Learning to love Chicago with your ears | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Learning to love Chicago with your ears 

The Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology believes engagement with the sonic environment can help build more sustainable communities—and it’s demonstrating with a soundwalk in the Chicago Pedway.

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ILLUSTRATION BY KATIE LUKES

  • Illustration by Katie Lukes

Update Thu 2/7: The starting point of the "Hear Below" soundwalk has changed. Meet near the Wow Bao in the Michigan Plaza of the Illinois Center, near the northeast corner of Michigan and Lake.

"When people stop listening, noise pollution occurs," says Eric Leonardson, summing up the field of acoustic ecology in just a few words. He's paraphrasing an idea from Canadian composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, a seminal thinker in acoustic ecology—broadly speaking, the study of the relationships that connect human beings, sound, and the environment. An audio artist, composer, and performer, Leonardson also teaches in the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and founded the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology.

Now in its 11th year, the MSAE is a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to promote public dialogue around the preservation and restoration of natural and cultural sound environments. It does this primarily by hosting public events, such as workshops on how to make field recordings and "soundwalks," which the organization has described as "focused listening in which one moves through a soundscape with complete attention to sound." These are a particularly important part of the MSAE's work—the group might invite people to listen to the recovering ecology of Big Marsh Park near Lake Calumet, for instance, or tune into the noises of gentrification in Pilsen.

A recording of an evening MSAE soundwalk from July 2014 in Millennium Park seems to capture almost every sound of the city. The water feature in Lurie Garden trickles constantly as people pass by in conversation, sometimes quietly, sometimes bursting in with a loud cackle, sometimes calling out to a child. "Oh, these are wildflowers!" one woman exclaims. Distant traffic sounds creep in occasionally, low enough to be mistaken for white noise. Gradually classical music becomes audible, the sound of stringed instruments rising and then fading away. A loudspeaker announces the commencement of a concert in Pritzker Pavilion. Then the music starts to build, blending with birdcalls, buzzing bugs, children playing, and passing talk. It's easy to imagine tuning all this information out—taken together, the sounds are nondescript, ordinary to any city dweller. But pausing to listen allows soundwalkers to capture a specific moment, creating an audio time stamp of the day.

"We're trying to raise awareness of the interrelationships of sound and listening and environment," says Leonardson, who serves as cochair of the MSAE. "The best way to do that is through a soundwalk, where you're not talking about listening but you're actually doing it. Better to understand just by doing."

The MSAE usually conducts soundwalks in parks or nature preserves during the spring, summer, and fall, but its first of 2019 is a different kind of undertaking altogether. It's happening in the downtown pedestrian way system, known as the Chicago Pedway, on Saturday, February 9. The MSAE organized the walk, titled "Hear Below: Listening to Chicago Underground," in conjunction with another local nonprofit, NON:op Open Opera Works, which stages immersive, site-specific events intended to expand notions of what opera can be. The two groups are frequent collaborators.


Hear Below: Listening to Chicago Underground
Update Thu 2/7: The meeting point has changed. Please refer to the note at the top of this story. A soundwalk in the Chicago Pedway, presented by the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology and NON:op. Sat 2/9, 2 PM, meet in the lobby of One Prudential Plaza, 130 E. Randolph, free, all-ages


Leonardson and Christopher Preissing, founder and director of NON:op, knew a winter event would have to happen indoors. "The soundwalks that I've been involved in, participated in, are most often outdoors," Preissing says. "It was like, 'What can we do inside that's interesting, that would involve moving through space?' The Pedway seemed like a natural option."

The Pedway provides shelter from the elements as well as access to shops, restaurants, city offices, the Cultural Center, Block 37, and Metra and CTA train lines, among other things. Though it's cut off from the sounds of nature and of street traffic, the Pedway is a useful place to demonstrate the MSAE's belief that our sonic surroundings should be a public concern. The organization has never limited its activities to partly wild or unbuilt spaces—it maintains that all environments are worth listening to, and that tuning in to them can better connect us to the good and bad in our communities.

