Interstitial approaches to soundscape: discursive analysis #1 Anthozoa

Nic McConaghy
Date of publication: 

Of fundamental importance to the soundscape composer is the manner in which they chose to interpret the complexity of the external environment within an artistic context. Daniel Blinkhorn’s soundscape composition Anthozoa (composed in 2011) is analysed to gain one such insight into this process. In this instance, the relationship between musical structures and the external environment are analysed against a continuum, which reveals a primacy when expressing the relationship with the outer world through abstract musical structure. The brief exegesis is presented in two parts. The first examines aspects of the continuum in which the work is situated aesthetically, whilst the second presents an analysis whereby the entire structure of the composition is broken down and examined segmentally to examine the internal musical relationships and their metaphorical connections to the external environment. The formal analysis of the composition does not adhere to any particular musical vernacular, rather it choses to describe each event in a manner best suited to describing its own metaphorical connection with the physical world.

1. Introduction

Broadly speaking, soundscape composition can be said to consist of two disparate processes;; the exploration and recording of real environments and the subsequent use of studio based technology to reinterpret and map elements of the environment into a creative composition. As such, it can be considered an interstitial art form, one that seeks to reconcile external reality with the internal world of memory, metaphor and symbolism. As Young notes:

...the distinctions between degrees of reality and abstraction can also be taken as a broad metaphor for "outer" and "inner" forms of experience: the tangible and intangible, even "physicality" and “spirituality (1996: 83).

It is the aim of this analysis to examine the ways in which these two interstices (external and internal) are fused together by investigating the treatment of the external environment within a soundscape composition. It will do so through a detailed analysis of Daniel Blinkhorn’s 2011 composition Anthozoa (5.1 version) by exploring how observations of a specific natural environment inform and influence the creative and imaginative act of composition.

It will do so by first providing an overview of some of the key concepts implicit in soundscape composition before a detailed analysis is undertaken, which demonstrates the composer’s skill in conveying an impression of the external environment through metaphorical associations between sounding materials.

2. Soundscape Concepts

The majority of the source material for Anthozoa comes from the recordings of two different coral reefs (Blinkhorn 2011). It cannot however, be classified as a soundscape composition based on the use of environmental sound alone. Soundscape composition requires that sound material remain identifiable throughout a composition (Truax 2002: 6).

Although there are numerous moments throughout Anthozoa where the sound of the reef has remained largely unprocessed, the sound of coral is so unfamiliar to most listeners that its origin is bound to retain a degree of ambiguity (until the reading of the program note). For the purposes of this analysis Anthozoa will be regarded as a soundscape, even though many of its sounds and syntactical structures remain ambiguous. The listener is however, able to listen to it as though it were a soundscape at the level of metaphor, as the composer has used a variety of studio based techniques to expand the composition beyond that of a literal representation of a natural environment, whilst still retaining a sense of cohesion and realism.

In order to conduct an effective analysis it was first necessary to define the nature of the soundscape itself. To do so, it was measured against two continua that were devised by Barry Truax (2012) to represent the musical relationships with the external environment and define the practices used in the creation of soundscapes.

The first continuum devised by Truax uses two extremes;; internal structure (text) and external information (context) to represent musical relationships with the external world. He classifies ‘text’ dominant works as those that concentrate almost exclusively on internal musical relationships and the structuring of musical sounds. He observes that in such instances the relationship to the external environment is conveyed as musical inspiration and is often expressed to the audience through an accompanying program note. Although the environment may have played a profoundly inspirational role for the composer, it is not necessary for the listener to comprehend this, because an understanding of the work will naturally result from the audible relationships among musical structures. Contextually driven works, on the other hand require that information from the real world be mapped onto sound and communicated to the audience in order to direct their attention toward certain aspects of the environment. Truax states that soundscape compositions are often characterised by a balanced mix between elements of text and context (Truax 2012: 194).

