Walking Through Sound, Walking Through Silence
I have worked with sound in one form of another most of my life. As a child, my spare time was taken up with endless hours of piano and flute playing. As an adult, I am a radio producer, technician, documentarian and audio artist. Except for sleep, there have not been many quiet times in my home, office and studio.
My perpetual, perennial focus was, and still is, SOUND. Being silent was a thing to be avoided. I thrive on the sound of the city.
But recently, life has led me down some interesting pathways, far away from city noise and constant commotion. I now live on a mountain, three hours away from the nearest city. As I write this article, I am walking the ridge high about my log cabin, recorder and notebook in hand. I can hear my dog Wilbur rustling through the leaves at the top of the mountain ridge. I can hear him but not see him hes close by but I dont know exactly where. We rely on sound to connect, especially in Wilburs case. He is blind and makes all of his decisions based on sound, smell and touch.
As we walk, Wilbur and I hear many things. Its fall, and the soundscape is clear and clean. Every sound is a separate sound, not like the blurring of timbres and rhythms that one hears in the city, where the only distinct, separate sounds are those which are designed to DEMAND our attention. We hear no human voices, except my own when I call out to Wilbur (which is necessary so that he can follow me .. hes old and doesnt have much sense of smell anymore either). We can hear the rumble of the highway about half a mile away, but it is distant. We hear solitary birds call to each other. So much different from the soundscape from which I had come, a soundscape in which Wilbur would not be able to survive and still be able to run free.
For the first time in my life, I am thinking about silence and quiet, not just noisy sound. I find myself wondering about the sounds that live in my yard that I havent heard yet. I am wondering what kind of world Wilbur hears. I am paying attention to my sonic environment in a deeper way. It causes me to wonder what I heard and didnt hear when I lived in the overwhelming soundscape of the city. And how I well I would survive without my eyes, like Wilbur does.
But in the quiet of these mountains, I am also realizing that its not an "either - or" situation. I can find room for noise and quiet in my life. The urban soundscape is also one which I still enjoy. What is unusual is the experience of living in two places with such high sonic contrast.
One of my major projects of the last two years is the "Capital Resoundings" suite, a series of four soundwalks and artist interpretations based on four places in Ottawa. My move to the mountains happened when I was only partially finished Capital Resoundings. I did most of the composition in my mountain studio, working with sirens, bus brakes and a steady hum of traffic while looking out my back window at the steep slope of a snowy, silent mountain.
And I have learned a few things about myself through doing "Capital Resoundings". Unlike a lot of people who work with sound, I realize now that "noise" has never been an issue to me. I rarely complain about noise (except unreasonable noise happening when people shouldnt have to put up with it, like at 3 am). For me, the urban dweller, noise is neither good nor bad, it just IS. I also realize, in my quiet mountain retreat, that I hardly ever thought about silence before moving here. Probably because noise was just so much a part of "normal" life.
And as I sit in the quiet of my mountains, I realize that urban sound has its charms too. In a world where people have very strong opinions about "good" sounds, "bad" sounds, wanted and unwanted sounds, I am finding it less necessary in my own life to make such value judgements. I have discovered that it is a joy as an artist to have a wide variety of sounds to choose from, to work with, to compose with. The sound of the grasshopper whirring and clicking through the air across the yard, the soprano crescendo of the bus brakes, the train whistle in a minor key in Canada, major key down here in Appalachia ... I have discovered that I need loud sounds, subtle sounds, all varieties of sounds. There is no "right" sound, no wrong "sound".
(This does not mean, though, that I am advocating passive acceptance of whatever sounds happen to impose themselves on us. If you suddenly discover that an airstrip is being built a mile away from your house, you have every right to declare this an "unwanted" sound. You have the right to choose your own soundscape and to decide for yourself what your own "wanted" and "unwanted" sounds will be.)
Thats what my journey into two very different soundscapes showed me that there is a whole range of sounds to hear and experience. And that it is still possible to find quiet, even in the noisy 21st century. Creating new sonic realities for ourselves is about experiencing a whole range of sound, being open to new sounds and choosing what role we want those sounds to play in our lives as artists, listeners and human beings. No matter where we are in the quiet of the mountains or the roar of the city.
Victoria Fenner earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communications degree at the University of Windsor, Ontario, and worked for CBC Radio until the early 90's in varying roles including production technician, radio documentarian, and reporting on art and culture.
Since leaving the CBC, Victoria has worked as an independent radio producer and audio artist, raising her own funding for nationally distributed community radio projects such as "More Than Just a Dozen - Women in Global Development"; "Children of the Earth - Children, War and Poverty"; "Global Youthspeak - Youth Voices to the World"; and "Radiant Dissonance" - a radio series focussing on the work of 10 Canadian audio artists.
She has also initiated a number of projects focused on radio as artspace, most notably the "Full Moon Over Killaloe" Audio Art Camp in Ontarios Ottawa Valley, now in its fourth year. Her latest project is the "Creative Radio Initiative", a series of Ontario based workshops focused on radio art forms such as drama, documentary, electronic words, soundscapes and audio art. These projects were sponsored by the Canadian Society for Independent Radio Production, of which Victoria is a founder.
Victoria divides her time between Ottawa, Canada and WMMT, Whitesburg, Kentucky, the radio station of the Appalshop Media Arts Centre. She has produced art-based radio works in both locations, some of which can be found on her web site at http://www.magneticspirits.com