"A soundwalk can present you with those things that you don't care for in your sound environment," Leonardson says. "You can find the things that are interesting and engaging as well as the things that are problematic. But [a soundwalk is] historically engaging people with their listening and their own physical role and experience in the social as well as the individual realm. I think that ties back to why it really is a public dialogue and needs to be understood like that."

A July 2017 soundwalk led by MSAE founder Eric Leonardson with Carl Strang and the Singing Insects Monitoring Program at North Park Village Nature Center - ERIC LEONARDSON
  • A July 2017 soundwalk led by MSAE founder Eric Leonardson with Carl Strang and the Singing Insects Monitoring Program at North Park Village Nature Center
  • Eric Leonardson

Leonardson, 60, grew up in the western suburb of Elmhurst, and from an early age he had a knack for drawing and painting. As a student at York Community High School, he thought he might go on to art school and become a commercial artist. "I really sucked at all the other things," he says. "If there was one thing I could excel at, I had this gift for drawing."

He also played percussion in a drum and bugle corps, but at the time he considered music merely a hobby. He was just beginning to discover avant-garde art, and an encounter with the work of Iannis Xenakis, an architect and civil engineer turned composer and music theorist, opened his eyes to its possibilities.

"It blew my mind," Leonardson says. He was particularly impressed by Xenakis's use of musique concrète, an experimental form characterized by the manipulation of recorded sounds as raw material. "You record a sound and play it backwards or slow down or speed up the tape, and then you produce a new sound out of real-world sounds," Leonardson explains. "It was so much like the sonic version of a surrealist painting to me. It evoked these really alien spaces and worlds in my imagination."

As an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University in the late 1970s, he wanted to pursue video art, then a cutting-edge medium. Unfortunately the price of the gear was cutting-edge too. "To have your video kit to make video art—no way, that stuff was just way out of reach financially," he says. He found sound equipment more accessible, and eventually he acquired a microphone, a reel-to-reel recorder, and a used analog synthesizer. In 1983 he earned an MFA in Time Arts from SAIC—the school's sound department didn't yet offer a master's degree, so he'd entered a program that grouped other time-based media such as video and performance.

"I just shifted my focus to sound, because I realized sound was so important to making video work," Leonardson says. "And actually it was more interesting. There were things on the fringes of punk rock and experimental music and art. There was all this experimentation going on. I was like, 'Yeah, let's see what we can do.' I was making noise with other musicians that didn't know how to play their instruments. But that was OK, because it was punk rock. It was more about what you had to say than having technique."

After graduation Leonardson continued to compose and perform, solo and in various experimental improvising groups. He also began to develop a fascination with acoustic ecology. "I was interested in radio art and things like that," he says. "These other ways to work with sound as an art practice was my exploration. Acoustic ecology fed into that because it incorporated the ecological, the social, all these other aspects of sound outside the arts, it seemed—including them, though, and actually creating an interdisciplinary or holistic way."

The field of acoustic ecology was even more niche ten or 20 years ago than it is today, but it started to gain traction in the U.S. in the mid- to late 2000s. In 2008, Chicago writer and multidisciplinary artist Dan Godston founded the World Listening Project, a group devoted to understanding the natural environment through listening and field recording; Leonardson is currently its executive director. Around that same time, a loose sound collective called Chicago Phonography first convened to perform live improvisations using field recordings from around the city.

"There seemed to be a group of people interested in field recording, acoustic ecology, and so forth, and it was really interesting because I thought I was the only freak around here that cared about this," Leonardson says.

The American Society for Acoustic Ecology formed in 2006, and chapters sprang up in New York City, the Bay Area, and New Mexico, among other places. In 2009 Leonardson decided to start a chapter for the midwest. "I didn't know of anything going on elsewhere in the middle of the country," he says. "So I was bold, or idiotic, and called it Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology. We became a formal chapter of American Society for Acoustic Ecology, which is associated with this group that was formed 25 years ago, the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology."

