Writing by Hildegard Westerkamp

​Soundwalking as Ecological Practice

Soundwalking as Ecological Practice

By Hildegard Westerkamp

First published in The West Meets the East in Acoustic Ecology
Proceedings for the International Conference on Acoustic Ecology,
Hirosaki University,Hirosaki, Japan. November 2-4, 2006
Reprinted here with permission.


As acoustic ecologists we know—in the spirit of genuine ecological consciousness—that we are positioned inside the soundscape: like all human beings we are listeners and sound makers in this world and therefore active participants in the creation of our soundscapes. Soundwalking is a practice that wants to bring our existing position-inside-the-soundscape to full consciousness.

Inherent in the act of going on a soundwalk is the assumption that the environment is worth listening to during every second of the soundwalk. Or, to put it another way, that it is worthwhile to devote a certain time span to the act of listening, no matter what may meet the ear. In that act the walking listener potentially develops a conscious relationship to the environment.

Simply put, a soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is an exploration of our ear/environment relationship, unmediated by microphones, headphones and recording equipment. It is an exploration of what the ‘naked ear’ hears and how we relate and react to it. Such a soundwalk can be done as a regular practice, in a group or alone. Invariably in my experience, its effects on the participating listener are immediate, whether a walk is done for the first time or the listener is a veteran soundwalker: it opens ears to the sounding details of a place and listeners notice the unique soundscape characteristics of a location. Interestingly enough, aside from heightening aural perception, a soundwalk also alerts all other senses.

Soundwalking reveals the environment to the listener and opens inner space for noticing. It is precisely this that creates a sense of inspiration, excitement and new energy. Not only does a soundwalk raise general consciousness towards the acoustic environment, it also creates a living connection between listener and place. If done in foreign places, it establishes the connection between visiting listener and an unfamiliar culture and reveals the meanings of its sounds and soundscapes. At home soundwalking is always an effective way to gain deeper knowledge and information about the seemingly familiar, but often ignored sound environment. Generally one could understand the practice of soundwalking as an ongoing study of our aural perception in relation to the acoustic environment or vice versa, a study of the soundscape and our listening sense within the overall environmental, social, political and spiritual contexts of any given place.

Initially a soundwalk is an opportunity to let the world in without any compulsion to respond or—to put it differently—to be open without a need to define, intellectualise, categorise, or interpret, to listen without expectations, assumptions or judgement, to listen without the compulsion to change things or to act immediately. Such a soundwalk simply allows participants to hear the environment for what it is and to become aware of their own relationship to the soundscape. In this sense a soundwalk can be similar to a meditation: the world happens, the sounds occur and they pass. The meditating person is aware of all that happens, but does not engage in it, in fact, is detached to a certain extent. Eventually when soundwalking develops into a regular practice, it becomes a rich source of soundscape knowledge and inspiration and ideally an enabling condition for changes in the acoustic environment.

A soundwalk also provides a rare and striking opportunity to spend time in a social grouping without speaking. A whole hour experiencing the soundscape together in silence creates an inexplicable bond in the group, even though each participant will have a unique and private listening experience at the same time, different from everyone else’s. Discussions after the soundwalks invariably confirm that it is precisely this balance between the personal and shared group listening experience, which creates a sense of connectedness among the participants, even though they may never have met before. In addition, the fact that the group holds its own silence like a secret can give a sense of a playful conspiracy. A silent group moving through public space is unusual and conspicuous and as a result is noticed by passersby--- grown-ups and children alike. Curious questions or some sort of comment, often funny to the soundwalkers, occur regularly and become part of the acoustic experience of the walk. Usually I prepare participants for such an eventuality and request that they do not engage in a dialogue, but simply explain that ‘we are on a soundwalk’. The same applies if they meet a friend or acquaintance. The idea is for the group to maintain its general silence and understand it as a source of inspiration not only for themselves but also for those who notice it.

Listening affects what is sounding. The relationship is symbiotic. As you listen, the environment is enlivened. This is the listening effect. (Ione 2005:5)

In a soundwalk then, listeners and the environment create a unique “piece” together. It occurs only once, during the time of the walk itself. But an intensified relationship between listener and environment has been established, perhaps precisely because the essence of listening has been experienced with full consciousness and attention: sounds appear and disappear as time passes, no sound is ever repeated twice, our ears do not capture them like recordings do, all sound events are processed and altered by our imagination and memory.

An ongoing and regular practice of soundwalking can be understood as an ecological act. The soundwalk itself is the action, which carries the potential for developing a conscious relationship to the environment. I often suggest to participants to listen to both, the environment as well as to their own inner sounds, thoughts and voices—i.e. the running inner commentaries, reactions, the inner processing of perceived sounds, or thoughts wandering off into seemingly unrelated areas, and so on. They give us information about our relationship to the environment and the situation in which we happen to be. Thus a soundwalk does not only reveal relationships within the acoustic environment but perhaps more importantly, makes relationships conscious between listeners’ experiences and their acoustic - social environment.

