Soundwalking and Measure for a Mayfly

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Soundwalking and a Measure for a Mayfly

I started making a piece, that became Measure for a Mayfly, while teaching a Sound Studies class at Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University) in the 1980’s. I took the class on soundwalks around the College, which was located in downtown Toronto, and then on a field trip to the Elora Gorge, a wonderful park a couple of hours outside the city with a dynamic river and waterfall.

We walked and listened, and then we separated while using simple calls that had been prepared before the walk. The calls were made on simple blown instruments, like ocarinas, recorder heads, recorders, slide whistles. Some used voice. The instruction was for each person to continue the soundwalk alone, discovering how the sound might change depending on how close or far one was from the river, how a tree might mask sound, how the sounds from the trees, birds, wind mix with the water sounds, breathing, footsteps and other sounds in the forest. The instruction was also for each person to stay connected with the group by using the simple calls: a person could call if they wanted to connect with the others to make sure we were all still in audible range; the others could respond to say, yes we are all still here. A call could also be made from impulse – discovering something particularly interesting, from the joy of it, or to simply announce one’s presence. But the main idea was to explore in silence. After a time, the group was instructed to use the calls to come back together to finish the sounding part, improvising a closing while together, then walking silently back out of the forest together.

I took 3 classes on 3 different trips to the Gorge, each time repeating this soundwalk and sounding walk. Each time, the crows found us, gathering in the high trees above, calling to each other and perhaps to us. The students found syncronicity in the calling between birds and each other, and revelled in the play of calls in this charged environment.

Later, Gordon Monahan and I took a trip there to work on this piece for a presentation at Grange Park in Toronto as part of a New Music Cooperative concert. During that trip, the instructions for the piece became more clear, and a role for dancers was added for the performance.

Recently, during soundwalks at Mount Douglas Park in Victoria, BC, I have been making this piece anew with my daughter, and with others accompanying us on some of the walks.

One of the reasons I like this piece is that it illustrates that attentive soundmaking changes listening; the listening of the soundwalk deepens after active participation in the soundscape in this way. Locating each other through sound in an attuned state, and while not visible to each other, enhances awareness of the sounds in the scape. Near and far become more clear, directional focus of sound becomes more prominent, and the balance between focused listening and peripheral listening is more rich.

When we walk back out after completing the sounding, it seems that we hear even more of the soundscape and we seem to hear more of the richness in relationships between the sounds … noticing bird calls in relation to the sounds of wind, water, snaps and crackles of branches and leaves, faraway traffic, over head planes. The sound gives us a knowing of the place.

Since my daughter was very young, we have used this simple call technique when we were in the forest as a way to be listening while also in communication without words. As an adult, she still prefers this way of being in the forest.

creek bed at Otukamamoan
creek bed at Otukamamoan

Sounding makes listening deeper.

June 30, 2009

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