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
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.
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.
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.
By Jennifer Schine (firstname.lastname@example.org)
November 18, 2011
On Wednesday 9 November, as part of Vancouver New Music’s soundwalk series (http://newmusic.org/free-community-events/soundwalks/), 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.
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:
- Begin listening.
- Go outside.
- Walk — listening — to the nearest shop.
- 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.
George Bures Miller (born 1960) is a Canadian artist who lives and works between Berlin, Germany and Grindrod, BC. He is Janet Cardiff’s longtime collaborator. Together the two have put together numerous international solo and group exhibitions, “smaller works,” installations and publications. Their work has been featured in numerous books, including The Secret Hotel (2005), The Killing Machine and Other stories 1995-2007 (2007), and The House of Books has no Windows (2008). Recent installations include Ship O’ Fools (2010), The Carnie (2010), The Cabinet of Curiousness (2010), and Storm Room (2009).
Soundwalking Interactions is particularly interested in Miller and Cardiff’s numerous audio and video walks, which Cardiff has been producing since at least the early 1990s, beginning with Forest Walk (1991). Their last major walk project was Jena Walk (Memory Field) (2006), a commission from the Culture Department of the City of Jena, Germany. This is how they describe the walk: A walk is an act of contemplation. For this walk the visitors were taken on a journey over a pastoral landscape where the battle between the Prussians and Napolean took place 200 years ago… Time slips from one century to another as the listener walks, aware of their feet on the earth and the wind on their face. They will be aware that they are walking on the site just as others have walked over the same earth the last two hundred years, their stories mixing with those in the past.
For more information on their projects and many collaborations, go to: www.cardiffmiller.com