Soundwalkers

Listening to Two Neighborhoods

A “sound walk”, according to the Oak Park-based contemporary art and cultural presenter Compound Yellow, is “a guided exploration of a site using listening-focused skills.” Norman W. Long has been taking people on silent walks for a while now.

“I believe that through listening we have a tool to define communities and ourselves,” says Long, a sound artist/designer/composer. “We can use those tools to shape who we are and where we live.”

We walked through two very different communities: the wealthy and arguably progressive liberal bastion of Oak Park, and the Austin neighborhood, as west as you can get on the west side, a mostly African American but thriving community. Our group was a patchwork of young, middle-aged, Asian, Black, and white. The eight of us agreed to show up and discover what the walk could accomplish — or not. However, the very nature of the activity itself was designed to defy ‘accomplishment”. Surrendering to present moment awareness, like many meditative practices, focuses the mind and the body. As a group we moved together, aware of each other as one corpus, as one living, breathing thing with the constraint of silence guiding us.

Sound walkers are asked to listen for all of the factors that make up the sound map of the place or community where they are walking. Long suggests that walkers start by listening in their own silence and being mindful of their own consciousness.

“Then we focus on how we sound as we move throughout the site,” Long continues. “We then expand our listening to what is near to us, what just passed us and then what is ahead.”

At the end of the walk participants are asked to ponder the following questions:

How do these sounds define where you are on the site? What sounds are constant? What sounds change the site? What moves through it? What are the durations? What do you expect to hear? What did you remember hearing? What sounds do you like? What sounds don’t you like?

At Austin Park

On Sunday, April 29, it was one of the first truly warm days of this year. The sun on my face healed me; its warmth a salve after so many months of cold. The last thing I really wanted to do that day was make small talk with a group of strangers, and I was grateful that we could be in a group and not have to say a word to one another. I was happy to adhere to the objective of walking and listening in silence.

I heard the exposed hobnails on the worn-through heels of my boots scrape the pavement with each step. I heard the contents of the pockets of my fellow sound travelers shift as they moved. Car radios, wheels on asphalt, birds, children being called inside, the near silent mixed with the more audible steps of the different shoes meeting the pavement. The creak of gates swinging open, airplanes in the sky, a tablecloth being shook from an upper floor window.

Norman W. Long is an African-American artist who grew up on the south side of Chicago, near Calumet City, and continues to live there with his family. I knew I would see the obvious racial and cultural divides of these two very different communities, but was it possible to hear them? Would the sound of these two places reveal something to me or would there be no difference from one place to the other?

Walking through these two different communities, one a community of privilege and the other in a constant cycle of upheaval and violence, I wanted to find out how these two communities would stand the test of silent walking and sound exploration. They didn’t sound very different from each other, but Austin was a little noisier since Erie Street is a main drag through the neighborhood. With the onset of warmer weather, people played their stereos with their windows down creating that strange bent distortion of sound as they passed. Given the location of this walk, the topic of race and class was bound to become a part of our collective aural observations. After all, the “listening” that Long requested was not relegated to physical sound, but also to the sound of our inner dialog.

My thoughts turned toward our last election and how it smoked out an America that I thought had evolved, but only managed to reveal that Americans, despite Obama’s presidency, continue to be just as racist and sexist as ever. This is something that people of color already knew, but I was blindsided by it. What I didn’t know was that after eight years with a Black president, racism was not subsiding, but going mainstream and global. I actually thought a “post-racial” America was a thing. In 2018, I am no longer so naive.

Statistics showed that it was middle-class, middle-aged white women, women like myself, who benefitted most from the feminist movement, who tipped the scales toward getting a porcine, pussy-grabbing Donald Trump elected instead of a woman who looked a little too much like themselves. Many white women, as it turns out, paid a great deal of lip service to the idea of female power. Maybe it was all that misleading advertising we grew up on: “you’ve come a long way, baby”, “who can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, and let him know he’s a man?”, “you’re going to make it after all”, “I am woman hear me roar!” In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s loss, these slogans and sound bytes don’t seem to have made us respect ourselves any more, but it did make us buy a lot of shit we didn’t need.

And these days I don’t know how to talk about race without feeling that I am out of my depth, a spectator in the cheap seats. Given this last last election, my entire perspective on race is suspect, even to myself. I am steeped in a mindset that was crafted years ago that told me that I was a “progressive”, without fully realizing that my perspective was only academic. Trump’s America has revealed a dark underbelly that I did not want to acknowledge. I don’t want to give myself too hard of a time, but I feel an intense amount of shame about this. What do I really know about race relations except through my own lens of white guilt and, yes, laughable white tears?

The Austin neighborhood was a little louder, but that was because we walked along Erie Street where there was more traffic. Functionally, the sounds were the same, but my own inner dialog was quite different. Inside the cars that passed us, I imagined the passengers thinking “who the hell are those white people walking in my neighborhood?” I strongly sensed that we were an unwelcome but tolerable oddity. White people. The term freighted and weighted with my own otherness in that space. Under normal circumstances I don’t think I’d be walking in that part of town, but I was on a trippy conceptual art tour! What could be more white than that? I needed this pretext to be there to “observe”.

Long believes that through listening we have a tool to define communities and ourselves. I couldn’t help but notice that once we were nestled back into the manicured lawns of Oak Park’s residential streets, I felt more invisible and unobserved. I was immediately aware that this shift had taken place. I tried to associate this shift aurally and listened closely. It was the sound of sprinklers darting water back and forth across yards — a repeating “chu chu chu” sound.

Here is a sound clip of The Sound of Trees at Compound Yellow that Long had recorded while we were out walking. It is not of the walk itself, but of a cluster of trees on the premises of Compound Yellow. The juxtaposition of the sounds I encountered on our walk with the recorded sound of tree branches rustling in a calm wind was perhaps anointed with a message, but I couldn’t hear it. I wanted some answers and that was where I went wrong. The act of listening, the tuning of one’s ear to a place, the awareness of place through its sounds does not require a conclusion, but I wanted one. I wanted a whisper in my ear to tell me that we are all going to be okay.

BIO: Norman W. Long is a sound artist/designer/composer born and raised on the south side of Chicago. His current work focuses on sound art production within the larger context of landscape. He has exhibited and/or performed in galleries Chicago, Ithaca, New York, London, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The processes involved in his practice lie within the area of field recording, electro-acoustic composition and dub technique. His art/studio practice includes collecting, performing and recording to create objects, environments, and situations in which the audience and himself are engaged in an open-ended dialogue about memory, space, value, silence and the invisible.

I encourage you to take one of Norman Long’s walks. Check out the Compound Yellow website for upcoming opportunities.