Sound Walkin’ and the World Soundscape Project

In the late 1960s at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, composer R. Murray Schafer started a project that would lead into what we now know as acoustic ecology. This was the World Soundscape Project, an initiative that would bring awareness to the changing sonic landscape of Vancouver, and raise awareness about noise pollution. You can read all about the project and it’s legacy here. During the 1980s, composer Hildegard Westerkamp became part of this project. One of her major contributions to the project, and something that continues to be practiced by groups in Vancouver, such as the Vancouver Soundwalk Collective, is the idea of soundwalks. In her paper Soundwalking, she defines a soundwalk as “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment”. This sounds pretty simple; however, when we go about our day to day lives, how much do we really focus on sound over the visual?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go on my first every soundwalk as part of ISEA2015. It took place in Charleson Park here in Vancouver and lasted about one hour. I didn’t record it because I wanted my first experience to be truly organic. Walking in a large group of people who are all focusing sound over anything else is an incredible experience. You notice a lot more– where the sound of cars rises and falls, how people’s shoes sound, the sounds coming from houses. Everything suddenly becomes more complex and interesting– because really, there is an orchestra happening all the time, right? I’d like to do some more of these on my own and record them. I think they could be invaluable for rich sound designing and composition.

At the end of the walk, someone from the group that had lived in Vancouver talked about how Vancouver had been considering the work coming out of the World Soundscape project. The park we walked through had been designed to have a buffer from the traffic created from dredgings from False Creek. When he said that, it made sense– the cars couldn’t really be heard in the park, but when you walked up they were very loud. We had all noticed that. How different would that park feel if that sound buffer wasn’t there? And how much do we consider sound this way in designs now?

Lots to think about.

The night also included a series of audio/visual installations throughout the park that used electronics melded with the nature of the space entitled “Oscillations”. You can read up on some of these works here— there were a lot!