NYSAE: Walking Through Sound

Suzanne thorpe
October 15, 2008

On Wednesday, October 15, Ear to the Earth 2008 will be hosting Walking Through Sound, soundwalks that will take you on guided listening tours through the West Village. Launching at 6pm (but please come early) from Judson Church on Washington Square South, the soundwalks will be conducted by NYSAE (New York Society for Acoustic Ecology) members Andrea Williams, Edmund Mooney, Kevin Allen and Victoria Estok.

Soundwalks are listening expeditions that derive their sonic material from the environment. They are compositions for active listeners, informed by their guide’s suggestions, time frame, and choice of neighborhood. The artist, or guide, serves to awaken, or tune, participants' ears to their sonic surroundings. Whether their environment is an office, city street, or national park, participants begin to engage as active listeners, composing their own sound world.

With active listening, we find that the sonic landscape is rich with melody, counterpoint, and rhythm that we may not otherwise be aware of. As Andrea Williams, one of Wednesday’s listening guides, puts it: “Sounds that are heard most frequently, but perhaps unconsciously, like air conditioner drones, represent the keynote or anchor of a composition. Added to the keynote are sound-signals, sound figures that come and go in a 360-degree sonic foreground. Walks are punctuated by soundmarks, which act as landmarks that are unique sonic characteristics of a particular neighborhood. If soundmarks of a particular place are taken away, there would be a psychological impact on the daily life of the community.”

Listening with focus and attention can produce another result. It can lead one to engage with the environment. As Joel Chadabe says, "By listening to the sounds of the world, we're also listening to the state of the world."

Whatever the methods and whatever may be the varied outcomes, soundwalks can also be in themselves aesthetically pleasing and interesting. According to Williams, “each walk becomes a collaborative composition, with the roles of audience, composer, and performer becoming interchangeable throughout the walk. Often there is a sense of amazement about being able to hear the fine details in life, that are made quite pleasurable by walking around with a focus on listening.”

Photo by Andrea Williams