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Soundwalk response by Denis Kra

Soundwalk Report:
« A response to the soundwalk through your own idea of how to do that »

Auteur: Denis Kra

COMS876 / COM7161: Media Technology as Practice

Prof: Andra McCartney

Concordia University

February 28, 2012

L’écoute des sons ou la marche pour l’écoute des sons, communément appelée «Soundwalk», est une activité à laquelle mes frères et moi avions été initiés très tôt dans notre enfance par notre papa. Il nous a appris à écouter les sons qui ont une signification, et ce, dans le but de savoir prédire le présent et le futur proche. Ainsi, pour aller cultiver dans notre plantation, faire une course en ville ou faire un voyage, nous écoutions des sons afin de savoir si notre déplacement débouchera sur du bonheur et de la joie ou si au contraire, on sera exposé à des problèmes ou frappé par un malheur.

J’aime particulièrement écoute les sons tôt à l’aube (le matin dans l’intervalle de temps compris entre la nuit et le lever du soleil). Dans cet intervalle, il se produit des sons qui prédisent le futur proche, notamment au sujet des événements qui se passeront dans le courant de la journée: des sons de bons ou de mauvais augures, des sons évocateurs de bonheur ou de malheur que seuls les initiés peuvent décoder et tirer des enseignements. Par exemple, certains bruits humains, particulièrement les pleurs des bébés, les chants d’oiseaux, les cris d’animaux domestiques ou sauvages, le bruit du vent et la direction du vent, le bruit des insectes, etc.

À bien y penser, je m’aperçois qu’on écoutait tout ce qui était naturel et on n’accordait pas d’importe aux bruits émis par les entités non naturelles. C’est à dire par exemple les bruits des voitures, des moteurs ou les bruits de tout autre objet fabriqué par les humains ne nous intéressaient pas pour l’écoute des sons. Étant donné que l’intérêt de notre écoute des sons est porté sur le sens de ces sons, il nous arrive parfois d’entendre un oiseau chanter un chant de bonheur, ce qui nous fait savoir que la journée sera heureuse ou sans problème. Si nous avons une commission à faire dans cette journée, ce seul chant d’oiseau évoquant le bonheur nous prédit que cette commission sera un succès. Cela nous procure une grande joie pour amorcer la journée, pour aller au champ ou  pour effectuer toute activité que nous avons projetée dans cette journée. Mais parfois c’est le contraire qui arrive, nous entendons les sons qui prédisent le malheur, et ces jours-là nous ajournons ce que nous avions prévu faire, et nous restons à la maison tout en observant la prudence pour ne pas être victimes de malheur.

Ce qui est quelquefois marrant, c’est que, même si nous savons qu’il y aura bonheur ou malheur, ce bonheur ou ce malheur ne se porte pas toujours sur ce que nous croyons. Il se porte parfois sur des situations auxquelles nous n’avons pas du tout pensé. En plus, nous ne pouvons pas savoir de quelle nature sera ce bonheur ou ce malheur, ni d’où il proviendra. C’est une science traditionnelle assez intéressante, mais qui reste encore inexacte.

J’aime particulièrement écouter les sons à des périodes des pointes comme l’aube, le midi, le crépuscule et minuit. C’est des périodes chargées de beaucoup d’informations cosmiques véhiculées par les créatures naturelles de l’univers. Mes lieux préférés pour faire ses écoutes de sons sont:

– Pour l’aube, à la véranda de la maison familiale au village pendant que tout le monde dort encore, à la fenêtre dans une maison silencieuse en ville avec mon regard tourné au dehors et perdu dans le firmament.

-Pour le midi, lorsque je suis en ville, assis par exemple dans une cafétéria, dans une gare, dans un parc, etc., j écoute les bruits naturels tout en faisant abstraction des bruits artificiels. Quelquefois si possible, je m’isole en pleine forêt ou dans le bois où il y a peu de bruits artificiels. Dans ce lieu, on a l’occasion d’écouter le bruit du silence, des oiseaux, des insectes, en somme, le bruit de la manifestation de la terre. Et quelquefois dans ces lieux, en pleine inspiration d’écoute, on peut entendre des voix venues de nulle part, des paroles brèves aussitôt entendues, aussitôt rompues. J’ai été moi-même témoin de beaucoup de choses étranges lors de mes écoutes de sons en pleine forêt pendant les périodes de midi.

– Pour le crépuscule, je préfère être également en pleine forêt. C’est une période de transition où les êtres en éveille durant le jour rentrent pour dormir et les êtres de la nuit se réveillent pour vaquer à leurs activités. Par exemple, il a des insectes, des oiseaux ou des animaux nocturnes qui s’éveillent alors d’autres des mêmes espèces rentrent pour dormir. Dans cette transition, l’écoute devient passionnante, car les bruits qu’on écoute à ce moment sont de véritables messages pour ceux qui savent lire et décoder les bruits et les signes. Les personnes de culture traditionnelle, qui ont une vie typiquement en relation avec la terre ou la campagne, peuvent vous en dire davantage.

– Pour les périodes de minuit je m’exerce à l’écoute du son lorsque je suis au campement. Mais en ville, cela ne m’est possible actuellement que quand je me retrouve tout seul, ou quand par chance tout le monde chez moi dort avant minuit et qu’il n’y a plus de bruits artificiels. Ce qui est très rare à la maison.

Récemment dans le cours COMS876, nous avions fait une marche d’écoute de sons «Soundwalk». Le procédé et motif sont différents de ce que je suis habitué à faire tout seul dans ma campagne. Cette marche a consisté à longer une partie du chemin de fer qui traverse le quartier, à sillonner quelques rues du quartier, puis à retourner sur le campus de l’Université Concordia, tout en rentrant dans quelques bâtisses de l’Université avant de retourner en classe. Chaque participant de la marche a fait le compte-rendu de ce qu’il ou elle a écouté. Moi, j’ai particulièrement entendu le bruit de moteur des voitures, de chauffage, des oiseaux, des humains, ainsi que le bruit du vent et de la neige qui tombait sur mon habit. Cette marche a été audio enregistrée par David Paquette et immortalisée avec les photos prises par Magda. Cette marche m’a paru assez originale et excitante d’autant plus que c’était pour moi la première fois que je faisais du «Soundwalk» en ville en groupe et en compagnie des amis de classe. À la fin de cette randonnée, j’ai pensé à l’utilité et à la signification des sons que nous avons chacun écoutés, mais ce n’était pas l’objet de ce cours.

Le «Soundwalk» pourrait également se faire sans rendez-vous. On pourrait pour ce faire, disposer en permanence sur soi d’un appareil d’enregistrement, et enregistrer les sons partout où on se trouverait: au travail, en chemin sur les routes, dans les centres d’achat, au restaurant, à la maison, etc. L’écoute de ces sons enregistrés peut procurer du plaisir à bien des personnes notamment les voyageurs, les touristes qui ont enregistré ces sons pendant leur séjour à l’étranger ou à une période leur vie, etc. Ces sons peuvent aussi servir de mémoire du temps ou d’une époque et les réécouter plusieurs années plus tard peut réveiller les souvenirs de ces époques. Exemple pour une personne âgée, réécouter les sons qu’elle a enregistrés dans sa jeunesse il y a 40 ans, lui procurera un très grand plaisir, car ces sons constituent pour elle des souvenirs de sa jeunesse et lui font revivre mentalement ces périodes.

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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 soundwalk.com 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.