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winter soundwalks in Montreal

This posting reflects on a winter soundwalk project that the members of the research group did, in their home neighbourhoods — three in Montreal, one just about an hour’s drive outside of Montreal. We all did three soundwalks, one per week for three weeks, about half an hour long each time, and with short descriptive paragraphs about the walks. The conversation begins with the most recent posting, where I summarize, then presents the summaries of the others (David Paquette, Caitlin Loney and David Madden) and then ends with the descriptive writing that we did each week. We are also planning to do another set of walks in April.

hi everyone

and thanks for your comments on the soundwalks. I found that knowing I was to do three walks presented me with some awareness of how I was structuring the overall experience, and how the 3 walks were related. When I paid attention to my neighbourhood walking habits, I found that in the colder, brighter weather I would almost always want to walk mid-afternoon, towards the west: in other words, with the sun on my face. I often choose routes that have wide streets or breaks between buildings that will let the sun in. It is true that weather and winter walking conditions were paramount and I truly appreciated the clear sidewalks of Outremont, when I got to them.

I noticed that weather and walking conditions were discussed through many of the walks, as well as strong sensory experiences of many kinds. Is there a certain amount of amplification through repetition (resonance)? How did the form that I suggested (one walk per week, and communicating our reports to the whole group each week) affect how the discussion developed? I would like to do another round of neighbourhood walks in late April — I wonder if we should approach it in the same way, or change how we do it? Maybe we could talk more about that.


On 2012-02-12, at 3:18 PM, David Paquette wrote:
My response to the walks:

The first thing that strikes me when going over the various soundwalks is what part winter is taking in each of our accounts. It has an impact on where we go, how far we go, and with what pace. It is expressed sonically through a variety of specific sounds, and also specific colors of sound. Now that I look at Caitlin’s report I see this is something we both noticed, and it is also something that was discussed in some soundwalk reports. It would be interesting to do the same three walks during the four different seasons, to examine more specifically the changing impact and role of weather.

Another important aspect of the walks is the choice of paths followed. There are obvious differences between the spatial configurations of my surroundings and those of Montreal. I have a fairly limited number of possible roads, all possessing an overall ambiance that is highly correlated to their distance from the main road. The various accounts by Dave, Andra and Caitlin show a higher number of micro-ambiances, more diversified too, with more sound sources and larger dynamic range. This probably impacts the type of listening we do; I’ve spent significant portions of my walks ‘looking’ for sounds, trying to hear cars as far away as possible, exploring the slow changes in the sonic quality of the wind. I also spent some time not really listening, since the overall uniformity of the sound ambiance easily leads to get lost in thoughts. Also, in some cases the urban walks have a double utility; they are both means to get somewhere (take a bus, go to meeting, etc) and ends in themselves (through their specific function as soundwalks). I have been mostly thinking of my walks as return trips, thinking about the time it took me to get to specific (meaningful) places such as a bridge, or the top of a hill.

Looking forward to more group discussions on theses walks!

David Paquette

I discovered that when I set about to do a soundwalk, I often listen for pitch/frequencies in the sound environment. In the moments when I could shift my dominant sense into hearing rather than seeing, I found myself focusing on how pitches compared to each other and how sounds changed in pitch. For example, car engines ascending, and how this contrasted with an overhead plane descending in pitch. As well, I listened for how different environments or conditions changed/filtered frequencies.
Re-reading the soundwalk entries as a whole, I noticed the importance of weather conditions: snow, ice, temperature, sunniness, wetness. Each of us at some point made note of the texture of the winter ground as it was revealed to us through our footsteps. This attention to foot-ground connections was sometimes due to the more practical concern for slippery surfaces and murky puddles. Overall, the dominance of winter prevailed as a theme in all the write-ups.

– Caitlin

Hi everyone, here is my response….

The main thing I noticed after doing three soundwalks and writing about them is how more than ever  my (current) soundwalks seem like sensorywalks, as I find myself trying to relate the walking experience to all of the senses.  In particular, my sense of touch and sense of smell played more prominent roles in these walks.  I wonder if this is primarily because of how quiet and cold all three of the walks were and how challenging it was to just listen to specific sounds.  The walks seemed to have more of an overall ambiance or tone to them, which made it difficult to keep listening at the centre of the experience.  Also, I found myself wanting to make sounds with my surroundings and the most productive way to ‘compose’ with this particular winter soundscape was through variations to my footsteps, which is a very tactile and textural approach to soundmaking.

