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English Bay Soundwalk Reflection

By Jennifer Schine (jschine@sfu.ca)

November 18, 2011

On Wednesday 9 November, as part of Vancouver New Music’s soundwalk series (http://newmusic.org/free-community-events/soundwalks/), I had the pleasure of recording Andra McCartney’s hour-long night soundwalk around English Bay in Vancouver. As participants, we were asked to engage with our own practices of listening in hopes that this walk would contain something surprising and thought-provoking for all of us. Andra asked us to reflect on our complex listening relationships with the sensorial, (inter)personal, cultural, political, environmental and economical experiences of place, space and history, especially considering the city of Vancouver as we walked and listened to the area.

What this walk highlighted for me was the various levels of listening that can occur in a place and within oneself. These levels not only include physical levels of verticality, but temporal levels of seasonality and times of day, emotional levels, historical levels and levels of memory. For one of the participants, a resident of the English Bay area, this walk evoked memories of his summer soundscape. In his mind’s ear, he was brought back to warm summer evenings and the different sonic levels of people on their patios all the way up the tall buildings: “some people barbeque, some people talk on their phone, some people are just hanging out and having drinks after work. It’s a wonderful sound”. Several more of the walk’s participants also described sounds that were reminiscent for them; that upon hearing these sounds, they were brought back to moments of their past. As the group walked down Davie Street to the beach, we passed a circle of flagpoles. The sound of the clanking of metal against these poles was very musical and created different pitches. Andra found these tinkling sounds to evoke the sounds of boats at anchor, of sails hitting against the mast. This sound was joyful for her and so during the walk she was compelled to stay close to the flagpoles for a while. Another soundwalker heard the flagpoles as an “elementary-school-type sound”, which also brought a lot of joy to her.

Later in our discussion, several members of the group were struck by the presence of the many high-rises in English Bay and the impact of these massive buildings, not only on the soundscape, but as fortresses, themselves, demanding a type of navigation as a walker on the ground. During our discussion, Andra mentioned how she was relieved when we discovered a tiny alleyway behind one of the commercial buildings on Denman Street, which we could “cut through”.  She said, “I like to cut through [between buildings, but here in the English Bay area] you have to go all the way to the end of the block, which is part of the reason I kept taking us all the way to the end of the block…it’s something that is very characteristic of this area”. Because soundwalks are comprised of two parts, the sound and the walk, it is interesting to reflect on both the sounds that we hear and how we literally walk in an area.

The acts of both listening and walking can also be reflexive actions that draw together aspects of place and biography through the soundwalk, itself. One of the walk’s participants, Hildegard Westerkamp, mentioned, “I find that you don’t forget places where you have a done a soundwalk”. Her statement resonated with me and I started to think about the cities and places that I know more deeply because I have soundwalked them. “Cities and places”, Hildegard said, “whether you’re a visitor or live there, become internal maps…and because of that have become kind of signifiers. Other [places] are not as defined because they haven’t been soundwalked yet”. Which places do I know because of a soundwalk? This is part of the beauty of walking and listening, of becoming familiar with a place, and as Andra says, “of going back to an area over and over again”. And, this explains a little bit about Andra’s own practice, of choosing an area and soundwalking it repeatedly. I like to consider this familiar listening to my city as a conversation with an old friend. As I move and listen in space, I move between memories of the area and a more recent exploration of it. And, in experiencing these various “levels” of a place through the act of soundwalking allows for a certain depth that can become a conversation and even a potential for pleasure.

 

 

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