Fall refuses to stay put in Kansas City. The past month Kansas City temperatures have skyrocketed to 70 comfortable degrees fahrenheit and plummeted to 20 chilly degrees. I decided to partake of a wonderfully mild Sunday afternoon last Thanksgiving weekend to do another one of my Kansas City soundwalks, this time the fall edition. Fortunately the weather was cooperating, and I didn’t have to worry about how long I could resist standing in the cold.
Even though the weather was wonderful for a soundwalk, I couldn’t choose where to go. I have blogged about three soundwalks so far, and for each of them the choice seemed more organic: for my first soundwalk, in 2010, I wanted to walk around my new neighborhood and begin to understand it from an aural point of view. For my second soundwalk (in 2011) I went to one of my favorite places in Kansas City, the Country Club Plaza, and provided a snapshot of the sounds of spring in this busy area of Midtown. On my personal blog, in time for World Listening Day 2011, I talked about sounds from my own porch for a summer edition of my KC Soundwalks series, in order to think about the soundscape where I live. However, for this fourth soundwalk my only requirement was that it be a place I had not been to before. I wanted to venture out to somewhere new and encounter it not just with my eyes but also with my ears. Technically, I could go anywhere in Kansas City and do a soundwalk, but that was the one thing keeping me from doing a soundwalk: I couldn’t choose.
Last Sunday I decided I had to just get in the car and go. I had planned (and postponed) several soundwalks up until that day (I had even tweeted that I was leaving the house, in hopes of that forcing me to commit), so that day I planned to finally take some time to do my soundwalk before I went back to work. I got in the car with my daughter, destined for the West Bottoms neighborhood. I figured I’d take the long route instead of the quick and easy highways. As we drove along the side streets, I saw a park—a park neither of us had been to before, Jarboe Park—and I figured we could stop there, play for a while, and then drive off for my soundwalk. In any case, she might be good and tired by the time we arrived at our final destination, and I could put her in the stroller while I recorded and took notes.
That’s not what happened.
Once we arrived at the park, a moment of inspiration hit when I saw some musical instruments of sorts as part of the jungle gym, something I hadn’t seen before.
When we arrived, Jarboe Park was deserted. The bare trees didn’t make it any more inviting, but the park is in newly minted condition and full of bright colors. It showed no signs of life, or wear and tear; in fact, the jungle gym and the swings seemed new. (According to The City of Kansas City, MO’s website, this park was remodeled in 2011.) Jarboe Park is located in a residential neighborhood, across from Primitivo García Elementary School. During the semester it surely gets more use. Perhaps it was too early on a Sunday for families to be out and about at the park. Coincidentally, a family appeared about an hour after we arrived, but they went to the basketball court across the street.
The first thing that caught my attention at the park was the presence of musical instruments set up at the entrance. I do not remember seeing anything similar before at a children’s jungle gym. There was a set of bells, a xylophone, some rainmakers, a whistle, and a drum set. Their presence seemed to indicate that making sounds/music/noise was also part of the experience of being in the park as well as part of the experience of growing up. Sound, specifically making sounds, became part of play, in this context.
In the quietude of the noon time the sounds these instruments made felt a little sad instead of happy; the fact that there was only one child (ok, two, including myself!) playing with these instruments made their sounds stand out more, in relation to, say, the sounds of the trains and the highways (which I will discuss below). At the same time they drew attention to the fact that they were the only sounds that the park was making. If the park were busy, the sounds of the instruments would probably fade into the soundscape instead of being the loudest sound. However, the fact that we were playing with these instruments–versus playing instruments–made the park seem less lonely. We were part of the sounds, we were making sounds, and that seemed to distract me from the fact that we were the only people there making sounds. Although the plastic and metal instruments were not like traditional instruments, I wondered what their purpose in the jungle gym were. If the spider web and the swings are meant to exercise certain parts of the body and practice certain ways of socializing, what did the instruments teach? Perhaps the instruments are meant to teach children that instruments produce sounds, and they produce them in different ways. Lastly, the instruments and the act of creating sounds must use a different part of the brain–and my daughter was quite excited to play with the drum set!
Other than the sounds of the instruments, I also noticed the sounds of the highway and the train. I found a corner of the park where I could stand and record the sounds of the city:
Kansas City is intersected by train tracks, and it almost feels like if you pay close attention, you can hear a train in the distance at any corner of the city. In fact, in the dead of a lazy afternoon or the quiet of the wee hours of the night I can hear the trains’ whistles, announcing their passing through the city, from my neighborhood of Rosedale in Kansas City, Kansas. If soundwalks can be a sonic ethnography of a city, my soundwalks have so far revealed that the sound of trains are an essential part of the KC soundscape as well as a reminder of the city’s history: the Kansas City Stockyards. I could also hear the low buzzing of the cars on the highway, another sound I’ve come to recognize as uniquely Kansas Citian, or at least part of my soundsscape. The murmur of the traffic ways is like the sound of Kansas City’s blood coursing through its veins.
