Soundwalks: Mapping our schools and community through sound
By Nick Jaworski
Note: This article serves as an introduction to what a “soundwalk” is and why it is a good project for the classroom. If you are interested in a very detailed “how-to” resource, please download this PDF.
“The world we perceive is always already a world we ‘make’ to some extent.”
Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking
When I was 18 years old, I visited the St. Louis Art Museum specifically to see an exhibition of installation pieces titled “Wonderland”. I wanted to see the exhibit because I was enamored with the idea of creating such large-scale pieces – each room feeling like an entirely different world.
One piece in particular has stuck with me. This one was different. Titled, “Taking Pictures,” this piece by Janet Cardiff had the listener put on a pair of headphones, go to a specific corner of the museum’s atrium, and wait for directions. I was initially very confused – I literally had no idea what I had signed up for. However, as soon as Janet’s voice started telling me a story and imploring to follow her into the woods, I instinctively knew that I had to do as I was told. As I went further and further into the woods, illusions to the darker aspects of Little Red Riding Hood floating in, I physically felt like I was embodying a different person. It was both strange and intoxicating; the experience has remained vivid in my memory for years.
A decade later, while teaching my high school music appreciation course, Janet Cadiff’s work would serve as the inspiration/model for a project that would literally make my students’ community one giant canvas. The project – known as a “soundwalk” – has become one of my students’ favorites and I know your students will find the process both challenging and rewarding.
What is a Soundwalk?
In short, a soundwalk is a fancy audio tour.
The (slightly) longer explanation:
The soundwalk takes an audio tour and adds characters, sounds, and plots – all while placing the listener in “real world” environments (i.e. not museums) – to create hyperreal, immersive experiences that allow the listener to explore an often familiar world in new ways.
After the artist creates a soundwalk, the “walker” puts on headphones and listens to an audio file. The audio provides instructions for where and when the listener should walk. What separates the soundwalk from an audio tour is the attention paid to the immersive experience – the walk is usually part of a larger narrative structure with strong character(s) leading the way.
This video – taken from the point of view of a soundwalk listener – is a compilation of works that my college students and I have created for locations at the University of Illinois. I hope that the clips illustrate the ways in which the Soundwalk can create a variety of environments and experiences. Remember, these are simple videos designed to recreate the soundwalk experience – the soundwalk itself requires the audio file, a device to play it on, and the listener to physically explore the space.
For very detailed instructions on how to assign and create your own soundwalks, click here and download!
The Soundwalk has a lot of potential positives. Here are three that I feel are very important:
- Exploration of school and community
- Unique creative process
- “Performance” opportunities for the general music classroom
Exploration of school and community
Listeners of a soundwalk often say that the walks make them notice parts of their surroundings that, over time and repeated exposures, had become invisible to them. Whether it is the painting on the wall, the stairwell you never bothered to take, the memorial marker next to the tree, or the most mundane dent in a locker, the soundwalk creates a space to both reflect on our surroundings and imagine other possibilities for them.
When I taught high school, I found that the narrative focus of the soundwalks were varied. One senior girl created a walk that took a virtual freshman (in this case, you) on a tour of the high school on the first day of school. It begins:
“Welcome to … High School. You’re going to spend the next four years here, so you better listen up. Right now, before you step off of that bus, check. Do you have everything? Are you matching? Is there toothpaste on your face or food on your shirt? Do you look like you dressed up or have too much stuff to carry?”
After that, she provides useful tips for any high school freshman from what clothes to wear in the gymnasium to which side of the stairs to walk on if you want to avoid getting pushed around.
While this soundwalk sounds (and is) very practical, it was created with a lot of consideration and care by the senior student, who genuinely wanted to share her knowledge with others. Of course, it would be impossible to undertake this soundwalk and not stop to think about the temperature of the gym, to imagine the stairs teeming with teenagers in a hurry, and to feel the anxiousness of a freshman on his or her first day. This soundwalk, through its exploration of a “mundane” environment (the school the students spend their lives in), gives the listener new eyes to experience their familiar surroundings.
Another high school example tells the story of two superheroes who have saved the school countless times and, along the way, won all of the trophies in the display cases. About 75% of the way through, as you pass through a doorway, you transform into new characters altogether!
As I’ve worked with more students in developing soundwalks, we’ve begun to understand how a focus on character and story really create the level of immersion required to make compelling art. Recent soundwalk topics from my college students include:
- A plea for help from a missing women who retraces her last known location;
- An interview between a doctor and a deranged patient lead the listener through the performing arts center, now a 19th century insane asylum;
- A surprisingly difficult trip to meet up with a blind date, complete with car crash and police sirens;
- A top-secret mission for a secret agent who has been compromised;
- The sad, yet reassuring, tale of a man who struggled to be accepted by the outside world by retreating to the tunnels beneath the University of Illinois.
Unique Creative Process
I’ve been having my students create soundwalks for two years now. Perhaps more than the projects themselves (which I DO love), I’ve enjoyed being a part of the unique creative process that my students engage in while creating their projects. In order to create an experience for the listener that is immersive and gratifying, the artist(s) have to go through an iterative process of exploration, creation, testing, and problem solving.
Having watched my students undertake these projects and having spoken with them about the process, it is clear that the soundwalk allows students to think in new ways – focusing on the finer details on the micro level, the bigger picture on the macro level, and, all the while, they get to explore their surroundings in new ways.
Performance Opportunities for the General Music Classroom
The choir, band, and orchestra get to go on trips and perform at sporting events. Members of these ensembles also get recognized for their individual accomplishments through district honor groups and solo & ensemble festivals. Meanwhile, students in secondary general music classes don’t always get the same opportunities to share their work with the larger school community. Soundwalks, however, provide a chance to reach out of the classroom. Here are a couple of ways to highlight your students’ work:
Art Show/Open House
When my high school students created their Soundwalks, we staffed a booth at the district-wide art show and let people check out mp3 players. It was a great way to connect our activities to the community. I remember how excited my students were to staff the table and share their creations.
Now, with my college students, we are in the process of creating a website that will provide a large map with samples, descriptions, and routes of the soundwalks that we’ve made for the campus. The hope is that visitors to the campus would be in a position to explore in new ways. The whole process, one that makes the students’ large campus a canvas that will outlast their visit, creates an energetic and proactive classroom environment, unlike anything else I’ve seen.
Nelson Goodman’s quote at the top of this article is a great reminder about our ability to create realities for ourselves. Sometimes this can be seen in the adventures of children as they enact some imaginary world. Other times, we can see adults populate their own lives with friends, adversaries, talents, and weaknesses (just to name a few). The soundwalk is simply a deliberate extension of those ideas. Hopefully, it can find its way into your own classroom. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with students as they explore their surroundings, discover new stories, and create amazing work. I have found that the soundwalk, while not the only way to encourage this type of creativity, is a great vehicle for it.
Reminder: I’ve assembled a rather in-depth document to help answer some procedural questions you might have. Download it here. Please don’t confuse the level of detail with an actual prescription for how to create your own soundwalks. You should create your own, figure out a good process for you and your students, and then move forward! I’d love to see how things turn out for you. Please feel free to contact me at Nick (at) leadingnotes.org if you have any questions or if you give it a try!