Walking so Silently That The Bottoms Of Our Feet Become Ears
Essay by Jorma Kujala
On July 18, 2017, the Western Front joined the global chorus honoring the life and legacy of Pauline Oliveros by hosting a World Listening Day (WLD) soundwalk led by myself, Leona Noche and Hildegard Westerkamp. As members of the Vancouver Soundwalk Collective, we appreciated the opportunity to choreograph this exploratory, reflective embodied listening experience as a way of sharing with our sonic community a small slice of her lifelong work as composer, performer and humanitarian.
Soundwalking, understood in its elementary form as an excursion with the intention of listening to the environment, was an integral component of Oliveros’ work, as well as the research of Simon Fraser University’s global World Soundscape Project (WSP), which began in the early 1970’s with a team of researchers, (sound artists and acoustic ecologists) under the guidance of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. The critical work of both Oliveros and the WSP came at a time when the entire sensorium of the Western world seemed to be in upheaval. Their work in soundscape studies, a field of research Schafer likened to the “middle ground between science, society and the arts,” as well as more specifically their research into acoustic communication and acoustic ecology, investigated critical connections between perceiving human and the environments they inhabit. Emphasizing the broad-reaching scope of soundwalking, scholar and soundwalker Andra McCartney defines it as: “an exploration of, and an attempt to understand, the sociopolitical and sonic resonances of a particular location via the act of listening.” The Western Front’s exploratory, performative group activity offered the opportunity to listen with intention to our surrounding soundscape, a term Schafer coined to define “… the sonic environment. Technically, any portion of the sonic environment regarded as a field of study.”
As a group of approximately fifty listeners, both newcomers to sonic studies as well as more experienced soundwalkers, we investigated the relationship between the listener, sound, environment, and place, by embarking on a dedicated period of “acoustic quotidian listening.” We moved along a choreographed route that meandered along streets and alleys, weaving through public and private spaces of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, and carrying the spirit of Oliveros’ work throughout the walk with occasional spoken “interventions” of her thoughts. Our soundwalk fused engagement and the experience of arriving somewhere new and unfamiliar through the experience of walking (without speaking) and Deep Listening, an attention expanding act Oliveros describes as “a way of listening in every possible way to everything possible, to hear no matter what you are doing.”
As we discovered that evening, the three different processes of hearing, listening, and Deep Listening are complicated. Hearing, being involuntary by nature, is registered through the ear, whereas the voluntary, selective nature of listening occurs in the brain’s audio cortex. Oliveros herself further separates Deep Listening into two forms: focal attention, discovering a certain sonic event and staying with its temporal shifts and changes; and global attention, expanding our listening to include all that is around you, and take that inside of you. The dynamic balance of these two modes of process remained with us as we embarked on her prompt to “find new ground by listening for it.”
Acknowledging a vast history of people and land as part of the new ground we were to discover, we sought out unique experiences of environments past and present through exploratory walks that “unfold both through the present and through the loaded past of memories, histories and history.” Our walk reverberated with echoing voices of past and present lives, events, and stories: the distant waxing and waning of traffic; the hum of conversation in a brew pub tasting room; the breeze creeping through a community garden; and the fusion of environmental sounds with the gentle, meditative song coaxed from Westerkamp’s singing bowl. At the same time, it pushed against boundaries that typically isolate one’s listening by asking all participants to engage in Oliveros’ deep “inclusive” listening in order to distinguish the infinite chorus of sounds in our soundscape, and to realize that we too are an inherent part of that environment. It also voiced a critique of traditional sensory hierarchies, underscoring that sounds heard in a given place are as equally important and distinctive as things seen there.
Naturally, walking is a vital component of soundwalking. Our performative act of walking, thinking and listening continue a long path that extends from the “wanderers” of the Greek Sophists, Socrates and the Peripatetics, to many of Western culture’s great thinkers, such as Burke, Proust, Kant and Rousseau. It is aligned with other creative movement-based practices, including Buddhist garden mediations, Dada and Surrealist deambulations in the 1920s, or the Situationist International Lettrist ‘derives’ of the 1950s. Through walking, a rich and multilayered sense of the body’s movement and our environment is experienced directly through our body initially via our senses (tactual, visual, and auditory descriptions), and afterwards, intellectually, thereby arousing a number of varied affinities as well as estrangements of self and landscape. Our group (and individual) rhythm of walking allows one’s mind to become engaged with rhythmic consciousness: “The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.”
Our soundwalk disrupted and laid bare our everyday routines, habits and patterns, first through the atypical act of engaging in a fairly large group ‘derive.’ Equally importantly, we were asked to accept uncommon listening practices to connect us with our surroundings: the grounded and calm state of mind, sense of safety, peace and relaxation that are necessary elements for the perceptual “open ears” deep listening. The evening’s sonic exploration was anchored with one of Oliveros’ healing practices she calls Sonic Meditations. We tuned our minds and bodies while engaging with our surroundings like never before: by also becoming sensitive to the signals coming from our bodies by “moving as slowly as possible.” Oliveros further challenged our awareness to this slow, quotidian movement by reminding us that “no matter how slow you are walking, you can always go much slower.”
We lost an incredibly special, tenacious and transformative global artist and humanitarian on November 24, 2016. By exploring the physical and affective natures of listening, soundwalking and the work of Pauline Oliveros broadens listening into a corporeal listening experience. She had a far-reaching, global influence, and Western Front New Music and our soundwalk further honored her global influence by conversing with the sound arts community at Supernormal 2017. During this annual arts festival in Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, UK, audio clips of our soundwalk were included in a 24-hour radio broadcast by ‘Co-’, a collaborative group of artists whose projects include consideration of issues and ideas related to movement, space, place, and community. Indeed, our WLD soundwalk echoed her goal of expanding consciousness, positing listening as a fully embodied pursuit, a “posture of attending to sounds and to the world.” The title of this essay is derived from her Sonic Meditation called “Native,” and it encourages us all to follow her influential path. May we all direct our attention, our bodies, and our ears to a different way of listening, walking, and experiencing.
The theme for the 2017 World Listening Day was “Listening to the Ground:”
“Sometimes we walk on the ground, sometimes on sidewalks or asphalt, or other surfaces. Can we find ground to walk on and can we listen for the sound or sounds of ground? Are we losing ground? Can we find new ground by listening for it?”—Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)
In addition to this theme, WLD 2017 reflects and honors the life and legacy of Pauline Oliveros, who died at age 84.
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