionally, some articles also seem somewhat distanced from the book's theme on a more general level, referencing soundscape only peripherally, in favour of broader cultural or ethnographic themes.

The inclusion of the Finnish village of Nauvo in this study seems an apt one, as it offers opportunities to explore shifts in perspective between researcher and subject: how does the study change when one is studying one's own native soundscape, rather than an unfamiliar soundscape? Unfortunately, such questions are left unaddressed; in fact, Nauvo is given very little attention compared with the other villages,  which is both surprising and regrettable.

Several of the articles are particularly notable for their contributions. Heikki Uimonen gives an excellent historical overview of soundscape studies, which provides extremely valuable context, both for this book and for Five Village Soundscapes. Considering the relative lack of such texts in soundscape literature, this chapter serves as a valuable introduction to the field. Helmi Järviluoma's use of interviews with older members of the communities to explore past, often vanished, elements of the soundscape, as well as community attitudes to changes in the soundscape over time, is a particularly effective development of soundscape methodology. This is based, to a certain extent, on the fortuitous encounter between the Five Village Soundscapes research group and Dollar resident David Graham, whose remarkable sonic memory provided one of the most enjoyable passages of the 1970s study, and who is interviewed once again by Heikki Uimonen for Acoustic Environments in Change. Järviluoma, however, has expanded from this chance encounter in the 1970s to elaborate a powerful tool, which she grounds convincingly in the broader context of cultural studies methodology. The windows into the community, both past and present, that this provides, in articles on Skruv, Bissingen, and especially in her article on Lesconil, are particularly rich and engaging. Her brief inclusion of issues of gender in soundscape in the latter article is also a relevant addition, deftly handled.

Although almost all of the articles provide very interesting reading, some weaker points can sometimes be noted. While some articles very successfully provide a coherent and cohesive presentation of their theme, some display a tendency to ramble, or present a string of anecdotes which, while pleasant to read, lack a clear connecting thread and provide limited analysis. Some articles spend more time describing their process and methodology than presenting the content or results of the study; in these instances, it might have been preferable to see more of the actual data, rather than focusing on the manner in which the data was collected. It must also be said that one article in particular is far from matching the other articles in the collection in quality and in level of writing; offering little of scholarly value, one wonders if it might better have been left out of the book. Finally, the quality of the english varies considerably between the articles; while some are largely impeccable, others are more problematic, and in the worst example it begins to interfere with the understanding of the author's meaning. The book would also have benefitted from more thorough proofing, with a number of instances of typographical and other errors.

However, such flaws should not deter the prospective reader: Acoustic Environments in Change is a strong contribution to soundscape research and literature, and the authors should be proud of their achievements here. Coupled with Five Village Soundscapes, and in a handsome package, with the four compact discs of field recordings tucked into the slipcase, the book is too tempting a proposition to resist, and while it is important to recognise the occasional weaknesses of the respective studies, it is even more important to acknowledge the strong work of all of the contributors in forging a relatively new field and discipline which has much to offer, in which this book is assured a proud and important place.

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Päivitetty 21.5.2015 09:46