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In September 2013, Andra McCartney was invited to be keynote presenter at the Expanding Ecomusicologies symposium at the Centre for Music, Media and Place at Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland. She led a soundwalk, consisting of two movements: first, a twenty-minute group walk along the campus’ grass, gravel and marshy paths; and second, a thirty-minute walk where listeners were encouraged to move through a market (and surrounding area) in smaller clusters. Both parts of the soundwalk were followed by a discussion.
As Andra discussed with the group after the second part of the walk, this particular method for soundwalking was developed while preparing for another walk at a market in Hamilton, ON. In the lead-up to the latter, Andra received a letter from one of the market’s vendors addressing how he perceived the practice of soundwalking to be bourgeois, and that the participants would disrupt the regular activities of the market by distracting patrons. Taking the vendor seriously, Andra informed listeners to break into smaller groups once they reached the market. Moving through the Hamilton market in this dispersed way enabled the participants to maintain a certain level of anonymity during the soundwalk, and gave each small group a different experience of soundwalking, which led to animated exchanges about different listening experiences, in the discussion at the end.
During discussions in Newfoundland, many comments centred on the changing group and social dynamics between the two distinct parts of the walk. One participant mentioned that in the larger group he felt that the perceptual field was more limited because the higher density of people seemed to make the space smaller. When the walkers split into smaller groupings, one listener felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of the market and was unable to concentrate in an environment with so many sounds vying for attention.
As is common in post-soundwalk discussions, some participants mentioned the prominent presence and rhythms of footsteps, and how the sounds of footsteps alter depending on the textures of the ground. There was also a lot of laughter and questions coming from the participants. One listener asked whether it might be more suitable to use the term “listening walk,” rather than soundwalk, given that listening is the primary activity of the walk; to what extent we create our own soundscape while soundwalking; and whether intent varies between practitioners. Andra answered that while some scholars and practitioners prefer to use the term “listening walk” (eg. Greg Wagstaff), she prefers soundwalk because the term is more widely known and opens up more possibilities beyond listening, especially in relation to the interaction of the senses and the reality of sound production while walking, with members of the group inevitably producing sound as they walk. Lastly, as Andra points out, intentions vary considerably depending on the practitioner, with some producing sound intentionally in response to the environment.
Towards the end of the discussion, participants mentioned some of the ways that soundwalking functions as a relaxing, almost meditative practice. As Andra points out, social workers and psychologists use walks in therapeutic situations, in part because walking calms people, but also because young people who might be somewhat inhibited in regular therapeutic contexts often open up a little more while walking through familiar neighbourhoods and places. Someone added that this approach is also used with dementia patients as a way to continuously (re)train the senses.
Finally, the post-walk discussion closed out with a question from one of the listeners who asked: “how much of what’s going on in the rest of your life impacts that fifteen minutes of walking and how you listen?” For example, he discusses how he was particularly sensitive to car sounds throughout the walk because he is having car troubles. Andra relates this to what she calls “listening standpoints”—your background (e.g., woman, immigrant, academic), and all of the things that inform experience—and how these various standpoints affect how one listens (even though we might think we are listening with open ears while soundwalking). Andra goes on to suggest that it is good for listeners to be aware of their standpoints and that they can then attempt to try to listen in other ways as well, if possible.
Andra’s last comments revolve around a sonic experience of a visual art object: a sculpture on the campus that has round holes that are just head-size. Another small group of participants saw Andra playing with the sculpture in the distance during the soundwalk and decided to follow suit. Hildegard Westerkamp played with a metal sculpture in the Queen Elizabeth Park soundwalk that she first did in the 1970s. Furthermore, one of the World Soundscape Project’s walks of the Louvre involved going around to different paintings and thinking about them sonically (e.g., looking at a painting and imagining the sound). Imaginative listening is something that happens regularly on soundwalks, on top of or intermixed with the soundscape you are actually hearing while walking and listening.
Some lingering questions that were raised in the listening discussion: how might political listening play into the Newfoundland soundwalk experience? How does privilege operate as a listening standpoint? And, is a quiet soundscape necessarily a privileged environment? What types of situations do you feel comfortable in while remaining silent; where do you feel comfortable soundwalking? How might soundwalking operate in an unstable political setting, as a protest or political gesture?