What happens when we start to pay attention to the vast array of overlooked sounds in our everyday environment?
This is the purpose of sound walks – a practice that involves walking with an intense focus on listening to our often vibrant and eventful surroundings, instead of simply experiencing them through our sense of sight. Soundwalks can be done anywhere, anytime, at home or out on the streets, in urban areas or out in natural habitats, individually or even in a group.
"When you listen carefully to the soundscape it becomes quite miraculous,” says Canadian composer, scholar and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer in the short documentary below.
“In a way, the world is a huge musical composition that is going on all the time, without a beginning and presumably, without an ending. We are the composers of this huge, miraculous composition that’s going on around us, and we can improve it or we can destroy it, we can add more noises or we can add more beautiful sounds, it’s all up to us.”
Schafer, who first coined the term “soundwalk” in the 1970s, spearheaded The World Soundscape Project (WSP) – a scientific study with the aim of examining and preserving the dying sounds of unique environments which were believed to be increasingly threatened by rapid industrialization and technological innovation at the time. Young composers and communications students who were part of the project embarked on a tour across Canada and Europe, cataloguing the vast and varied soundscape of major cities and villages.
Howard Broomfield at SFU, ca. 1972. Image Credit: The World Soundscape Project
Now, the practice of sound walking has become a global phenomenon. People are drawn to it for a variety of different reasons. For some, it’s a meditative practice that makes them more mindful and conscious of the ambient sounds in their environments. For others, tuning into the soundscape of their surroundings is a way to gain a better understanding of the world we live in.
For Vancouver-based freelance artist and frequent sound walker Helena Krobath, it’s a bit of both.
“I was driven to the practice out of curiosity and the imaginative state that it puts me in. I also strongly use sound walking to investigate places and understand them in different ways. But the meditative aspect of it is also very important to me,” she says.
Krobath, who has been sound walking for six years now and even organizes group sound walking sessions, says her frequent silent strolls have helped her uncover new worlds and histories in her own neighborhood and beyond. Her walks typically last from an hour to an hour and a half. From getting up close to the exhaust ventilation system in Vancouver’s underground transit areas, to tuning into the cacophony of Montreal’s street sounds such as the ringing of church bells, the clamor of outdoor festivals, and the hustle and bustle of people on the sidewalks, the practice of being deeply aware of her auditory surroundings has transformed the way she listens.
“I always had a musical sense of things when I listened, now it’s out of control. I can enjoy sounds that might be a bother or a nuisance for many on a musical level,” says Krobath.
“Soundwalks also really start to reprogramme your senses. This perceptual change can be very dramatic. It makes you aware of the number of shortcuts we take to experience the world efficiently and get from A to B. It’s exciting and feels psychedelic almost because you’re re-experiencing the world in a heightened way,” she adds.
Every year, a month-long festival brings together sound walkers from dozens of countries. Created by podcaster and interviewer Andrew Stuck, participants of Soundwalk September are encouraged to record their walks and upload the recording on to a vast public archive on the Walk Listen Create platform. The archive features a medley of guided audio travel tours, recordings of environmental sounds to detailed reportage and performative art pieces that centre on the theme of sound. Each year, an independent panel selects the best audio piece.
But what happens to an activity that relies on the outdoors under the constraints of a global pandemic?
“We explicitly invited creators to think out of the box, to realize and submit works that allow for walking not only outdoors but also (and even more than otherwise) mind travelling,” the organizers said on the website.
Even in their restricted movements during the pandemic, the platform notes that many creators went outside, and others shared their walks, or memories of their walks, through alternative formats.
A piece titled “The Texture of Air” was crowned the winner of Soundwalk September 2020. Described as “part audio storytelling, part visual performance, part oral history”, the piece charts the closure of two NHS hospitals in the UK after many years of service by collecting the sounds associated with them. One is an ear, nose and throat hospital and the other is a dental clinic. The artists begin by inviting staff and patients to walk and talk through the hospitals.
The month-long event initially began as “Sound Walk Sunday” in La Romieu, France in 2017 as a way to celebrate outdoor audio and sound walks. Two years later, it evolved into a month-long event with partners in Brazil, Australia, Greece, Spain, Germany and Poland. Listeners can find a directory of walking pieces to listen or follow on the website.
One of the platform’s most popular pieces is a pair of parallel audio dramas set on the 108 bus routes in London and Cape Town. Titled “One Oh Eight”, the twinned dramas take the listener through the personal stories of the passengers against the backdrop of the strikingly different neighbourhoods on the bus routes. The dramas are intended to be played on the phones of listeners as they sit on the bus heading along their city’s 108 route, transporting the London listener to Cape Town, and the Cape Town listener to London.
The Cape Town drama is set under the apartheid system and follows the conversation between three women – complete strangers – on the 108 bus as they reflect, ruminate, and share their complicated feelings about their impending abortions. The listener is transported to varied neighbourhoods on the route; from the neighbourhood of Hangberg, where poverty and unemployment are high, and all the way to the affluent Hout Bay and Sea Point area, where towering mansions, luxurious holiday homes and wine estates loom large. Meanwhile, 9000km north in another 108 bus, this time in London, the journey begins when a man from the Lewisham neighbourhood hops onto the bus and eventually comes into contact with his estranged daughter.
It’s clear that sound walks have evolved considerably since their conception in the 1970s. The practice, which was first defined as part of an international research project, has now splintered into various formats. For many sound walkers, it is still a quiet, meditative practice and a mode to connect with our environment by sensitizing our ears to new sounds. What is fascinating is its evolution into an artistic medium that brings art and technology into the mix, whether it’s through the creation of geo-located audio dramas like “One Oh Eight”, or the multi-sensory “The Texture of Air'' piece that combines audio storytelling with visual performance.
Cover Image: The World Soundscape Project
Writer | Seher Asaf
Seher is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist who writes about aviation, transport and travel.