After reading the responses from the three of you, I am also drawn to the way weather plays such a prominent role in the walks–although for different reasons.  Again, this also seems connected to the idea of how soundwalks work in relation to all of the senses, rather than just being a listening practice/exercise.  For instance, if you feel very cold during a walk, can you still put listening at the centre of your attention?  Is it still a soundwalk?  If you walk through an area with strong smells, how might these smells play into a walk structured by listening?  And more generally, what types of collaborations can our other senses create/produce during a soundwalk?  These are the types of questions I will be thinking of while on future soundwalks…

–David Madden
Le 12-02-06 à 13:22, David Paquette a écrit :
Hello all,
Here are the soundwalks. I also included them in an .rtf file.



Soundwalk 1

Wednesday afternoon, 2 pm. The warmest part of the day, I am very much aware. Drawn by bright warm sun to the living room window,  I hear snow crunching under tirewaves, below. I want to feel that sun on my face, without a window. Layers and layers of clothes, scarf, hat, brightly-coloured mittens to wave at the sepia snowscape, I clatter down the front stairs. Opening the front door to the cold, tirewaves and engines fill the air. The street. Mittened grasp sliding to grip on the metal railing, wooden steps  ice-patched down to ground level. A bus glides in heavily, exhales twice and lets passengers off, deep throb of engine idling, tearing away again through the squeaky snow down to the railway bridge.  I slip on unseen ice and steady, slowing. Turn my face toward a pale sun wavering through the wind. Walk gingerly, pat, pat, to the corner, watching for glare near my feet. Concrete corner, stamp feet and wait for the lights to change, engines, engines. Engines moving; engines, waiting. Bububububububububu. Will the lights change in time for me to get to the bus over there? Bububububububu. Yes! Crunch, crunch, crunch past idling engines to the crunching give of a snowdrift, “Bonjour!” to the driver who smiles with the warmth of the bus as its engine turns to a croon and we head towards Outremont.

A soundwalk abbreviated by cold…

Soundwalk 2

Saturday Jan 21, 2012. 2 pm. Again the warmest part of late afternoon on a sunny day, where it is -15 celsius in the shade, but much warmer as long as I keep to the south side of streets, and walk west, staying in sun pretty constantly that way. I head up Parc towards van Horne to do just that. Coming by the gas station at the corner, it seems the smell of gasoline is very strong today. Is that because it is so cold? Maybe the vapour lingers more at this temperature? In any event, I hold my breath until starting to cross the street. On the other side, ice glares from the sidewalk and starts glacial glissandos through the soles of the boots and up through my legs, sliiiip, grip, stop. Sliiiiiiiiiiiiip, grip, stop. For one block, to Hutchison, and then the sidewalks are blessedly clear. My footing becomes more sure, posture more upright, the sun somehow feels warmer than even two weeks ago, and I slow my pace to enjoy that sensation.Traffic enginetirewaves to the right are hemmed in by the narrow street, amplified by resonance between the buildings on either side. Feet crunch on bits of ice and rock salt.  The waves of traffic are less frequent than during the week, but still fairly constant with only short moments in between. In the six blocks west on van Horne, I don’t encounter any other pedestrians. Finally, I see a young girl crossing the street, as I turn back east. Most of the restaurants here are closed on Saturday afternoon, and the cars shushing by dominate the soundscape, wave after wave, all going somewhere.

Soundwalk 3

Thursday morning, 9: 30 am.
The weather report tells me it is -8 this morning, but it doesn’t feel that cold because of the bright sun. I can tell it is really cold, though, by the way the snow crunches beneath my feet as I walk down the stairs to the street, holding the ice-covered metal railing, as much a feeling-sensation as a sound heard. Even though it is after 9, the traffic still sounds like rush hour, stop and go, sluggish. A line of red lights blinking, and once again the sharp smell of oil-based vapours in the air. Today I even feel I can distinguish the particular smell of each car passing, and in the distance I can see the waves of haze rising from the street, following the slow waves of traffic movement. I am walking in the same direction as usual, west on van Horne, but this time with a purpose: to take the metro to work. The first block is slushy and my feet slip from side to side. Until Hutchison, as usual, and then the sidewalk is clear of snow, crunchy with sand and salt. I cross to the north side to stay in the sun. Again my pace slows as the sun hits me. But even at this slow pace, I am passing the idling cars. A deeper rumbling alerts me to a snow plow. Thunk! as the blade hits the street and a low roar as it moves away to the corner. A squeak as someone opens the bank door for me, and then the low hum of the terminal and heating, familiar beeps and shutters. Just a few steps to the cheese shop where the owner chats and smiles, wishing me “Bonne journée!” as I leave. Getting closer to the Outremont metro, there are more and more pedestrians, doors opening and closing to the shops, stamping of feet at the bus stop, and the exhaling of the bus coming in to pick up passengers. Another roar to the left signals a second snow plow, slicing through the intersection as I approach the metro door.


