Author Archive

Mile-End Soundwalk

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

On December 6th, members of Soundwalking Interactions, including Andra McCartney, David Madden, David Paquette, and Caitlin Loney, went on a soundwalk around the Montreal neighbourhood of Mile End with sound artist Victoria Fenner. Andra asked me to lead the walk as I live in the neighbourhood. It was dark (around 5pm) and cold, but with no snow on the ground. We began at Andra’s home, walked down the traffic-filled Parc Avenue, cut through a wet alleyway where men removed piles of metal bars from a van, across Bernard West and its small shops and cafes, and down the more residential Waverly, where we heard and saw the wail and flash of emergency vehicles a block away. Once we reached the usually bustling St-Viateur, we came across a very still accident scene in front of popular café Club Social: blocked-off intersection, person on a gurney, ambulance, police cars, fire truck, frozen bystanders. In our conversation minutes later, we all agreed that the soundscape was not what we expected.  It had been extremely quiet except for the idling engines of the trucks and a few unrelated conversations passing through the accident zone; it seemed to clash with the flashing lights and intensity of the mood. Andra felt that some of the surreal qualities would probably come through in the recording, which can be heard from about 2:30-3:30.

After our short discussion at the end of St-Viateur, we continued walking around this semi-industrial area, where the wide streets were almost empty and large boxy buildings loom above. David P. remarked that the sound of our footsteps revealed the height of these buildings. As we continued towards the train tracks, a distant bell-like sound caught our attention (5:35-5:55), one of the few acousmatic experiences on the walk, having no visual cue. We guessed the sound had something to do with the trains. Soon after we came across another scene, which Andra later remarked was, like the accident, “strangely intimate” in the middle of a public space. A school bus with a chimney was getting a boost from a van; a steady high-pitch sound followed by a grumbling engine starting. Again, some of us commented on the dissonance between the sonic and visual. Victoria, who noticed a woman with a child tending a barbeque outside the bus, said she did not find the sound story that she expected.

Much of our discussion after the walk kept returning to this issue of visual cues creating expectation during soundwalks. Victoria contemplated,

…the visual and the sound sometimes work against each other, because you expect that you’re going to hear certain things, but sometimes, without the visuals, we wouldn’t know what was happening… so, how do we deal with our eyes when we’re trying to focus on the pure sound so that they don’t lead us to conclusions that are irrelevant to what we’re doing.

Carleton: Interactions in a Lucid Soundwalk

December 3, 2011 Leave a comment

On November 18, 2011, Andra McCartney visited Carleton University in Ottawa to lead a soundwalk and present a paper on Luce Irigaray and improvised listening, as part of the Second Graduate Colloquium for the MA in Music and Culture.

The walk was approximately 30 minutes and took place around the university’s campus, which is surrounded by the Rideau River and its rapids, as well as trains and roads. In the post-walk discussion, one participant remarked that at one point during the soundwalk, there were several levels of sound: the river, a train, and the beeping of a truck backing. This can be heard at 3:03 of the soundpiece. He commented that normally he would focus on the river and reject the truck, but that during the walk he was trying to be open to the soundscape as it was. Andra had noticed this point of the walk as well, and noted the rhythmic complexity of the layers, along with the sounds of overhead gulls.

Another person wondered if they should also include the sounds made by participants as one of these layers. She brought up the issue of the sometimes opposing roles of soundwalk participants as both bodies moving through space as well as “impartial observers”. She was struck, especially when some participants rattled locks or threw stones in the water, by a sense of “being in the moment and creating sound” during the walk. At the same time, she said she felt an “exclusion of [our] own presence, as though [we were] an observer and not actually embodied in the space, for instance not talking and trying to ignore the sounds [we were] making in preference to everything around [us]”. Andra felt that while, in some ways, the practice of soundwalking can separate participants from the environment by walking a silent group, at the same time, listening draws people into the environment, especially when listeners hear sounds they normally wouldn’t.

