The Art of Noise: Learning and Listening at Burnaby North

By Kaelan Unrau

 

“Next, I’m going to play a soundscape,” says Burnaby North student Andreja, speaking to a small but eager audience of parents, musicians and fellow high schoolers. “For those who don’t know, a soundscape is like a landscape but with sound.” Hunched over his laptop, he presses a few keys and a barrage of noise—some of it identifiable, some of it not—bursts from the PA system. As the theatre fills with birdcalls and engine hums and the murmur of distant voices, Andreja cautiously makes his way offstage.

Sight and sound used to be equally important to human life. Nowadays, not so much. We get our information from blogs and infographics and street signs. We use vision—not hearing—to navigate our largely urban environments. We have entered the age of the eye. Still, the ear’s decline isn’t yet absolute. Against the onslaught of visual stimuli, initiatives like the Burnaby School District’s Digital Sound Production program—of which Andreja is a student—have been helping to revive the dying art of “deep listening.”

The Burnaby program began five years ago as a high school work-study opportunity. Originally, the idea was to let musically-minded teenagers oversee every aspect of an album’s construction, from composition to recording to mastering. This way, the students would learn the fundamentals of sound production, while also garnering some serious industry experience in the process. Yet despite its technical foundation, the program has come to blur the line between practical learning and artistic exploration.

Of singular significance has been a partnership with the Western Front. Since 2011, the Front has connected the students with a range of experimental artists and musicians, introducing them to various “outsider” art forms. Over the years, Sarah Davachi and Stan Yoshida have hosted workshops on how to build analog synthesizers; Milena Droumeva and Jennifer Schine have explained the art of field recording; and Gabsung Lim, Remy Siu and Jeremy Schmidt have given lessons on analog synthesis and the powerful sequencing software Ableton Live.

“I wanted these kids to understand that there’s more than just this traditional music forum,” explains teacher Kevin Ault, speaking of the relationship with the Front. “My whole goal was for them to change their idea of what music is. And in the end, they write very interesting compositions that they wouldn’t normally have written.”

The students themselves echo Ault’s statements. “I came in with a background in music theory,” says Sofia, a saxophonist who’s since branched out into sound art and production work. “But this program opened it up to all sorts of other genres.” She points out their soundscape explorations as being particularly instructive. “In the beginning of the year, we had this project where we would go and record sounds around us and create a piece with all these found sounds that tell a story. That was completely different from anything I’ve done.”

Soundscapes—also known as field recordings—involve equal measures of artistry and technology. (In this way, they’re not unlike the Burnaby program itself.) The mic and the mixing room make up the recordist’s instruments of choice. Moreover, to accurately capture a sonic environment, a certain degree of audio fidelity is required, so it wasn’t until the development of hi-fi recording techniques in the 50s that the soundscape really took off as an art form. And the equipment used by the Burnaby North students–digital recorders, studio-grade microphones–is of another level entirely.

In the beginning, field recordists—many of them scientists or ethnomusicologists—attempted to transport the listener to distant and exotic locales. The streets of Haiti. The plains of Africa. The deepest depths of the Pacific. But these days, soundscapes are just as apt to focus on the familiar as on the unusual. In the words of the Australian composer Lawrence English: “Today, we seek new perspectives and exposures that refocus sometimes even the most commonplace experiences into profound and provocative listening situations.”

Each spring, the students put on a series of concerts to showcase the work they did over the past year. Before one of these performances, I asked several of them if their work with field recordings had at all affected how they perceived their environments. The response I got was overwhelmingly utilitarian.

“Yes,” one student exclaims. “But it’s like, ‘Oh, I should sample that!’ If you hear something, you don’t always think, ‘Oh, that’s musical’ or ‘That’s cool.’ You’re more like, ‘That sound, I can use it.’” Another student takes up this point: “At first, you wonder what you could do with something so limited as a coo from a pigeon. But once you get into that and start experimenting, you take that one limitation and you break the barriers. You start exploring a whole new side of…” He pauses as he searches for the word. “It opens up a lot of doors,” someone else concludes.

There’s a well-known divide between theory and practice. Unfortunately, standardized education often falls short on both fronts. Take the high school math curriculum, for instance: a labyrinth of quadratic functions and trigonometric ratios, it goes far beyond any practical application. Yet at the same time, it also fails to delve into the truly theoretical foundations of mathematics, bypassing proof and number theory almost completely.

High school music education, for the most part, is in a comparable state. How many theory courses revolve around the playing and replaying of melodic minor scales? How many jazz-band guitarists have been told to simply “Freddie Green it”? According to Ault, traditional music programs—despite their virtues–suffer from a serious limitation in scope. “Typical music programs don’t always serve the non-traditional kids,” he explains. “But in my program, you’ll get everything from hip hop to sound exploration to electronic to rock.”

“Lots of us came from different musical backgrounds,” says Dmitriy, a twelfth grader who’s returned to take the program a second year. “I didn’t come from a musical background. I just kind of started making stuff. But I really fell in love with the idea of making music. And going into this program, some people came from a strictly theoretical knowledge of music, others from a technical knowledge.”

“In our assignments,” he continues, “we had to collaborate with people that are outside of our usual realm of music. Working with those people and making something with them, you get a lot of weird stuff out of it.”

As a technical program, Digital Sound Production is successful in its aims, with alumni going on to enjoy fruitful careers in music, production, radio and film. Upon graduation, one student was hired by the studio at which she interned throughout high school. Another went into electrical engineering but with a secondary focus on sound and acoustics. Several found employment in film and TV, producing shows and documentaries or working on-set. Many became professional artists and musicians.

Yet as Ault explains, the real strength of the program–its most impressive accomplishment–lies in the attitude it impresses upon the students. “There’s this kind of larger educational goal where the kids can create creative projects on their own, where they don’t have to be told how to create them,” he says. “Obviously, there’s the skill-building stuff. But honestly, I think that anybody can learn the skill-building stuff whenever. I think the point is that these kids get those professional skills early on. That and the idea of creating. It’s more of a mentality than any particular skills.”

“It’s like a whole new world,” says Dmitriy, taking a break from the pre-concert setup. “It’s like a whole new world and you’re going continue pursuing that and learning more about it while you’re going along your own road of interest.” He looks past me as he speaks. “Once you become comfortable with that, you can do it all day. You can sit somewhere and just get the equipment and keep on doing what you’re doing. Just making stuff.”

June, 2015

___

Kaelan Unrau

Before moving to Vancouver, Kaelan Unrau completed a double major in English and Philosophy at the University of Victoria, where he specialized in Modernist American poetry and the metaphysics of proper names. He likes to spend his time reading old books, listening to free jazz and complaining about contemporary society.