speaking and silence in soundwalks
I would like to respond to some questions posed by Dave Madden in a recent posting on the blog. This is what he said:
“After listening to the soundwalk and the discussion recordings, I developed a series of questions for McCartney in response to what I heard. Andra, have you ever conducted a soundwalk where you did not ask people to be mindful of their own talking? I think it might be interesting methodologically to see how people ‘improvise’ on a walk without being asked to be quiet beforehand. I wonder how this might affect group dynamics? Would people silence others making too much noise? Might they be less likely to privilege ‘nature’ sounds over the sounds of the ‘city’? Or, would people still remain quiet on soundwalks without even being asked to? Does the emphasis on quiet already direct listeners towards hi-fi soundscapes?”
Thanks, Dave, I have been thinking about these questions a lot. Here is where I am at the moment…
There are many soundwalks that integrate speaking voices, from the approach of soundwalk.com to the commented walks of audiotopie and CRESSON researchers, to the way Viv Corringham works with meaningful walks. I choose in the current project to separate words and walk — to place emphasis on what precedes and follows a soundwalk, in which open discussion is important, but for the time of the soundwalk — and for the piece that is made of it afterward — words are minimal, but again with many words about the soundwalk in the blog, to contexualise it.
I always talk about listening before a soundwalk. I used to ask people not to speak, and now I ask them to be mindful of the power of their voices, the ability of the voice to command attention at the expense of other sounds. Nevertheless, there have been several occasions where people arrive late for a session, or are distracted during the initial discussion, and don’t hear this. In such cases, those people have sometimes attempted to engage other participants in conversation during the walk. In two cases, instructors accompanying students (public school in one case, university in another) did not listen to the initial discussion, and then took cell phone calls during the session. Interestingly enough, none of the students copied this example! While other participants sometimes seemed visibly irritated by attempts at conversation during the walk, noone has ever silenced anyone, or even mentioned their irritation in the discussion at the end — although in some cases, I received emails later complaining about the interruptions, as if awareness of the irritation only came with reflection. While a soundwalk participant once said in the discussion that not speaking interfered with her sense of personal agency, it seems that in such a time of listening, there are many different ideas about how to move together with the group, and what conditions to create for listening. Sometimes one person will complain about another’s non-verbal activation of what is around them (banging on things, making loud stepping sounds). Sometimes people will mention their fascination with loud sounds of another’s movements and how they decided to move away from that person so that they could listen to other sounds. Sometimes people really enjoy the sounds of the group, and the sense of intimacy that develops as we listen together, what they learn about the others through walking with them and listening to them as well as to the wider environment. It often happens that people approach the group and ask what we are doing, which leads to some conversation. I don’t think the move away from speaking leads people towards hi-fi soundscape listening but towards more attentive listening. People frequently comment on hearing complex overlapping sound formations in familiar places that they had not noticed with the same subtlety on other occasions.
Most of all, I think a soundwalk is a good opportunity to reverse figure and ground — and the figures in many of our lives are words: words in text that we read on billboards and signs and text messages and blogs, words of people we speak to in our daily lives, words of songs, even the words of the imaginary monologue in our heads as we worry and plan. It can be helpful to listen to what surrounds those words.
David, in the soundwalks you have done with groups, have you experimented with that methodology of doing a walk without speaking to people about figure and ground, and the power of words? What happens?