Susan's Super Citizen Showcase

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Eric leads east van soundwalk

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon when 21 of us followed Eric Powell out of Pandora Park, near Nanaimo and Hastings in East Vancouver. He was leading us on a soundwalk, so we were silent, except for the crunch of our 44 feet travelling across the early fall leaves. We followed Eric for an hour as he led us through the streets around Hastings and Nanaimo, down Wall Street, on the edges of the industrial waterfront.

"The significance of a soundwalk is we notice things that happen to us every day," says Hildegard Westerkamp, a composer, teacher, and speaker with the Vancouver New Music Society - the organization presenting Soundwalks: Fall 2008. "And perhaps we also notice how it affects us – what it does and how we feel with these kinds of sounds entering. And hopefully it will make us thoughtful about where we want to spend our time – in what kind of environment, in what kind of soundscape and perhaps it even inspires us to do things – whether it’s artistic or activism or cooking a really nice meal tonight."

The handbill for Eric's soundscape compostion - titled: "The Line From Both Sides" - reads: "This soundwalk navigates the transitions between the industrial and living spaces around Wall Street. Small pockets of homes sit overlooking ports, surrounded by railroads and high-traffic roadways. Where does the balance exist in these areas in-between, when industrial sound signals begin to mean home?"

A wonderful point in the event was the sound of Chad Taylor's trumpet echoing off this big old building. Eric arranged the interaction of Chad's trumpet with the environmental sounds.

I asked Eric via email: "Can you please tell me a bit more about your composing work and your residency in Saskatchewan?"

Eric replied, via email: "My work is centred around the interaction between space, place and sound - how we identify with environments (creating the attachment to call a place 'home,' for example) as experienced in the sonic realm. My compositions involve integrating soundscape elements (raw field recordings, for example ) and adding conventional musical elements (acoustic instruments, concert hall performances, etc.) listening for interaction between these two seemingly disparate sonic elements. Compositions include an eight-channel work for trombone and airplanes, and an upcoming work for trains and percussion. My residency in SK is an opportunity for me to continue the research and creative work I began during my MFA studies, looking into this relationship between space place and sound."

Eric studied electroacoustic communications at Simon Fraser University and got his masters degree - incidentally working with some of my favorite teachers when I was at SFU at the end of the 80s / beginning of the 90s.

"The Line From Both Sides" was my first soundwalk experience and it reminded me of the "walking meditation" I have tried at Buddhist mindfulness meditation retreats. But instead of anchoring my focus on the act of walking, I was focusing my attention on the sounds that surround and enter our bodies - the hiss of apartment ventilation, car engines, wheels on pavement, dogs barking, seagulls crying, neighbours talking, so many feet taking steps together, carrying the listening ears and minds...

Eric said, at the end of the walk, that he had heard more industrial sounds at other times along his route. But, since it was Sunday, there were less activities to be heard in the factories where people sew, bake bread, and kill chickens. At the end, after we finished the walk beside steady traffic and back into Pandora Park, we gathered at the bench where we had started. Hilde invited us to share our thoughts - and shared her own thoughts about the experience. Here's some of what she said:

"How long does it take us to get in touch with our hearing on a walk like this?" Hilde asked us as we stood together. "We all went through an incredible transformation. Even when we go to concerts we go through that. We come into the concert hall and the day is still in our ears and then gradually we incorporate the music. It’s the same sort of situation. How long does it actually take to say: ‘I am now in the soundscape and it is with me. I am actually hearing it all and I’m in touch with it. I’m connected somehow.' It’s interesting to observe when it takes long and when it doesn’t take long. Is it because of us or is it because of the environment? Does the environment offer it to us or do we have to battle it? All those things at the same time.”

"I also wanted to say, I don’t know if you found the walk a little too noisy in places. I was in a space today where I found everything too noisy. That can happen. If that happened to you, you might want to give yourself some quiet after this because you have now opened yourself up tremendously."

"An hour of that kind of listening is not natural, most of the time. Some people do it all the time, of course, but it is a very intense experience so if you have earplugs or if you have a quiet space or maybe walking home on a quiet street might be rebalancing that experience. I don’t know. Maybe I was the only one who felt that."

But the noise was part of the experience - one of the elements Eric was working with. One of my fellow soundwalkers summed it up well: "You don't realize how numb you become." But at a soundwalk, when we take the time to listen, we can focus through the white noise of the city. Vancouver New Music extends an open invitation to anyone who would like to lead a soundwalk. DIY soundwalk instructions are available at Vancouver New Music Society.

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