Today the MSAE has seven board members, Leonardson among them, who are involved in all its major decisions. And dozens of other folks around Chicago are affiliated with the group in other ways, often as teaching artists or in occasional supporting roles—they've included composer and Experimental Sound Studio treasurer Ed Herrmann, sound artist and teacher Monica Ryan, experimental musician Anthony Janas, and recording engineer and TV Pow multi-instrumentalist Todd Carter.

Leonardson says that part of what first drew him to acoustic ecology and the study of soundscapes was how new the field was. "It all started up in the 70s, and so it wasn't until the 80s [that] it had some interest in little places," he says. "I didn't know much about it myself. Maybe for that reason I was drawn to it: 'What is this about sound?'"

Artist and MSAE board member Norman Long helps lead a soundwalk in Big Marsh Park in July 2017. - COURTESY THE MSAE
  • Artist and MSAE board member Norman Long helps lead a soundwalk in Big Marsh Park in July 2017.
  • Courtesy the MSAE

"Simply put, a soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment," writes Hildegard Westerkamp, a German-born Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist, in the 2006 essay "Soundwalking as Ecological Practice." "It is in the meeting between such a listener and the sonic environment where the seeds for environmental change are planted."

Westerkamp's definition was formative for Leonardson, yet every artist evolves an individual approach to soundwalks. "Once you do it, it's a practice," he says. "For that practice to develop, you need a diversity of approaches and dialogues."

In 2016, the MSAE's free public soundwalk series became part of the Chicago Park District's Night Out in the Parks. Each year the group brings in a variety of teaching artists to host walks, the themes of which have included learning the calls of Chicagoland frogs and using special listening stations to hear the sounds just below the surface of Lake Michigan.

"It's a good fit for the parks," says Sean Heaney, a senior program specialist for the Park District. "Because the parks deal in public space, and the soundwalk series is basically inviting folks to better understand those public spaces but also connect deeper with them, connect deeper with their sound, connect deeper with themselves, and connect deeper with others around them."

Local artist Norman Long, a member of the MSAE's board, has been leading soundwalks with the group since around 2013, and he's been part of it since 2010. "In my practice as an artist, I like to connect people with their community, history, culture, and ecology," he says. Last year he hosted a soundwalk in Calumet Park that looked at the neighborhood's industrial history.

"I like to introduce people to those things—sort of have a historical aspect on my walks," he says. "I take it as also a walking meditation. So I do a series of ear-calibration exercises and mindfulness exercises."

Long hopes that people leave his walks newly receptive to their sonic environments. "It really is this idea of being able to listen—just this openness to listen and to connect through sound," he says. "It's a kind of sensitivity that we all can have, and then we can act on that basis as well. When I do a soundwalk or when I started leading these walking meditations, it was to calm myself down and to actually feel connected to my community."

Performance and sound artist Amanda Gutiérrez, also a board member of the MSAE, was already incorporating walking into her practice when she met Leonardson in 2015. At the time she was part of a dérive group in Pilsen—that is, a group of people who travel quickly through a landscape in unplanned ways, hoping to shake their observations free of everyday associations and relations. (Guy Debord formalized the concept in the 1950s with an essay called "Theory of the Dérive.") For Gutiérrez, leading soundwalks is particularly relevant to her work: she's pursuing a PhD at the University of Girona in Spain on the soundscapes of immigrant communities.

Gutiérrez chose to keep her soundwalks in Pilsen, with people interested not only in sounds of nature but also in sounds of the city. "Sounds of pollution are something that are really in our everyday life and are affecting us," she says. "Especially in Pilsen, because it's surrounded by sonic pollution—the airport, factories like a constant hum, and the freeways."

Being part of the MSAE has helped Gutiérrez feel welcome in the local sound community, an experience she hasn't enjoyed everywhere—in her native Mexico City, she feels the scene remains "very male oriented." She says Leonardson has been open and inviting to artists of color without tokenizing them. "He's very self-aware of his role and also opening up the little space that he has for other voices, which is very strange to see," she adds. "I think the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology is opening up and diversifying those observations about soundscape."

