Let’s start with an easy one: What exactly is Soundwalk?
Soundwalk is a collective of artists who create sound pieces. There are many different aspects to the project, ranging from traveling and collecting different urban sounds to creating an audible story. Or it might involve crossing ten countries, from ghetto to ghetto, to gather aural information on the lives of European gypsies – and then there is a recent piece I did with Patti Smith on the last poem by Nico.
Do you still remember what sparked the idea for these Soundwalk audio tours?
At the time it all started, I was living in NYC, so this is also where the first recordings were made. I launched Soundwalk to create something like a movie soundtrack, with you as the main protagonist. Basically, you take this audio track, start out in a particular location, and once you press play this voice takes control of you and transports you into the narrator’s life and through their own view of the city. Suddenly, the city and its streets become the backdrop of a story you hear. And we push the whole thing pretty far; to the point where you can get codes to access apartments or someone’s room – there is this sense of complete surrender to the voice, of really putting yourself in occasionally crazy situations.
Who is behind these voices?
I started to do walks in the South Bronx with Afrika Bambaataa, the godfather of hip-hop, or I might take a walk with an underground gangster in Chinatown. There are also some very extreme walks, for example with an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, where you are dressed as one of them, visiting different synagogues and other pertinent places. Each time, it is all about the idea of immersing yourself in a landscape and community.
After a while, I was approached by some celebrities. So, I did walks with Jeanne Moreau, Paul Auster, or a seductive tour with Lou Doillon at night in Pigalle. And our tours in Asia have been a huge success: We did one with the actress Gong Li in Beijing and one with Shu Qi in Hong Kong. Over the years, I must have recorded 30-40 walks. By now, I am a little bit tired of them and prefer to explore more artistic sound projects.
How important is sound to you in urban space?
Sound can radically change the experience of a city. Every city has its own sound DNA. It is almost like a smell; it reaches your emotional brain straight away. There is power in sound. For me, every sound has equal value.
The problem is that we don’t really pay attention to sound anymore. We have become such visual people. We look, look, look. But we don’t really listen. We just take the sound around us for granted; we think it’s normal, but sound is just as rare and precious as visual experiences. It only exists for a brief second. Whatever we hear right now, we will never get to hear again. It is an ongoing flow. And the beauty lies in paying attention to this flow.
Have you noticed a change in the sounds of big modern cities? Or even a trend?
Most cities are now about being quiet and creating new environments for pleasant sounds. I think this trend is a big mistake. A city should be noisy; it should be loud. A city with less and less sound, like Geneva in Switzerland, or even like what is starting to happen in Paris, feels dead to me. Urban sound has this beautiful creative punk quality. If you go to Asian cities like Mumbai or Jakarta, they exude a chaotic madness of sound that I find really attractive. This is what I am looking for as a sound recordist and artist. There is nothing more exciting than just being able to drift through these oceans of sound and capturing all these unimaginable overlapping noises made by voices, cars, traffic, animals, and markets. This chaos brings a city to life.
Why are our cities “shutting up”?
When a city gets wealthy, it starts to take away the sound. Rich cities tend to be scared of sound. They are scared of everything. They are always looking for more security and peace, so the sound slowly fades away. The soundscapes in less affluent cities are so much more lively. And this is what I fell in love with when I first came to New York – this chaotic melange of sound, this mad swirl of voices, music, and boom boxes assaulting you from every corner. But just like it did in Paris, sound seems to have lost its intensity and immediacy. Maybe cities have become more civilized, but they have also lost their rawness and edge.
So, what could we do to improve our own sound experience?
Add sound – don’t take it away. Express yourself; start to sing and scream again. We are getting increasingly dull; we are fading away in today’s society. Just scream! It releases so much tension, it’s crazy– have you ever done that? You might look like a loon, but it feels so good. And if you have talent, sing – sing in the streets. I would love it if people produced more noise. Anything that breaks the silence is very interesting. And just listen to all the sounds around you. Use your ears as a microphone. Pay attention to the little nuances, the little sounds, the sleeping beauties, and strange sound mixes of your city. Don’t judge it. This is a constant flow. Close your eyes and listen. It’s not just traffic. There is much more to sound than we think. There are thousands of sounds coexisting when you are walking around a city.
What is your favorite urban sound?
Usually, I am in love with the sound I just recorded. My last recording was in Odessa. I left my recorder on during the night – which is something I do very often. So, I collected this all-night concert of cats meowing and at some point it segued into a couple’s orgasm. It was the most unexpected blend: beautiful and rare.
What is your next project about?
I plan to record the vibrations of Berlin’s Berghain/Panorama Bar. We will install some special microphones in the restrooms, the walls, and the staircase – everywhere, really, and these mics will only record the vibrations of the architecture caused by the music. We don’t capture the music itself, but the dance of the building. It’s all very urban, I guess!
Curious? Check out some samples here.
Interview: Katharina Kowalewski
All photos, incl. the header image: Soundwalk