Unconscious Sound: Jean Routhier and the History of Soundwalks in Vancouver

Several years in the making, Maraya Projects opens this November at Vancouver’s Centre A. Taking its name from the Arabic word for mirror, Maraya denotes a reflection between “the largest man-made marina in the world” and its inspiration, Vancouver’s Concord Pacific Place. Many of the consultants and planners who designed the high-end condominiums on Vancouver’s False Creek waterfront later went to work on the opulent Dubai Marina. Both sites are exemplary models of the current inception of master-planned development projects that are presently changing communities both globally and within Vancouver. To kick things off, artist Jean Routhier will lead a soundwalk highlighting the area along False Creek. Once a polluted industrial zone, Vancouver’s waterfront has been completely transformed into residential and recreational space over the past twenty years. Routhier intends to draw sonic parallels between the leisurely waterfronts of the two Maraya Projects cities. However these sounds will be contrasted with the dynamic rhythms of traffic and city life: sounds specific to Vancouver and foreign to Dubai. Vancouver has long been a forerunner in exploring relationships between sound and environment. Even the origins of the term soundscape can be traced back to a research project from Simon Fraser University, the World Soundscape Project (WSP), which included such luminaries as Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax. In the late 1960′s, concerned with noise pollution and the loss of distinct sound environments, composer and educator R. Murray Schafer initiated field recordings of Vancouver, later creating an archive of recordings from across Canada and Europe. The ideas around acoustic ecology sparked by this project had an enormous influence upon our current understandings of sound as a crucial part of our environment. The WSP was also an early proponent of the soundwalker, a character much like the flâneur or psychogeographer, who experiences the city for itself within the context of the soundscape. To this day, there is a soundwalk society in Vancouver, a part of the Vancouver New Music Society. Walking together in silence through a proscribed path, soundwalk participants get together every couple of weeks to take in the many sounds around us, appreciating and moving through soundscapes that so often go unnoticed. Last Sunday (October 16, 2011), I had the chance to tag along for a test run of Jean Routhier’s upcoming soundwalk around Concord Pacific Place. An occasion to be present and observant is always a pleasant thing, and Routhier brought some special elements to the walk, adding a sense of play and experimentation to the excursion. Without giving away too much, I will mention that there are many divergent twists and turns along the soundwalk path, and I often found myself in hidden parts of the city I had never been before. Routhier is easygoing and not afraid of becoming a ‘sound source’ – subtly shaking and tapping objects as we wander along, leading participants into situations where they can’t help but be a ‘source’ themselves. If people talk, if their cellphones happen to go off, Routhier accepts this as another element in the overall sound environment. After our little journey, we gathered at Centre A to talk about what we have heard. One participant described how different sounds mixed together through the soundwalk, appearing and reappearing, create a symphony. I am struck by the acoustics of certain spaces, the incongruousness of composed music when heard in tandem with all other sounds. Routhier talks about how he is drawn to sound because of its capacity to convey feeling without relying on description. Operating upon the body and mind at a level we are not always aware of, the impact of environmental sounds on our experience is largely unconscious. Becoming aware of sound, bringing it to the fore through the soundwalk, is a rewarding exercise. And since each soundwalk is different, I am looking forward to hearing what the next one brings. by Stacey Ho Jean Routhier’s soundwalk will take place on October 29th from 2:30-4:30 pm, beginning at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre and ending at Centre A.