Schafer — The Tuning of the World

….a new Orpheus could be born

…the world as a macrocosmic musical composition

…to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness

At a UNESCO Symposium in 1976, ‘Place and Function of Art in Contemporary Life‘, McLuhan cited R Murray Schafer1 extensively (with Schafer, in turn, citing Whitman, Carr and Huizinga):

In a recent book, The Tuning of the World, Murray Schafer begins by saying:

Now I will do nothing but listen . . .
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and the night
(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

When so much of the sound in the world is of human origin, it is natural to conceive of the possibility of orchestrating these sounds, and such is the concern of Murray Schafer:

Orchestration Is a Musician’s Business. Throughout this book [The Tuning of the World] I am going to treat the world as a macrocosmic musical composition. This is an unusual idea but I am going to nudge it forward relentlessly. The definition of music has undergone radical change in recent years. In one of the more contemporary definitions, John Cage has declared: “Music is sounds, sounds around us whether we’re in or out of concert halls: cf. Thoreau”. The reference is to Thoreau’s Walden, where the author experiences in the sounds and sights of nature an inexhaustible entertainment. 

We are moving into a time when a new Orpheus could be born. Schafer offers a large inventory of the natural sounds of the earth which had preceded the industrial time, beginning with the phases of the sea and of the waterfall (including falling rain). There are the phases of the wind and of the forest. The Canadian writer Emily Carr speaks of the forest [as cited by Schafer]:

The silence of our Western forests was so profound that our ears could scarcely comprehend it. If you spoke your voice came back to you as your face is thrown back to you in a mirror. It seemed as if the forest were so full of silence that there was no room for sounds. The birds who lived there were birds of prey – eagles, hawks, owls. Had a song bird loosed his throat the others would have pounced. Sober-coloured silent little birds were the first to follow settlers into the West. Gulls there had always been; they began with the sea and had always cried over it. The vast sky spaces above, hungry for noise, steadily lapped up their cries. The forest was different — she brooded over silence and secrecy. (Hundreds and Thousands — Journals of Emily Carr)

Schafer contrasts the visual profiles of the mediaeval and the modern city:

Looking at the profile of a mediaeval European city we at once note that the castle, the city wall and the church spire dominate the scene. In the modern city it is the high-rise apartment, the bank tower and the factory chimney which are the tallest buildings. This tells us a good deal about the prominent social institutions of the two societies. In the soundscape also there are sounds which obtrude over the acoustic horizon: keynotes, signals and soundmarks; and these types of sounds must accordingly form the principal subject of our investigation. 

In terms of human scale, Schafer reminds us that the sound of the church bell is coextensive with the community, and he appends the memorable opening of Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages:

One sound rose ceaselessly above the noises of busy life and lifted all things unto a sphere of order and serenity: the sound of bells. The bells were in daily life like good spirits, which by their familiar voices, now called upon the citizens to mourn and now to rejoice, now warned them of danger, now exhorted them to piety. They were known by their names: big Jacqueline, or the bell Roland. Everyone knew the difference in meaning of the various ways of ringing. However continuous the ringing of the bells, people would seem not to have become blunted to the effect of their sound. Throughout the famous judicial duel between two citizens of Valenciennes, in 1455, the big bell, “which is hideous to hear”, says Chastellain, never stopped ringing. What intoxication the pealing of the bells of all the churches, and of all the monasteries of Paris, must have produced, sounding from morning till evening, and even during the night . . .2

One of Schafer’s themes concerns the “Quiet we call ‘Silence’ — which is the merest word of all”. What interval, or gap, is to space, silence is to sound, and the Chinese and Japanese painters work by means of these carefully ordered gaps. Today it is the same with silence:

Because it is being lost, the composer today is more concerned with silence; he composes with it. Anton Webern moved composition to the brink of silence. The ecstasy of his music is enhanced by his sublime and stunning use of rests, for Webern’s is music composed with an erasure. 

McLuhan had long been concerned with the orchestration of the world. He had read Giedion’s ‘A Faculty of Interrelations in the early 1940’s:

As I tried to say in Space, Time, and Architecture, our culture is like an orchestra where the instruments lie already tuned, but where every musician is cut off from his fellows by a sound-proof wall.

And then McLuhan himself had written in the first two issues of Explorations:

our need [is] to discover [a] means (…) of seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak a common language and of acquiring that language at once in order that our world may possess consciously the coherence that it really has in latency, and which for lack of our recognition has created not new orchestral harmonies but mere noise. (’Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, 1953) 

Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions leads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness. (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ Explorations 2, 1954)

The orchestration of the world envisioned by McLuhan is decidedly not the sort of total-mobilization-of-the-world-as-a-resource foreseen and criticized by Heidegger. Instead, as reflected in the appeal to music and silence and to the bells of the middle ages, McLuhan envisioned the conscious orchestration of “interrelations” whose existing half-conscious and uninvestigated deployment in industry, entertainment, broadcasting and warfare has produced our contemporary waste land. Thus far, humans have learned only enough of these interrelations to misuse them to misuse their fellow humans and the planet itself.  This is to enter a cul-de-sac. The only way out is so to investigate these “interrelations” that their effects become known (and therefore objects of choice) before they cause them — which is just how we study anything that is important.

Here is McLuhan in ‘New Media as Political Forms’ from Explorations 3 in 1954:

Siegfried Giedeon has given exact procedures for how the modern painter or poet should conduct himself in the company of scientists: Adopt and adapt their discoveries to the uses of art. Why leave this solely to the distortions of the industrialist? 


  1. Also see McLuhan to Schafer (McLuhan 1974 letter to Murray Schafer), which is where Schafer may have obtained reference to Huizinga.
  2. See the previous note. McLuhan wrote to Schafer: “I have a recent essay explaining in what senses the medieval period was acoustic right up to the edge of the Gutenberg, or visual, revolution. Huizinga, in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1954), explains some of it…”.