Soundwalks

Recently, someone told me about a book they had read that was a sound-tour (in words) through Paris in the time of La Boheme – gas lighting in the streets and so on. I wish could remember who told me about this book, as I can’t recall enough detail to track it down. But beyond that, the conversation got me thinking about soundworlds, and the way that soundworlds of children may be very different to those of adults.

I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind for a while. Regular readers may remember me blogging about the Pelican Primary School children and the sense I was getting that multiple sounds played simultaneously seemed to cause a knee-jerk reaction in them of chaos and distraction and excitement. I wondered if this was due to their chaotic living environments, or to do with the fact that many of their parents (and indeed, some of the children) had escaped violent, frightening and unpredictable war environments. I wondered what I might learn if I were to ask them to start tracking and monitoring their own soundworlds in different ways.

I am thinking about this idea for Timor too. The city in which I shall be based – Lospalos – is quite far from Dili and Baucau (the two largest cities in Timor-Leste), and life there is characterised a lot by the natural environment, and the industry of subsistence farming and agriculture. A ‘soundwalk’ in this environment would be an interesting thing for me to undertake and experience… how would my ‘map’ of this sound environment differ to that of the children’s?

What do I mean by ‘soundwalk’? I just googled the term and came up with this stub from Wikipedia:

A soundwalk is the empirical method proposed by R. Murray Schafer for identifying a soundscape for a specific location. In a soundwalk you[who?] are supposed to move through a limited geographic area, with your ears as open as possible, registering all the environmental sounds that you hear.

Perception happens according to Schafer in three categories: keynote sound, figure sound and soundmarks. Keynote is the basic environmental sound that is steady, predictable and always there. It is the base of the sound. Figure sounds are in the front of the perceptive focus. They are surprising, sudden or annoying. Soundmarks are these sounds that you identify a place with consciously. It can be the special sound of a clock tower, a tourist attraction or a special acoustic.

Soundwalks might be an interesting way for me to start engaging with the local environment at the same time as with the local community. It’s a few years since I’ve read Schafer. I need to return to him.

This site – London Sound Survey – is amazing. Lots of recordings you can listen to. I listened to the one called ‘child accordionist on the underground’, in which you can hear a pound coin being dropped in the child’s tin. The website is incredibly comprehensive, and it’s inspiring. Worth a visit.

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