Searching for the Sharawadji Effect: Electroacoustics and Ecology

Claude Schryer, Musicworks, no. 70, March 1, 1998


The Sharawadji effect is an æsthetic effect characterized by a sensation of plenitude sometimes created by the contemplation of a complex soundscape whose beauty is inexplicable.

This exotic term, introduced to Europe in the seventeenth century by travellers who learned it in China, designates the beauty that arises without the listener perceiving the order or economy of the object in question.

The Sharawadji effect takes one by surprise ans will carry the listener elsewhere, beyond strict representation — out of context. In this brutal confusion, the senses get lost. A beautiful Sharawadji plays with the rules of composition, manipulates them, and awakens a feeling of pleasure through perceptual confusion.

Whether in a dream-like of anxious state, we are sometimes completely deaf to the environment. While on a walk or on a journey, however, our spirit can combine availability, attention, and perspicacity, thus becoming receptive to new things, including sonic fantasy.

The beautiful Sharawadji affirms itself in contrast with the banality from which it originates. Sharawadji sounds, as such, belongs to everyday life or to known musical registers. They only become Sharawadji by de-contextualization, by a rupture of the senses

The sonic matter that stimulates the Sharawadji effect can differ according to the appreciation of each individual, in a given context; although the soundscape — and in particular urban soundscapes — can, as a result of their unpredictability and diversity, favour it. The sonic wealth of nature is also conductive to creation of the Sharawadji effect.

Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue, À l’écoute de l’environnement, répertoire des effets sonores (A Dictionary of Sound Effects), 1995 [Translation: Claude Schryer]

The listener, and only the listener,
is the composer of the music.

Ola Stockfelt, Cars, Buildings and Soundscapes, 1994

On November 11, 1997 (a day of remembrance) I walked into the concert hall at Théâtre La Chapelle in Montréal for the Rien à voir festival of acousmatic music and was confronted by a shocking contrast between electroacoustics and ecology: a dark room, little air, countless loudspeakers and sixty-hertz-a-humming machines… There was virtually no living matter present (except we humans) and there I was rehearsing my “ecological” music for concert presentation…

It was bewildering to be in this former chapel — in a quasi-religious listening experience — where we consumed virtual music in the hope of being taken on a journey “inside” sound.

This article is about my journey into the soundscape through the medium of electroacoustics and my quest to discover the “unexplainable beauty” in the music of the acoustic environment.

Electroacoustic Soundscape Composition

Electroacoustic soundscape composition is most closely related to the visual field of photography. Images of the sonic environment can be captured, processed, and represented as a reflection of reality and/or as an artistic creation. It is a technique thet treats the acoustic environment as both the subject and the content of a composition, teetering abiguously on the border between representation and abstraction.

Electroacoustic soundscape composition has everything to do with context, as opposed to the “musique concrète” æsthetic of reduced listening (“écoute réduite”), where sounds are appreciated independently of their source for their abstract musical value as “objets sonores” (sound objects). For the electroacoustic composer, an “objet sonore” is one sound source, among others, for musical production. For the electroacoustic soundscape coposer, however, the “objet sonore” is also a complex web of information that includes the potential of revealing “unexplainable beauty” in the form of the Sharawadji effect.

Darren Copeland (Copeland, 1996) reminds us of the difference between environmental sound and music: “There is a communicative realm to environmental sounds that has nothing to do with music, but rather, has everything to do with the social context from wich these sounds originate.” Thus, the social and spiritual context of a soundscape can be used as a compositional element on par with pitch, melody, harmony and timbre. The composers dreaws upon the conscious and sub-conscious sonic memories of the listener and uses them as an anchor for navigating in and around dimensions of sound that have the potential to communicate otherwise untangible emotions.

Electroacoustic soundscape compositions can be presented on radio, in installations, in acousmatic diffusion, in interactive performance, etc. However, the key common element in this form of composition is a concern for the context and environment of a given sound. Barry Truax (Truax 1984, 207) further explains this difference, specifically in the context of electroacoustic music: The essential difference between an electroacoustic composition that uses pre-recorded environmental sound as its source material, and a work that can be called a soundscape composition, is that in the former, the sound loses all or most of its environmental context. In fact, even its original identity is frequently lost through the extensive manipulation it has undergone, and the listener may not recognise the source unless so informed by the composer. In the soundscape composition, on the other hand, it is precisely the environmental context that is preserved, enhanced and exploited by the composer… Part of the composer’s intent may also be to enhance the listener’s awareness of environmental sound. Whereas the use of concrete sources leaves the environment the same and merely extracts its elements, the successful soundscape composition has the effect of changing the listener’s awareness and attitudes towards the soundscape, and thereby changing the listener’s relationship to it. The aim of the composition is therefore social and political, as well as artistic.

