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By Karen Herland
The hum of traffic dulls the whine of a refrigerator and the slap of a flapping tarp. Soon, those sounds are replaced by the rush of wind and slap of water against rock. The city is a very different place when you take the time to listen to it. Carefully.
Nearly two-dozen people experienced an aural walk along the Lachine Canal on April 27, led by practiced soundmapper Andra McCartney (Journal, Oct. 11, 2007). The group trailed behind her in total silence, listening to the different environments her path guided them through.
McCartney, a Communication Studies Professor, was invited by electroacoustic music student Max Stein to lead the walk. Although the two are in different Faculties, they share an appreciation for what can be heard.
“I want people to listen more to the environment around them,” says Stein.
Stein began developing a way to encourage active listening around the city after his first year here. Using Google maps as a starting point, he, with the help of his brother Julian, created Montreal Sound Map. “Planning was the hardest part,” says Stein.
By November 2008, he had completed the web site with a user-friendly interface. Anyone can upload recordings of ambient sound embedded at the location they were recorded. With the help of some initial publicity the project caught on. The site currently contains about 100 recordings uploaded by 40 people.
This marks the first group walk linked to the project. When participants gathered outside of Lionel-Groulx Metro, one of the first points of discussion was who could hear the mosquito tone in the metro station. The devices emit a high-frequency sound audible only to those under 25. The premise is that those younger (and more likely to loiter, grafitti or otherwise disturb other commuters) will be compelled to move through the space quickly.
McCartney pointed out that this is one example of an ecological analysis of sound – how it is used to control space. The mosquito system is particularly discriminatory, while other situations may be inviting. Many commercial enterprises use music to encourage their preferred clientele to come in and stay awhile. She said soundmaps could also be explored as a type of communication “as if a friend with a message is trying to tell you something.” A third framework considers, “how sounds relate musically. You can listen for harmonies, rhythms and pitch.”
With basic instructions to follow McCartney while listening silently, the group set out on a 40-minute path through urban streets, the (dusk-quiet) Atwater market, along the Lachine Canal and back through some residential streets. The walk was recorded. Afterwards, walkers shared their impressions.
McCartney and Stein had taken the same route 10 days earlier on a Friday afternoon. The differences between day and evening, and the impact of the considerably warmer weather all were audible. “When the market is closed, you become aware of the massive refrigeration system that keeps it going,” said McCartney. Sounds of the bustle of commerce were replaced by “the noise made by the mix of permanent and temporary materials.”
The considerably warmer weather brought more athletes outside, playing ball or whizzing by on bicycles. It also allowed indoor sounds to drift outside through opened windows.
Many walkers noted the impact the group had on the soundscape. Some people quieted themselves in reaction to the sight of a determined, silent crowd marching by.
Other walkers commented on the role of the built environment on the sounds they heard. “When you walk by a really massive structure, it blocks the sound you hear,” said McCartney.
More walks are planned for the coming year.