David P.

Soundwalk 1

Last Thursday, January 12 at around 10:00pm, I decided to go for a night soundwalk during a big snow storm.  After I finished shoveling the stairs and clearing the snow off my car, I made my way to the street, but then decided to come back and pick up my flashlight and recorder. I felt I would be more visible, and also more alert to any incoming car or snow clearer.

The subdued ambiance created by the sudden snowfall combined with my enhanced listening encouraged me to walk slowly and pay a particular attention to the modified tone of sounds. The soundscape was composed primarily of noises; the crisp and repetitive sound of my footsteps in the accumulated snow, the pink noise of the wind in the surrounding trees, modulating cars passing in the distance, even my breathing seemed to fill a particular niche of frequencies and rhythm. The wind and snow seemed to remove almost all harmonic content. For example, as I walked by my neighbors, all I could hear was indistinct voices. Cars passing on the main road, not too far from where I was walking, turned into slow, everlasting waves that all sounded alike.

Because of the warm weather, the snow made a watery sound as it hit the microphone. At some point, I picked up the distant tone of a truck backing up; it sounded muffled, it had a deep, slightly muted, long reverberation. It seemed to posses a nostalgic character. I stopped on a wooden bridge and tried to record the sound of the river going under. There were only small unfrozen patches, and I could barely hear the trickling water making its way through the ice.

Visually, I was moving through a monochrome landscape, streetlights were attenuated and the snow seemed almost lit from under. In the end, I did not meet anyone else, no cars, no snow clearers (thankfully!). I was mostly looking down to the ground, since the storm made it hard to look up. This lack of visual ‘resolution’ put me in a state of wandering; when I turned around and walked back towards my home, after around 20 minutes, I realised I had been zigzagging the whole way!

Soundwalk 2

I did a soundwalk this morning, starting from my home and going through a different road than my previous walk, a much quieter one. It was sunny but slightly chilly. I had a faster pace, as I was trying to keep myself warm. The sound of my footsteps in the packed snow was short and crisp. The cold air made it seem like sounds were brighter. I could hear on one side the hissing of cars on the main road, which tended to come in wave and faded away as I moved farther from it.

There was some wind, not enough to be heard but enough to move the top of branches and trees, with snow sometimes falling silently on the ground. I heard a barking dog coming my way, the barking sound had all sorts of tiny little reverbs and echos, and got me thinking about the different qualities of reverberation caused by different materials. After perhaps a minute I saw both the dog and the owner, an elderly man who lives nearby. We exchanged a few words, talked about his dog and the sunny day. After this encounter it took me a while to refocus my attention on the sound environment. I was thinking about an article I read on the relationship between listening to our internal voice and listening to outside sounds.

The walk lasted about 30 minutes, and when I came back I took a shortcut through the small forest by my house. There was much more snow than I expected! I tried to pay attention to the different qualities of the snow, as there were layers of different texture and rigidity that each had their own sound.

Soundwalk 3

I went for a soundwalk last evening, right after the sun went down. I took a different path, crossing the main road and going uphill. I realised I rarely go this way, since it can be stressful to cross the four lanes. The steepness of the road and the slushiness of the snow made it more difficult to walk than last time. It was particularly quiet; all I could hear was the wind and rare cars passing. I stopped for a while and counted for how long I could hear one car. I waited until I could hear no car at all. I also spent some time comparing the spectrum of cars with that of the wind. I had more difficulty concentrating on the sound environment, as I tried not to slip and pay attention for incoming cars. There are more houses on that side as well, which made for visual distractions. The ambiance was quite eery; there was the moon, hiding momentarily behind clouds, and also lights coming from ski mountains in St-Sauveur and Morin-Heights.