There was also a lively discussion around improvisational listening. One participant felt that all listening is improvised, since we listen to things differently each time we hear them. He noted that, “if I’m listening to a piece of music that I’ve listened to a thousand times before, that doesn’t mean that I’m not improvising as a listener…. I can choose to listen to the oboe part or I can choose to listen in a kind of global way.” Another stated that non-improvisational listening is actually hearing, and that the act of listening is an “active process that is always improvisational by virtue of our agency as listeners, choosing what to focus on”.

Andra suggested that it was the extent that mattered, giving the example of a planned soundwalk where everything is pre-determined versus one where the route is decided in the moment. Someone else offered the sound metaphor of resonance versus dampening to understand the relationship between improvisational and non-improvisational listening: there is a constant struggle between creative, improvised listening and forces of authority and convention that try to dampen it. For him, the question of extent has to do with how quickly these forces clamp down on moments of improvisation and bring it back to the “correct” interpretation.

English Bay Soundwalk Reflection

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

By Jennifer Schine (

November 18, 2011

On Wednesday 9 November, as part of Vancouver New Music’s soundwalk series (, 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.



Balance-Unbalance Soundwalk

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

On November 5th, 2011, Andra McCartney led a soundwalk at the Balance-Unbalance conference at Concordia University. The walk began at the Molson School of Business building, followed along the Ville-Marie Expressway and through the downtown neighbourhood surrounding Concordia University.

Vancouver New Music Soundwalk

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

On Wednesday, November 9th from 7-8:30pm, Andra McCartney will lead a soundwalk around the English Bay area of Vancouver, hosted by Vancouver New Music. The walk will explore the varied soundscape of this area, made up of shopping areas, beaches, parkland, residential streets and roadways. There will be a discussion before and after the soundwalk.

For more info, please visit Vancouver New Music.

Also, the Vancouver New Music website is offering DIY soundwalk instructions. Follow the link and the site will generate unique soundwalk instructions for you to follow on your next soundwalk. My instructions were:

  1. Begin listening.
  2. Go outside.
  3. Walk — listening — to the nearest shop.
  4. At your destination, identify the softest sound you can hear. Locate this sound.

This morning, following these instructions, I walked to the corner store nearest to me in the Montreal neighborhood of Mile-End where I live. On the way, I heard distant metal-on-concrete drilling, buzzing chainsaw glissandos, the swell of near and far traffic, a bass-heavy pop song in Doppler effect from a speeding car, and the crazed squeals of recess as I passed a grade school. Inside the isolated soundscape of the small store, I listened closely for the first time out of hundreds of visits: a quiet, two-way greeting with the owner (both in our second language); the loud clang of the metal bell behind me; radio music  with intermittent static; and dense layers of refrigerated hum. The softest noise I hear is glass clinking. It’s coming from behind the industrial fridge doors; most likely the owner’s son (it is only ever the owner or his son who work there, everyday, from 9am to 11pm) restocking beer.


Hildegard Westerkamp

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer, educator, radio artist and sound ecologist originally from Osnabruck, Germany and based in Vancouver since 1968. She was a member World Soundscape Project in the early 1970s, led by Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University. Around the same time, Westerkamp hosted shows on the Vancouver Radio Co-op, where she aired many of her own soundscape compositions.

Westerkamp’s compositions mainly employ environmental sounds, both rural and urban, as well as voices, which are often left out of other soundscape work. Her homepage at Simon Fraser University offers audio samples of her work, as well as further biographical information.

Andra McCartney’s PhD dissertation “Sounding Places with Hildegard Westerkamp” studies Westerkamp’s contribution to soundscape composition, in particular, her sonic approach to place. In it, Westerkamp says, “I want to transport listeners into a place that’s close to where I am when I compose, and which I like. They’re going to occupy that place differently, by listening to it differently, but still, it’s a place.” The dissertation text and interviews are available here.

Westerkamp has written many articles on soundscape studies, acoustic ecology and listening. In her article, “Linking Soundscape Composition and Acoustic Ecology”, Westerkamp argues for bringing together soundscape composition and acoustic ecology because soundscape composers have expert listening skills. In her presentation “Listening to the Listening”, she discusses the highly subjective nature of listening, what she calls the “complex and mysterious place between a sound and the listener’s experience of it”.

