Podcast Episode 7: Sound Walks and Sonic Walks

WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast you will learn about soundwalks and sonic walks.


Welcome to WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation that aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast you will learn about soundwalks and sonic walks. WalkingLab is co-directed by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman. You can find print publications related to these podcasts at walkinglab.org. While not necessary, the podcasts are designed to be listened to while going for a walk.

I’m Rebecca Conroy, artist and researcher and I will be your host today. 

WalkingLab organizes international walking events, conducts research with diverse publics including youth in schools, and collaborates with artists and scholars to realize site-specific walking research-creation events. WalkingLab acknowledges the traditional and unceded territories on which our work takes place. WalkingLab is accountable to  Dylan Robinson’s insistence that land acknowledgements often operate from a politics of recognition and perpetuate settler colonial logics rather than disrupt them. As will be introduced through the podcast series WalkingLab asks walkers to consider where they are coming from in relation to Indigenous peoples and territories where they live and work, and to consider why a land acknowledgement is important to them.

Walking and sound have increasingly been combined in order to explore the sonic ecologies of place. The term soundwalk was first used by Murray Schafer in Vancouver, Canada in the 1970s to describe a method of identifying and describing the soundscapes of a particular environment. Schafer defined a soundscape as the acoustic features that make up a place. Different places have different soundscapes and one place might have different soundscapes at different times of the day, or in varying weather. Hidegard Westerkamp, another key figure in the history of soundwalking, defines the practice as an excursion that focuses on listening to the environment. Soundwalks are a practice of active listening and present an embodied, tactile, and auditory understanding of place. Soundwalks are designed to immerse a walker in the sounds of place and can be done individually or in groups. Sometimes the route is carefully planned and the organizer stops at particular locations and invites participants to tune into particular sounds and spaces. Soundwalks can be combined with other forms of documentation including recording devices, photography, and field notes. While there are particular features to soundwalks, sonic walks, and audio walks, some people use the terms interchangeably. The first part of the podcast will consider sound walks, listening walks, phonographic walks, and audio walks, drawing from WalkingLab projects that enact these methods. The closing section thinks with scholars and sonic walkers who unsettle the perceived neutrality of the sonic realm in research methods. 

Soundwalks emphasize tuning into non-visual sensory experiences. Researchers are interested in soundwalks for the ability to immerse walkers in a bodily sense of place. Barry Truax notes that the features of soundscape analysis include: keynotes, which are ever-present sounds; sound marks which are characteristic sounds of a place; and sound signals, which form the sonic foreground. 

One type of soundwalk includes the method of walking in silence, while paying close attention to ambient sounds. This is called a listening walk. In this instance, recording devices are not used. WalkingLab often concludes their Queer Walking Tours with listening walks, asking participants to walk in silence and absorb the immediate sounds of a place, but also to reflect on the concepts explored on the walk. After the break, we’ll discuss different types of soundwalks that record sounds and in some cases use artistic processes to mix and invent new sounds.

David Ben Shannon calls soundwalks that are recorded phonographic walks. Using portable recording equipment, phonographic walks inscribe the soundscape. Recorded sounds can be compiled after the walk in much the same way that interviews or other ethnographic field notes would be to shape a sonic understanding of a place. These recorded sounds can be used reflexively with participants after the walk, or they might be edited and mixed to create a sound installation or performance. As Shannon argues, these recordings can be manipulated to highlight or flatten experiences of oppression. 

For example, Ozegun Eylul Iscen examines how immigrants translate sounds in a new environment with the sensory repertoires they brought with them from other places. In Iscen’s research this is discussed as soundscape competence, whereby a newcomer’s experience of different sounds in a new urban context clash with previous sound habits and ways of knowing. Iscen’s fieldwork practices use walking and sound diaries, which are sounds recorded using a portable recording device that are then mixed into an acoustic sound composition and played using loudspeakers in an installation-type setup. Each loudspeaker broadcasts the sounds of one of the participants, but because each soundscape varies in length and pauses the installation creates complex dialogues.  

In addition to mobile listening and field recording practices, researchers and contemporary artists combine walking and sound to create what is commonly referred to as an audio or sonic walk. On an audio walk, participants are guided by listening to pre-recorded audio tracks that have been downloaded to their phones or other electronic devices. Audio walks create a type of immersive environment and invoke a heightened sensory experience: the focus is less on the soundscape of the walk, but on the sounds on the pre-recorded audio file. Camille Turner’s walking tour BlackGrange, discussed in podcast #3, was a live performance and is also a self-guided audio walk which can be accessed on walkinglab.org. This audio walk is linked with google maps and takes the listener to specific locations in the grange neighbourhood of Toronto, Canada. Audio walks are mobile and often site specific, incorporating recorded instructions, stories and other sounds to give the walker a multi-sensory experience. 