I heard in the distance a small snow blower. As I was approaching, I could hear more and more details; the difference sound depending on the direction of the blower, also slight variations due to variations in snow levels. As I walk in front of the entrance, all I could hear was the engine of the blower, with its obvious back-and-forth movements heard as clear intensity changes. The sound was covering my entire acoustic space, and it was a relief to turn around and start walking back towards my home. Going down the hill was not easier, but I quickly realised I could hear sounds at a greater distance in that direction. The snow blower was still audible all the way down to the main road. When I entered my house, after 45 minutes of silent walking, I felt like I was really noisy, opening doors, walking around on the noisy (cracking) floor, making myself hot chocolate (yummy). I could hear the particular sonic color of each room. I spent some time thinking about how our experience of winter (and coldness) is always accompanied with the experience of getting warmer, of going back inside and letting ours senses adapt to the enclosed space and the comforting sensations.



Soundwalk 1

I left my house at 9:10 this morning to Outremont metro. The walk usually takes 15-20 minutes, but I stretched it out to a rambling, listening pace. Inside my apartment before leaving, my appliances softly harmonize with the cat fountain and news in French. Outside traffic and next door’s piano lesson are filtered through my walls. Opening my door means full frequency spectrum onslaught of the outside world – the previously muffled automotive sounds now have high-highs and low-lows and everything in between. Other mentionable sensory details include piercing white light and fresh air. I am aware of the ground’s textures; this is related to safety. These textures come alive with contact by feet and tires of trucks, cars, buses and bikes. Under my feet and the feet of other pedestrians, there is styrofoam-crunch snow, crispy snapping ice, hard ice that requires a whish-whish shuffle and then there is bare pavement with loud, scratchy gravel. Vehicles tell me the roads are wet and gravely, which seems to amplify tire-road contact sounds, and maybe enhance higher frequencies. Also, this is still school bus time. At one point a small bundled child runs from mom to a teenaged bus monitor and they are too light on the ground to make any sound at all. There is only the deep diesel grumble of the bus and a few words that the teen calls to the kid in what I believe is Yiddish. This is the only vocalized sound that I remember hearing on my walk.

Soundwalk 2

Thursday, January 26th, around 8:15pm

Freshly fallen icing sugar snow. Around -10C. I walk westward on Bernard. It’s garbage day, so the big noisy trucks are out. Without even seeing one, I can hear slamming and crunching juxtaposed with a very high, sustained frequency. It’s all metal. While this is going on, I notice two other distinct vehicular sounds. To my left, I notice the sound of car engines momentarily pausing then ascending in pitch as they accelerate at each stop sign.  Overhead, there is a long descending pitch of a plane making a gradual land into Dorval. It’s bizarre to hear and feel the presence of something so far away in the sky, but then I think that it’s possibly only a few kilometres away from the ground. Whereas sounds on the ground are easier to suss out in terms of distance and size (though sometimes we get tricked by reflections/echo), sounds above seem more disorienting. The sound of the plane could just as well be a vent on a ceiling were I indoors. Kind of like rain – it’s hard to tell the difference between drops off a roof or ones from a cloud.

The rest of the walk takes me in a loop up Parc, which is dominated by the usual traffic sounds (medium-busy at this hour), across Beaubien, deserted except for the odd car, down St-Laurent and back home.  The underpass at Vanhorne and Parc changes the quality of traffic sounds. The reverberance from vehicles speeding through builds up into a hum at times; they kind of leave the sound behind them to dwell here. There is also a “ch-chuck” sound of something being driven over and that echos against the cement walls. I am also more aware of my footsteps than in the open space.

Soundwalk 3

Wednesday 1pm

According to the Weather Network, it’s supposed to be around zero Celsius with freezing rain. I have to be at des Pins and St-Denis for 1:30pm, which I know is about a 30 minute walk from my house. Outside, it’s not so much freezing rain as it is a defrosted mist hanging in the air. The ground everywhere looks like it had been solid ice that started to contract and cracks, apparently with the help of gravel and salt, now there are ice chunks all over.

One of the first sounds I notice, which will be repeated throughout the walk, is a car spinning its wheels in high gear to get out of a parking spot. It’s a whirring sound that ascends in pitch and then is punctuated by a lower, distorted sound. And then it repeats. It is the very embodiment of frustration. But I In some cases, it changes into ‘normal’ engine and wheel traction sound, a quieter crunch and crumble sound… relief.

