Some thoughts about hosting my first soundwalk

First off, let me say that I think the soundwalk went quite well, despite a couple challenges. The main obstacle was arriving to find a good portion of campus actually closed down. Apparently, the Illinois budget problems are reflecting themselves here in Carbondale– I had never seen the Student Center locked up before, nor the library, so I had to make some last-minute changes to the soundwalk itinerary. I had anticipated some reduced student population, but it had not occurred to me that the buildings themselves would be closed.

We also had some hot, humid weather. Fortunately, the soundwalk participants took it like pros, even when it later turned into a full-fledged rain shower. I was particularly impressed by the local reporter who trooped along with us– many would have gotten their quotes in the first ten minutes, invented an “important meeting” and boogied on back to the AC– kudos, Tom Barker!

So here’s the nuts and bolts of things. I’d like to share some thoughts because I’ve seen so many different ideas lately, especially on the “Phonography” e-mail list.

I started planning the soundwalk by considering a few basics first: duration of the soundwalk, ease of physically accomplishing the walk itself, and accommodating certain sounds that I considered essential. The original route actually came to me quite easily, in a rather organic fashion. I started at a location that I believe is a “resting/meeting” spot on campus, one from which it is simple to move to a variety of different places. I took some time here, just listening, figuring out what sounds were of interest. Then I’d take a bit of time in a space nearer to those, sometimes moving in an unexpected direction, but mostly attempting to obey ordinary human movements. In other words, if foot traffic pointed in a certain direction, I’d generally head that was as well.

As I moved from place to place, I kept a small notepad open, allowing me to keep a list of sounds I heard in different areas. I made no real attempt to cause sounds to occur; everytime I see this sort of action in a soundwalk, it strikes me as somehow false. I don’t want to say it’s completely wrong, but it seemed a poor choice for my purposes. Later on, I’d amend this feeling a little. In addition to the list of sounds, I also kept a list of ideas, just little phrases or concepts that would pop in my head as I considered the sounds themselves. A bell reminded me to discuss issues of power and noise, a creaky escalator prompted me to think about the use of our sense of hearing as one of our earliest warning signals to danger.

Eventually, I typed these lists up, organizing them sequentially by their location on the “trail,” with separate headings for “sounds” and “ideas”. I was very glad I did this, as it helped me re-plan the soundwalk path upon discovering the various buildings were locked up on the morning of the soundwalk.

I won’t go into the specifics of what we heard or where we went, but I do want to share a couple of my practices with you. First, I took some time before arriving in each location to engage in a small thought exercise. I asked the participants to think about what sounds they expected to hear, and also to make a mental list of adjectives they would use to describe the sound of that area as well. When we moved to the areas, I’d again ask them to reflect on these thoughts, comparing their experience to expectation.

Additionally, I would occasionally ask the participants to take a “mental snapshot” of the sound of an area, for later comparison to another. I also mentioned that they could use these “snapshots” to compare the same places during future visits in other seasons, etc. I cheated a little bit, though, check the photos: that’s Mo running the Marantz, doing her best to capture the soundwalk!

My typed list came in handy during the walk. I never expected that I would refer to it constantly, but it did serve me well for gathering up some of the ideas I wanted to discuss so I could sort of “check them off” along the way. Because I often had to find a new example to replace a sound locked up in a building, the list helped keep me focused.

I think flexibility is a must on a soundwalk as well. The newspaper article mentions that the low campus activity level was “inconvenient,” but in actuality, it was just different. As I explained, there are different sounds to be expected at different times– so the super-quiet campus because a great way to highlight the transient quality of many sounds we consider more permanent. It also made the true soundmarks stand out all the more. At one point in time, I nominated a sidewalk lamp with a large metal dome covering as a miniature soundmark. My thought was that it stands quite constantly, and will always make a small sound to note the falling of a nut or raindrop on it’s metal top. Unlike the campus clocktower, which has functioned intermittently for the past 20 years, this lamp had remained. With little or no reason to replace it, this small soundmark might be one of the most enduring on campus!

Happily, the soundwalk participants seemed to really enjoy the process. A few new sounds and sound-related phenomenon were noted, so there was an element of shared discovery to the event. As a rain shower started to blow in, we found ourselves passing through the campus woods, on the walking path through this sizeable forest. We had taken some time to listen to the sound of the wind, birds, and insects, but we had yet to hear the rain itself. Underneath the leaves and a darkening sky, we took a vote on whether to stay for the rainfall or head for the parking lot– I didn’t want to be responsible for any camera damage, or wet clothes! We ended up staying, listening to the gentle patter of raindrops on the leaves, and the occasional bird call. All in all, a pretty nice way to finish off a soundwalk!

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