Today we can see the beginnings of a new way of thinking about the world—as sets of relationships rather than separated objects—which we call ecology.... (Suzuki 1997:198)

Designing Soundwalks

So far I have only spoken about participants’ listening experiences, i.e. of listeners who are allowed the luxury of surrendering to the safety of a guided soundwalk, free of responsibility, free to ignore the rest of the group, free to focus exclusively on their personal perception. In such a scenario, participants can potentially have a much deeper listening experience than in daily life. But what about the person who scouts out a location, a route, designs a structure for the soundwalk and is responsible for leading the group? Ideally soundwalk leaders would aim to combine attention to their responsibilities with a strong listening presence towards environment, group and their own inner sound worlds. This takes experience and training and ultimately enables them to make decisions on the spot, such as varying the route, changing walking pace, stopping and moving at different times, and so on. It is the kind of listening that improvising musicians know intimately well. Although the soundwalk leader, like the improviser, knows the basic ‘piece’ or sonic route, in the end it invariably gets altered and ‘re-composed’. In a way then, the soundwalk leader ideally listens with a composing ear.

One can attempt to structure a soundwalk like a composition in order to know the larger gestures of the final ‘piece’. One can attempt to find a route that keeps the ears alert, i.e. that offers changes and contrasts, opportunities to rest overburdened ears, etc. But what occurs during the planning of a soundwalk route may not happen at all during the final group walk. There will always be unexpected changes such as weather or other occurrences of more or less significance onto which the listener/composer has very little or no influence. Crucial then for a well-lead soundwalk that encourages an atmosphere of deep listening and allows participants to feel safe, is the leaders’ ability to stay present in their own listening, no matter what surprises or changes may occur.

On a soundwalk in Melbourne I had planned to lead a group from a noisy street into a relatively quiet, but reverberant underground space to give the ears some relief. But the moment we descended into this space on the day of the official soundwalk, a very loud street cleaning machine entered! Initially I was shocked. But when we stopped and listened we found ourselves immersed in a reverberant broadband sound room, which shimmered with all manner of frequencies amplified and remixed into a stunningly woven timbral quilt. It was almost beautiful, had it not been so loud. Although the ears did not get the quiet for which I had planned, they had been stimulated and enlivened. When we left the space it was as if we had emerged from an intense concert and were re-entering a seemingly quieter urban environment.

In Vancouver we have had the fortunate opportunity to deepen our experience of designing and leading soundwalks because the Vancouver New Music Society under the direction of Giorgio Magnanensi, has scheduled regular soundwalks as part of its past four seasons. The events happen four times a year, on a Sunday, they are free, and have been attended well on a consistent basis by anywhere between 12 to 60 people, including sometimes people in wheel chairs. From the beginning I have invited interested people to join me in the planning and designing of future soundwalks. Now, four years later, a group has emerged that is working together in exploring ever new approaches to soundwalking, new routes and structures, walks with different themes or walks that may contain subtle performative aspects (i.e. “planted” soundmakers). Some soundwalks have included the use of public transportation, walking through the public spaces of a hospital, drinking tea and coffee silently in a café, or taking out books from a library.

An exciting and somewhat unexpected development of these regular soundwalk events in Vancouver is that they keep inspiring many new ideas for more soundwalks! And in effect the possibilities are endless. Imagine soundwalks that would enable concrete and positive ecological changes to happen in the acoustic environment—for example soundwalks specifically designed for teachers to teach children about environmental listening; for city councils and town planners to listen to neighbourhood soundscapes; for architects to consider the acoustic conditions for communication in all manner of buildings; for acoustical engineers to listen to and reduce the proliferation of air conditioning sounds and machinery noise; for school principals to improve the acoustic quality of class rooms; for law makers to implement improved sound transmission and absorption regulations in the building code; for hospital administrators, doctors and staff to improve hospital soundscapes; for media people to encourage responsible use of media sounds in public places; for developers and contractors to include sound consciousness into their project planning process; and for so many more….

An inherent characteristic of any soundwalk is the inspiration and insight that listeners gain from noticing the soundscape with its specific qualities and details. It is powerful because listeners are affected on a personal perceptual level first and can then connect this experience with their professional insight and knowledge.

Soundwalking is unlike other, more geometrical soundscape research practices (such as sound level measurement or acoustic mapping) in that it does not try to create an idealised or regularised acoustic map, graph or profile of a particular place. Rather, it focuses on varying subjective experiences of places, moving narratives. Soundwalking could then be called situational work, in the sense that physicist and feminist Ursula Franklin uses the term, as research that responds to the present situation and to the unplannable, rather than what can be prescribed. „The success of such work depends strongly on personal judgement, on knowledge of the total work process, and on the ability to discern what the essential variables are at any one time”. (Franklin 1990: 104) (McCartney 2005: 217-234).

Imagine if soundwalk participants would take their informed professional ears on a walk, in the same spirit of openness mentioned all along—ears that would listen consciously from a base of professional expertise, knowledge, and training, and would at the same time stay conscious of personal background and perspective, such as gender, age, cultural background, political leanings, environmental and spiritual consciousness when opening up towards the soundscape. It is in the meeting between such a listener and the sonic environment where the seeds for environmental change are planted.

Pauline Oliveros quoted in: Ione. (2005) Listening in Dreams. New York, Lincoln, Shanghai: iUniverse, Inc.
Suzuki, David, with Amanda McConnell. (1997) The Sacred Balance – Rediscovering Our Place In Nature. Vancouver and Toronto: Greystone Books, Douglas and McIntyre.
McCartney, Andra. "Performing soundwalks for Journees Sonores, canal de Lachine." Performing Nature: Explorations in Ecology and the Arts. Edited by Gabriella Giannachi and Nigel Stewart. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang. 2005: 217-234.