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Argentinian Soundscapes, November 1994

R. Murray Schafer

Schafer is a Canadian composer and writer well known for his Tuning of the World, a history of the sonic environment, or soundscape (see EAP, 3, 1, 7-9). Schafer regularly gives lectures and workshops on sound education throughout the world. The following is an extract from an account describing his lecture and teaching experiences in Buenos Aires, Argentina on a visit in 1994.


November 4, Buenos Aires. Spacious apartment thirteen stories up on the Avenida Pueyrredon waiting to be taken to my first lecture. Subject: El paisaje sonoro [soundscape]. A good display of it below the window. I counted 350 car horns over a one-hour period this afternoon.

    Quite a variety too: one-tone cranky horns, two-tone cranky horns, two-tone strident ones, occasional­ly a major second apart but usually a minor third, then regal horns tuned to the interval of a major third. These seem the loudest. Sometimes there's a fancy horn. I just heard one bugling this motif:

Per sonare, to sound through: personality. Short toots. Bright colors. "Hello!" "Nice day!" "Hey, watch it!" "I'm going first!" Nothing really nasty in the Argentinean horn, even when a street blockage causes an eruption of them. The cursing horns glitter vivaciously.

    The Argentinean horn is pure self-advertisement. The engine roar too. And the engines are substantial­ly louder than in North American cars. There are few automatics and few air conditioners: windows are open, but it is rare to hear a radio. Cristian doesn't even have one in the Fiat he picked us up in at the airport. As soon as summer hits Canada, half the cars turn into boom boxes for petulant rock-rap fanatics. Here people dance on the gear shift instead of the radio dial.

    The variety of sirens in B.A. is astounding. There are two-tone oscillating horns, electronic glissandi, and I even thought I heard one or two old disc sirens. Yelping sirens and blockbuster air horns are also popular as methods of torpedoing traffic. But no standardization. One has the impression that sirens are chosen on whim at some bloodthirsty toy store.....

    Lecture went well with over three hundred people present. A nice touch at the reception afterwards. A young man entered with a large bouquet of carnations and began handing them out to everyone. Said he thought it might be nice to end a lecture on noise with flowers and everyone agreed.

    The next day I hear that B.A. has been identified on the radio as the fourth noisiest city in the world because I mentioned that my rough car horn count would place it somewhere on a par with New York, and rather below Paris and Cairo in this respect. How myths are started!

November 6. First course over. We covered a lot in two days under sunny skies. The students were almost all young, so we could move faster, without philosophizing, without discussing methodology, without, in fact, discussing anything‑-just doing. And that is the Schafer method: to keep doing one exer­cise after another in no particular order except to maintain a balance between the physically active and the mentally stimulating, so that the whole takes on the form of a mosaic or cluster rather than a linear progression. It is perhaps a technique I learned from McLuhan.

November 7. The second course, this one in Acoustic Ecology, is being held in the Museo Romulo Raggio, a vintage mansion in the Italian style, surrounded by an attractive garden that shelters it somewhat from the reverberant busses hurtling down the street at the side, but not at all from the screaming jets taking off from the airport.

    The air inside the building is cool and somewhat stagnant. I notice that the participants (about 20 in this course) are talking in hushed tones in the marble-floored ballroom where the course is to be given‑-as if they're afraid to stir up the dead. I decide to make this the excuse for our first investigation, divining the former life of the building from its materials and the sounds they make.

    First, doors.1 There are a great variety of these: pantry doors that squeak in alarm and seem to be calling out "thief." Double doors to the ballroom that roll back majestically like a snare drum announce­ment: "The Prince of ...!" Large heavy doors that seam to be saying "Leave me alone!" Glass doors that shake like countesses loaded with jewelry... Even the windows had personalities: some creaked and complained: "I need air!"‑-or shivered on their hinges and said, "Close me, it's chilly outside!"

    We determined the servants' quarters and listened to the way the doors here groaned painfully. Between this area and the main household a thick-set door closed quietly but emphatically, reminding us that class distinction is also a sound.

