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Sounds from the Underground

April 23, 2013 2 comments

Une version française de ce texte se trouve ici

What kind of soundwalking interactions to explore in Montreal during the long cold winter of 2013? Sounds from the Underground! In February of 2013, I asked several undergraduate students of sound courses in the Communication Studies program at Concordia University to go into Montreal’s underground city and record soundwalks through different parts of the complex. This is what I asked them to do:

Do four soundwalks, each walk being between 45 mins and one hour, in the underground city. You can repeat the same route at different times, or choose different routes each time. At least two of the walks should link with the CCA. You can find maps of the underground city online to guide your plans. I would like you to record the walk, listen back to the recording and write a descriptive summary about each walk (about one page or 350 words each time), and select a short excerpt (less than 90 secs) from each walk that is of particular sonic interest. Your summary should describe the route that you took, for future reference (or you could draw it on the underground city map if you wanted). Make sure that when you are doing the recording, you monitor on headphones and avoid excessive wind and clothing noise.

This method follows some important tenets of our research: firstly, the repetition of soundwalks through time, seeking a variety of recording perspectives and experiences of similar places, within each person’s practice as well as that of the group as a whole. Descriptive writing is used as a means of reflecting on each experience and situating it in relation to the others. Selecting sounds of sonic interest unearths recurrent themes and provides short samples of the underground ambiances for listening. What follows is a report written by the leader of our merry underground recording band, Natalie Arslanyan. Thanks to recordists Maximilien Bianchi, Kaeleigh d’Ermo, Mallika Guhan, Jacob Stanescu, Luciana Trespalacios, Nadia Volkova, and Alexandrina Wilkinson.

Sounds from the Underground: A City Unnoticed

Busy traffic, pedestrians crossing the street, car horns, and ambulance sirens – these are sounds often associated with describing city soundscapes, or what a city sounds like. Montreal, in particular, is known for the sounds of its street buskers, cyclists darting by, conversations in French, cobblestone roads, and church bells echoing off buildings in the Old Port. Like most places, these characteristics describe the city as it would be perceived from the ground-up; however, many disregard a significant and noteworthy area of Montreal, one which tends to go unnoticed – the Underground City.

Montreal’s Underground City is a discrete and concealed space. Located below the ground, it ranges from areas surrounding Guy-Concordia metro station, eastwards towards Beaudry, southwards into metro Champ-de-Mars, and westwards towards Lucien-L’Allier metro. For many, it represents a shopping centre, a link between surrounding businesses and metro stations, a place for entertainment, or an escape from Montreal’s harsh winter weather. Regardless, the various activities and sounds that occur beneath the streets of Montreal deserve great attention and exploration.

In an attempt to explore the Underground City, Prof. McCartney asked eight undergraduate sound students from Communication Studies at Concordia University to embark on several soundwalks throughout the underground, and to audio record the walks. During these soundwalks, the students stayed mainly within the underground space, later emerging onto city streets, and linking to the CCA, or Canadian Centre for Architecture. Their findings suggest that as in any other urban areas, recurrent sonic themes emerge and ultimately create a soundscape for the Underground City. The Underground City is also noted for its differences in ambiance and tone between different sections of the complex. The underground in all its vastness has the ability to guide individuals into unfamiliar places, leading to unpredictable situations and feelings of isolation and confusion. Finally, the students found a notable difference in ambiance between Montreal streets and the area of the CCA.

There are many distinct and recurring sounds that emerge from the Underground City, including those produced from metro stations and trains, escalators and ventilation systems, the presence of music, activity within food courts, and fountain sounds. Significant differences in ambiance were found between metro stations, the underground mall, and the streets above ground. One student speaks specifically about the change in soundscape from Les Cours de Mont-Royal, a shopping centre within the underground complex, to the Peel metro station, where “[t]he music faded to be replaced by a faint mechanical drone, and the beeping of Opus cards came into the foreground”.  In another situation, a distinction can be found between the “beeps, bustle, and hum of the Metro compared to the quieter boutiques that line the walls of Montreal’s Underground City”. Differences in soundscape can also be affected by the time of the day. Upon arriving to the McGill metro station at approximately 9:30 pm, one student felt a calmness and sense of dead-space within her surroundings. Had she entered the same station at 8:30 am the next morning during rush hour, she may have had an experience much different from her own.

