Sound – Track – City

the urban soundwalk

Ina Boiten

“I was surprised at how exceptionally beautiful the sounds through the headphones were.” Jean, a blind participant in Down by the Riverside, one of the soundwalks of the Soundtrackcity project, couldn’t stop talking about it.

This soundwalk along the Amstel in Amsterdam was attended by a group of academics and professionals from the art world together with several blind ‘practical experts’ in late October 2010. With the aid of their stick, guide dog or companion, the blind participants followed the same route as the sighted walkers.

The name Soundtrackcity incorporates the three essential elements of the urban soundwalk: sound, walking and the city, respectively the intervention of the artist, the activity of the walker and the surroundings to be experienced.


Sound art aims to make people listen more attentively to their surroundings. On a soundwalk this happens in a very direct way: a particular route is followed while listening to a recorded sound composition through headphones. But blind people are already very active and attentive listeners. What, then, is the added value of a soundwalk for them?

In everyday life we mostly pick up sound as signal, and this is particularly true of blind people. In contrast to their sighted counterparts, they are after all dependent on sound as their principal source of information. In the forum discussion after the soundwalk, the blind participants spoke of their pleasure in the beauty of the sounds heard through the headphones. Walking through the streets had gained an added dimension for them. Their customary, targeted ‘signal listening’ was replaced by relaxed spatial listening.

Sighted participants on the soundwalk Down by the Riverside experienced a similar response. For once, listening took precedence over seeing. And other senses such as touch and smell were activated by the mindful listening.
On the Amstel bridge a former bridgemaster recalled through the headphones how he used to operate the bridge by hand. I heard the grating sound of the bridge opening and suddenly I became aware that I was tracing the letters on the NIEUWE AMSTELBRUG nameplate with my fingers, like a blind person. And not only that. For the sighted participants, the relaxed attitude of spatial listening also had an effect on their way of seeing. Their customary, fragmented snap-shot way of seeing, aimed at instantly recording information, was transformed into a dreamy registration of the surroundings as a whole, with new, fresh eyes.

Another aspect of the soundwalk with headphones is that the world we hear differs from the actual surroundings. The sounds through the headphones of the sound walker is a conscious, site-specific composition created by the sound artist, an intervention in the normal aural experience of a specific environment. The walker experiences this virtual world as unequal to the actual world he is walking through, which he sees and also hears through the half-open headphones. He must strive to connect these two opposing sources of information by drawing on his imagination, ideas and memories. The result is a new experiential environment, one’s own newly-created personal city.

This experience is in stark contrast with the regular use of mobile media in the city. Increasingly people walk through the city’s streets wearing earplugs or headphones, locked in their own sound bubble of downloaded MP3s or a radio station. They experience this self-chosen soundtrack as their real surroundings. It fits them like a reassuring glove and the sound does nothing to prompt them to re-evaluate their urban environment.

time path

‘Track’ in Soundtrackcity has a dual meaning: the soundtrack and the track or path the walker follows on his journey through the city.

Both meanings come together in the soundwalk. Walking through the city one records all one’s physical and emotional impressions. Emotion, sound, image adhere to that one specific location, to those special surroundings together with the soundtrack through the headphones.

This happened literally in Ghent in 1982 with what was to become an iconic sound performance, Klankspoor (sound track) by Godfried-Willem Raes and Moniek Darge. Raes walked through the city with a tape recorder, recording the sounds around him and letting the recorded tape trail behind him on the ground. There it was buried by his companions or taped to the road with stickers indicating the time and place the recording was made. In this way Raes succeeded in physically linking the route with the sounds heard along the way.

Walking itself is a key aspect of the soundwalk. The best way to get to know a city is on foot. Only then can you register the vibrations, the rhythm, the colour and smell of buildings, streets, people and their activities. Walking is first and foremost a physical activity. The walker puts one foot after the other according to a particular rhythm. He walks his own time path and in doing so, literally makes contact with the ground beneath his feet. Paving stones, grass and gravel. The feel and sound of his footsteps constantly changes, depending on his surroundings. As he walks the surroundings keep changing. The walker creates his own film. The physical pattern of the route taken and the audio pattern of the sounds heard along the way become intertwined in his own subjective experience. This duality of temporal experience –locomotion and changing surroundings– is further strengthened by the temporality of sound.

negotiating process

The meaning of soundwalks in the public urban space lies not only in a more attentive listening to the sounds of the city. Of even greater significance is the new and more intensive subjective experience of the city, as a result of which we gain a stronger attachment to our surroundings.