R. Murray Schafer

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Raymond Murray Schafer is a Canadian composer, soundscape artist, scholar and environmentalist. Schafer established the World Soundscape Project (WSP) at Simon Fraser University in the late 60s, a research group that initiated the study of acoustic ecology, recording the sound environments of cities and villages in Canada and Europe. Over the span of its existence, the group included artists and researchers Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp and others. Schafer’s 1977 book The Tuning of the World (The Soundscape) incorporates the WSP’s research to explore changes in our sonic environment over history, particularly the increase of noise pollution from industrialisation. In it, he offers ways of listening to be more aware and discerning of our acoustic surroundings.

More recently, David New’s short film “Listen” (2009) offers a compelling portrait of Schafer and his ideas on acoustic ecology and listening. Schafer contemplates, “In a way, the world is a huge musical composition that is going on all the time, without a beginning and presumably, without an ending. We are the composers of this huge, miraculous composition that’s going on around us, and we can improve it or we can destroy it we can add more noises or we can add more beautiful sounds, it’s all up to us.” Listen is available to watch for free on the NFB site here.

Since 2010, Schafer’s birthday, July 18th, was chosen to celebrate ‘World Listening Day’ by the World Listening Project.

IASPM Soundwalk Video

July 19, 2011 Leave a comment

A video of a soundwalk led by Andra McCartney at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music Canada (IASPM) conference, Music and Environment: Place, Context, Conjuncture, on June 18, 2011 is now available on Youtube.

Christina Kubisch

July 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Christina Kubisch is a sound installation artist and composer based in Berlin. She has created many works that bring together sound and light, as well participatory sound walk pieces in urban settings.

Kubisch began her career as a classical musician but notes that she, “…left the concert hall to look for new settings for music, places where you could listen while moving freely in space” (1984).

Kubisch is known for her “Electrical Walks”, which involve listening to the musicality of electromagnetic frequencies in the city. Using special headphones and a map displaying the locations of interesting electrical fields, participants are able to tune into an otherwise hidden layer of urban sound. On her website, she writes: “The perception of everyday reality changes when one listens to the electrical fields… Nothing looks the way it sounds. And nothing sounds the way it looks.” An interview with Kubisch on the Electrical Walks can be found here.

For more information on Kubisch, including samples of her work, visit

Choeur Maha Sonic Choreography

June 1, 2011 Leave a comment

On Sunday May 29th, 2011, I attended the event Sonic Choreography: The Goods held by experimental women’s choir Choeur Maha in Jeanne-Mance Park (Montreal, Quebec). The event happened the day after Choeur Maha’s 20th Anniversary Spring Gala and was free and open to public participation. The invitation noted that no rehearsal was necessary and encouraged bringing a portable radio.  This 30-minute piece was held in collaboration with DJ Andy Williams, who played accompanying music over the radio from CKUT show The Goods.

Choeur Maha artistic director Kathy Kennedy has presented several “sonic choreographies” internationally that involve performers moving and singing through public space, often with portable radios, including Hmmm and Counting Game.

As I approached Jeanne-Mance Park, I was greeted by blue balloons, long red ribbons and yellow umbrellas. Highly danceable afro-beat played from the hand-held radios and a voice gave instructions over the airwaves: “Yellow umbrellas go to the corner of Jeanne-Mance and Rachel!” “Red ribbons form a line!” Colourful chaos ensued. The voice invited us to sing along to the instrumental music with nonverbal melodies, such as “Oooh ooh ahhh”, resulting in a choir of beautiful, improvised harmonies. Bemused park-goers stopped to watch and listen, some gradually joining in and grabbing the tail of a dancing red ribbon train or singing along.

The event was truly participatory, transcending expected roles of performer and audience. I had not only come to experience a performance, but rather to become an integral partaker. As we interacted with each other and the radio broadcast, I was struck by the idea that an important aspect of performance is listening. This is particularly true with improvisation, which requires reaction/interaction with other performers or one’s environment. I left the event feeling that I had taken part in a joyous public intervention, one celebrating community through radio, art and participation.

For more information, please visit: and