The lobby of One Prudential Plaza, where the Chicago Pedway soundwalk “Hear Below” will begin. - COURTESY SOLOMON CORDWELL BUENZ/DARRIS LEE HARRIS
  • The lobby of One Prudential Plaza, where the Chicago Pedway soundwalk “Hear Below” will begin.
  • Courtesy Solomon Cordwell Buenz/Darris Lee Harris

The lobby of One Prudential Plaza is opulent and gray. Light gleams off gray marble floors, soft gray chairs rest on a neutral gray rug, and a row of gray columns runs lengthwise through the room, reaching upward to meet a gray-striped ceiling. But on the back wall, facing the entrance, hangs a giant flat-screen TV that's easily the length of a pickup truck, displaying beautiful aerial nature footage likely shot by a drone. Sunlight pours from behind a forest of Douglas firs; an overhead shot looks down on snow-covered trees. It's a perfect if somewhat ironic place to begin the "Hear Below" soundwalk.

"The starting point in the Prudential center, it's really a visually splendid space," Leonardson says. "We may want to explore that with our eyes open and then our eyes closed. A simple thing—just to close your eyes and listen for a while. The brain kicks in and fills the gap."

Just after 5 PM on a weekday in the Prudential lobby, adult contemporary music plays faintly in the background, quiet enough to go unnoticed. The clacking footsteps of commuters, hurrying downstairs to catch the subway, pass by in a thin but unbroken stream. A woman in heels stomps past. Some people head downstairs carrying on conversations in low tones. At the bottom of a short flight of stairs, a revolving door opens on the Pedway. It produces a low thwacking sound as it turns, depositing commuters in a relatively busy thoroughfare where the level of ambient sound suddenly rises. Restaurants and businesses are open to customers on either side of the hallway.

According to the city, the Pedway is traversed by tens of thousands of pedestrians every day. "When I walked through it, what I noticed right away is that there are different spaces, and they're all visually different—but they are all acoustically different," Preissing says. "There's literally doors at either end, so that when you go into a space there's kind of like—thwack—the door closes and you're in a new environment."

Leonardson thinks foot traffic through the space might pose a challenge, depending on how busy the Pedway is on Saturday. "If you want people to navigate with their ears, you actually have to slow down," he says. "That's hard to do in certain places."

Preissing agrees. "Part of what we do at the soundwalks is to try to see with our ears," he says. "And consciously make an effort, not stumbling around in the dark, but just allowing ourselves to focus on the ears and what's coming in there, rather than just the eyes. That means standing someplace or moving slowly or having some kind of guided experience—then it really opens things up."

No matter what happens in the Pedway, it's ultimately part of the environment the walkers are there to experience. Leonardson isn't particularly concerned about potential difficulties—like R. Murray Schafer before him, he cares more about what can happen when people stop listening or become closed off from their surroundings.

"The people, there in my mind, are not just specialists—technical engineers or musicians or people involved in sound," Leonardson says. "The people are all the people, all the human species, aside from things that might impair one's ability to hear. It's first and foremost a public concern, because it's about quality of the environment. That's why I think the public dialogue is necessary."

Another lesson he's taken from Schafer is that if you want to inspire people to act constructively, you can't focus solely on the negative. "You can point out all the terrible things that happen to whales due to anthropogenic noise in oceans," Leonardson says. "Yeah, it is dire and it is heartbreaking and it must be curtailed somehow. But to get people activated, you also have to focus on what you love about sound. That's why this focus on soundwalking is important too. You're directly engaged with listening."

Leonardson will share his enthusiasm for sound at the Wild Things Conference on Saturday, February 23, at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. At this daylong event, which celebrates local nature and the ways people enjoy and protect it, he'll lead a session on acoustic ecology. The MSAE is also busy confirming its summer soundwalk series with the Park District, details of which will be made public in May. Leonardson looks forward to continuing to help diversify the field of acoustic ecology, by working to ensure that the MSAE reflects the community it serves.

"The public is a very diverse public, so we have to have everyone involved," he says. "I think we try to be very aware and conscious of that. And what's going on in the current sociopolitical culture is really making it pretty obvious how urgent it is. It's just really urgent."  v

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