Soundscape Composition: Listening to Context and Contingency

Drever, John L.. 2019. Soundscape Composition: Listening to Context and Contingency. In: Michael Filimowicz, ed. Foundations in Sound Design for Linear Media: A Multidisciplinary Approach. New York: Routledge, pp. 358-379. ISBN 9781138093966 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

Soundscape composition does not easily qualify as a delineated genre with clear aesthetic or procedural criteria; rather it represents a common set of attitudes and values that emerge out of the themes, methods and strategies associated with the study of the soundscape, itself, a circa 50-year-old subject area that has perpetually undergone development and subsequently revivification by allied disciplines (such as acoustics, biology, geography, ethnomusicology, sociology, etc.). In the same vein, any meaningful exploration on soundscape composition should nurture and prompt action and experimentation across disciplines, not nostalgically cling to the preservation of ossified art genre specifications. In this regard, the most comprehensive and I think enthusing definition of soundscape composition that primes practice has been the articulation by Hildegard Westerkamp, asoundscape artist and activist, who also resists pinning it down too tightly:

[I]ts essence is the artistic, sonic transmission of meanings about place, time, environment and listening perception. (Westerkamp, 2002, p. 52)

It goes without saying that such all-encompassing themes have great resonance with commercial sound design; however, soundscape composers are permitted to dedicate all their efforts to their exploration, not subservient to an external narrative or the strictures of fi lm sound clichés etc. Westerkamp leads by example: soundscape compositions such as the stereo acousmatic works, Talking Rain (1997) and Kits Beach Soundwalk (1989) and the eight-channel Into the Labyrinth (2000), each address and activate these themes in a continuously creative and context responsive manner. These works don’t just present edited, juxtaposed and superimposed fi eld recordings, but they enquire into the methods and modes of their construction, and most importantly they are not exclusively framed through Westerkamp’s highly attuned listening. They involve, include and inform the listener in their practices of listening and sonic ways of knowing.

This chapter will explore the amalgams of orthodoxies and orthopraxis of those salient soundscape concepts that are exercised in manifold configurations in soundscape compositions and related practices. Naming, attending to and more deeply examining these aural vicissitudes, it is hoped, will inform future expressions of sound design practice in a deeper manner, as habitually experienced by our everyday listening and encountered in our everyday soundscape, a discussion that should provoke the sound designer’s ever-increasing dependency on tried and tested stock sound effects.

Item Type:

Book Section

Additional Information:

This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge in Foundations in Sound Design for Linear Media: A Multidisciplinary Approach on 19 June 2019, available online:


sound design, soundscape

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Music > Unit for Sound Practice Research


May 2019Accepted
19 June 2019Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

16 Jul 2019 07:50

Last Modified:

11 Jun 2021 02:14


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