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Finding fascination in the ecology of sound

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On Monday, the Rolston String Quartet comes to the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Brunswick, Maine, with a program including R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Waves”). The classical repertoire is full of water music — with probably the most common evocation being that of the ocean — but Schafer’s quartet is something else: strikingly different in sound from other musical portrayals of water, and yet inspired by an unusually deep study of the sonic qualities of the sea. The work represents an artistic expression of one of Schafer’s longstanding concerns and fascinations: the ecology of sound.

Beginning in the late 1960s, while teaching at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Schafer — already a composer of extraordinary, tenacious, and, at times, controversial individuality — began to investigate the increasingly inescapable presence of ambient sound in modern life, from sounds of nature to industrial noise to the hum of electricity to the wallpaper of Muzak. In 1971, Schafer and a band of similarly-interested colleagues started the World Soundscape Project, an attempt to make sense out of the modern sonic topography through cataloguing, analysis, and, most of all, close and discerning listening.


R. Murray ShaferGrant Stirton

The String Quartet No. 2 grew out of the Soundscape Project’s analytic approach. Schafer and his fellow investigators gathered data on the way waves rolled onto both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, finding that, while their sounds varied, their periods were intriguingly consistent, the waves almost always arriving every six to 11 seconds. Schafer borrowed that rhythm for the structure of his quartet: six-to-11-second phrases, the textures ranging widely, but constantly flowing into each other. The aim is less descriptive than elemental. In his 1977 book “The Tuning of the World,” Schafer began his survey of the Soundscape with the sea, with water, the “first sound heard,” whether at the dawn of life on the planet or of individual consciousness in the womb: “It is the fundamental of the original soundscape and the sound which above all others gives us the most delight in its myriad transformations.”


Whether in his research or his music, Schafer has always pursued a more active awareness and, if necessary, superintendence of our sonic environment. In “The Tuning of the World,” he put the stakes thus: “[I]s the soundscape of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control, or are we its composers and performers, responsible for giving it form and beauty?” Schafer would have each of us help orchestrate the world.

The Rolston Quartet performs music of Schumann, Schafer, and Beethoven, July 3, 7:30 p.m., Bowdoin College’s Studzinski Recital Hall, 12 Campus Road South, Brunswick, Maine. Tickets $45. 207-373-1400,

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at