“Touch is the parent of our senses as all our senses rely on specialized skins.”
“A place is understood through its echo”
As I have returned home after visiting the conference on Acoustic Ecology, Invisible Places, I can understand how Juhani Pallasmaa, Finnish architect and keynote speaker on the conference, refers to all our senses, including hearing, to touch of some sort. In this spirit I perceive especially listening as a very intimate action.
If one could just see the sea of soundwaves that constantly surrounds us and splashes up against our body. It could be endlessly beautiful, but also disturbing, if we think about all the noise pollution. What colours would the soundwaves of a rattling leaf have, a barking dog, a lawnmower, a symphony orchestra or a lullaby? Washed up and drenched in sound – if we were really conscious of it all we would drown instantaneously.
Silence – a truly endangered resource.
I am wondering a lot about, how, as musicians, we can use our experience as listener to address those issues of noise that are omnipresent in our society today. How can we borrow our ears and sensibility to raise awareness of the importance of hearing and listening? I want to empower people to create a lifestyle with things and situations, which are not non-stop over-stimulating our senses. We are an eye-culture and judge everything by its cover. But we often can choose to close our eyes. We do not really have the possibilities to shut our ears in most situations – no earlids available. They are attentive all the time, because we used not to be able to survive without them, when predators would surprise us in our sleep. Nowadays we don’t need them to survive, the most important signals in every-day-life are visual. Just think of generic office surroundings and computer-related jobs. On the other hand we try to protect our ears from all the human-made noise with ear plugs when it all becomes unbearable and we need noise-abatement laws to protect nature and the places we live in.
But those actions only diminish something negative? How can we help building something positive? A sustainable soundscape? Silent spaces?
Soundwalks are a great tool to better connect with what we think we already know very well and to examine and change habits and prejudice.
“A soundwalk 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. We may be at home, we may be walking across a downtown street, through a park, along the beach; we may be sitting in a doctor’s office, in a hotel lobby, in a bank; we may be shopping in a supermarket, a department store, or a Chinese grocery store; we may be standing at the airport, the train station, the bus-stop. Wherever we go we will give our ears priority. They have been neglected by us for a long time and, as a result, we have done little to develop an acoustic environment of good quality.”
This is Hildegard Westerkamp’s introduction to her essay on Soundwalking from 1974. She was another keynote speaker recently at Invisible Places on the Azores. She inspires me to go out and gather people for listening experiences in their own neighbourhood. Maybe this could be part of our exhibition in Kirkkonummi in September – creating soundmaps with locals. Making echo tests in public spaces. Listening to birds, trains and drains. Experiencing the history of a place through our ears. Endless possibilities! And the best thing is that the success of soundwalks never depends on outer circumstances like weather, number of participants or other subjective expectations. If you really listen, everything becomes meaningful and you definitely cannot lose anything by doing it.
But sharing this listening experience with others gives it an additional dimension. Being silent together, joining around the same purpose where age and background don’t matter and where there are no wrong answers can create a safe space and a strong connection between the listeners. And with the right questions and guidance repeated soundwalks can strengthen relationships within communities and trigger advocacy for our social and natural environment.