Archive for the ‘Listening’ Category

winter soundwalks in Montreal

February 14, 2012 2 comments

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.


speaking and silence in soundwalks

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

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 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?

— Andra

Emily Thompson

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Dr. Emily Thompson is a history professor at Princeton University interested in the history of technology with a particular focus on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.  From her faculty page at Princeton, she writes that her research “explores the cultural history of sound, music, noise, and listening, and focuses on how these phenomena and activities intersect with technologies like the phonograph, motion pictures, and architecture.”

Thompson’s most widely known and cited work is The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (2002).  In the book, she examines changes to aural culture in the U.S. in the early twentieth-century.  Thompson argues that modern technology changed the way people listened along with transforming America’s soundscape—i.e. what people heard.

Thompson writes that during this period (1900-33), “sounds became signals,” positing that the “desire for clear, controlled, signal-like sound became pervasive, and anything that interfered with this goal was now engineered out of existence” (3).  Moving away from Murray Schafer’s conception of soundscape and drawing on the work of Alain Corbin, Thompson defines the soundscape “as an auditory or aural landscape.  Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world” (1).

The Soundscape of Modernity is referenced in two of Andra’s articles on this site:  “Ethical questions about working with soundscapes” and  “Soundwalking: creating moving environmental sound narratives.”

Thompson is currently working on a book project entitled Sound Effects, which looks at the working lives of those involved with film exhibition in America from 1925-1933, including projectionists, sound engineers, musicians, and editors.  For more information on Thompson and a more comprehensive list of her publications, please refer to: Emily Thompson

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.

Vancouver English Bay Soundwalk

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Andra McCartney led an hour-long soundwalk through Vancouver’s English Bay on Novemeber 9, 2011, with local residents and several members of the Vancouver Soundwalk Collective.  I have included some of my impressions of the soundwalk and post-walk discussion below, along with a sound and photos piece, (aptly) entitled, “Vancouver English Bay Soundwalk.”  English Bay is located west of downtown Vancouver and is one of the most densely populated areas in Canada.  The Bay is well-known for its fireworks display in the summer, beautiful beaches, heavy construction, a mix of ‘nature’ and the ‘city,’ and a developed calming in the fall and winter months.

After the soundwalk, the group participated in a discussion that was recorded by Jennifer Schine (Simon Frasier University).   The discussion covered everything from the layers of ‘urban vitality’ experienced in the area, with someone mentioning the way more lively sounds emanate from the high-rises in the summer months; to the way “a different breed of person” seems to move through the area during the quieter seasons of the year (fall/winter), and thereby associating quiet people with a better breed of people.  There was also some really interesting talk of the difference between soundwalking in a group versus soundwalking walking alone.  For instance, McCartney likened the group experience to an “ephemeral community,” which seems to connect well with her current ideas around love and listening.  Repetitive listening and doing soundwalks many times in the same area are also important in her construction of intimate listening.  Additionally, one listener talked of being led by listening on soundwalks (rather than being led by vision).   To this participant, listening is a sense that slows things down and, therefore, is better for the nervous system.   However, I would like to mention that this creates a hierarchy of the senses, by privileging listening over seeing (and idealizing it at the same time)… What about the power dimensions to listening, soundmaking and soundwalking?

The discussion also touched on the following ideas, which I will put forth in point form:

-The expectation of quiet in such a densely populated area.

-The way the area performs to keep outsiders at a distance:  high-rise buildings make the area difficult to get through if you’re walking; the area is perhaps more easily accessed by cars; a lot of fences in the area; the beach is not well lit at night (somehow darkness seems complicit with masculine silence); the beach also cuts out the sounds of footsteps (which makes it less safe); access to the performance space on the beach was taken away by removing the stairs to the stage, as it ‘invited’ people to sleep there; it probably also ‘invites’ people to make noise.

-An idealization of ‘nature.’

-No bird sounds (which I hear from people a lot in soundwalk discussions).

-Quiet equals good citizen; versus noisy outsiders, who are a “different breed of person.”

-Nervousness/anxiety produced when sounds do not have an identifiable source.

-The sounds of the city make for “an uninteresting lover.”

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?

Below is a sound and photos piece that I produced using Schine’s audio recording and Andra’s photos from the English Bay soundwalk.  At the end of the piece, I incorporated a sound sample from the post-walk discussion.  The piece was edited by ‘cross-fading’ between audio clips and by playing with the volume levels.  No digital effects were used in the piece, in an attempt to keep the sounds recognizable and connected to the context of recording.

Balance-Unbalance Soundwalk

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

The Soundwalking Interactions team—minus David Paquette—led a soundwalk on November 21, 2011 for the Balance-Unbalance Conference at Concordia University.  The conference brought together scholars, artists, policy experts, economists, etc., “with the intent of engendering a deeper awareness and creating lasting intellectual working partnerships in solving our global environmental crisis.”  Before the walk, Andra McCartney opened with a fifteen-minute talk, where she outlined various (potential) ways of listening and some of her ongoing research interests and projects.

The walk began in the John Molson School of Business; then headed south along Guy to Sainte Antoine Ouest; along Sainte Antoine and north through the tunnel on du Fort; and then east along rue Baile and back to the Molson Building.  Approximately fifteen people participated in the walk, including Andra’s artistic collaborator, Don Sinclair, from York University.  The post-walk discussion lasted forty minutes and covered everything from the sounds (noise) of the cars, the lack of bird sounds and the way the sounds of the city change depending on the time of day.  There were far fewer cars on the road during this walk as it took place on a Saturday afternoon.  Some participants also related the sounds encountered on the walk to previous sounding experiences.  For instance, one listener took the ‘high road’ through the tunnel on du Fort as he connected the experience to the Scottish Highlands.  The discussion closed out with a presentation by Sinclair and McCartney about their interactive soundwalk and dance project, which is demonstrated in the video below.

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.

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”.