Sounds of the city

We often talk about the city in terms of what we see – think of sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or blocks the view. A sound walk offers a different type of urban encounter, one that radically shifts the way we perceive the world, away from what we see and towards what we hear.

I reckon most of us (if we’re sighted) tend to think of the city in visual terms, whether we’re aware of it or not. We talk about sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; buildings or landmarks that look ugly or beautiful or dull; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or overshadows its neighbours or blocks the view of other sights we want to see. Certainly that’s true for me – it’s just that I’m so used to taking it for granted that I don’t even consider other types of urban encounter.

I recently went on a sound walk through part of south-east London, led by artist John Wynne, that radically shifted this perspective. About a dozen of us gathered in the drizzle outside Island Gardens, the misleadingly exotic name of a DLR station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. We’d been told the rules: no photographing, no sound-recording, no talking (unless absolutely necessary), try to stay more or less with the rest of the group. I’m not usually a fan of lots of rules, but it would soon become clear that these were necessary to the task of cracking open our comfort zones and showing us the city as a world of sound.

The initiation

John’s tactic to move our attention from sight to sound was a simple one: the group was split into pairs, with one in each pair wearing a blindfold and being guided by the other, who wore earplugs. After a time, we swapped roles. This was just the first part of the walk – after about 10 minutes we continued without blindfolds and earplugs – but for me it was very effective. To set off walking, relying on a partner I’d never met before to keep me away from collisions and trips, was a jolt. As I settled down and started trusting him, I became more aware of the sounds around me as well as the feel of the ground beneath my feet and the wind on my face. When I exchanged blindfold for earplugs, sound was transformed from something in the world outside myself into an interior pattern of muffled vibrations in my bones. By disorienting and defamiliarising, these artificial handicaps prepared us to listen.

The ritual initiation into the city-as-soundscape took place as we walked through the foot tunnel under the Thames – a site that was interesting acoustically, with its echoes and rumbles, as well as providing an almost-too-perfect symbolic crossing-over. Not that this was spelled out – I wouldn’t want to equate south London with the afterlife, and at the time some of us were just too glad to shed our blindfolds and unplug our ears to worry about the semiotics of river crossings – but it seems typical of the way the walk as a whole was thoughtfully structured to introduce us to sound as a sensory experience and an alternative approach to exploring the city.

Listening

After we emerged on the far bank of the river, we followed John through a hugely varied progression of sounds and soundscapes, full of elements that were random and spontaneous but felt carefully orchestrated. The crunch of feet on shingle, the museum-like peace of a tourist attraction on a rainy day, chatter amplified by the high ceilings of a grand hall, snatches of music mingling with heavy machinery, a jostling market, busy traffic, lorries on an industrial estate, construction work, the gush and rush of a small waterfall beneath a railway line… And an hour and a half later we reached a cafe for the after-walk conversation out of the rain.

A couple of people talked about how the sounds of the world came to seem hyper-real, like an exaggerated soundtrack to a film they were in – which was either disturbing or enjoyable, depending on your point of view. Part of the walk, in the market, had struck some people as being like a bad film filled with stereotypical market dialogue – showing that if you listen, you can hear people genuinely talking in clichés in real life.

Some found paradoxically that their other senses were heightened – touch, smell, even vision – once they started paying attention to hearing.

One felt that we were like ghosts because we were moving through the world in complete silence. This was most obvious at one point where we all stopped in a relatively busy courtyard to listen to the sound of music rehearsals in a nearby room – passersby were clearly freaked out by the sight of a dozen people standing still, unnaturally quiet, all listening intently.

We also discussed the difference between indoor and outdoor sounds – outside, you listen to particular sounds with little or no idea where they are coming from; inside a building, you listen to the space – the way the architecture shapes the sounds.

A different angle

One thing that interested me was a double-defamiliarising that I glimpsed from time to time on the walk: not just switching my attention to sound, but a letting go of the compulsion to make meaning from it – to identify sounds as eg cars, footsteps, birdsong, wind in trees – and instead enjoying sounds as pure pattern, pitch and rhythm – as music, if you like. And we talked a little about how once we start listening to sound as music, we stop judging sounds as unpleasant, mechanistic, irritating etc – it’s all potentially interesting.

All of these ideas are interesting to explore further as a way of approaching the city from a different angle (argh, those visual metaphors are hard to escape!). And this is the sort of walk anyone can do – though it helps to take a friend, of course, if you are going to experiment with blindfold/eyes shut at the start. Although having said that, I felt lucky to have the chance to benefit from John Wynne’s expertise and his calm authority as a guide. One tip he gave us (familiar to anyone who’s done mindfulness meditation) was not to worry if our concentration flagged, but to just acknowledge that and bring our awareness gently back to listening.

There’s nothing obviously earth-shattering or agitprop about this sort of artistic activity (plenty of people would argue it isn’t art at all) but it attempts to wake us from our everyday sleepwalking through life, heighten our awareness of the world and shake us out of our habitual views and for me that makes it worth doing and worth talking about. Any views?

sound 1

>> The sound walk was co-ordinated by Tommy Ting, an associate artist at Open School East, a bunch of artists in east London who do all sorts of interesting stuff, including a lot that’s open to the public and free/cheap.

>> John Wynne’s website is full of information on his sound installations and his work with endangered indigenous languages.

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