Listening to Dhomont, Ferrari, and Westerkamp

Industrialization and new technologies have transformed our sound environment. New sounds have appeared, have transformed our concept of hearing, and have modified our aesthetic criteria in a decisive fashion. Just as the effects of industry and technology on air and water have raised concerns about the physical environment, so too, the notion of ecology has emerged recently in the domain of electroacoustics. Artists from diverse disciplines explore and employ the soundscape in their work. Their interesting and timely reflections on problems of acoustic ecology expand the debate on, and nourish discussions of, the quality and organization of the soundscape in urban and natural environments. Artists can become a conduit of our collective memory and help us better understand our acoustic environment, which we rarely actually hear. Thus, the sound artist can propose new associations, acoustic games, and poetic metaphors, and can pose fundamental questions about the coexistence of electronic technology and ecology.

What are the aesthetic and ethical criteria of the environmental electroacoustician? Montréal-based acousmatic composer Francis Dhomont (Dhomont 1992, 31) criticizes the sometimes uncomfortable co-habitation of electroacoustics and ecology:

One important aspect of sound ecology is, of course, that it should not be too… sonic. But what should one make of the torrents of decibels spewed out by our loudspeakers, with ever more powerful lows, ultra-lows, mids, highs and ultra-sonics? Are we the most qualified to preoccupy ourselves with the eardrums of our contemporaries? Just like you, I am cornered by this dilemma, torn apart, trying to invent all sorts of good excuses. Like you, I consecrate kilometres of polyester to preserve the songs of cicadas, frogs, streams and nightingales, to avoid losing them forever. But I am not taken in by these subterfuges and I know very well that we have already entered the age of simulacra. Will they compensate for the disappearance of real life?

I am an electroacoustician and, like Francis, I consider myself also to be an environmentalist. The two activities should not be necessarily incompatible, and yet…

I love machines. I love to touch sound. I love to indulge in virtual sound and to immerse myself in the endless metaphoric and metamorphic potential of electroacoustics. And yet I am constantly faced with the paradox between my electronic art and ecology. Sometimes, I have the impression that I am more a part of the problem than of the solution.

The wise and poetic French composer Luc Ferrari reminded me, while he and I walked in the streets of Paris, that “one has to learn to recognize sounds on top of each other, in relation to each other—that is to say, in layers. And this can be learned by the sensitivity that we develop, and by awareness.”

I agree with him that we need to learn how to develop our sonic awareness and hope that the electronic technologies of today and tomorrow will help us “tune” our perceptions to and with our environment, so that a balance can be found between natural and virtual sound environments, and also between natural and virtual listening. Increasingly, artists are searching for an ecological balance, not only in the content of their work, but also in their compositional process. Composer and acoustic-ecology activist Hildegard Westerkamp (Westerkamp 1995) has found some common ground between electroacoustics and her ecological and musical convictions. She underlines the value of electroacoustics in soundscape composition, as a practical tool for expression and for listening, but also warns of some of the dangers:

Much as technology can annoy and frustrate me and much as the environments in which sound studios exist tend to be unhealthy, it works better for me than composing for instruments. I use technology in my work because it is the best tool for me to express what I want to say through composition. As well, the sound studio allows for immediate interaction with sound, an intimacy, a conversation, like a slow motion improv. In a sound studio one can be a musician and composer at the same time. But I also perceive sound technology as a dangerous tool for composition: it can distract endlessly from the content of what we want to say; it can demand an inordinate amount of attention to technical detail and it can also distract our audiences from really hearing our work. But no matter how much technology we put between our composing selves and our final composition, between ourselves and our audiences, it is still ears and bodies and psyches that perceive our pieces.

