Now it’s for real. Last year it was for a lark. In July 2020, we simply went out to town to listen. In a small group, formalised as part of the joke, at the beginning of the first mid-pandemic thaw, and missing the communal experience of sound, we walked around Warsaw, inventing new ways of listening, sharing our associations and impressions with each other, and enjoying the chance to be together again. With a group of over a dozen sound artists, composers, critics, and performers, we were looking for an answer to the question of how to adjust the art of sound in times of a pandemic. We all intuitively felt that our listening had changed, and it was not just about the streets no longer being jammed and birds sounding louder, more audibly. We felt that our sense of hearing in space had sharpened, that what is familiar somehow sounds unfamiliar when we are in company, that we had seriously missed “live” experimental music. And, most of all, that reflection on listening still combines helplessness with excess and insatiable curiosity.
Last year it was for a lark. Now it’s for real. Now we are asking ourselves in earnest how to establish such intimate listening communities at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. We risk failure in this collision of ephemeral experience with the institution; this encounter with the aesthetics of defeat. A soundwalk is an unstable form of artistic expression. It stubbornly evades copyright, plays truant from artistic schools, constantly gets out of role. It is equally a musical composition, performance art, artistic fieldwork, a trip, a conversation, a workshop, and a lesson in listening. Never all of this at once and never just one of the above. You walk until you hear: yourself, others, the community, the place, the environment, stories, imagination, body, and movement. In this ambiguity, we sense the greatest potential of the soundwalk as an alternative way of knowledge production. Is this all gibberish? Let us then take two steps backwards and pause for a moment.
Acoustic ecologists have conducted soundwalks since the 1970s. In the classic formula, their aim is to sensitise participants to the wealth and problems of the sonic environment, so that the audience, thus equipped with a new awareness, would change the soundscape for the better: restore the balance of the senses, reduce noise, protect sonic diversity and acoustic design. All these ideas were developed in the early 1970s in Vancouver by the interdisciplinary research team of the World Soundscape Project led by the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. But since then, soundwalks have constantly been evolving. They are employed by performance artists, composers, field recording authors, visual artists, itinerant magicians, and grant hunters. At the beginning of last summer, we noticed their potential to bring sound art from the world of digital broadcasts back to reality. We called it the 30th Jubilee International Festival of Warsaw Sound Walks “Slow Soundwalking Warsaw” Pan-the-Mic Edition. Why not? The same team is getting back together in the autumn of 2021, but this time our goal is to form small communities of listeners at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, which will meet four times during the festival, in different parts of the city, to walk along the sound paths we have composed. In line with the spirit of acoustic ecology, we are upcycling some of last year’s ideas that we do not want to throw into a disposable culture bag. And we have made it our point of honour to bring them back into a state of decomposition.
On the itineraries of our four walks linked by the slogan Walk until You Hear, seven routes of thirteen composers intersect. At times we have acted as a team, while at others some of us have gone their own way. Together, we have formed a well-trodden path, a four-part series (an opera? a suite? we shall learn afterwards), and we now expect a concert performance in the true sense of the word. We have entrusted the interpretation to six performers, each of whom will conduct a team of several festival guests in a different manner, determined by an aleatory system of notation. We stick to the score but are ready to turn everything upside down if necessary.
Part one, WALK UNTIL YOU HEAR for yourself, is a classic sound walk. There are no props, no speakers, only a listener, and around him/her, the intact soundscape of the Warsaw Żoliborz district, which remains intact until it is heard using one of the methods developed by Aleksandra Kowalczyk, Magdalena Barszcz, and Gustaw Gliwiński. The act of listening thus becomes an inbred form of composing reality.
The next day we will immerse our warmed-up ears into neighbourliness, localness, and being socially at home. The second part of the cycle, titled WALK UNTIL YOU HEAR Grochów, is a musically sensitive study of the urban organism on the example of one of the most colourful districts of Warsaw. Maximiliano Bober, Mikołaj Ratajczak, and Sławomir Wojciechowski have created a route leading through yards and housing estates. They attract our attention to sounds written on historic walls and in books, spin tales about the everyday life of the inhabitants of the district: those whose TV and radio sets we hear through the open windows, and those awkwardly silent, not remembered well enough.
WALK UNTIL YOU HEAR limits faces up in the most literal fashion to the age-old problem of the cultural opposition between music and sound, but also that between (counter) cultural and ecological approaches to the noise music and noise pollution. The event, composed by Krzysztof Marciniak, Aneta Stefańska, and Krystyna Wiśniewska, will bring the audience to the banks of an underground river of noise, into the deepest abyss of the lo-fi environment. Izabela Smelczyńska and Mateusz Śmigasiewicz, whose composition deludes the ear and blurs the boundaries between sonic reality and a musical dream, will help us get back to the surface.
The walk by Kuba Krzewiński and Aleksandra Chciuk titled WALK UNTIL YOU HEAR in motion puts to the test the music of one of the most monumental composers. It combines elements of various musical cultures in a virtuoso style, from the “prom” polonaise to uninhibited contemporary dance to the spinning of dervishes, aiming to design an experimental concert situation for this extremely familiar soundtrack. Finally, it reminds us that the listener does not consist only of ears.
Krzysztof Marciniak and Joanna Zabłocka