Teaser: By Listening to the Sounds that Inhabit Our World, We Can Learn Much About the World We Inhabit…
This article first appeared in Musicworks 87 (Fall 2003). Reprinted with permission.
A-head: Yoga for the Ears
B-head: Why Radio Producers Need to Soundwalk
If I was the producer of a current affairs radio program, I would start my daily story meeting by taking the researchers, producers, technicians, and hosts out for a walk.
The objective of the walk wouldn’t be to go for coffee or talk about the next show. Instead, I’d ask them to be silent and listen to the rhythms of their community, the community that they talk to each day.
A soundwalk is a time to be silent and to let the community to talk to us. It provides a meditative space in an all too busy day. For me, it’s a time to get a different perspective … to let the sounds interact with my psyche and let them tell me what they want me to know, rather than the other way around.
I have been soundwalking for about three years now, and producing radio for about twenty. I first learned about soundwalking from Hildegard Westerkamp, an exceptional audio artist and listener. My first introduction to soundwalking was a radio series that she had done for Vancouver Co-op Radio back in the early ’80’s. These programs took listeners to a train station, a blacksmith’s shop, Stanley Park on New Year’s Eve, and many other places in the city. After listening to Hildi’s recordings I never heard my environment quite the same way again.
Since that time, I have had the opportunity to soundwalk with several other Canadian artists, including Andra McCartney, Darren Copeland, Wende Bartley, Claude Schryer, and Ellen Waterman. And even though I’ve never had the experience of soundwalking with R. Murray Schafer, I must also acknowledge his considerable influence. There is a good chance that none of us would be doing this kind of work had he not walked ahead of us and mapped the way.
What I have discovered is that there are a wide variety of soundwalking styles. No two people soundwalk in the same way. I remember one of my first soundwalks with Hildegard when I was just a novice. A group of eight of us had gathered for a summer workshop in Ottawa. Soundwalking was a new concept to all of us, and none of us were quite sure what to listen for, so at various points during our half-hour walk around the National Library and down to the Ottawa River, she stopped so we could all discuss what we heard. After listening to our mostly obvious reports of what we had heard, she suggested that we try to listen in a more musical way, seeking out the beats, rhythms, and tone colours of the soundscape. Her gentle guidance was appreciated, as we learned to open our ears to things that our brains had previously blocked out.
What I remember most about Hildegard’s style of soundwalking is her constant reference to listening to sounds in context. Sounds do not exist in isolation—they all have their own meanings, and are formed within a specific space and time. I also learned that we need not be just an observer—we are also a participant in the soundscape. We can create our own sounds in real time as we soundwalk (whether through our own footsteps, through vocalizing, or by “playing” blades of grass or stones to create new sounds) or we can take back recordings of the sounds we hear and transform them into new soundscapes in our studio.
From Darren Copeland I learned how to recreate what I was hearing. My soundwalks with Darren happened a few years after my first walks with Hildegard, and were done with people who had already done considerable sound artwork of their own. Darren’s soundwalking approach with us was structured, and each one of us had a job to do. One of us was asked to count sounds, another person was to listen to the shape of the sound and do a quick sketch of what it looked like, and another was to listen for “global” changes in the soundscape as we moved from one sound environment to another. At the end of the walk, we worked together to create a sound score upon which we would base a group composition. What I learned from Darren is contrast, density, structure. I learned ways to reproduce a soundscape in an authentic way long after the actual experience of the soundwalk was over. And I learned how to remember what I’d heard so that I could reproduce it later in the studio.
I learn different things from each person with whom I soundwalk. Each one of us brings a different set of priorities and perceptions to the experience.
Most of the soundwalkers I know are composers, not radio people. As a radio soundmaker, I am always wondering how my own style is different from that of my friends, who approach sound from a different place than I do. My soundwalks have shown me that for seventeen of these twenty years, there were probably things about my community that I was missing because I never took the time to be still and hear the subtleties.
Radio people don’t listen—they talk. There are too many deadlines, and there are never enough people to do the work we have to do. Time is a tyrant, and the world of a radio producer is noisy and chaotic. Consequently, the world we reflect back to the listener often reflects the chaos that we feel.
We often forget to remind ourselves that the world isn’t just chaos. I have realized that radio producers can benefit from soundwalking because they learn to connect on a deeper level with the rhythms and heartbeats of their communities and their lives. Through my soundwalks, I have discovered that yes, the chaos does exist, but so does rhythm, harmony, beauty, and joy. For me, soundwalks are about hearing the full range of experience, not just the loudest.
But soundwalking is something that radio people don’t consciously do—at least not yet. For the radio producers who are reading this, here are some of the reasons why I think you need to soundwalk:
a) Your hearing will sharpen. You’ll hear not just words, but also rhythms, patterns, and natural tonalities that you didn’t hear before. You’ll hear combinations of sounds and hear things in a way that’s almost musical. You’ll hear how the high treble buzz of summer cicadas plays against the distant low frequency roar of an overhead jet. You’ll hear the soprano ascending squeal of bus brakes as the bus pulls into the depot. You’ll find yourself paying much more attention to the sounds that go behind and beyond the words. You’ll find yourself not wanting to use the term “background sound” anymore. Instead, the sounds will become an integral part of your documentaries, not just “sonic embroidery.”
b) You’ll hear things that will make you ask more questions. You’ll hear things that you haven’t heard before … a random fragment of conversation, a sound that seems out of place. You might even get a new story idea. These subtle sounds are quiet clues that will speak to you and reveal your community’s unique identity.
c) You will also hear yourself. My ideal soundwalk is one where I focus outwardly with my listening, and concentrate on the external world, rather than the one which exists in my own mind. But what always emerges is a blending of the inner world with the outer. As my yoga instructor says, the goal is to stop dwelling on the past or chasing the future. When we listen intently and focus on the sounds of the moment, the result is a peaceful soul which allows itself to rest.
This fusion of the inner and outer world helps us to hear more clearly. When we hear clearly, we can speak more clearly to our communities. Eventually we hear the entire range of sounds in the place where we live, not just those that are loud enough to demand our immediate attention. We can put the noise and the chaos in its proper context if we give ourselves the space and time to hear the entire soundscape.
Perhaps most importantly, soundwalking gets us outside of the four walls of the radio station. Too many radio programs are created by people who spend every working day within a studio or office, not even emerging for lunch, or to breathe some fresh air. It is impossible to truly tell the stories of a city that you only see from the windows of a subway, on your way to and from the office.
Real life does not happen in a studio. It happens out on the street, or in a park, or on the playground. Instead of inviting your next guest into the studio, get out there and capture them in their own environment, in all of its sonic splendour!
FYI: For more information on how to do a soundwalk, look at Andra McCartney’s Web site. It is an amazing resources with many different soundwalking projects, including “How to do a Soundwalk,” with Hildegard Westerkamp. You may also wish to visit Hildegard Westerkamp’s site; the Sound Travels site; and my own site.