To aid further the understanding of soundscape composition, Truax places the various practices involved in the creation of soundscapes along a second continuum that ranges from sonification at the far left to phonography in the centre and virtual soundscapes at the far right. Sonification involves mapping data onto sound for the purposes of communication. Phonography refers to the intentional process of mapping data from the environment onto sound recordings, unlike sonification it is not objective and requires the recordist to make specific choices regarding perspective and microphone type (Truax 2012: 194).

The space along the continuum between phonography and virtual soundscapes is reserved for compositions, which are used to represent the real environment by abstracting the recordings from the original context. Such compositions are often presented in a documentary format and require that any editing or sound processing remain as transparent as possible in order to preserve the contextual information embedded within the recordings.

Virtual soundscapes usually result when the composer has taken certain liberties with the sound material in order to invoke aspects of soundscape perception. Such compositions require the listener to make associations between the sounding material and personal memories rooted in past experience or to use sounds as metaphors or symbols. This process can be further extended until the result is a soundscape that is perceived as being entirely imaginary even though it may contain certain recognisable elements and structure (Truax 2012: 195).

In relation to Truax’s first continuum, Anthozoa can be classified largely as text driven composition, as the composer is using the shape of a coral reef as a source of musical inspiration. He seeks to relate the experience of diving over a reef by outlining its perceived shape, texture and density through various morphologies and the overall musical structure. Although the structure and relations among morphologies are obvious to the listener, it may not be apparent without first reading the program note, that the piece is intended to infer the experience of exploring a marine ecosystem.

As previously stated, one of the composer’s primary aims was to convey the texture, shape and density of a coral reef through various sound-shapes and spatial configurations. It is interesting to note that all of the aforementioned characteristics are perceived through sense modalities other than that of audition. The propensity of soundscapes to provoke the interaction between different senses through the acousmatic medium is best illustrated in the following quote from Denis Smalley in his description of transmodal perception:

From sound alone I can constitute in my imagination the layout and activity of a scene;; or the shape of a Spectromorphological event (however ‘abstract’) as its spectral space moves in relation to me;; or the apparent size, dimensions and texture of an object. This is indeed a ‘vision’ where the auditory sense calls on the companion senses to participate in the enactment of spatial experience (Smalley 2007: 40).

Anthozoa incorporates several principles from different positions along Truax’s second continuum, whilst it contains phonographic elements (unprocessed sound of coral) its overall intention is not to document and represent the sound of a particular reef, but rather to convey the experience of diving over an imaginary reef constructed from a composite recordings of the Great Barrier Reef and a coral reef off the coast of Barbados (Blinkhorn 2011). It is therefore, best situated at the far right end of the continuum between virtual and imaginary soundscapes as the abstract musical relationships heard throughout the piece serve as metaphors for the physical and temporal observations made during the recording process.

One of the most striking features of Anthozoa is the way in which it delineates clearly articulated sonic spaces created through a smoothly connected flow of spatial and temporal attributes, which are designed to represent the movement of an individual as they pass through an underwater environment. According to Truax (2002: 9) the illusion of moving perspective can be used to great effect within soundscape compositions to create a sense of narrative and engage the listener’s imagination by inviting them to share the composer’s journey through the projected environment.

The notion of moving perspective is of paramount importance to the interpretation of many soundscape compositions, including Anthozoa, where the composer has structured the work into three distinct sections each intended to portray a different aspect of the experience of diving over a coral reef. Through various processing techniques (convolution, granulation etc.) the composer is able to articulate different metaphorical spaces through the behaviour of the various morphologies within them. Throughout Anthozoa the listener’s experience and understanding of such spaces remains ambiguous and open to interpretation. Although the composer expresses his intention through the program note, it is ultimately up to the listener to form conclusions about such spaces based upon the relationship between musical structures.

There are however, instances of soundscape composition that treat narration in a less ambiguous manner. Hildegard Westerkamp’s 1989 composition Kits Beach Soundwalk is one such example.

