Alternative realities in everyday sounds
When you think about ‘sound’ what do you think about?
A sound that annoys you maybe - like that car alarm going off at 3am in the morning? We tend to ignore sounds, mostly– to only pay attention to them when they annoy or intrude. We attribute much of our knowledge of the world to our vision – but we get as much – if not more – information about the world from our other senses, like hearing, touch and smell. Unlike vision, sounds can be heard from everywhere – behind you, from the other side of the wall, in complete darkness. They are often there before the visual, warning you, delighting you, annoying you. They add a different layer to the world.
I’m a sound artist, so for me sounds are pretty important (you might have guessed by now!). Living in such a visually oriented culture, sometimes just switching our attention to the sounds around us can be both calming and grounding. Sound can be an excellent way of practicing mindfulness, as well as just forcing us to stop and notice the moment, and the world around us.
My love of sounds comes partly from how evocative they can be. One of my favourite things to do when I need inspiration or ideas, is to stop and listen. Try it now – just stop for a moment and listen. To everything, without trying to determine which are ‘good’ sounds and which are ‘bad’. Then try a thought experiment - if you didn’t know what you were hearing – what could it be? An ancient beast? The sound of time? What alternative realities can you hear? I always find this particular exercise inspiring and exciting – and you can do it anywhere, anytime – on the bus, in bed, in front of your computer….
A sound walk is a walk with a focus on listening to the environment. The term was coined by members of the ‘World Soundscape Project’ - a group of artists working together in the 1970’s in and around Vancouver. Sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp defined it as "... any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are." (Soundwalking, 1974)
It is a great starting point for discovering the pleasure of listening.
Make your own soundwalk
Find a place for your walk – this could be anywhere – inside or outside, a short or long walk, a quite spot in nature or a busy street (I’ve done one in my tiny garden so honestly anywhere is fine)
It might be helpful to take a minute or two to refocus your attention towards listening before you start
Walk as slow or as fast as you want, paying attention to all sounds you hear as you walk
You can stop, if there are places you find particularly interesting along the way or stop at the end and listen for a while
There is no need to record your sound walk if you don’t want to, but if you would like to record it, here are some simple ways to get started
Use a notebook and write down sounds, impressions, feelings
Use your smart phone’s voice recorder function and record your impressions
Use your smart phone to record the walk as you go – it won’t be perfect sound quality, but there is no need for that. If it’s windy, use a bit of fabric, like a scarf for example, to wrap around your phone’s microphone – now you have a homemade windbreaker, and won’t get lots of wind sound and nothing else on your recording
There are so many ways of approaching a sound walk, and the outcome and what I do with the material I collect usually depends on the reason why I decided to do the walk in the first place. Sometimes, a sound walk is just about discovering or rediscovering a place through its sounds – and there will be no collected materials to reflect on – other than my memories. A sound walk recording can be used in a number of ways as well – listen back and discover sounds that you missed during the walk, use it as an inspiration for work or a new composition.
I often use it as raw material as well as inspiration, editing and incorporating it into sound compositions or sound installations. The great thing about a sound walk though, is that it does not really need to have an outcome. It can just be about listening for the sake of listening, and discovering (or rediscovering) an alternative, sonic layer of the world.