Sunday, March 22, 2015

Meet Julian H. Scaff, Author of Sketch Your Soundscape

Julian H. Scaff is an an electronic musician, visual and user experience designer, and university professor. He is the author of Sketch Your Soundscape, available from Designing Press and Amazon. Learn more about Julian's work by visiting his website.

1. Why do you talk about the idea of "sketching" when it comes to the practice of hearing/ listening?

In a broad sense, a "sketch" is a rough, unfinished drawing of ideas. It's a very efficient means of recording ideas and information in ways that are useful, both for developing skills and for being able to recall those ideas or data later on. We tend to think of sketching in relation to visual media, so painters will make sketches to develop an idea before setting paint to canvas, or a designer sketches ideas before making a final rendering in Photoshop. But I've found that sketching is also a great tool for working with sound. I've tried some different ways of sketching soundscapes, both for my own work and with my students, and the template in my book is a result of those experiments. What's different about sketching sound as opposed to something visual is that you can never make a freeze frame of sound. Sound can only exist in the flow of time, and only within a spacial orientation to the listener, so the template I developed for sketching soundscapes allows the listener to sketch sounds in both space and time.

2. What are some common constraints or habits that prevent us from really hearing the world around us?

The biggest thing is focus. Unless we are in a very quiet place, there is always so much sound going on around us that we can't really hear it all and be able to function in a normal way. The same is true with our vision: only people with a photographic memory can actually see and focus on every little thing in their visual field, and that's pretty rare. Most of us can't do that. But by practice, focusing our attention, and recording what we hear, we can become better listeners. My book is really designed for that purpose.

3. Would you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write your book and what audience you had in mind as you wrote it?

The seeds of this book were really planted about five years ago when I was working on a number of sound art projects, including some radio shows I was doing in London, Paris, and Beirut, and I was trying to make sketches and drawings of soundscapes that I was designing. At the time, I was also teaching at a university in the Netherlands, and for a sound art class I began experimenting with sketching exercises with my students, trying out different ideas and methods. Over time and doing a lot of research, I found methods that seemed to work really well and others that didn't. I also found that a book like this didn't exist, so in a lot of ways I designed the book I wish I'd had for teaching.

The audience is first and foremost students, so I designed the book to be small enough to slip into a backpack and inexpensive so that students could easily afford it. Secondarily, I think it could be really useful for sound artists, music producers, sound producers for film and television, DJs, etc. You can not only use the book to sketch existing soundscapes, but also as a compositional tool for creating original works, or even for mapping out stereo and surround- sound design.

4. In your own life and work, what has best helped you become more mindful of sound and to perceive it more fully within the context of the physical body, time, and other layers of our/ your experience?

There are a lot of things. Going back to my youth growing up in Tucson, it probably started with spending a lot of time in nature and just laying on my back and listening to all the sounds of the desert. My childhood was filled with the cacophony of cicadas, noisy little summer insects. In college I started working in radio, and I loved audio editing on old reel-to- reel tape machines and doing live studio recordings. I developed a good ear and sense of timing by recording and editing hundreds of radio station IDs and PSAs, and I also hosted my own late-night radio show for about a year. A couple of early influencers on me were De La Soul and Negativland. They both made such rich, multi-layered recordings, and I spent hours listening to their albums over and over again on headphones trying to dissect all the sounds. And lastly, practicing meditation has helped me a lot, not specifically for listening but more holistically for being able to focus my senses.

As I state in the book, listening doesn't just happen with the ears; you can listen with your whole body. Some sounds can't be "heard," but we can feel them in our bodies. Sound is just vibration. I had a very visceral learning experience with this fact one time when I was doing an artist-in-residency on the island of Crete. After swimming in the ocean, I lay down on a large boulder about 100 meters from the water. As I lay very still in the hot sun, I began to feel faint vibrations on the rock itself. After awhile I realized that the vibrations were synchronized to the waves crashing on the beach. I could feel the sound of the Mediterranean Sea reverberating through stone. It was a subtle but powerful revelation.

Thanks, Julian!

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