This spur-of-the-moment soundwalk made me think of how listening and sound can prompt reflection about the identity of a neighborhood and of a city. As I wrote down notes, I wondered: how do parks add to a community’s soundscape? The sounds add to the community’s identity as a residential area as an area that is amenable to the presence (physically and in aural terms) of other people. Soundscapes are connected to our ideas of what constitutes a neighborhood, and specifically how important common spaces like parks are, with all the sounds that may ensue. On a broader level, my Kansas City soundwalks are helping me piece together a soundscape of Kansas City, and to think through sound as a way to understanding the urban culture of this city, with its music, its fountains, its sports, and its trains, among other things. I feel like my listening practices are directly tied to my developing connection to this Midwestern city.
Postscript: I never did make it to the West Bottoms that Sunday. But it’s still on my list of KC spots to visit.
Featured Image: “Downtown from Top of Liberty2″ by Wikimedia user Hngrange, under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!
Since spring has sprung in Kansas City, I decided to do another soundwalk as my post for the month of April. It seemed timely and appropriate. (And for those of you who have yet to receive the spring in your neighborhood, I hope the sounds of spring in this post will warm you up.)
Before I moved to Kansas City, I did not know much about the area. So my past few months in my new home have been full of little discoveries. One of the things I like about Kansas City is walking around the Country Club Plaza area in Midtown KCMO. The Country Club Plaza (or known among residents simply as “The Plaza”) is a shopping district and residential area. Tourists flock there because of the number of shops and outlets along its streets, but it is also a nice place to just take a stroll on a weekend. My boyfriend lived there before Miss E and I relocated to Kansas City, and I have fond memories of being pregnant and walking to the Plaza for gelato while he was at work.
Oftentimes I will go there with my daughter to just walk around and window shop. It is always abuzz with people and sounds. Street performers abound, as do outdoor eateries. Last weekend it was our first warm weekend out here, and I decided it was a shame for Miss E and I to stay indoors. So I packed up our things and drove us to the Plaza.
The Plaza was awash in sounds. Spring brings out not just our shorts and sunglasses, but also sounds. In winter, our doors and windows are closed. When we drive, we don’t open the windows (because it’s too cold to do so). Hence, winter seems to be a quieter season than spring. And although summer is noisy as well (when I think of summer I think of beaches, ballparks and terraces), spring stands out because it is set against winter. Summer is an extension of the sounds of spring. But spring heralds the return of warmer temperatures with a cornucopia of sound, like the sounds of birds that have returned from their winter retreats—or Top 40 music blaring from cars with the windows rolled down.
For this soundwalk I walked along 47 Street, the main thoroughfare of The Plaza.
I started at Summit Street, off of 47th, and made my way to JC Nichols parkway (at the end of 47th, where it turns into Emmanuel Cleaver Blvd). I chose this route because it is the busiest; also, it is the route I usually take when I go on my strolls with my daughter. I used my iPhone to record the sounds on my soundwalk, particularly the Voice Memo app.
Saturday was full of sounds, which is one of the things I enjoy about the Plaza so much. There is so much life on the street. The sounds bring the warmth of the human element that was missing in winter. However, many of the sounds are not necessarily organic, “human”; there were plenty of industrial, “created” sounds. In my recordings you can hear people singing, people talking, my daughter cooing, birds chirping, and the wind blowing. But you can also hear (recorded) bells ringing at the top of the hour, crossing sound-boxes at intersections, music coming from cars, and even the click of my phone’s camera.
I was surprised that this is not what came out on the recordings. In fact, I was disappointed to hear a “click click click” where I heard a smooth “grrrrrrrr” of the wheels of my baby’s stroller. What seemed like a cornucopia of sound comes off as humming, barely audible. (Your best bet to listen to my on-field recordings is to listen to them at full volume or to listen to them with headphones on. When I listened to the recordings a second time, this time with headphones, I grasped a lot of sounds that I didn’t when I simply played the recordings on my laptop.) Initially I was annoyed because I hoped these recordings would render the full spectrum of sounds I encountered, as I encountered them.
