Center for Transcultural Studies: Publications/Feld 1992

working papers

No. 53. "From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: Notes on the Discourses of World Music and World Beat," Steven Feld, 1992.

"Schizophonia refers to the split between an original sound and its electroacoustical transmission or reproduction." So writes Canadian composer, acoustic designer, and soundscape researcher Murray Schafer in his important book The Tuning of the World (1977: 90). Schafer's view of the impact of technology on musical practices and sound environments, though most indebted to McLuhan, often has the familiar devolutionary ring of mass culture criticism. He traces a drop in world acoustic ecology from hi-fi to lo-fi soundscapes marked by proliferation of noise, a proliferation corresponding to the increasing split of sounds from sources since the invention of phonographic recording a little more than 100 years ago. His scheme is straightforward: sounds once were always linked indexically to their time and place, their sources, their moment of enunciation, their human and instrumental mechanisms. Early technology for acoustic capture and reproduction fueled a preexisting fascination with acoustic dislocations and re-spatialization. Territorial expansion, imperialistic ambition, and audio technology as agent and indicator increasingly came together, culminating in the invention of the loudspeaker. Then came public address systems, radio expansion, and after the second world war, the tape recorder, which made possible a new and unprecedented level of editing via splicing manipulation such that sounds could be endlessly altered or rearranged yet made to have the illusion of seamless unbroken spatial and temporal contiguity. Summarizing his concept Schafer writes: "I coined the term schizophonia in The New Soundscape [an earlier book] intending it to be a nervous word. Related to schizophrenia, I wanted it to convey the same sense of aberration and drama. Indeed, the overkill of hi-fi gadgetry not only contributes generously to the lo-fi problem, but it creates a synthetic soundscape in which natural sounds are becoming increasingly unnatural while machine-made substitutes are providing the operative signals directing modern life" (1977: 91).

No doubt that if Schafer were writing at this moment, he would see digital sampling, CD-ROM, and the new ability to fully record, edit, re-organize and own any sound from any source, as the final stage of schizophonia, namely total portability, transportability, and transmutability of any and all sonic environments. But for the moment forget the "after the deluge" rhetoric here and some of the many complexities Schafer ignores, such as how musical technology has been occasionally hijacked to empower certain traditionally very powerless people and as a result has strengthened their local musical bases. Let's just, for the moment, focus in and think about that sense of nervousness Schafer's lovely and precise schiz-word means to announce: mediated music, commodified grooves, sounds split from sources, products for consumption with fewer if any contextual linkages to processes, practices, forms of participation that endow their meanings in local communities. Here Schafer's schiz-word recalls Walter Benjamin's celebrated essay of 40 years earlier on "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction." Although Benjamin's concern with the transformation from unique to plural existences centered upon visual-material art objects, his critical interest in "aura," what is lost from an original once it is reproduced, first raised the assumption that anchors Schafer too: "...the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility" (1968: 224).

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Working Papers