Sound playtime introduction
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
This session is a playful exploration of sound. So what is sound, and is it different to music? To me they’re the same thing, but you could argue that music is typically made with musical sounds - with specific tonal and harmonic qualities - whereas sound contains all frequencies, dynamics and textures. Some people believe that only music can provoke compelling emotional responses whereas sound is… just there. Making and hearing sound can be as extraordinary, as emotive and impactful as any sort of music, and to explain how I would like to talk briefly about listening practice, free improvisation and soundwalking.
Let’s first think about listening to what is around us. Not as a passive exercise but as a focused activity, to move all of our attention to our ears.
I am hugely grateful to be involved with the HomeSounds project. Its founder Martin Scaiff describes the purpose and importance of the project through the practice of listening; ‘The sounds of our environment are a profound, subtle and deeply influential context in our lives. Some of the areas of this influence include our sense of time and place, our memories, emotions and physical bodies, the physical world, our personal, social and spiritual relationships, and our relationship with nature’.
Through active environmental listening we can deepen our understanding of the extent to which the acoustic habitat shapes our lives. We can learn to respect all sound, no matter where it comes from, and to become more aware, in the deepest possible sense, of ourselves, our communities and our world. Developing experience and skill in active listening can help foster a positive, respectful and mature relationship with our planet.
In the late 1960s a radical research project was established, focused on the relationship between sound, people and place. Led by composer Murray Schafer, The World Soundscape Project’s purpose was to find solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape where the marriage between the human community and its sonic environment is in harmony. Schafer coined the term Acoustic Ecology to describe the relationship between humans and the environment, mediated by sound.
Alongside Schafer and a small number of other artists and academics, a key member of the project was composer, radio artist and sound ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp. Together with an important body of composition and written work, Westerkamp is credited with defining the term ‘soundwalk’. A soundwalk, in Westerkamp’s words, is ‘’any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are. It is also about the aesthetic pleasures of listening.
Listening to sounds we might otherwise have missed;
listening to the rhythm of sounds;
listening for the unique 'voice' of a place’’.
Soundwalks can be practiced by anyone in any sort of environment, they can be recorded and played back, or experienced in real time. Sometimes soundwalks are accompanied by some form of narration, or sound based accompaniment, designed to enhance the experience or to give a more detailed context for the walk.
I would suggest that an integral element of soundwalking is Deep Listening. Defined by the late artist and composer Pauline Oliveros in the late 1980s, Deep Listening is the term used to describe the practice of radical attentiveness. At that time Deep Listening was more commonly used in the context of music-making and free improvisation. Oliveros was part of a free improvising group with the musicians Stuart Dempster and Peter Ward. In 1988 the group descended 14 feet into a deep underground cistern in Washington to make a recording, the huge extended reverberation and resonance of the space felt like an extra member of the group, requiring the players to respond to it as they were with each other. Oliveros coined the term Deep Listening to mean "an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. This aesthetic is designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations”.
As well as the artistic outputs and outcomes of Deep Listening there have been numerous studies in recent years to evidence that practicing Deep Listening can help us build better relationships with others and our environment, can improve our concentration and memory, and can improve our wellbeing.
The way I understand sound is that it is a way of connecting with the world around me, consistently making and absorbing sound, both deliberately and organically, with myself, with other people and with the world. I remember very clearly the look of intense concentration on my baby daughter’s face, listening to starlings for the first time at our local park. When I think about the babies and children we have worked with I can only think that they’re experiencing the world in a similar way, through a constant exchange of sensory information with their environment.