A couple of weeks ago I took part in a sound piece called the Listening Choir at Fierce Festival in Birmingham.
Listening Choir is a project that takes audiences on walks in public spaces. Throughout the walk each participant carries a cardboard loudspeaker that records and plays sounds along the way. These sounds are choreographed in various ways, evoking the immediate past, the sonic dislocation of objects and voices onto others, and the folding of histories and places on top of one another. Agreeing to drift without speaking, audiences are invited into an encounter with a continually fractured soundscape that reflects on notions of public space, citizenship, and how a city changes. – Fierce Festival
The idea intrigued me; I’m aware of a few different outdoor pieces which take the audience on a walk with their own little speaker, and in fact two years ago I took part in another one in the same area of Birmingham during Supersonic Festival called A Folded Path. The Listening Choir idea was novel because we were recording sounds ourselves while we walked around.
At the beginning the group were given a score to read aloud together while the speakers recorded us (see photo). As soon as we flicked off the recording switch, the speakers immediately began to play back what we had just done. It was a wonderful cacophony of vocal sounds and possibly the best moment of the piece for me. From that point we were not allowed to speak at all, which caused some amusement when we bumped into some people we knew along the walk!
We moved to a location and recorded some environmental sounds, which played back as we arranged our speakers in an aesthetically pleasing shape/tower as though we were making a little sound installation. We kept them playing while we walked to the next place. I liked the idea of ‘collecting’ sounds and taking them to a new location out of their normal context. We repeated this a few times walking around Digbeth with varying levels of success – the microphones were not always sensitive enough for some of the sounds we were directed to, and a couple of times the sounds were generated by us knocking on surfaces so they sounded quite similar. In some locations there was also a lot of background noise so the speakers didn’t have as much impact.
There was a lovely moment about halfway through where we piled the speakers up and suddenly a voice started speaking from them and an extra soundtrack appeared – the surprised look on everyone’s faces was brilliant. This soundtrack continued on and off for the rest of the walk, but it was running as a timeline so occasionally we walked somewhere a little fast and found ourselves waiting for it…
A Folded Path was a simpler concept – described as a ‘pedestrian speaker symphony’. The group was split in to two groups of around 12 people who were taken on a walk where every member carried a speaker (slightly larger than the Listening Choir ones). The speaker played a soundtrack to which our walk was choreographed – but also elements of the soundtrack were geo-tagged so they only triggered when we got to a specific location, meaning the music was responsive to the spaces we were in. So no hanging around waiting for things to happen. The music was in 12 tracks so at times each speaker was playing a different part, and sometimes you would hear the strains of a violin melody appear at the back of the group and work its way forward to your own speaker which was a little magical.
Although we were walking around Digbeth playing contemporary classical music rather loudly, the filmic nature of the music made it feel like we were in a little bubble where only we could hear it. Crucially it made me view my surroundings in a very different way. The simple sight of an old man crossing the road suddenly looked poetic when accompanied by the music. At one point as the music soared the leader made us run! And a surprise towards the end was when we were confronted under a railway bridge by the other half of the group and we played our speakers at each other: a lovely theatrical touch.
It felt like the artists who created a Folded Path had really considered the audience experience in making the work. It was less interactive but had a greater impact and felt more performative. Listening Choir started well but became a little repetitive and not as effective as it could have been – it seemed more about the concept than the audience experience. Supersonic is a music festival and Fierce is primarily a performance art festival, so these works make sense in their respective contexts but I couldn’t help comparing their different approaches to the same basic idea.
I recently heard about a similar, indoor piece called Mandala. Here audience members walk along lines in a pattern on the floor, carrying a small speaker. They are free to go where they choose along the lines, and often cross paths with each other but are not allowed to speak.
Mandala is a participatory live art/sound art performance for audience members, portable sound devices and combinations of shapes demarcated on the performance floor. Part immersive sound composition, part intimate choreography, part group meditation, Mandala asks how we might exist and interact with each other when there is nothing left to do but walk. – David Somlo (artist)
Jo Ross, who commissioned the piece for Oxford Contemporary Music, tells me it often works better in the context of a theatre festival rather than amongst other sound art, perhaps because people approach it as more of a fun and playful experience, taking it less seriously. For me that probably sums up the comparison between A Folded Path and the Listening Choir. A Folded Path was a little more accessible, playful for the audience and free-flowing, whereas the Listening Choir was more conceptual, ritualistic and serious. If one of us didn’t follow the rules, it could ruin the experience for everyone.
Across all of these works, I like the fact that the speaker conceals a lot of technology (usually mobile phones and recording devices) but to the participant it’s a simple box which occasionally does something magical. The lesson I’m taking away from this: keep it simple!