One of the most notable and recurrent sounds throughout the Underground City is that of escalators and ventilation systems. The “overpowering drone” produced by both systems creates a shifting omnipresent hum throughout the underground, leading them to become unnoticed and less distinct among people walking by (https://soundcloud.com/nataliearslanyan/underground-city-escalators). As one student noted, “[i]t seems as though these are the baseline of the Underground City. They are everywhere and they colour the sonic landscape throughout”.

The clicking of shoes and high heels on the cold, tiled floors of the underground city is another distinct sound, and appears much more in the foreground in quieter areas of the mall  (https://soundcloud.com/nataliearslanyan/footsteps-underground; https://soundcloud.com/nataliearslanyan/underground-ambiance). The presence of music is also a recurrent theme of the underground. Music is heard through an intercom that is played throughout the entire complex, as well as in individual stores and in different shopping centres. The amount of music heard becomes an overwhelming experience, as “different snippets of top 40 songs coming at you from different directions; there is barely any rest,” (https://soundcloud.com/nataliearslanyan/music-1).  It is also not uncommon to see shoppers plug into their mp3 players and listen to their music through headphones. This form of music listening isolates the individual from the rest of their surroundings, just as the Underground City seems isolated and unknown from the streets above.

Some of the most interesting sounds were found in food courts: “the banging of pots, sizzling of fires, the sound of cash registers, all supported by continuous chatter…there seemed to be a sense of layering, almost like a musical composition,” (https://soundcloud.com/nataliearslanyan/underground-food-court). There seemed to be an increase in sound activity and attention drawn to food courts in comparison to other parts of the underground. As one student explains, “the ambiance of the food court was especially fun because I could listen to the jazzy soundtrack coming out of the speakers and do close-ups of restaurant machines that were still working.” Sounds produced from food courts are influenced by their location within the underground complex and the people occupying the food courts. For example, there is a significant difference in ambiance between the food court located in the Eaton Centre, characterized as chaotic with the presence of children and families, and the food court in Cours de Montréal, where business people are more likely to be found. The differences in volume and textures of sound vary between food courts throughout the underground complex; however, it seems that food courts are perceived as a central area for people to meet, relax, and take a break from their daily activities. The placement of a large water fountain in the middle of the Place Desjardins food court, for example, provides an additional sense of relaxation and simultaneously produces a sonically interesting, rhythmically and timbrally variable sound to the overall soundscape (https://soundcloud.com/nataliearslanyan/water-fountain).

Aboveground, the downtown Saint-Laurent area, filled with students, clubs, and bars, will sound considerably different from Montreal’s Old Port, with its large stone buildings, lesser evening activity and circuitous routes for traffic. This same concept of neighbourhood sound character can be applied to the underground complex, especially when considering “upper-class” and “middle-class” areas. As one student notes, “[d]oes something sound rich or poor? Probably not, but moving from the busy underbelly of the city to the upper reaches where movement is not done en-masse, things get quieter.” (Luciana – walking underground) The Eaton Centre is observed as ever-changing and chaotic, as opposed to Place Montreal Trust as being busy, yet relaxed. High-end sections, such as the Queen Elizabeth hotel and Les Cours Mont-Royal, are expressed as containing less “noise”. As one recordist notes, noise can be considered as “a number of sounds found to be unwanted/undesirable”, or sounds that create clutter within an environment. There is a contrast between high-end and low-end areas, in terms of how unwanted sounds, or “noise”, can be masked with other sounds. Another student indicates the projection of jazz music in the Place d’Armes metro station tunnel towards the Palais de Congres to overpower sounds of escalators and fluorescent lights. It is interesting to note how ambiance and tone within the Underground City can change from one area to another, regardless of all these sections residing under one roof.

