Soft Ears: A Conversation About Vancouver Vibrates

Meg Walker and Anna Russell attended sound-garden-scape: Gastown by Eric Powell, May 16, co-presented by VIVO Media Arts Centre. Meg Walker attended Surf and Turf Soundwalk, May 18, curated by Jean Routhier.

AR: Why did you check out the sound walk that you went on? 

MW: For me, I have an affection for new music generally and I remember becoming curious about the nuances of sound-related thought when I first read R. Murray Schaefer's writings a few years ago. He and others ran a project for several years called the World Soundscape Project, and I believe they invented the term "acoustic ecology."So when I saw that the Vancouver Vibrates events put on by New Music Vancouver were dedicated to celebrating "the spirit and work" of Schaefer, I wanted to see what they were up to.

AR: I'm curious that Vancouver New Music is the presenter of the sound walks we went on. I've been to a couple of their previous presentations, and at some of them I had to bring ear plugs because they're working with new music that crosses over the boundary into noise for me. Odd to think of going to a concert planning to plug your ears.... Conversely, it's interesting to think of ambient sound, which seems to be focus of many sound walks, as a form of music.

I understand generally that one of the points of a sound walk is to make us more aware of the kind of sound and/or noise we live with every day, some of which is excessive. If we kept ourselves aware of the noise instead of tuning it out, we might organize our lives and communities differently, in order to have less of it.

MW: Or we might have different kinds of sound, at least. Schaefer, Vancouver composer Hildegard Westerkamp and other acoustiphiles (if that's a word) encourage an ideal situation where learning which sounds we really love will motivate us to decrease, or remove, the sounds that prevent us hearing what we want to hear.

AR: So on the sound walk you went on, what did you hear? And how well was the experience designed?

MW: It was curated wonderfully. We started at a park on the northern False Creek seawall, near the Granville St. bridge. After walking along the seawall to the docks, we went on an Aquabus and travelled under the bridge itself. Sound became physical, as the motor chugged noises up through our feet and spines (there were about 16 or so people on this walk). Then - my favourite moment - the driver cut the boat's motor, and we could hear the lapping waves, kids on the beach, windiness, birds, motors from other boats, cars ahead - very clearly.

After a few minutes, the Aquabus took us to Granville Island where we walked down some streets. Then came the most amusing social interaction with listening: standing in the Granville Island Brewery, drinking small glasses of beer (a classy move on VNM's part!) and not talking at all. The act of active, focused, wordless listening to every other sound besides conversation was clearly unusual in that context. The walk ended with a loop under the South Granville pedestrian walkway. I felt alert and peaceful by the end of it. Listening attentively seemed to induce calm breathing automatically.

For me, the act of listening during this hour-long experience was attuned to vertical spaces - sounds changed when we went under bridges, inside buildings, outside building, under tunnels. So I was very aware of sound wrapping me in three-dimensions.

What about your walk, what was most striking or surprising about it for you?

AR: You mentioned that you noticed the three-dimensional quality of sound on your walk, and that was perhaps my strongest impression of Eric Powell's piece, which was a sound installation. At the walk, we used portable radios that we tuned to a series of different frequencies to hear binaural soundscape recordings taken in various locations in Gastown. There were some technical difficulties with the installation that reduced its power somewhat, but I still had a few interesting moments that I wasn't expecting from the experience of sound, separated from other stimuli.

I have a great sense of smell and there are so many times when I smell something and it instantly brings to mind a whole world, or a very specific moment or event in my life. I return to a shampoo I haven't used for years, for example, and as soon as I crack it open I remember vast details and emotions about the time of life when I used it last.

I had never thought that sound could be as powerfully evocative as scent. But the instant that I heard the binaural recording of Waterfront Station, the whole building loomed up around me in my imagination, in great detail, and I knew immediately where I was, before I had read the name on the program. The sound itself was three-dimensional, but so was the imaginative response it created in me. I'm not sure why I hadn't realized sound has this power, because movies must manipulate that quality of sound for audiences all the time.

I like the idea of being "just" an active listener in a social space, as you described about the GI Brewery. I realized as I heard the recording made at a bus station in Gastown, that just listening makes me feel like I'm loitering on a city street where normally we never get to loiter. And I love to loiter. But at the same time it made me feel a bit of an outsider, removed from the world.

When you were on your sound walk, did you feel that listening was an active way to participate in your environment, or did it feel separate or apart?

MW: I don't think I've ever had a sound experience that evokes a specific experience that's as precise as yours here! That sounds powerful, and fun.

I like your last question there. When I was listening without speaking - and without making other communicative sounds either - I felt mammalian in some non-human way, like a creature immersed in the environment but not able to communicate directly with it (by this I mean I don't imagine that a duck tries to communicate with a sidewalk or a bulrush, though of course I could be wrong about that).

AR: Maybe it's a relief to feel mammalian? I wonder if that's why you felt rested and alert afterwards.

MW: Listening felt intensely personal, too. Likely that's because sound goes directly into the body through the ear canal and so is interiorized even more so than vision is. In fact, I noticed that one of my responses to the concept of "ear cleaning," which was mentioned in connection to the Surf & Turf walk, was resistance.

Cities are so loud that I wear headphones when I commute to work on the bus, because the motors, people chatting, other sleepyheads like myself with headphones on, and random horns sounding, are a system of sounds that I can't control in any other way than to layer over it.

So I found it challenging to listen to the city as an instrument without judging certain sounds as stressful or pleasant. And in a more traditional performance setting, like listening to pianist Tzenka Dianova playing a John Cage prepared piano piece, or taking in laptop gurus who are messing with the top of the aural range and electronic-only sounds, I can accept a lot of noises as intriguing because I'm prepped (conditioned) to think: this is art!

AR: I do wonder how VNM thinks about the distinction between sound and art - maybe we should ask them the next time we want to discuss their work.

If those laptop gurus with their blasting electronic sounds are art but that beeping thing buses do when they "kneel" is a noise that we might choose to take out of our environment if we became truly aware of how it sounds, as someone who wants to respond to new music I don't always know how to meet it with the right frame of mind.

MW: Even if a lot of sound that's around us now is created by machines that we humans have made, instead of (if you go back really far) by mostly-natural items, I think the soundwalks are playful and smart, because they go back to that early human creative space of making (making music, art, love, sense of life) through the sensitivities of the senses.

AR: Your sound walk was about hearing ambient noise in situ; mine was about hearing ambient noise out of context. Two very different experiences of the same city; both very evocative. In terms of being an artistic experience I would seek out in the future, I think the quality of curation is obviously essential.

Throughout spring 2008, Vancouver New Music, in partnership with a number of other Vancouver arts organizations, presents Vancouver Vibrates - a series of events celebrating the spirit and work of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. Remaining performances: Schafer on the Lake Saturday May 31st, 2pm Beaver Lake (performers will encircle the lake), Stanley Park. Free. Selected works from Schafer's Patria Cycle, featuring soprano Wendy Humphries; free event.

By Meg Walker and Anna Russell