It could be that my problem is simply a matter of hardware (my iPhone) or software (my iPhone’s Voice Memo app). Perhaps my smartphone is unsuitable for the task of recording a soundwalk. To a lesser extent, this also makes me think about what hardware or software we use to record soundwalks, and I’d love to hear from our readers who have done these. But this leads me to another question: is accuracy important when recording a soundwalk? Will my recordings ever accurately portray my listening experience, or will there always be something missing? Ultimately, is this ideal recording a figment of my sonic imagination?
All in all, it was a day that was full of sound and commotion. Perhaps you needed to be there to hear it.
4_9_2011 1_26 PM Getting ready to start soundwalk: birds chirping
4_9_2011 1_28 PM Parking garage-as-echo chamber
4_9_2011 1_40 PM Eastbound on 47th Street; keep an ear out for the voice of a man begging for change at 4:55. Street band playing at 5:30. Also, drumline toward last minute of recording.
4_9_2011 2_00 PM Westbound on 47th Street, heading back home; check out the countdown at the crosswalk at 9:40 mark.
4_9_2011 1_50 PM Drumline at JC Nichols fountain
What caught my eye about the article was Twilley’s description of what it was like to listen to LAPD’s radiofeed:
“To listen to it is to be plugged into the pulse of the city; lost in fragments of someone else’s story. Urgency alternates with frustration and low-level routine; some incidents are reported while others are resolved; and jaywalking tickets are issued in the same breath as lives are lost.”
I like her idea that the site allows you to tune into “the pulse of the city.” The feed is a sonic representation of what is happening on LA’s streets. I had the feeling that I was listening to some subversive channel of LA life, narrated by a police dispatcher. However, there are two things that come to mind: a) the sounds of urban life are being filtered through the police department, and b) what are the sounds we hear on the feed telling us about the sonic dimensions of cities?
This online radio station of sorts mashes up city sounds with background music, but once you pause the music what we get are conversations between police officers. The result is that those sounds (voices, codes, numbers, addresses) filter the soundtrack of the city. When we click on youarelisteningtolos angeles.com we are actually listening to the keepers of peace and order on the city streets. The city has already been distilled for us through a radio dispatcher and officers.
The sounds are haunting. Interestingly, what attracts some listeners is the fact that they can eavesdrop on the police feeds, like we’re tuning into what our neighbors are doing. Others point out how soothing the sounds meshed with the dispatcher feed can be. However, the site serves as an example of how city sounds are filtered to us. We don’t hear the actual people who the dispatchers talk about, but the stories of their actions. In that sense, what we hear about them is really a narrative of order, chaos, authority, and traffic violations. Who is stepping outside of the lines?
But…can we ever really listen to The City? This is why audio projects such as soundwalks are important, because they make that aural experience multisonoral. The same way we must reject single stories (like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out in her TED talk) we must also bring to light different soundtracks of the city around us, lest the radio feed of a police dispatcher become the one that stands out.
This brings me to my second concern: what are we actually listening to? What was initially problematic for me was that we don’t actually hear urban sounds. We hear voices talking about citizen activity on the streets. Once you mute the music, what you get are voices narrating what is happening on the street level. But then I realized that I was be limiting what sounds are classified as city sounds. In that sense, youarelistening.to is opening up what it means to listen to cities. The citizens also make sounds; their voices are part of the soundscape of the city.
I’d love to hear from our readers from these different cities, see what their reaction to listening to the transmission is.
By the way: can we get a youarelistening.to/kansascity?
Here is Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriter’s Blues,” whose line “You are listening to Los Angeles” provided inspiration for the title. (via laist.com)
The reality of our time is that we listen more readily and with greater interest to the mediated treatment of soundscapes [by artists] than to the material in its original form and context.–R. Murray Schafer, “Sensing the City” (Lecture)
For this month’s post I want to walk you through my current urban home, Kansas City, as I try to listen to it in its “original form and context” as Schafer encourages us to do. I consider myself a city gal (notwithstanding one who grew up in the country) and I love cities; the fact that I have been able to return to a city fills me with joy. I am a new transplant to Kansas City, so there is a lot that is new to me. One of the ways I am exploring Kansas City is through sound.
I wanted to do a sound walk because I felt my point of view was that of an outsider, tourist: I just moved to Kansas City over the summer, so my sound memories of Kansas City are almost like a clean slate (more on that later). You might say I’m somewhat of a soundscape tourist, as Schafer calls it. Also, part of my research focuses on how our listening practices help construct our homespaces—and those listening practices are not limited to simply the music we listen to. I believe we construct our “home” through the way we listen to it, the sounds we create, and how we remember sounds. For example, some of my memories of growing up in Puerto Rico are related to sound. I remember going home for the weekend when I was in college, and lying in bed awake listening to all the sounds of the countryside. It amazed me that we were surrounded by sounds (night birds, crickets, cars, horses, cows, dogs, snores, bugs) even though the country was remarkably quieter from the city I lived in during the week. Now that I live in Kansas City, I want to keep a close eye/ear on my sonic surroundings.