The Underground City is capable of leading individuals unfamiliar with the area into unpredictable and interesting situations. One student unexpectedly found herself in the middle of a live concert, as she walked from the tunnel between Lucien L’Allier Metro and the Bell Centre around 10:00 pm on a Monday night. Although she anticipated it to be a quiet evening, she almost immediately felt that something was different, as she started “hearing the sub bass of what sounded like a dance track of some kind.” Without knowing, the student had walked into a Lady Gaga concert and did not realize until exiting the Bell Centre and seeing a poster advertising the concert.

Several soundwalk recordists encountered buskers within the Underground City. One recordist found a man busking with a guitar, cardboard boat, fishing pole, and a sign reading “fishing for change”. The Saint Henri metro station is noted as usually being filled with buskers. On one particular soundwalk, a student recorded the sound of three buskers playing a cover of a Pink Floyd song, accompanied by several homeless people whistling, talking, and clapping at Place-des-Arts metro. Another student notes her experience with a busker, as he looked at her suspiciously the closer she approached him, stopped singing for a moment, then continued after he felt she was at a far enough distance (). The information gathered from these students suggests that the presence of buskers is a distinctive feature of the Underground City, and that recordists cannot automatically assume that it is ok to record musicians playing in a public place, since the music is the source of their income.

Each recordist expanded their soundwalks to include Montreal streets, ranging from the Square-Victoria area, to Lucien L’Allier, to Guy-Concordia metro. In addition to busy roads and side streets, the Canadian Centre for Architecture was also incorporated into many of the recordings. The CCA is located between Boulevard Rene-Levesque and Rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest, two exceptionally large and busy streets in downtown Montreal.

Despite being placed within close proximity to highway 720, there is a significant change in soundscape upon entering the gates leading to the museum’s courtyard. There is also a deepening sense of hollowness and emptiness, as the sounds of bustling traffic lose much of their omnipresence. The soundscape is quiet and calm and for a moment, you can hear the sound of birds chirping. Suddenly, the sound of a siren appears – except there is a notable distinction between this siren and another siren heard through regular traffic. The quiet and desolate environment of the courtyard adds an eerie and isolated aesthetic to the siren, as its sound pierces through the city and bounces off the stonewalls of the CCA. Upon exiting the CCA gates, sounds of the city emerge once again – the turbulence of cars and trucks whisking down the highway, cyclists whizzing by, and the previously-heard sound of the siren now much less clear and distinct. It is amazing how architecture can affect the perception of sounds within a city. What would the Underground City sound like without escalators or ventilation systems? How would this change the overall soundscape of the Underground City?

Explorations of the Underground City present an array of observations and questions. Many of the soundwalk recordists noted their unfamiliarity with the world underground and experiencing the underground in the same way a tourist would, exploring it as unfamiliar territory. Some were familiar with specific underground spaces, such as areas around Bonaventure and McGill metro. One recordist explained how his perspective of experiencing the underground mall shifted from being less of an explorer and more of a listener, which allowed him to enjoy his time uncovering other mysteries of the Underground City. Regardless of the numerous strange looks received or having shoppers misread the use of a microphone as an interview opportunity, many of the sounds uncovered from the underground present an inconspicuous and unique dimension of Montreal, demonstrating yet another hidden treasure beneath Montreal’s surface.

Link to “Sounds from the Underground” SoundCloud webpage:

https://soundcloud.com/nataliearslanyan/sets/sounds-from-the-underground

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.

