Leigh Woods Sound Walk: Researching through Sounding

By Conal Dougan

This is the first in a series of blog posts written by the current MSc Society and Space students about their dissertations. In his research project, Conal Dougan explores how places can be researched through sounding as well as the potential of sound walks to reconfigure attention and bodily movement. The site chosen for this work is Leigh Woods on the outskirts of Bristol. To listen to the sound file, please follow this link.

The idea for trying out a sound walk and getting to grips with researching through sounding came to me while I was running through Leigh Woods, a small woodland on the outskirts of Bristol. I’m a keen runner, and it’s a great place to explore. I think it’s much more fun running around a woodland than it is pounding the concrete of the city centre, and it’s interesting to see how the body moves differently, adjusts itself to different surfaces and is encouraged to go in different directions – away from the path, jumping over a log, splashing through some mud. I found that this kind of experience could be enhanced by certain kinds of music, which would juxtapose beautifully with the sounds of the woods, like birdsong, the wind in the trees and rustling in the undergrowth. I started going to Leigh Woods to record sounds and experiment with layering them over and under pieces of music to see how they sounded when listened to again in the woods.

I decided that the kind of experimenting I had been doing would make an interesting topic for my dissertation. My dissertation therefore explores sound walks as a way of researching places, and more specifically Leigh Woods.

For the purposes of the dissertation, a sound walk is defined as:

Movement through a space while listening, and potentially responding, to a pre-composed audio piece.

Sound walks have been used by a range of researchers and practitioners in art, academia and beyond. In sonic geography much of the focus has been on how sound walks can foster people’s connection to the places around them, raise awareness of sonic environments and re-work places through sound and movement. The dissertation is particularly influenced by Michael Gallagher’s work, more specifically his sound walk Kilmahew Audio Drift No.1, which he used to discuss researching places through sound and the potential for sound walks to shape listeners’ attention and movement.

The dissertation engages with two central questions:

  • How can places be researched through sound walks and sounding?
  • Do sound walks have the potential to reconfigure attention and bodily movement?

In order to answer these questions, the dissertation is broken down into three distinct sections. The first section comprises a literature review of contemporary debates in geography, outlining how sound walks are influenced by the debates and how they in turn feed back into them. The debates include those on non-representational theory and performative research, the production of space and acoustic communication. It includes an interrogation of what sound walks are, distinguishing them from other similar sonic practices. It deconstructs walking as a research practice and description of movement, and also introduces sounding in order to represent sound walks as an ongoing, open-ended process. The point is that Leigh Woods Sound Walk is not a finished audio piece that people listen to. Instead, it is always evolving as it comes into contact with different listeners’ subjectivities. Participants in the sound walk are co-creators of the sound walk, creating new juxtapositions between their own subjectivities, the sounds they hear and the spaces they encounter.

The second section utilises a series of passages of experimental writing aimed at narrating the sounding process of Leigh Woods Sound Walk. In discussing these passages with reference to the geographic debates outlined earlier, there is an attempt to debate how Leigh Woods can be researched through the sounding process. There is also an engagement with how sound and sonic processes can be described textually, and how Leigh Woods Sound Walk can be evaluated considering it is an open-ended sonic process.

The third section discusses a series of interviews taken with people who have participated in Leigh Woods Sound Walk. I invited a small number of people to try out the sound walk and then interviewed them about their experiences. In attempting to assess the sound walk, there is a discussion on how it can be evaluated while recognising the participation as part of the performative and ongoing sounding process. There is also a discussion of how, through doing the sound walk, participants experienced an unfolding understanding of Leigh Woods. Finally, the chapter questions whether the sound walk was able to reconfigure people’s attention and bodily movement, and therefore temporarily re-work the landscape of Leigh Woods.

The dissertation is intended to contribute to the growing literature on sound walks and explore how they can be used to research places and people’s relationship to places. It also questions how such walks can be evaluated, when they are positioned as ongoing, performative and open-ended processes of sounding.

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