Soundwalking. Or, learning all over to listen

Intentionally listening as we move through the landscapes of a day is a simple form of soundwalking, a way of “letting sound expand our awareness, both in the practical sense of revealing actions and beings that are not visible from where we are, and in the more ineffable way that attention to sound can seem to make us more present in a place” (Cummings, 2001, p. 7).

 
 © 2017 Sarah Kaufman

© 2017 Sarah Kaufman

 

Acoustic ecology, an interdisciplinary field which includes “work being done by academics, city planners, sociologies, activists, and sound artists” (Cummings, 2001, p.1) is expanding both the purpose and form of soundwalking. Some soundwalks explore the somatic experience of movement and place, asking participants to walk through sound panels that activate a visual stream of colors and patterns in response to body movements. Other soundwalks take familiar sounds and place them in an unfamiliar environment. Studies of soundwalking acoustics are used by urban planners to understand how people experience and use a landscape and by ecologist to identify sound-based threats to native animals (Paquette & McCarthey, 2012).

All soundwalks calls attention to the way that sound influences our sense of place and challenges us to consider what it is to be embodied in a place. In some cultures, the relationships native people have to the local soundscape is central to their survival. Sound functions as a map for the landscape, one they depend on to tell time, collect food and assess danger (Cummings, 2001, p. 2). In human dominated environments “the meaning sound holds for the listener… tends to be polarized into extremes—loud and quite; noticed or unnoticed; good or bad” (Wrightson, 2000 p. 3). And if we like the sounds we hear each day or not, we are so accustomed to their presence that when we are out in less congested soundscapes or alone with our own thoughts there is often a sense that we are somehow out of touch; we become bored or unsure of where to focus attention.

The irony here is that “while being in touch with the noise of opinion and technology, the quiet reality of how I feel now is devalued or ignored” (Wrightson, 2000, p.3). Listening can be painful. When we go to therapy, we find a quieter space to talk and be heard. While it is true that clients often do much of the talking and therapists much of the listening, something much more nuanced is talking shape. All conversations involve pauses, breaks, varied intonations and subtitles of emphasis—a play of sound and silence. Just as sound affects our sense of embodiment in the larger world, questions arise as to how the soundscape of the therapeutic space informs a sense of presence for both therapist and client. Is it the intention to enter the therapeutic space that imbibes it with a particular resonance, one that evokes corresponding utterances?

The negative bias of the primitive parts of our brains condition us to listen for—for danger, for resources, etc. Therapists, too, are trained to listen for—distress, diagnostic symptoms, a problem, a solution. To imagine the therapeutic dialogue as a kind of soundwalk calls forth another kind of presence. When we attend to the acoustic ambiance of therapy and are aware of the influence our movement and vocalizations have on the therapeutic space, the distinct roles of talking and listening, sound and silence are challenged.

 
 © 2017 Sarah Kaufman

© 2017 Sarah Kaufman