    The floors of every room yielded their personality too. Those of the halls and ballroom were marble to take the spurred boots of cavaliers. Those of the library and music room (or what we took to be these) were of inlaid wood, and ornate wood panelling in the library produced a muted acoustic that gave the voice no encouragement.

    We decided that a room with timbered flooring strung over wide-set beams allowing it to boom under firm footsteps was the master's bedroom. The adja­cent room surely belonged to the mistress. It was smaller and, though the floor was also timbered, it was strung on close-set beams so that while there was authority in the sound as one walked across it, the stentorian punch of the master's room was missing.

    Then we discovered a smaller room in which the door clicked open and shushed over a thick carpet as it swung back to reveal two padded sofas. We decided this was "the lovers' room."

    We spent a good part of the morning tapping walls and cupboards, opening everything that could be opened, touching all the materials and fabrics, measuring the reverberation in each room (those with parabolic ceilings had an immediately recognizable Eigenton).

    The whole palace, dead and deserted, revealed the intricacies of its former life to the investigative ear. "Is this the bathtub of a prince?" I ask, turning on a modest trickle of hot water in the principal bathroom. "No."

    And the discussion turned to ways in which water sounds express character, concluding with some remarks on Japanese water harps (suikinkutsu). These were resonant jars, buried in the earth under wash-basins outside tea houses during the Edo period (1603-1867). I have also encountered them in the washrooms of private houses. The water trickled down into them through the stones at the base of the wash basin, making little pinging sounds, not loud but clearly audible. There would always be a slight delay before the water harp would begin so that listeners had to wait to hear it. In the interval they would hear the other sounds that were present. The suikinkutsu is a beautiful example of designing for the ear and I want the students in this course to begin to think of ways to initiate soundscape designs into their own lives.

    We talk of how walking on different surfaces produces different sounds (another subject well understood by the Japanese gardener) and I set a homework assignment: Let's make a Sound Path down the corridors of the Palacio. Let every footstep sound different. Bring all the resonant materials you can find to class tomorrow, anything to transform walking into an interesting sonic experience.

    Tonight a siren in the street, totally idiosyncratic to my ear:

 Could it be that someone has tampered with the circuitry to produce this eccentricity or is it the first of a new line of devices about to roll off the assem­bly line in multiples of a thousand? In any case it endorses my earlier observation that one selects sirens in Buenos Aires the way one chooses choco­lates in Switzerland.

November 8. Every step was a miniature acoustic wonder as one walked over pebbles, shells, wooden planks, chips, scraps of metal, plastic cups, sugar, pasta, snapping twigs, dried leaves and the husks of nuts. Everyone got a chance to walk the Sound Path. Some walked quickly‑-violently. Others walked slowly bringing out the richness of each texture. Some walked barefoot. One boy tried to walk silent­ly, taking ten minutes to crinkle his way from end to end.

    I mentioned Rabindranath Tagore's school in India. Tagore wouldn't let the children wear shoes so that they might always sense direct contact with the earth. We all took our shoes off. I suggested a walk in the garden, eyes closed holding hands. I thought it would be a good listening experience. I underestimat­ed the nettles in the grass. "Ei! Ei! Ei!" cried the Argentineans while I cried "Ow!" the exclamations of pain differing between our two cultures. My hyper­sensitive feet had murdered my ears.

    I gave a student a few of the materials from the Sound Path and told him to improvise a little piece with them: A couple of stones, two chunks of metal and some dried branches. I asked the rest of the class to turn their backs and write a fantasy story provoked by the sounds they heard. I had not expected the stories to be so fantastic and surrealistic.

    With another class I had played a tape of the entry into Vancouver Harbor (from The Vancouver Sound­scape) and asked them to describe where they thought they were. To my surprise they fantasized extravagantly. Not even all of them associated the sounds with the sea. They heard the fog horns as scolding parents or torturing army generals, the buoys as church bells or the glittering lights of fabled cities, and so on. The polysemousness of sounds has never been more evident to me than in conducting these two experiments.

    Another siren never heard before:

     Another toy to deaden the pain.



1. The idea of speaking or singing doors comes from Nikolai Gogol's story "Old-World Landowners," where he discussed the various voices of doors in a country house: "Thin falsetto," "husky bass," and so forth.