The Voice Exchange, a WalkingLab collaborator, used both the method of a soundscape and a sonic walk in a project. In their project, The Ghost Variations, they collected soundscapes from the University of Toronto’s main St. George campus. They recorded audio from different types of spaces, particularly focusing on silent or quiet spaces such as libraries, chapels, and outdoor courtyards. After recording the soundscapes, they created five different audio compositions, which included single layers of sound, multiple layers from the same space, or many layers from different places. The compositions could then be played while repeating the walks. Walking and retracing the routes while listening to the audio files disorients the audience and conjures ghostly narratives of past lives, as well as heightens walkers’ awareness to sound.

Another audio walk commissioned by WalkingLab is Walking to the Laundromat by Australian artist Bek Conroy (moi!). This sonic walk can also be accessed on the WalkingLab website. 

Walking to the Laundromat consists of a 106-minute audio track that participants listen to while doing their laundry at a public laundromat, interspersed with walks around a neighbourhood in between cycles. The audio track parodies the form of a ‘self-help’ audio book. Participants are greeted by a voice that instructs them about the particulars of their walks and washing. Intersected with this masterful and controlled voice are sounds that emerge as part of neo-liberal life, including a 1950s laundry detergent commercial, and new-age mindfulness music and well-being affirmations. Another layer intersperses discussions about capital, money laundering, and affective labour – particularly the gendered and domestic/service labour performed by those who clean, wash and perform care in underpaid, often violent domestic or service jobs. The mechanics of washing and folding are composed on the audio file, so the actions become routine, conditioned by the habits of domestic labour, the abject gendered body, and capitalism. Molding the clothes into soppy bundles, participants listen to audio compositions that connect laundry detergent to fish, to finance capitalism and menstrual blood. As participants drop their coins into the coin-operated machines, the performer’s voice links biopower to forms of financialization that obscure material bodies and labour. 

Walking to the Laundromat interrogates the ways that capitalism and neoliberalism render some lives disposable, and critiques the violence and whiteness of colonial sovereignty. The mindfulness soundtrack questions the ways in which mental illness and the internalization of labour impacts productivity. Women’s bodies and labour are foregrounded on the soundtrack and in the physical walk to and from the laundromat. Washing clothes, for instance, is frequently outsourced labour that is shifted to racialized and poor people. These gendered laboring bodies are perceived as excess matter, and as such function as surplus value. The narrative is layered with ambient sounds like water rushing, street noises, and the ding of a cash register. These multiple layers create a haptic vibration that is enmeshed with the sounds of the laundromat and the city where the walk takes place. 

As a closing proposition, this podcast thinks further with scholars who unsettle the perceived neutrality of audio capture and sonic research methods’ euro-western inheritances. 

David Ben Shannon highlights how the sound studies canon frequently seeks to flatten the sonic ontology, treating voice and music in the same way as ambient sounds; adopts a moralism that filters out human-made sounds as noise; or tries to minimise the anthropocentrism of listening by minimising the role of the listening/sounding subject. As an intervention into this field, Shannon and WalkingLab co-director Sarah Truman conducted a long-distance sounding composition walk. Rather than a conventional phonographic walk, in which the walker tries to capture pristine recordings of place, Shannon and Truman composed and produced songs. These songs sound like the landscape in that they worked with the affective intensities that shaped the experience: for instance, wind, sadness, hornets’ nests, and a sudden encounter with a racist Brexit campaigner. 

Alexandra Vazquez argues that while researchers and artists have been drawn to sonic and sound methods for their potential to disrupt the ocular-centrism of Euro-Western knowledge frames, the interdisciplinary field of sound studies, from which such research draws, needs to be critiqued for its historical alignment with whiteness and masculinity. This emphasis relies on what Jennifer Lynn Stoever calls the ‘listening ear’: Stoever contends that white people position their listening as capable of hearing sound neutrally, and so without prejudice, even while it sorts sound along racialising binaries: for instance, white/black, music/noise, sense/nonsense etc.

As a counter-proposition, ethnomusicologist Allie Martin (2019) positions soundwalking as a Black feminist method precisely because listening and sound are never neutral. Her phonographic walking project explores how the gentrification of Washington DC silences and displaces, having the effect of making the space ‘louder’, through nightclub expansions, yet ‘quieter’ through noise abatement policies based on the politicisation of what/who is marked as noise. All the while, her recordings audibly mark her attempts to keep herself safe as a Black woman walking alone. Martin argues that the non-neutrality of soundwalking amplifies her positionality as a Black woman, which is often perceived as ‘tainting’ the neutrality of many forms of knowledge production, while muting the pseudo-objectivity of more passive forms of recording.

Similar to how WalkingLab’s projects have asserted that walking itself is never neutral, sound and sonic walks add another layer to this argument reminding us that we need to account for the ways that the genealogy of sound studies and particular sonic registers resonate between bodies and spaces in different ways. The future of walking methodologies requires not only innovative techniques to experiment with and account for sonic and spatial understandings of place, but must also attune to the ethics and politics of sound.

Thank you for listening to WalkingLab’s podcast series on Walking Research-Creation. You can find print publications and references on their website: walkinglab.org. Subscribe to the RRS feed so you can be notified whenever a new podcast drops!

WalkingLab is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.