‘An atmospheric portal opened up and dropped me somewhere I don’t think I can describe’. Blind critic Olivia Muscat goes on a walk with Rachel Meyers’ Southern Ecophony: Wind and Water
I don’t think I experienced this sound walk in the way the artist intended it to be experienced. Actually, that isn’t quite true. I definitely didn’t experience this sound walk in the way the artist intended it to be experienced.
When I first heard about Rachel Meyers’ Southern Ecophony: Wind and Water, billed as a “self-led walking tour”, I was excited. I always am about performance that doesn’t rely on a visual experience or perception, but is entirely reliant on my beloved sound and hearing.
I’m big on audio. It is how I experience the world around me. Yes, there are touch and smell and taste as well, but audio cues are the biggest ones for me. Often I don’t even notice how much I rely on sound until I’m listening to music or an audio book and doing stuff around the house. I can get completely disoriented in my own kitchen, bouncing off walls and running into chairs. Listening to the world around me is so second nature that I often don’t even notice I’m doing it.
On the other hand, I am deeply aware of the sounds around me, mostly when I am standing or sitting still. Every sound I hear evokes a thought or feeling or memory. I don’t people watch; I sit and listen to the difference in footsteps created by different shoes. I listen for the patterns in bird song, the rustle of fabric, the pitch of traffic lights, the clattering of mugs and glasses. I love sounds. They create pictures in my head. They let me observe the world and inspire me to tell stories.
They also keep me safe. People often ask me how I know when it is safe to cross a road. The answer is simple: when I can’t hear any cars approaching. It’s not foolproof, but then again, neither is watching for traffic. On a windy day, if there are trees nearby, the rustling of leaves can trick my ears into thinking they can hear traffic, so it can take me a while to trust that it’s safe to cross. I’m on alert for sounds of people around me when I’m walking at night. Every unusual noise gets assessed for possible signs of danger.
So, although the idea of a sound walk seemed perfect at first, when I actually considered what it entailed and what its purpose really was, my view changed.
The idea was to listen to the soundscape created by the composer while walking, mixing the recorded sounds with those heard on the walk. At first I thought I would be getting the same experience as a person with sight, but that isn’t the case. This experience was designed for a person with sight. The idea is to take in the sounds of the world more actively, to become immersed in audio, to mess with visual signals by adding extra atmospheric sounds and playing with the mind’s perception. It’s a piece designed to encourage its audience to listen more deeply. It wasn’t designed for somebody who experiences the world the way I do.
This is not to say that I was beyond it or there was nothing in it for me. I simply got something different out of the experience.
I had to consider the logistical aspects. I can’t walk around my own house with headphones in and keep a straight line, even with my guide dog by my side. In familiar areas I very rarely have headphones in, and if I do, it’s only ever one ear. I need the sounds of the world around me. I can’t do without that information.
I also didn’t want to walk with a sighted guide. Something about the composer’s notes and the description of the work screamed that this was something to be experienced solo. And although I’m sure it would have been fine if I had someone silently guiding me, I’m glad I didn’t do that.
In the end, I made the decision to be outside in a fairly open space surrounded by trees and plants, a place where I could walk around freely. Sadly, there was no body of water I could walk towards and I didn’t walk a path so much as meander around the space with long stretches of standing still. I hadn’t intended to remain stationary as much as I did. Even in a space where I felt safe, I found that when I was walking, I was too focused on my body – its movements and where I was going – to give the soundscape the attention it deserved.
I stood still so much because I was captivated by what was coming through my headphones. It was the sort of thing I find completely beautiful and absorbing. After a little while I got into the rhythm of wandering around a bit until I was compelled to stop and stand still for a little while, and then wandering off to find a new position to listen from when the mood struck me.
According to the artist’s prelude: “The ideal listening balance between your surrounds and the audio track is one at which you are unsure whether the sound is imagined, real, or recorded.” I wasn’t sure what this meant at first, but I set my volume to about 30 per cent and as I was listening, I understood.
It’s difficult to put into words, but the audio track, the outside world and my imagination mixed together and created an experience that is now impossible to replicate. I could listen to the audio track again, but it would be vastly different. I wouldn’t stand in the same places, the wind wouldn’t be blowing as fiercely as it was this afternoon, the leaves wouldn’t skitter along the ground at the same moments. Even the distant car engines melded into the whole and added something beautiful. I am almost tempted to try it all again. On a sunnier day, maybe in the morning. Maybe in the rain at night.
I was enthralled by the drips and echoes and bangs. After I’d turned off my internal monologue and settled into it, I would have happily gone on for much longer. As the audio track faded out, I found myself completely still, taking in the sounds of the real world, calmer than I have been in a very long time. I probably stood there for another five minutes, wanting to hold on to the feeling of peace.
I entered a different world for 20 minutes. An atmospheric portal opened up and dropped me somewhere I don’t think I can describe. It took me away and I loved it. Even writing that sentence made me well up with emotion.
So, no. I didn’t experience the sound walk in the way the artist intended it to be experienced. I had to put my own spin on it. But I think that may have been the point.
I brought my own sounds, my own experiences, and they blended with the artist’s creation to create something unique and fleeting. It caused me to stop and think about sound and how I use it and what it tells me about the world, whether I am aware of it or not. Stopping and listening is already one of my favourite things to do. This added another dimension: something entirely wonderful.