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Bringing (Composed) Activism back into the Soundscape

Just about every square inch of land has been touched by the hands of humans, and our fingerprints leave marks. Some will largely wash away with time. More are rearrangements of the earth. Many of these rearrangements are permanent and mark the paths of “progress.” I sometimes travel on these paths, our highways. Often I do not know their history: what was underneath where I travel — farmland, a neighborhood, a park? When the asphalt or concrete is laid for a highway, we permanently scar the landscape and the soundscape. Amnesia sets in.

For some cities, the inevitable “progress” was stopped. In Baltimore, the East-West Expressway had been in the planning stages for many years, in one form or another. The purpose of this highway was to allow quicker ingress and egress to the Central Business District (CBD), or downtown, as well as to connect Baltimore to I-70, an interstate running all the way to California. It was planned to go through several neighborhoods, some deemed as blighted, some now marked as historic, as well as through Leakin Park, a large thousand-acre urban park in west Baltimore City.

The preferred route design for the East-West Expressway was to divide Leakin Park in two. As the city, the state, and the federal government started development, hundreds of houses were torn down to construct part of the highway. Environmentalists and community activists stepped up their fight to stop the destruction and construction. When the bulldozers were finally laid to rest in the 1980s, one section of the East-West Expressway had already been built, totaling a little over one mile, displacing hundreds of families and dividing neighborhoods. Leakin Park, years later, is still very much wilderness with a new and much celebrated multimillion dollar hiking and biking trail, Gwynns Falls Trail, running much the same route as the proposed highway, from the park through adjoining neighborhoods to the Inner Harbor. (1)

This year, in 2007, I created a sound work entitled What Is Now and What Could Have Been as a celebration of past activism in Baltimore City and beyond. What Is Now and What Could Have Been is a soundscape of the current and the one-time possible future; it is both an activist wake-up call to what could have happened (and what theoretically could still happen), and a celebration of the activists that stood up to the bulldozers and won. (2)

Such activism should not be thought of as a fight against progress, but rather the allowance of true choice in a democracy, including the choice of saying “no.” During the creation of this work, and still after, I began to skim the surface of one particular aborted highway, (3) and in so doing found that it was illustrative of many US, and some Canadian, cities as well.

Art on the Trail is a summer environmental art event along part of the Gwynns Falls Trail. Picking up on this year’s theme of “A Place in Time,” I visited the park and the trail in search of inspiration for a sound work. At first, I tried to think of the equivalency of a sonic frame: a Kodak moment for our ears where people stop and listen and further understand and appreciate what it has taken for them to be able to enjoy this very spot.

The composition begins with the existing soundscape, flows into highway sounds, and then back to the current sonic state of the park. In organizing the sounds and in creating the composition, I decided to go with a layered approach to allow each sonic element in the park to be heard. In doing so, I created a sound design map for the environment, with layers of human movement, bird sounds, water, ambience, and cars. For the highway sounds, I utilized some of my own sounds of cars recorded at the park, as well as Creative Commons licensed sounds from the Free Sound Project. Because highways are homogenous, I felt it appropriate to use highway sounds from around the country.

I recorded primarily to a MiniDisc and a flash recorder using a shotgun microphone. Occasionally, for stereo sounds, I recorded with my binaural microphones. All sounds were put into ProTools where I created layers and submixes. The final product was installed in the park using a MP3 player with waterproof speakers.

One issue that concerned me about the work was the introduction of noise or sound pollution into the soundscape. It is not often that we strive to deliberately fool the ear, but it is necessary in creating an imaginary soundscape, whether it be for a film or for a work of sound art. R. Murray Shafer describes the phenomenon as schizophonia, the separation of the sound from the source, resulting in the introduction of non-immediate sounds into our personal soundscape. It seemed to me that the very purpose of this particular installation called for the introduction of some “appropriate schizophonia,” in the form of an evocation of the highway that might have been. This choice was somewhat eased by the fact that, as an urban park, the soundscape is not pristine; in addition to the sounds of the water and birds, human movement through walking, bicycling, and cars are audible. Due to the short duration of the highway portion of the piece, less than four minutes per cycle, I decided to keep the amplitude loud enough to be heard over the current sounds of the area, but only directly within a 10 to 20 foot radius. If the highway sounds blended in, then the main purpose of the piece, to call attention to the “ghost” highway, would have been lost. Instead, the blaring horns, sirens, and racing engines cause viewers/listeners to question the source of the sound in the middle of a park, and to consider the reasoning behind it. Although I do want the sounds to make an impact, I did not want to aurally overwhelm the park or its visitors.

Making an impression on the park’s visitors is a start, but the next step is to get people to start connecting the dots to see the whole picture. The highways were not run through this park, but cars are still, forty years later by far, the dominant form of travel. Beyond the obvious environmental impacts on the air and the land, the car has negatively affected the soundscape, so that we have grown accustomed to the sounds of traffic even in pristine areas.

Activism is not dead, despite the news headlines regarding more of the same; it is simply not as loud as it should be. As artists who work with sound, we are experts in making things heard. Some problems need more amplification than others to be perceived through the din. Some events and past occurrences need to be brought back to our attention so that we do not allow the same mistakes to occur. Whether we play the role of activist-artist, or we use our media to publicize activists of the past, present, and future, sometimes we all need to be reminded to take off our headphones and start listening.


  1. More information on the Gwynns Falls Trail can be found at
  2. Please check my website for credit for the sound artists whose recordings were incorporated along with my own into What is Now and What Could Have Been.
  3. Because of this project, I have just begun an audio documentary on the activists who stopped the highway as well as the transportation alternatives such as the Gwynns Falls Trail and the Red Line mass transit line (still in the planning phase).

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