I share her enthusiasm and her hesitations. For years, I’ve been struggling with my identity as electroacoustic soundscape-composer and as acoustic-ecology activist. Hildegard’s sense of equilibrium and wisdom is an inspiration. Indeed, we must be aware of the shortcomings of the electroacoustic medium, while keeping in mind the importance of offering an ecological voice to the loudspeaker.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead


In the early 1990s, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, speaking on CBC radio’s It’s a Matter of Survival, warned that the next ten years were “our last chance to change…” The questions of the survival, responsibility, and interpretation of our environment have haunted me ever since, have incited me to compose music with and about our acoustic environment, and have also led me to become politically and socially active. For the last few years, it’s become obvious to me that we are suffering from a disturbing wave of greed and excessive materialism that is choking the fruits of our environmental passions, both locally and globally.

That is why, in Banff in 1993, I became involved with a group of some 150 acoustic ecology activists in founding the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE), an interdisciplinary association for researchers and practitioners from social, scientific, and cultural disciplines, who meet and exchange information about their work and interests related to acoustic ecology. Among other things, the WFAE is participating in the organization of an international conference on acoustic ecology organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, to be held in Stockholm (June 9-14, 1998). The principal theme of this conference is “from awareness to action” and is in tune with the international acoustic ecology’s desire to evolve from an initial period of awareness to direct action.

That is also why, in 1996, in Haliburton, Ontario, I coordinated a group or thirty or so Canadian acoustic ecology activists and helped found the Canadian Association for Acoustic Ecology (CASE). CASE’s focus is on local activities, including sound-walks, anti-noise campaigns, workshops, information presentations, radio documentaries, etc. Similar groups are coming to life in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Australia, Brazil, and Japan.

These organizations and their activities are directed to finding new methods of teaching and encouraging sensitive listening, of increasing awareness of the acoustic environment, and of promoting both internal and external listening as a tool for growth and sustainable development.

”Not a Very Good Composer…”

I had the shock of my life in 1985, when composer Luciano Berio told me, sincerely, that he did not think that I was a very good composer. He also mentioned, however, that he thought there was a place for me in the world of music. The piece on which Berio based his comments was my 1985 solo cello piece On the Edge, written for cellist Shauna Rolston. He thought that the piece sounded like “film music” and was not of the calibre of contemporary concert music. What I think he really meant to say was that I did not, curiously, seem to be interested in “music” so much as elements around music: space, noise, and silence.

Indeed, since 1989, I have progressively detached myself from the concert music tradition and have allowed myself to touch sonic matter through electroacoustics. At the same time, in response to the growing world ecological crisis, I have felt a need to become involved in the environmental movement, at both political and artistic levels. And because I had had musical training, I chose a path that combined the ecology of sound with music, in the form of electroacoustics. It seemed most natural for me to become concerned about the sonic quality of our environment. Therefore, I began following in the tracks of composers R Murray Schafer, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Barry Truax (among others), of the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and I adopted the notion that artists can help design a more imaginative and balanced soundscape.

I find myself continually fascinated by the evocative nature of recorded soundscapes. I sometimes think of it as a “voice” within the environment reaching out to me. As a result, I want to bring the listener “inside” a space, experience, or sensation, with or without words, with or without transformation, and also with or without “music.”

My artistic practice involves essentially a five-step process: listening, recording, analyzing, transforming, and orchestrating recorded soundscapes into electroacoustic portraits for concert and radio. Whenever possible, I record my own soundscapes as a kind of performance in which I literally “play” the microphone like a musical instrument.

I have found that an essential part of the composition process occurs during field recording. Apart from a DAT machine recording two-dimensional stereo sound on tape, a parallel recording process takes place during field recording. I call it “emotional recording,” wherein the body and spirit also record sensations and vibrations from the space. These emotions can subsequently be called upon to guide the inner structure and spiritual map of the composition. I try to record sounds that, upon repeated hearing, resonate in me and cleanse me and shake me up. I listen for sounds which evoke the fragility of our environment and the importance of awareness, listening, and silence. In general, when I record, I try to meditate on and analyze the space. How does it speak to me? What are its microscopic and macroscopic components? What is my rapport and my emotional relationship with the space? How can we capture and transmit the multiple dimensions of a space by means of a microphone and loudspeakers?

When I record I also try to be aware of the limitations of my recording equipment and to plan how to frame my recordings in terms of my specific needs. Therefore, each recording—the movement of the microphone, the choice of perspective, the background, the levels, the presence of breath (or not), the stereophonic angle—is unique to each project.

