Some of my earliest memories of social life are of old people chanting hymns or folk songs in the distance in Jamaica, or car stereos and boom boxes bumping in my teenage years in Los Angeles. I remember women haggling in the marketplace, shifting tones to signal proximity to agreement, and children rehearsing foreign television accents on busses. In these communities it was taken for granted that making sound, or noise, was both a product of our social conditions—the countries or neighborhoods we were relegated to—and of our politics (the fight against silence or silencing seemed but was not genetic).
Wherever I was in the world it was also taken for granted that Black people heard or listened differently. A preference for bass was an early assumption, and as I walked through streets in urban communities it was hard to argue with the fact that areas demarcated by Black sound often featured the lowest of frequencies. I took to occasionally closing my eyes, noting the sounds but also the spaces between them, and the time lag of echo that conveyed the shape and texture of whatever space we were in. What could you tell about people or places exclusively by listening? Years later when I began studying the relationships between race and sound, I realized I was already involved in one of the most significant practices developed thus far: the soundwalk.
Formulated in the 1970s, a soundwalk is exactly what it suggests—a walk where you privilege listening as you migrate through or position yourself in a particular environment. It was one of the contributions of renowned Canadian composer, writer, and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, who passed away in August 2021 but lived to see the soundwalk expanded by artists, environmentalists, and acousticians of all sorts. It has also become a quasi-spiritual ritual taken up by travelers eager to encounter a space, a city, a country existing within or in a parallel dimension to the one they merely see.
Soundwalks happen in many cities and countries now, led by artists or dedicated listeners and those who emphasize the insights of focused listening by using microphones, headphones, and recorders. These technologies—including smartphones, which have spread the practice—emphasize the inaudible elements of an environment. Though all that gear isn’t necessary, soundwalking was connected to my interest in field recording, which is simply recording outside of a controlled studio environment and experiencing different worlds via a technologically enhanced kind of listening. Those different worlds were and are already around us, because one of the first things you learn when you begin field recording is how much you do not hear. Our ears tend to focus on what we see and when you listen to what the blind ear of the microphone “hears,” you discover how much you have missed. It’s quite overwhelming. You learn that so much listening is actually the process of filtering things out. So much hearing is actually silencing.
I’m sure you are familiar with how our eyes are conditioned by prejudices and habits. Once you realize how that conditioning has worked on your ears, you are likely to be humbled by the depth of your biases.
Speaking of biases, another thing that drew me to soundwalking was something that also preoccupied Schafer: how culture impacts or shapes listening. Again, we’re familiar with how our eyes are conditioned by prejudices and habits, which is to say culture and history, and it’s not a strange thing to say that different peoples and cultures “see” things differently. Like Schafer, I was curious about how different peoples and cultures “heard” things—not just languages and music or events. I was curious if they heard space differently, if the makeup of their buildings, roads, and natural environments led to auditory preferences and inclinations and if those led to differences in how they experienced space and, ultimately, time. What, for example, did noise and silence mean from culture to culture? Were they even the same thing? I’ve been in cities and towns in Africa where a brutal, deafening din seemed to have no impact on the residents at all and in seaside locales in the Caribbean where the lull of water made people endlessly irritated.
It’s this personal history of listening to culture that inspires me to think soundwalking should be a less obscure practice. It could be removed from the rarefied precincts of sound art, anthropology, and field recording and appended to all forms of cross-cultural encounters. After all, in this era of heightened awareness of prejudice, xenophobia, and cultural differences, it’s crucial to acknowledge how much our senses are culpable. And if we are committed to learning to see differently, then we must learn also to listen differently if the goal is to ultimately feel and therefore act differently.
Louis Chude-Sokei is a professor of English at Boston University, as well as the George and Joyce Ween Chair and Director of African American studies. He’s also the author of the memoir Floating in a Most Peculiar Way (February 2021, Houghton Mifflin).
How to take a soundwalk
There are several apps to try, such as Gesso—which offers more traditional guided tours of cities like San Francisco and Florence—and SoundWalk, which offers artist-created soundwalks like the ones author Louis Chude-Sokei mentioned above. You’ll also find one-off SoundWalk events in cities around the world—just search for “soundwalk” and the city you’re interested in.
Or you can take a self-guided soundwalk—no recording equipment necessary—by strolling a new city, occassionally stopping to sit or stand, close your eyes, and allow the sounds of that place wash over you. What sounds catch your ears initially? What do you hear as you continue to listen?
Which sounds intrigue you, excite you, overwhelm you? What sorts of associations do you link to these sounds? Try not to get critical: Focus on your breathing and allow thoughts to surface and drift away as you listen. Do this several times as you move around the new place.