Kits Beach Soundwalk is a compositional extension of the ideas generated through Westerkamp's involvement in Vancouver co-operative radio in the late 1970s. During this time she hosted a radio program entitled Soundwalking, which explored acoustically, a number of different locations throughout the city of Vancouver. As such it is a work, which can be considered to belong to the radiophonic domain equally as much as it does to the canon of soundscape compositions.

Westerkamp uses the concept of the soundwalk as both a structural device and as a means of conveying the physicality of the soundscape to the listener. Soundwalking is phenomenological experience implicit to the discipline of soundscape composition, whereby an individual directly engages with the immediate environment by walking through it guided by sounds as they unfold over the course of the walk.

Within the opening minute of Kits Beach Soundwalk Westerkamp establishes a real acoustic space through the combination of an unprocessed field recording and a descriptive commentary about the elements of her surrounds, which cannot be perceived aurally. Once she has established the reality of the soundscape she is then able to transport the listener to various imaginary spaces by simultaneously drawing attention (through narration) to various sounds within the soundscape and the metaphorical connection that they invoke. Through the very literal use of narration Westerkamp is able to convey her journey through the physical world into the metaphorical and back again.

The intention of Kits Beach Soundwalk is to highlight the ever-changing relationship between society and nature. It is a work, which emphasises the degree to which modern culture is becoming increasingly detached from its connection to the natural world. Westerkamp achieves this by examining the close spatial relationship between the beach and the city and the manner in which the sounds of the city alter the listener's connection with the natural environment. Westerkamp makes the following observation in the program note to emphasise this theme:

Kitsilano Beach — colloquially called Kits Beach and originally in native Indian language Khahtsahlano — is located in the heart of Vancouver. In the summer it is crowded with a display of “meat salad” and ghetto blasters, indeed light years away from the silence experienced here not so long ago by the native Indians.

Although Anthozoa and Kits Beach Soundwalk may at first appear to be two vastly different compositions, they both share similar structural relationships based upon the use of narration and moving perspectives. However, Kits Beach Soundwalk is a deceptively simple contextually driven work, which is privileges social themes above relationships between sounding materials.

3. Analysis

Anthozoa consists of three distinct sections: 0:00-4:00, 4:00-6:50 and finally 6:50 to 11:32 with a brief return to the opening exposition from 10:43 -11:32. The manner in which the composer is able to relate elements of the external environment in each section will now be discussed.

The work opens with a single D note from a prepared piano, which functions as both a central pitch axis and as a resonance for basic harmonic development throughout the subsequent sections of the composition (typically in the form of elongated, drone gestures). Further, as instantiated in the program note, the pitched material is used as a metaphor for the clear and unbroken line of the horizon providing stark contrast to the soundscape that lies beneath the waves. 

At approximately 0:10 the recording of the coral reef is introduced. The omission of low frequency content provides a sense of spectral elevation in the recording, whilst simultaneously (in an exaggerated way) mimicking the natural absence of lower frequency content within underwater environments. The lower amplitude of the filtered materials is also used as a means of providing a sense of distance between the surface of the water and the reef, situated several meters below the surface.

From approximately 0:41 granulated gestures made from the processing of the coral reef recording appear, the introduction of which provides a sense of verticality within the sound spectrum, reinforcing the jagged and often steep contours of a given reef. As indicated within the composition program note, the exaggerated nature of these reef sounds (via granulation) has been carefully constructed to provide a metaphor for the highly visual nature of shapes and contours encountered within coral reefs. Concurrently, the prepared piano is transposed down an octave, which provides further movement in the spectral window within the lower frequencies. This is an important aesthetic for the opening of the work in that it serves to galvanise the metaphorical content encountered through depth perception as more depth within the reef is revealed as the observer draws nearer.