I pass by some small groups of lunch go-ers and I notice something acoustically strange that I attribute to dampness the weather – I can’t hear bits of their conversations as well as I feel I usually would. Their voices are kind of muffled, missing frequencies. I don’t know if it’s the thickness of the air blocking reflections, or if there was another louder sound that I was simply blocking out, or if it’s psychological, or if it’s maybe even my fur hat. I thought about ‘dampening’/’damping’ in acoustics and “dampening” someone’s enthusiasm and how this relates to actual H20 dampness.


Dave M.

Soundwalk 1

Coincidentally I went out on a soundwalk last Thursday night as well.  It was my first time on a soundwalk during a snowfall and in fact the snow was what pulled me out into the cold.  Like David’s experience, I found the constant snowing really slowed my walking pace as I moved through my neighborhood.  I stopped a lot on this walk, both as a way to ‘experience’ the snow and in an attempt to pick up more sounds–to hear and feel more of the ambiance.

I live in a liminal place in the city, where a few different areas rub up against each other and overlap socially and culturally.  To the immediate west is Outremont; to the east is the Mile End; to the south is the Plateau.
I walked through Outremont for this walk and plan to explore the other areas in the coming weeks at various points during the day.  My Outremont night-walk was cold, very, very quiet, slow and dark.  It seemed as though the snow created a blanket of sameness that made it hard to hear the nuances and articulations of the area.  My footsteps were prominently featured on this walk; only occasionally were they interrupted by a passing car, which would draw the attention of my eyes and ears.  Quiet, snowy nights in the city seem to have much more of a circulating attitude, (room) tone, or feel, rather than a collection sounding components.

Soundwalk 2

Sunday Jan. 22, 2012.  11pm.
My initial plan for these three soundwalks was to go out at different times of the day, exploring the three neighborhoods that border my apartment–the Mile End, Plateau and Outremont.  However, on Sunday I decided to do another night time soundwalk so that the most recognizable soundmark of the area–other than traffic sounds–would be included:  the XXX strip club, which is right across the street from my apartment and only comes to life during the night hours.  On really quiet summer nights when the windows to my apartment are open, I can hear the music and the MC with total clarity.  The club’s soundscape lives up to strip club music clichés on most nights by playing everything from ACDC’s “Hells Bells,” to Guns n’ Roses’ “November Rain,” to George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.”  (As an aside, I sometimes get paranoid before falling asleep that these songs might unconsciously affect/infect my musical production process…).   However, on Sunday the club was playing steady minimal techno and the (tenor) voice of the MC was not present.  I wonder if this is because it was a slow Sunday night.  I walked north and turned right along Fairmont.  By the time I was around the corner, I could no longer hear the club.  From this point onwards the walk was marked by crisp footsteps sounds, cars, and the intermittent voices of passersby.   Sometimes when I hear other voices on a soudnwalk I wonder whether I should actually attempt to listen to what is being said.  I find it difficult to only focus on the tone and texture of voices without attempting to decipher the message(s).  However, on a soundwalk the moment is usually so fleeting that I cannot make sense of the words…

Soundwalk 3

Sunday, Feb. 5, 2011 (3:30 PM).

I left my apartment in mid-afternoon and headed north along Hutchison up towards Van Horne.  Although it was a seemingly cold day (12 degrees with the wind), it felt like a rather wet and mild day as the sounds of water and wet snow were distinctly present through out the entire walk.  These ‘wet’ sounds included cars driving over slushy snow, water dripping from the tops of homes and buildings, and the sounds of my feet/boots as I walked through the heavy snow and small puddles.  At times, I found myself intentionally trying to compose the sounds of my body with the dripping atmospherics and car noises.  The bodily gestures primarily involved adjusting my walking pace (i.e. speeding up and slowing down), which would effect the pace, depth and volume of my breathing, along with swinging my jacket sleeves along my torso.
As I turned back down Parc, the walk became marked by more voices and the sounds of footsteps of people walking by.  The walk also became much more visually based at this point as I had to be careful maneuvering through the busier sidewalk’s of Parc av.  It also seemed to get warmer as the street is much brighter than many of the side streets of Outremont.

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  1. February 20, 2012 at 3:27 pm
  2. February 5, 2014 at 12:53 pm

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