Tyler Kinnear writes about the activities of the Vancouver soundwalking collective, in the WFAE newsletter. http://wfae.proscenia.net/newsletter/pages/11.htm
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.
By Jennifer Schine (email@example.com)
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.
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”.
Raymond Murray Schafer is a Canadian composer, soundscape artist, scholar and environmentalist. Schafer established the World Soundscape Project (WSP) at Simon Fraser University in the late 60s, a research group that initiated the study of acoustic ecology, recording the sound environments of cities and villages in Canada and Europe. Over the span of its existence, the group included artists and researchers Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp and others. Schafer’s 1977 book The Tuning of the World (The Soundscape) incorporates the WSP’s research to explore changes in our sonic environment over history, particularly the increase of noise pollution from industrialisation. In it, he offers ways of listening to be more aware and discerning of our acoustic surroundings.
More recently, David New’s short film “Listen” (2009) offers a compelling portrait of Schafer and his ideas on acoustic ecology and listening. Schafer contemplates, “In a way, the world is a huge musical composition that is going on all the time, without a beginning and presumably, without an ending. We are the composers of this huge, miraculous composition that’s going on around us, and we can improve it or we can destroy it we can add more noises or we can add more beautiful sounds, it’s all up to us.” Listen is available to watch for free on the NFB site here.
Since 2010, Schafer’s birthday, July 18th, was chosen to celebrate ‘World Listening Day’ by the World Listening Project.