Taking a soundwalk with headphones exposes us to two parallel worlds: the actual surroundings we’re walking through and the world evoked by the sound composition we hear through the headphones. We are constantly required to switch between different temporal/spatial experiences and must try to bridge the gap between these two worlds in one way or another.

The question that arises is how we experience the given urban environment. We do not experience isolated objects or events but a situation, a contextual whole that we create ourselves, posits Jean-Paul Thibaud in his 2002 essay ‘From situated perception to urban ambiences’. This experienced totality, dubbed ‘ambience’ by Thibaud, is generated through a process of negotiation between man and his surroundings, whereby the different impressions are integrated into a single whole. In this an openness to the aesthetic aspects of everyday experience plays a key role, both emotionally and physically with the deployment of all the senses.

During a sound walk with headphones the existing ambience is supplemented by a virtual sound layer with different temporal and spatial dimensions. If this sound layer is to generate the active creation of a new experiential world, then there must be sufficient contrast between the sound composition and the actual surroundings the listener is walking through. For the process of negotiation to begin, there must be something that doesn’t add up. If the sound composition is confined to illustrating what can be seen along the way or merely provides additional information, like an audio-tour from the tourist information office, the contrast with reality will be too limited to fire the imagination and the sound walk will only serve to confirm the listener’s normal experience of the city. But if the contrast is too great, the listener will experience the sound composition as a radio play that has little or nothing to do with the city around him. He will listen without engagement, lacking the urge to forge a link between these sounds and his experience of the actual city.

A sound layer that explores new temporal and spatial dimensions, using sounds that generally go unheard but may well be present, prompts listeners to forge new and surprising links with reality. That’s when the aural work of art triggers a new experience of the urban space, as happened for example with the grating, squeaking sound of the Nieuwe Amstelbrug being opened manually. Or the fictional festive clamour on the Mahlerplein at the close of Zuidas Symphony the soundwalk created by Justin Bennett. This impressive sound compilation of all the groups of people that we’ve met on our walk not only brings the square to life, but also the surly surrounding buildings.

On all soundwalks that meet these conditions for activating a subjective experience of the city, the same phenomenon is to be observed. Looking at the walkers, you can see them becoming caught up in the process of negotiation between the two parallel worlds. After starting out somewhat uncomfortably and self-consciously with the headphones, the group gradually falls quiet and becomes a string of meditative individuals, each sunken in thought.

On the move

There are different kinds of soundwalks. In 1968 Max Neuhaus took students, to whom he was supposed to give a lecture, outside the university with him, stamped LISTEN on their hands and preceded them silently through the city. Akio Suzuki took an even more simple approach: at certain points in the city characterised by a special echo he drew circles on the street with inside them two ears. The intention was that people could go and stand inside the circles and listen to the city. A walk with headphones is more complex. Not only does it comprise a given sound composition, but people also have to sign up specially. In the case of Soundtrackcity participants can also download the soundtrack on an mp3-player and so have the freedom to take off by themselves. But here, too, the route and the duration of the walk are fixed.

A soundwalk with headphones is an elitist –almost museum-like– form of sound art in public space. The question is whether people are still able or willing to conform to this rigid framework. Technological innovations offer new possibilities. Participants can move about more freely using tools with GPS. New technologies exist whereby participants on a walk can interactively influence the sound composition. And there are also walks –perhaps the term installations is better– whereby participants can generate their own compositions within a specific area with the aid of special sound equipment.

But despite all this I wonder whether the rigid framework of the soundwalk with headphones and predetermined route isn’t a necessary condition for the evocation of a new and more intense experience of the urban space. The enforced passivity in itself leads you to remark on the inequality between the two parallel worlds through the headphones and around you and stimulates you to seek a link between the two. Having to think about what route you plan to take or what kinds of sounds you can generate only serves to disrupt this process.

In closing:

The urban soundwalk can be seen as a metaphor for the contemporary view of art as a dynamic, continually self-renewing and relocating, rooting in global urban culture, as described by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book The Radicant. His basic concept, the radicant, is an organism that grows its roots and adds new ones as it advances. So, too, art is on the move: the work of art is not characterised by a form that is fixed, rather it is an ‘interform’ and creates its own context; both the artists and the public have become ‘wanderers’.

Ina Boiten

Soundtrackcity Amsterdam is een project van: Stichting Soundtrackcities