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Environmental Listening and the Tulane Soundscape

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10:00 a.m., Monday, October 29, 2012, Tulane University, New Orleans:

I arrive at Tulane’s Uptown Campus to plan my route for a soundwalk the same day at 5:00 p.m.  The walk will be the initial activity of the Ecomusicologies 2012 Conference, a two-day gathering of music scholars exploring the intersections of music, nature, and culture.  This is the first time I have organized a walk in a region affected by two major environmental disasters: Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Will the soundscape in any way still reflect these events?  I imagine construction, yet I find the campus and surrounding neighborhood strikingly quiet.  Aside from occasional traffic and passing conversation there is a general lack of audible human activity.  I cannot tell if this reflects the “stillness” of a place in recovery or the “enclosed quiet” common among college campuses.  Perhaps it is my imagining of the recent disasters that informs my listening rather than the immediate acoustic environment.  As I map the soundwalk route, I ask myself:  Is one able to hear the stories of environmental disasters through active listening?  What does it mean to be an environmental listener?

Our relationship to the planet is changing.  There is a growing ecological consciousness, including an increased desire among humans to protect and conserve the natural world.  At the same time, we must continue to accommodate as best we can for potential natural disasters (e.g., the levee and canal systems in New Orleans).  Definitions of a healthy environment are complex.  From R. Murray Schafer’s notion of “soundscape” to Bernie Krause’s “niche hypothesis,” there are different viewpoints regarding the distinction between a “pristine” sound environment and a “polluted” one.  Yet, these approaches share emphasis on the audibility of sounds, both human and non-human.  For Schafer, the preservation of quiet is fundamental, an argument which has been extended by Gordon Hempton.  Whereas Schafer delimits the type and number of sounds in order to experience a desired hi-fi environment, Krause considers the diversity of sounds a characteristic central to a “healthy” soundscape; that is, a myriad of sounds are heard, each occupying its respective frequency range without overpowering other acoustic events.  Considering Schafer and Krause’s soundscape theories, does this mean that the general quietude and limited number of sounds at Tulane are reflective of a disrupted place?  Arguably, soundwalking plays a key role in perceiving balances and imbalances in the soundscape, and thus invites new interpretations and applications of the term.  Scholars such as Timothy Ingold, Andra McCartney, Barry Truax, and Hildegard Westerkamp, among others, have made valuable contributions to soundscape studies, inviting us to move beyond prescriptive definitions associated with traditional approaches to the field.  Soundwalking is playing an increasingly important part in this conversation.  In this practice, the concept of “soundscape” is not only about listening but also about reflection and response: by taking time to listen actively, participants are invited to “speak back” to the acoustic environment by verbalizing their thoughts and/or making changes in their lifestyle.


Somewhere between New Orleans and Vancouver, reflecting, revisiting a recording of the walk:

The event consisted of a brief introduction followed by a one-hour walk and a post-walk discussion.  In attendance were approximately twenty musicologists, ethnomusicologists, music theorists, and artists, ranging from students to senior faculty.  The group met at Rogers Memorial Chapel on the north side of campus at 5:00 p.m.  A map showing the route is available here.  Accompanied by a calm breeze, we walked toward the University’s main power plant (see map: no. 86).  After pausing briefly next to a fountain we proceeded down an alley, with the plant on our left and a series of artisan studios on our right (welding, glassblowing, etc.).  Listen here.  The combination of heavy machinery from the power facility and active ventilation from the studios proved to be the most pronounced, lo-fi setting of the walk.  (Excluding this portion, our footsteps were audible for much of the walk.)  Subsequently, we crossed two grass quads (see map: area between no. 55 and 56 and no. 38 and 39).  Pausing at the second quad, which was surrounded by several high-rise dormitories, the call of a crow and a plane passing directly overhead echoed within the enclosed area.  Listen here.  Such unplanned moments are particularly striking to me.  Had we continued walking, this particular interaction between crow, plane, and acoustic space would have gone unnoticed.

A particularly intense moment for participants was entering the Lavin-Bernick Student Center (see map: no. 29).  For some, the smell of the food court was overpowering; for others, the water feature in the Center attracted their senses (the structure consisted of water running down large “sheets” of metal wire).  Shortly after entering the building, my listening focused on a television featuring news coverage of Hurricane Sandy, which had just struck the Northeast.  Listen here.  I recalled my initial question about environmental listening.  Up to this point, the delicate quietude of Tulane seemed to be the only possible sonic marker of a potentially altered ecosystem.  Yet, at this moment the past informed the present: similar media coverage would have streamed from televisions across campus in 2005.  To my ears, the television was informing viewers of present concerns while simultaneously resonating with the past.  After leaving the Student Center we made our way back to the vicinity of the Chapel.  We passed through the second floor of the music building (see map: no. 68), pausing briefly in a hallway lined with practice rooms before ending the walk in a rehearsal room.  Listen here.

During the post-walk discussion, several recurring themes emerged, namely dialogue among the sounds heard and the dynamic between the individual/group and other humans.  One participant appreciated the different types of wind, ranging from the rustle of wind in the trees to a breeze passing through an alleyway—the wind began as a gentle breeze and picked up as the walk progressed.  Other observations included footsteps on different surfaces (grass, pebbles, concrete, mulch, fallen nuts), the interaction between the crow, airplane and the acoustics of the dormitory quad, and the contrast between the indoor water feature and the neighboring food court.  One member of the group commented on the similarities between animal and human sounds: at one moment a woman laughed in a series of loud, rapid chuckles, immediately followed by a dog barking in a sharp, rhythmic fashion.  Regarding the dynamics between the group and our surroundings, someone remarked that nonparticipants occasionally interpreted us as suspect due to our silence and slow walking pace; there were several verbalizations, including “Those are some very quiet people” and “What is that tour about?”

9:00 a.m., Monday, November 26, 2012, Vancouver:

Approximately one month has passed since the soundwalk at Tulane University.  I recall the indoor and outdoor water features, the power plant and artisan studios, the piano in the practice room, and the voices of the participants.  These are the sounds of human presence, not the sounds of desolation.  Had the walk been organized in a part of New Orleans with physical remnants of the storm or facing the economic repercussions of the oil spill then notions of environmental listening would have likely been different.  I am curious what others remember and whether or not their listening has changed since the walk, which was a first for many.

A walk involving music scholars is unique in terms of approaches to listening.  In this context, participants naturally apply their training in music perception, observing the acoustic environment in terms of rhythm, timbre, harmony, contrasts in dynamics, etc.  Several soundwalkers used music terminology to describe their experience.  For example, one person observed a “counterpoint” between a crow and its echo against a nearby building; another commented on changing dynamic levels in terms of movement around the corners of buildings.

Following one’s ears alone, as I had done earlier in the day on October 29, is quite different from actively listening with a group.  We each bring our individual sense making to a soundwalk (apparent in our gestures—what catches our attention, when we pause—and sharing our experiences during the post-walk discussion), which others can consider using in their own practice, response, etc.  I would like to leave open the thought that collective listening shapes our relationships to locale in ways that are different from connections between an individual and place.  By listening as a group, we not only take time to open our ears to our surroundings, but also to share our experiences.  We bring our own questions, new questions arise, and through soundwalking we not only learn more about the acoustic environment, but also deepen our understanding about ourselves and each other as listeners.

– Tyler Kinnear

Bio: Tyler Kinnear is a Ph.D. student in Musicology at the University of British Columbia.  His research focuses on conceptions of nature in music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Tyler is an active member of the Ecocriticism Study Group of the American Musicological Society and currently serves as co-coordinator of the Vancouver Soundwalk Collective.


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