At 0:53 a large granulated gesture permeates the entire spectrum of the work. This gesture shifts quickly from foreground to background, articulating the nature of moving over a coral cliff whilst diving. This sense of downward motion was, in part created through the use of convolution reverb, where the initial impulse (granulated coral reef recording) was carefully convolved with the recording of a two-storey wooden stairwell response-type environment within the composers home (Blinkhorn 2012).

The initial prepared piano note continues and is transposed up a minor 3rd to F, forming a basic harmony (minor dyad). The granulated coral material is transposed down an octave and is once again used to reinforce the lower registers, articulating the desired sense of depth.

The original, unprocessed field recording of the coral reef is introduced at 1:25 and is used as a means of providing an enlargement of the spectrum (low and mid-range), whilst acting as an exposition for the ensuing section based on the pervasive morphology of the coral reef;; that of crisp, clicking, popping and snapping type sounds. The field recording once again moves from foreground to background, shifting the perception of the reef to the periphery in preparation for the new segment.

From 2:00 the original recording is introduced as a heavily granulated series of amorphous morphologies (via snaps, pops, clicks, etc.). This section is also draws largely from the composers metaphorical interpretations of a coral reef, where a series of similar sound morphologies coalesce, creating the impression of an underwater ecosystem (Blinkhorn 2012). The use of reverberation and various delay line granulation procedures, coupled with very careful filtering and placement of materials are used to populate an imagined underwater seascape, where the events are very carefully choreographed within a 5.1 multichannel environment. The use of the specific multichannel configuration is utilised in a more obvious way within this section, as the composer balances the pitched material that is placed on the extreme periphery of the speaker array (retained from the previous section in the form of an elongated, drone gesture), with material situated very specifically in a more source-point fashion within particular speakers (or reference points within the array). The intention of this approach is to provide a more conversant, heightened sense of dialogue as the imagined entities within the ecosystem interact from a variety of physical locations.

The sonorities within the section slowly become less dense and less regular, giving rise to a series of lateral gestural movements across the speaker array within the lower frequencies, whilst additional mid-range material moves across the projection plane, slowly coming to a stop as a type of ritardando in preparation for the next section of the work.

The granulated coral material similar to that found in the opening section (0:41) is reintroduced at 4:00, however the emphasis shifts from more vertical (singular) gestures to those that are more causal, where the gestural durations begin to expand and contract. Further, there is an increasing pre-occupation with the way in which trajectories are spatialised across the projection plane, where clear emphasis on the concentric/ cyclic motion of materials can be heard throughout as the composer sculpts the multichannel space, and the way the sounds travel through that space, in a very intentional way (all of which are designed to better articulate the use of the 5.1/ surround environment). The overall phrasing within this section gravitates strongly around the accumulation and dispersal of spectral energy.

From a metaphorical perspective;; the section and attendant compositional techniques (as discussed above) are used to provide a strong contrast to the amorphous and variegated images employed previously. This section seeks to portray the reef as a highly organised, functional organism;; one of contiguity and connectivity as each gesture resolves, or segues into the next as part of a purposeful and seamless continuum.

At approximately 6:00 there is a clearly choreographed accumulation of spectral energy terminating in silence. This is immediately followed by the original coral recording that has been convolved with the prepared piano sample and then, through the use of resonance filters etc, loosely assigned pitched content. The material is then paired with the original, largely unprocessed field recording, as well as some granulated and carefully filtered pops and clicks created through processing the field recordings.

The purpose of this segment is to act as bridging material, where the composed material straddles aesthetics and re- introduces sonorities from the first two sections, preparing the work for the last, and largest section (Blinkhorn 2012).

This final section begins at 6:55 and is highly metaphoric structurally, beginning with a number of textural strands moving toward a spatially oriented termination point (occurring at 7:24). The textural strands themselves were created through basic transformations (transposition, filtering, delay) of the original field recordings. Within this opening segment there is clear deployment of the presentation of sounding materials within specific parts of the multichannel array, where various sounding materials are projected within the right-side of the lateral array, and then disparate materials are projected into the left-side of the array (i.e. original field recordings with transpositions projected into a specific part of the multichannel array, with delay granulations occurring in other parts of the array).

