My artistic practice often begins with soundwalking, which is simply walking through an area, and listening to it. Like many simple experiences, soundwalking is often profound as well. The act of focusing on that moment, that place and time, leads me to hear that place differently, to understand it in new ways. And when I record the sounds of a walk, I am able to reflect on it later, generating new understandings again.
Today I would like to tell you about a soundwalk that I did some time ago--two years ago in fact, in Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver, with Hildegard Westerkamp, who has taught me a lot about how to listen, and who often walks with me--on soundwalks, in friendly conversation, sometimes in my dreams. I want to talk about sonic interactions in soundwalks, interactions between recordist and environment during the recording, interactions between sound, text, and image in my compositions that result from those recordings, interactions between artists and audiences all based on listening to the environment.
The CD ROM piece that I use in my presentation was developed as a gallery installation. It is now available as part of a PhD dissertation from the Music department at York University in Toronto. You can order it by interlibrary loan (McCartney 1999. Sounding Places: Situated Conversations Through the Soundscape Compositions of Hildegard Westerkamp. Specify that you want to receive a copy of the Macintosh format CD ROM). The installation is available only for the Macintosh.
When I record, I usually wear either a portable digital or analog tape recorder, or a minidisk recorder, depending on what I have available at the time. I sometimes carry a stereo microphone, or attach binaural microphones to my headphones, glasses or clothing. I have an amplified perspective on my surroundings--I am at once closer to the environment as everything is amplified, but also separated from it as my experience is mediated by the microphone's perspective. My own bodily sounds are more present--I must remain very still to hear what is far away. Where I wear the mic is important--if I have the binaurals on my headphones, the listening perspective is similar to my own ears, with my breathing sounds particularly present. If I place the mic near my belt, it is as if my navel has grown ears, and my footsteps are closer. It is interesting to imagine having ears in other places, and to try to hear from that perspective. What kind of mic also affects what kind of interaction I have with other people in the place. When I wear the binaurals on my headphones, I resemble some kind of demented cyborg insect: people tend to look away politely, no doubt thinking "poor thing, she must have lost her mind!" When I wear mics elsewhere on my clothing, they are less conspicuous, and people might think that I am listening to music. When I carry a stereo mic, people often approach me and ask what I am doing, sometimes asking if I am videotaping. It is odd for many people to see a lone recorder with a microphone.
In the Queen Elizabeth Park soundwalk, Westerkamp and I were connected by our ears, our headphones both listening to the same recorder. She held the microphone while I used a camera to record occasional images of the park. When we heard an interesting juxtaposition of sounds, we moved ourselves, and the microphone, to intensify sonic relationships. While saxophone and bongo drums are playing instruments, a microphone is primarily a listening instrument (although it can be used to produce sound using feedback). Whereas a jazz improvisor works with melodic and rhythmic lines and harmonic progressions, a soundwalk recordist improvises with perspective, motion, and proximity. In both cases, the partner in improvisation is partly known and partly surprising. In a jazz solo, I hear how intimately the soloist knows the other members of the band , how well she can anticipate their progressions, the energy that is born of new surprises. When I am recording, it is partly how well I know a place that determines the success of a recording. Do I anticipate the weather? Do I know this sound environment well enough to plan my walk at a time of day/week/month/year when particularly interesting sonic juxtapositions may occur? And then there are the surprises: an unusual sonic juxtaposition occurs, out of the blue. Am I listening carefully enough to respond to it? Can I let go of my pre-suppositions about this place and go with this new situation?
Then there is the point where I have several hours of tape, a few still images, and a plan to make a website or CD ROM. How do I put these together? My response is to return to listening, drawing from the sounds that I hear, dwelling on and with them, often listening to the soundwalk recording for months at a time. If I want to focus on a moment, I can draw the sound out and extend it with time-stretching, then work with the image in a similar way by zooming in on different parts of it. If I want to highlight the changing textures of a sound, I can filter different sonic frequencies, then work with the image in similar ways by focusing on different colours, different visual frequences.
By focusing on listening, I am going against the grain of most multimedia texts that I have encountered, which explain visual processes in great detail, then speak of "adding sound" at the end. I worked with a visual artist on this installation, P. S. Moore, who created drawings, painting, and sculptures in response to listening to the soundwalk, artworks that are engendered by a listening experience. Throughout our creation of a multimedia installation, we listen repeatedly to the sounds of a place, deriving both abstracted sound compositions and abstracted images from interacting with the sonic traces of that place in a particular time. This gives gallery visitors an immersive experience which is based on sound, and brought into the visual and tactile realms. Visitors choose their own route through the place of the soundwalk, all routes leading back to the ear.