Winter soundwalks

February 20, 2012 1 comment

Une version française de ce texte se trouve ici

Last month, the members of the Soundwalking Interactions Project (Andra McCartney, David Paquette, Dave Madden and Caitlin Loney) took part in a series of soundwalks in their respective neighborhoods (three in Montreal, one in Morin-Heights). Each member completed three 30-minutes weekly walks, followed by the production of an analytical summary. After gathering these reports, we each wrote short reports in which we explore the similarities and differences of each participant’s experiences. These summaries can be found in a previous blog entry.

One element that was highlighted in all reports was the role and impact of winter climate on the various walks. Dave has discussed the influence of weather conditions not just on the listening experience, but on his whole perceptual experience. For Caitlin, the temperature was mostly experienced through the changing sound of the snow or the ice on the ground. I personally found that the weather was having an impact on the pace and the duration of the walk. In a similar vein, Andra has noticed that weather conditions were influencing both the time of the walk and its overall orientation. These observations led us to propose another series of walk in the same environments, that time in April, to take into account seasonal changes.

Another aspect to consider is the impact of the spatial configurations on the unfolding of the walk itself; for example, while the three urban neighborhoods were providing a wide range of potential routes and environments, my own neighborhood had a more limited selection of paths and more homogeneous sonic spaces. The differences in sonic variety (both in quantity and levels) can clearly be observed when reading the various reports. Another important feature that was revealed is the notion of attitude, and of attention to the environment. Dave also discussed the inherent intersensoriality of soundwalking as well as the impact of the various sensory modalities on listening. Finally Andra questioned the relationship between the three successive walks we’ve done, and also pointed to the effect of resonance that was made possible by the weekly sharing of our individual experiences.

Marches sonores hivernales

February 20, 2012 1 comment

The English version of this text can be found here

Les membres de Soundwalking Interactions (Andra McCartney, David Paquette, Dave Madden, Cailtin Loney) ont pris part, durant le mois dernier, à un projet de marches sonores hivernales dans leur quartier respectif (trois à Montréal, une à Morin-Heights). Chacun a effectué trois marches hebdomadaires d’environ 30 minutes, suivies de la rédaction d’un résumé analytique. Nous avons ensuite rédigé de courts sommaires dans lesquels nous explorons les similitudes et différences entre chaque expérience. Les résumés et analyses peuvent être lus dans leur version (anglaise) intégrale dans cet article paru précédemment.

Un aspect fondamental de l’expérience de chacun fut la présence du climat hivernal dans les commentaires hebdomadaires. Si pour Dave les conditions météos influençaient non seulement l’expérience auditive même bien la totalités des modes perceptifs, pour Caitlin la température se faisait surtout entendre à travers la texture changeante du bruit des pas, selon la qualité de la neige ou de la glace au sol. Pour moi, ce sont surtout la cadence et la durée des marches qui témoignaient du temps. Finalement, pour Andra, le climat dictait plutôt l’heure (milieu d’après-midi) et l’orientation (vers l’ouest, pour faire face au soleil) de la marche. L’influence majeure du climat nous a donc menés à proposer une autre série de marches sonores au mois d’avril, pour tenir compte du changement de saison.

Un autre aspect à considérer est l’impact de la configuration spatiale sur le déroulement de la marche elle-même; par exemple, les trois quartiers urbains proposent une plus grande diversité de trajectoires et de lieux hétérogènes, contrairement à la campagne ou les choix de parcours demeuraient (à tout le moins dans mon cas) assez limités et relativement uniformes. Les différences de variété sonore (ainsi que de volume et de quantité) sont facilement identifiables à la lecture des résumés de marche; la question d’attitude (ou d’attention) et son lien à l’espace semble une autre composante importante qui pourrait être approfondie. Dave s’est aussi intéressé à l’intersensorialité inhérente à la pratique de la marche sonore, se questionnant sur les types de collaborations sensorielles qu’elle rend possible et de leur impact sur l’écoute elle-même. Finalement, Andra s’est questionnée sur le rapport entre les trois marches successives, ainsi que l’effet potentiel de résonance crée par le partage hebdomadaire des résumés de marches entre les membres de l’équipe.

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

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.