3. Activating the Ear

Originally employed as part of a bundle of means for mapping acoustic situations in locations around the world, soundwalks are a good method to understand and internalize the concept of soundscapes by experience.

The practise got introduced by R. Murray Schafer when he initiated the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver/Canada during the late sixties. Next to field recordings and drawn sonic maps, soundwalks appeared in the context of a cartography via sound that the initiative propagated. They come in a variety of formats. 

Hildegard Westerkamp – A Vancouver Soundwalk (1973), map outlining a walking route with numbered listening stops

In 2009 in Berlin, a group of experimental musicians offered soundwalks that were taken blindly. Participants of Gehörte Stadt would cover their eyes and walk around the city, nonverbally guided by individual companions.

A soundwalk may also get conceived as a group experience along a fixed route that supposedly has acoustically interesting phenomena to offer. In 1973, composer Hildegard Westerkamp drew a map for A Vancouver Soundwalk that mentioned listening stops along the route from an urban area to the seaside, and back into the city.

Of course, soundwalks can also be experienced alone – as psychogeographical excursions, where one’s route is determined by what’s most pleasing to the ear, e.g. small streets that seem very quiet. In a variation of this approach for small groups, one person is taking the lead while the others try to figure out which sound interests the lead person. In a group of art students that I taught new perspectives on listening, during such a soundwalk everybody even felt a strong sense of connectedness – simply because each participant was aware at one point that everybody in the group was actually sharing the same sound space.

Soundwalks put the ear in an active mode

All these different ways of soundwalks put the ear in an active mode. This might be a helpful skill when trying to analyze a situation where one’s misophonia is being triggered: What is going on? What is the nature of the sound that’s causing pain? What else is happening? Is it possible to stay calm?

Soundwalks are exciting sensual experiences and a fun way to explore the potential of listening. They may take place in nature and cities alike. No one, who got introduced to the technique, ever got bored by them.

In her essay Soundwalking from 1974, Hildegard Westerkamp reflects observations she made during numerous of such walks. As a composer, she would later regularly make use of field recordings. In her 1989 piece Kits Beach Soundwalk, Westerkamp explains how she’s perceiving her environment while recording.

Hildegard Westerkamp – Kits Beach Soundwalk (Empreintes Digitales, 1989)

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