Once the spatial gesture occurs at 7:24 (where it arcs across the entire circumference/360 degrees of the speaker array), the composition moves into an almost architectonic environment, clearly pulsatile in orientation. Discrete pulses occur at a variety of transpositions and durations, there is an increase in density and frequency (of the pulses), designed to convey the accumulation of energy building into a crescendo.

The pitched material (drone) is slowly re-introduced, with the intention of further articulating the graduated orientation of materials throughout the spectral space (where materials are carefully situated from extremely low to high frequency throughout). The composer begins to introduce elongated (inharmonic) textural materials, moving throughout the multichannel array in a cyclical fashion, presenting a variety of motion-bound trajectories at varying speeds.

From 8:25 there is a perceptible increase in spectral energy via density, amplitude and duration as the overall sonority of the composition builds toward a point that it will occupy a large part of the sounding spectrum, serving as a kind of re- capitulation, seeking to provide a summation of events and metaphors encountered throughout the piece.

At 9:17 there is a re-introduction of a (modified) phrase (from 6:48) consisting of granulated coral recordings, used in a similar fashion as before to accumulate spectral energy and then a large vertical gesture takes place that integrates the prepared piano as a termination point, moving the work into the final segment that, as mentioned, acts as a recapitulation.

From a metaphorical perspective the final segment seeks to merge the sonorities, images and shapes encountered throughout the work into a consolidated and spectrally immersive whole, where pitches and textures, field recordings and transformations all coalesce in a series of exaggerated breaths as the diver recollects the experience and begins to ascend toward the surface.

The final segment, occurring at 10:44 could almost be seen as a modified coda, and whilst re-introducing some of the higher frequency sonorities from the opening minutes of the piece, clearly functions as a conclusion and as a means of re-surfacing/ drifting back away from the reef as the sonorities are pushed toward the periphery of the projection plane.

4. Conclusion

The analysis has outlined one approach in which composers may choose to deal with elements of the natural world within an artistic context. Through a largely ‘text’ dominated approach to the structuring of musical sounds based upon observations of the natural world, combined with a moving perspective and elements of transmodal perception, the composer has successfully unified the disparate interstices of external and internal experience through the medium of soundscape composition.

It was established that various observations regarding the composer’s intentions and the metaphorical connections with external reality could be demonstrated by analysing each segment of the work without adhering to a specific extra-musical taxonomy of terms. 

Although further comparative study is needed for a more definitive outline, this analysis aides in demonstrating that works that use observations of the natural world to inform the imaginative process of composition are likely to display the characteristics of virtual and imaginary soundscapes. 


BLINKHORN, D. (2011) Anthozoa Program Note [WWW] Available from: [Accessed 01/10/2012].
BLINKHORN, D. (2012) [Personal communication with composer via email and telephone].
SMALLEY, D. (2007) Space-form and the acousmatic image. Organised Sound, 12(1), pp.35-58.
TRUAX, B. (2002) Genres and techniques of soundscape composition as developed at Simon Fraser University. Organised Sound, 7(1), pp. 5-14. 
TRUAX, B. (2012) Sound, Listening and Place: The aesthetic dilemma. Organised Sound, 17(3), pp. 193-201.
WESTERKAMP, H. (2010) Kits Beach Soundwalk. Transformations [CD] emprintes DIGITALes: IMED 1031.
YOUNG, J. (1996) Imagining the Source: The Interplay of Realism and Abstraction in Electroacoustic Music. Contemporary Music Review, 15(1-2), pp. 73-93.
BLINKHORN, D. (2011) Anthozoa [5.1 version]:
WESTERKAMP, H. (1989) Transformations [CD] emprientes DIGITALes: IMED 1031.