Around “Autour”

It is interesting to note the reaction of Le Devoir classical music critic François Tousignant (Tousignant 1997), as stated in a review of my CD, Autour, here translated.

Musically speaking, this is elementary electroacoustics, which, far from magnifying its subject, discourages the listener, even the best intentioned. There is no call, nor interpolation from our poet in becoming; only an applied report on tape of things here and there which offer no perspective… Maybe acoustic ecology is just that: a canvas on which you can do whatever you want without really listening to it… And yet, I agree with R Murray Schafer, one of the instigators of this discipline: the environment (le paysage), is beautiful, but one must do something with it.

Indeed, my work is a simple use of electroacoustics, but I think of it as transparent rather than elementary. It is more difficult than one might think to resist transforming a sound in studio, allowing it instead to “breathe” on tape. François doesn’t seem to hear the voice of the environment, nor understand the notion of the Sharawadji effect as I do. This is his choice as listener and I respect it. It is, however, shocking that he thinks this kind of work has no perspective. It is all about perspective! In my case, it is a relatively clear perspective based on the poetry of sonographic representatlon.

Acoustic ecology is all about listening to and being aware of the acoustic environment, and though I agree that one must indeed “do” something with the acoustic environment (as Schafer and others have done so very well), I think there is more than one way of being “active,” including being actively passive by allowing an environment to be musical by itself.

The review certainly shook me up and I am grateful for that. It has encouraged me to question our ability to appreciate this kind of music with “classical” ears and to consider new models of listening and appreciation, as R Murray Schafer suggests “to not only strip down the walls of our theatres and recording studios, but also the walls of our senses.”

Ironically, in another review that same day (November 22, 1997), in La Presse, journalist Philippe Tétreau seems to be much more in tune with the nature of this kind of work.

This electroacoustician manipulates the microphone like a camera, choosing his angles, enlarging this or that detail, defining a sound image to vary the effects and therefore demonstrating the art of acoustic ecology with audio images that recreate remarkable atmospheres. We are closer to a cinematographic process here than that of music written on manuscript… The sounds of nature and of the city are retained in our memory, rather than the spectacular artifices of cybernetics. Avoiding overwhelming the listener with overcharged effects which are easily forgotten, Schryer gives an important place to silence, therefore favouring the memory of the chosen soundscape and the sensation of plenitude that he is seeking.

From External to Internal Soundscapes

With Chasse, in 1989, I began a five-part cycle of electroacoustic soundscape compositions which have come full circle with my most recent composition, Au dernier vivant les biens.

My research began in 1989 with a period of listening to and awareness of my immediate external environment. I composed two “home” pieces, Chasse (1989), about a family duck-hunting trip, and Les oiseaux de Bullion (1990), which contrasted the soundscapes around my urban home in Montréal and my wilderness home in Banff.

My next step was to figure out what I was talking about. I asked questions about acoustic ecology and the history of the acoustic-ecology movement in Canada and composed two experimental radio documentaries, Marche sonore I (Le Matin du monde) (1991-92) and Revisiting the World Soundscape Project (1992-93).

In 1993, I attempted to compose my first “musical,” ecologically inspired, concert-music pieces, Les voix de l’écologie (1993), based on Schafer’s book The Tuning of the World, and Mono Real (1994), for voice and mono tape. However, both pieces proved unsatisfactory, as I had not yet done enough listening and did not understand the delicate art of electroacoustic soundscape composition.

After an extended depression and period of healing meditation and listening in 1995, I came back to composition in 1996 with a set of four electroacoustic soundscape compositions based on locations in North America, El medio ambiente acústico de México (1995-96), Vancouver Soundscape Revisited (1996), Musique de l’Odyssée sonore (Quebec City), (1996-97), and Autour d’une Musique portuaire (Montréal), (1996), a composition with Hélène Prévost. These have all been issued on the CD Autour.

Nineteen ninety-seven brought about the conclusion of a seven-year cycle of electroacoustic soundscape compositions, with Au dernier vivant les biens (1997), a set of forty-nine electroacoustic soundscape meditations issued on the CD Lettre sonore II / Sound Letter II. I’m not sure where my listening will lead me next, towards more soundscape composition or further into the contemplation of silence. But I’m quite sure that I’ll still be searching for a voice calling from the environment.