A soundwalk can be a lot of things. It can require headphones as easily as it can require that you take them off and listen to your surroundings. It can be experienced on an actual walk, guiding you through a live excursion, or it can be listened to as a standalone piece in the comfort of your living room.
The most accessible form of soundwalks are tourist experiences — walking tours with headphones. It is a way to let visitors amble around a city listening to historical accounts of a particular area, taking them in and around paths perhaps less traveled, like this one of New York City’s Chinatown.
Composer and professor, Hildegard Westerkamp described soundwalking in 1974 as “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment.” You can read her essay Soundwalking here. For Westerkamp, soundwalking provokes deep listening, which exercises our ears and helps us develop a closer, more nuanced relationship with the soundscapes around us, bringing us closer with nature.
Yet, I have also heard audio pieces claiming to be soundwalks that were more like audio-orienteering, guiding me without my eyes, or audio-documentary, illuminating me with stories combined with music and field recordings, or even guided meditation, attempting to take me far far away from my living room.
Today, GPS and remote wireless internet help us navigate open spaces and walk trails accurately according to a digital map of the area, allowing soundwalks to be ever more accessible and innovative. Here are just a few that are pushing boundaries at the moment.
Josie Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum’s project Winters Past released a new audio work last month entitled “Alaska” at Liminal Projects in Williamsburg. Since “Alaska” is actually an online storytelling project, this version needed to be edited for live-listening in a gallery in Brooklyn.
The audio for this piece features invaluable, utterly tear-inducing interviews with local Alaskan residents about the changing climate, the migration of animals, local food gathering and cooking practice, and of course, personal stories. We hear the wind, the ice breaking, dogs barking, we are invited into people’s kitchens. Holtzman sees sound as “an incredibly immersive medium,” and indeed the work transports us there.
Their earlier work “The Pond” takes on on the same issue as “Alaska” — the changing face of winter — but is not site-specific. It is designed to be listened to while gazing out on any pond, anywhere. Holtzman and Kestenbaum use the soundwalk as an artistic platform for creating conversations around climate change through the interplay between recorded personal accounts and the listener’s experience in the moment.
“It’s so simple,” Holtzman explains, “but there is something about looking at open water on a pond while listening to stories of how it used to freeze solid for ice skating just 10 years ago — touching the water, looking at the gaping holes in the ice… It affects you in a different way.”
If you’re interested to learn more about how special their work is, check out this article on Grist.
Troy, NY-based sound artist Andrea Williams is one of the co-founders of the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology. Her research and collaborative approach have taken her all over North America to lead soundwalks through both urban and rural environments. And she’s created one of the most unique soundwalks I’ve ever come across — a project called Sleepwalks, which encourages audiences to fall asleep during an overnight performance and log their dreams in a journal the next morning.
She is currently working on three interactive soundwalks for Lake George, NY set to launch in mid-June for the Fund for Lake George as a collaborative art and science initiative. The audio tours begin in specific locations around the lake, each focusing on one of the core issues that The Fund researches: salt, invasive species, and water quality. The soundwalks also provide information on the Jefferson Project, an ecosystem modeling collaboration between The Fund for Lake George, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and IBM. She uses interviews which cover educational and historical perspectives, field recordings captured throughout the area edited to tell a sonic story, and allowances for reflection on the part of the listener.
Williams’ work, like that of Holtzman/Kestenbaum and of course, Westerkamp, is linked to practices of sustainability and development. Their shared perspective concerns the notion that listening is a much more active and embodied sense than seeing, so when we allow our environment to interact more deeply with our senses, we become more emotionally intertwined with and aware of our natural surroundings. This, in turn, makes us “better caretakers” as Williams puts it.
However, her work expands to consider questions of urban development and economic and community sustainability. Take a visit to her project, “Through The Golden Gate Soundwalk”, where you can listen to her piece and read about some of the issues facing North Oakland.
Through the Golden Gate Soundwalk
One of the great aspects of Williams’ audio work is that it almost seamlessly blends science, technology, and art, in a way that makes one question why they are considered such separate disciplines of thought in the first place.
An Acoustic Ecology Festival is taking place from April 16-18th, 2015 at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn, NY. Dan Joseph and Andrea Williams are co-curating an event on the theme of Acoustic Ecology — which they define as the relationship between living beings and their environment, mediated through sound. The festival features lectures and performances by Stephan Moore, Viv Corringham, Michelle Nagai, Dan Joseph, and Andrea Williams, and is the perfect introduction to soundwalking for the uninitiated. The soundwalks are currently all scheduled for Saturday, April 18th, led by Moira Williams, Johann Diedrick, and Andrea Williams. Find out more and buy tickets here!
THE DIY SOUNDWALK GENERATOR
Now, here is a free project that I have fallen in love with! In 2008, sound artist Stephanie Loveless created the DIY Soundwalk Generator with digital media artist Brady Marks. Go ahead, take a moment to try it out! Visit the above website and refresh the “your soundwalk” link a few times to generate different paths. Some awesome gems in there, and definitely let us know if you end up trying one!
The site contains no audio, and therefore exists to inspire people to leave devices behind and walk through their surroundings, interacting openly with their sonic environments. Loveless has written over 100 randomized instructions that only subtle dictate the listener’s behaviour as one strolls through any area.
Interested in discovering soundwalks in the San Francisco Bay and Austin areas? Check out the new mobile app, Detour. I haven’t yet been able to get to either location to participate, but I love the accessibility of having soundwalks available right in your pocket. They’re pushing out new content monthly, encouraging you to rediscover your city by combining history, personal anecdotes, music, and ambient recordings. You can sign up for their mailing list to be notified when the launch in new cities, and I’m intrigued to see what they come up with for New York!
And so I’ll leave you now with the parting statement at the end of each of DIY Soundwalks’ suggested itineraries: “You can now leave the internet and enjoy your ears.”
Photos curtesy of Josie Holtzman & Isaac Kestenbaum, Andrea Williams, and Stephanie Loveless.