For those of you unfamiliar with sound walks, it is a method conceived by Schafer, composer and acoustic ecologist, to explore the soundscape. It consists in walking through a particular area and taking stock of the sounds around you. Schafer helped develop the World Soundscape Project at Simon Frasier University, a project that wanted to research the sonic environments we live in. Interestingly enough, Schafer was not a fan of the sounds of cities, and went so far as to state that “noise pollution is one of the main problems in urban life.” I am familiar with this now-common complaint of urban locations. However, my sound walk yielded a different result.
My sound walk took place this past Saturday, December 11. The day started out cool, but the temperatures dropped quickly past midmorning. The cold, added to the wind chill factor in the single digits, cut my sound walk short. Since part of what I want to do with this sound walk project is take stock of the sounds of my home, I started by walking along streets close to my apartment that I usually drive along. I walked along the thoroughfares I use the most: 39th Avenue/Street (we live close to the Kansas/Missouri border), Adams Street, and 43rd Street. (See the map below.)
As I prepared myself to face the dropping temperatures, I thought to myself about Kansas City’s sounds. One of the first memories I have of Kansas City is the sound of the cicadas. I came in early September 2009 to visit my boyfriend, who lived by Country Club Plaza. The sounds of bell chimes, horns, cars, and people didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. What irked me was the loud biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiizzzzzzzzzzzzz of the cicadas late at night, when the Plaza was still and quiet. When I woke up at night, that sound haunted me. I did not expect the deafening sound of the cicadas when I came here. I hadn’t noticed it when we first parked in front of the building, but once I had settled into bed I couldn’t ignore them. The bizz followed me that long weekend, and even when I returned to New York I could remember clearly the sound. I found it annoying at first; I could barely sleep that first night. But now that I am here I think of it as part of the sounds of my new home. It’s nice to know that there’s a sound that’s exclusively Kansas Citian for me. (Here is a link to an NBC Action News clip on the cicadas. Click on the video to hear them loud and clear.)
I started by jotting down the sounds I noticed as I walked. At the beginning I wanted to jot down every single sound, and it got to the point where I wasn’t listening anymore; I was analyzing instead of listening. After I turned onto Genesee Street and I noticed some of the sounds kept on repeating, I decided to just listen for now and write later. The sound walk was a lot more enjoyable when I could listen unfettered.
There were few people out on Saturday. I shouldn’t be surprised because it was cold outside (26 degrees with a wind chill of 13 when I checked a few blocks away from the apartment), but I missed hearing the sounds of humans, not sounds manufactured by humans, but sounds emanating from human bodies: coughing, talking, singing, walking…However, I tried to not listen to my own sounds. It sounds silly, but I was trying to listen to sounds other than my own. When I noticed this, it shocked me: why should I not write down the sounds I make, unconsciously or consciously? I am a part of the soundscape; why not keep track of the sounds I make? All of a sudden I felt like I was a lot louder than I actually was. My boots hitting the sidewalks, my pant legs rubbing up against each other, and my mouth chewing gum.
There were a lot of chimes out there. This was interesting to me; I have three windchimes on my terrace, and this is a sound that has become part of my soundscape. I like how sometimes I go to bed and in the still of the night I can hear my chimes shaking in the wind. Now that I think of that I wonder if other my neighbors find them annoying.
Some other sounds I heard repeatedly were: flags flapping against poles, cars zipping past me, wind blowing in my ears, gum smacking, boots against pavement, leaves rustling. The sound of the wind seemed to envelope me, and it howled louder between the branches and the houses. But once the wind died down and the leaves stopped rustling and the sound of my shoes faded into the background, I could hear a hum, barely audible but still existent. I wonder if it’s the hum of the expressway (1-35), or the hum of the air filters at the hospital (KU Med). I could hear it when I was at my farthest from my house but also when I was closest. I think of it as the hum of the city. If when we are super quiet we can hear our bodies breathe, the hum can be the city breathing, all of its sounds coming together as one. I’d like to think so.
I plan on doing three more walks, one per season coming up, as a way to get to know my new city and to continue exploring city sounds. It would be awesome if we could put together a sound walk project of Kansas City, similar to other sound projects in other urban locations. (New York seems to be a popular location for sound walks.) If anything, a sound walk is a great way to get to know your area, rediscover it with new ears.
Bonus track: After the map you will find a link to an audio clip from my sound walk. Also, if you’re interested in doing a sound walk of your own, click on the following links to find out more.