OPINION: Sarnia’s ‘soundscape’ is unlike any other

George Mathewson

R. Murray Schafer is an interesting guy and a Sarnia native who coined the word ‘soundscape’ and added it to the English language.

A composer and scholar with an international reputation, Schafer wrote the seminal work on the subject called ‘The Tuning of the World.’

In it, he explains how a soundscape combines natural sound (weather, songbirds) and human sound (music, machines) to create an acoustic environment made up of events that are heard, rather than objects that are seen.

I have long been fascinated by the totally unique soundscape Sarnia offers up on a still and peaceful summer night.

Throughout much of the urban area you can often hear the muted roar of industry coming from The Valley, and sometimes a rattle of rail cars shunting in the CN train yard.

Sarnia is split by a major highway and lies beneath crisscrossing flight paths, so truck tires and jet engines add their own notes to the nocturnal overture.

And then there are those giant ships. Passing freighters and their subterranean rumbling add a deep and throbbing sound so low in frequency it is felt as much as heard.

All of these add something to Sarnia’s soundscape, which, Schafer would be quick to note, easily becomes destructive noise pollution in excess.

The other morning I was roused by a ship horn coming through our open bedroom window, a long blast followed by five short blasts.

The pickerel run is on and Lake Huron, where it pours into the river, is thick with boats drift-fishing near the shipping channel right now.

And though I live many miles from there I could clearly envision the scene, just from that sound alone. The captain glaring down from the wheelhouse, the anglers below focused more on a two-pound fish than 40,000 tons of steel about to run them under.

In the language of freighters one long blast is a warning. Five short blasts means danger, which in this case translated to, “Get the hell out of my way you idiots!”

Because he is often listed as a famous Sarnian I once tried to interview R. Murray Schafer. He told me, politely, that his birth certificate says Sarnia but he grew up in Toronto and has little connection to the community.

Which is a pity.

The field of acoustic design has been altered by his pioneering work, starting with the World Soundscape Project in the 1960s and his detailed investigation of soundscapes in Sweden, Germany, Italy, France and Scotland.

Schafer is 84 now, but I wish I could sit and share a beer with him some night, so that I could hear what he hears in the nocturnal soundscape of his hometown.