A lot can happen when you listen
Nivedan Kaushal // Arts & Culture Editor
We congregated on the brick cul-de-sac on the south-east corner of MacLean Park in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood. There were 21 of us – 13 women and eight men – all with vastly different backgrounds. Some were academics with advanced degrees, others were new to the country and wanted to connect with their surroundings. I attended out of curiosity.
In the late 1960s, Murray Schafer, the founder of SFU’s World Soundscape Project (WSP), and his team of researchers recorded Vancouver’s sonic ambience to capture what he termed the “soundscape” – the sounds that holistically characterize a place. The team regularly went on “soundwalks”, silent excursions that are specifically to immerse oneself in an area’s soundscape. Guided by Helena Krobath, a digital archive consultant for the WSP, and Elizabeth Ellis, an artist exploring the poetics of listening, we embarked on an hour-long soundwalk around the neighbourhood.
“Soundwalking itself is an artistic performance. You are shaping an interaction through aesthetic, sensory, cognitive and poetic filters,” said Krobath. As we began soundwalking through the neighbourhood, acoustic subtleties that would have remained unnoticed slowly unearthed themselves and captured my attention. I was taken aback by how easily sounds can divorce themselves from their original meaning. Distant traffic became like the ocean, its rhythmic roar washing the streets in patterned intervals like the tide. The far-off skateboarders resembled a percussive orchestra, their boards clicking and scraping against the ramp’s coping.
Our destination was the Strathcona Community Garden, but we first had to cross Strathcona Park. “As we walk across this field, match a physical gesture to each sound and let your body move you through this space,” instructed Ellis. While we awkwardly expressed what we heard into motion, a man riding a recumbent bicycle stopped to stare at our gawky movements. A fellow soundwalker turned bright red. Once I let go of my fear of being judged, however, I manifested the caw of crows into sporadic arm-waving and goofy footsteps.
When we arrived at the garden, we were given 15 minutes to freely explore the vibrations of the area. It felt like an island anxious of being swallowed by the ocean of traffic that bordered it, yet it still danced harmoniously with the invading force. “Sound is the best medium. You can create these powerful shapes and impressions and feelings abstractly just by going out in the world and listening,” said Krobath.
Too often I plug in my headphones and shut out the racket. Too often I discredit the realm of infinite sonic possibility as noise. Noise, however, is only noise when heard. It becomes sound when listened to. “Listening connects us deeper to where we are, to time, to place, to each other,” said Ellis. That means silently and intently partaking in the soundscape around us.