In the Shadow-walks project I go to places and ask local people to take me on walks that are special for them in some way. I record our conversations as we walk together. Later I retrace the person's walk on my own and attempt to “sing the walk” through vocal improvisations. These recordings are edited together to make the final sound piece. I also collect any objects I find on the person’s route.
You can listen to three Shadow-walks on this website- one in Portugal called Maresia and two in London: Slack Tide and Disegno. These sound-works are presented as radio pieces, recordings or sound-walks that others can do. Sometimes I make them into installations, often with the found objects displayed in various ways. You can see and hear a piece I made in Kingston, NY, USA: Shadow-walks: Kingston. It was presented with the objects suspended around the viewing area and a video made from images of the found objects, so there might be a nice combination of a giant image on the screen and the real, often very small, object hanging nearby.
You can find information and images of Shadow-walks on my Recent Work page.
The process is in three parts:
An initial residency of about 10 to 15 days.
Several weeks editing and creating the work in my studio.
Returning to present the finished work in the place where the walks occurred.
Shadow-walks residencies have occurred in these places:
USA: Brooklyn NY; Manhattan NY; Kingston NY; San Francisco CA; Fullerton CA; Grand Marais MN; Minneapolis MN; Rochester MN; Chicago IL
Ireland: Cobh; Cork
China: Hong Kong
Would you like Shadow-walks to happen in your city or neighbourhood?
Please get in touch with me for more information.
My ongoing sound project Shadow-walks began in 2003 and has occurred in 14 places in the USA, Canada and Europe. Kingston will be the 15th. It involves three main elements: walking with others, listening to environmental sound, and my own improvised singing.
As a sound artist and vocalist with special interests in the sense of place and in environmental sound, I have incorporated walking into my work as a direct way to experience a location.
There are some traditional links between walking, singing and the sense of place. You are no doubt familiar with the Aboriginal song-lines, the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are also known as 'Dreaming-tracks' or the 'Footprints of the Ancestors'. Then there are the Kaluli song paths, particularly relevant to my work. Anthropologist Steven Feld studied the Kaluli people of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea and has described their practice of song paths, the poetic song texts that take listeners on a journey through a local area. They do not move but they go on the journey through listening. Song paths operate almost as maps in which places are placed in memory and they are connected to the ancestors and to cultural identity. Feld’s writings were an important influence in the development of my work.
I became interested in those everyday sounds that I had previously ignored or blocked out, which connects with Pauline Oliveros’ method of “Deep Listening”. I began to notice that with focused attention even the sounds of a noisy construction site can seem quite fascinating and complex. This concern with environmental sounds and musical improvisation led me to consider methods of exploring places and interacting with them vocally. My first attempts, in 2002, were called Vocal Strolls and consisted mainly of wandering in the city while listening to the environment and responding with improvised singing. I recorded these drifts with binaural microphones, which I still use, as they produce a subjective three-dimensional soundscape when heard back through headphones.
I began my project Shadow-walks with the intention of incorporating other people’s experience of place into my work. James Joyce wrote that places remember events and I found this idea very interesting—that everything that happens leaves traces that we might be able to sense. I wondered if it was only the large events that we call history that are remembered, or if places also remember the small events of ordinary lives. If, throughout a lifetime, a person walks through certain places repeatedly, along the same route, does that ground retain traces of the person’s own history and memories? This question led me to create the project. It is an attempt to make a person’s traces, their shadow, audible.
The process is straightforward. I arrive in a new place and ask to be taken on a special walk, one that has been repeated many times and has meaning or significance for that person. While walking together, I record our conversations and environmental sounds. This is followed by a solo walk in which I attempt to sense my previous companion’s traces on the walk and to make them audible through improvised singing in the location. These recordings are then taken back to my studio and edited together to become the final work, the Shadow-walk. All the sounds and singing heard in the work were recorded in the actual place.
Shadow-walks have been disseminated in various ways: as audio-walks, radio pieces, at listening posts around a town and, most frequently, as sound installations in art galleries.
As I follow the person’s route, I collect everyday objects from the street. This was inspired by the practice of British walking artist Richard Long. As his walks usually occur in rural locations, the materials he transfers to the gallery tend to be natural, such as mud, stones or slate. My walks usually take place in cities or towns and therefore the objects I find, with the exception of occasional feathers and leaves, are typically debris and litter. These found objects are easily ignored traces left behind by others and they create a fascinating collage of a place through its detritus. I photograph the objects and frequently incorporate these photos and the objects themselves into my installations.
In order to consider what it is that makes a walk meaningful to someone, and how my improvisations can reinforce this, I will describe three examples of Shadow-walks, from USA, Ireland and Portugal.
Grand Marais, Minnesota, USA
“At the End of the Road” is a composition based on my residency in Grand Marais, a small border town in Northern Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior. Here amid the snow, ice and howling winds of April, I met a community of people who had escaped their pasts and left their cities, drawn by a need to live close to the lake and wilderness. Nine people took me on their special walks.
The title of the piece arose from conversations in which I was told: “People are just trying to get away and this happens to be the end of the road,” and “Somehow you’re in touch with the wilderness and I think that attracts people - and it’s the end of the road.” Between Grand Marais and Canada there is a vast preserved area of lakes and trees with little habitation. Many of the people that I met had left well-paid professions in order to do menial work in Grand Marais, simply because they found life there rewarding, off the grid and close to nature.
Their walks took me to places important to them. A nurse went to a car park to revisit the moment when he realized that he had finally found home in this town. A cartographer climbed up to a panoramic view, an artist went to the shore where she paints ice boulders in spring, and an Arctic explorer walked by the river where he goes to recover his health and shake off the inevitable depression that occurs after each expedition.
Grand Marais is not paradise: there are rednecks who drive ATVs on the footpaths, and many young people are forced to leave in order to find work. But the beauty and scale of Lake Superior, with its crashing waves and full-spectrum sound, is overwhelming.
I made an installation of this work in a museum in Portugal and also a gallery in San Francisco, which included a video of images of the place and also of the objects I had found there, many of which had been crushed beneath snow for months. The actual objects hung on fishing lines in transparent bags, creating a shimmering curtain through which visitors passed. The composition blended icy sounds, people’s words and my singing, all related to the harsh environment and to this community with its strong sense of place.
Cobh, formerly known as Queenstown, is situated in Cork Harbour, Ireland, and has a significant history. It was the main departure point for Irish emigrants to North America until well into the twentieth century. Queenstown was also associated with the great steam ships, including the ill-fated Titanic and Lusitania. In recent years both industry and tourism have declined.
During my artist residency there, fivelocal inhabitants volunteered to take me on their special walks. Hilda was born in Cobh and led me through places that spoke to her of her life and the history of the town. We began the walk outside the house where she was born, then walked to the dock where, as an eight-year-old girl, she was regularly sent alone by boat to baby-sit a cousin on a small island. We stood by the beach, or strand, as she described her children’s games with stones and painted a vivid picture of the town in steamship days, as people bustled in from all directions and “all the locals knew the times of the tides.” She told me of her husband’s death and her present life in a home for older people.
My singing followed the mood of regret and nostalgia in her reflections, and I tried to repeat her walk at the same pace as the original. This reduction in speed from my usual stride affected the way I vocalized, creating more time to breathe and therefore allowing a greater variety of long tones and phrases. Hilda had paused often, to describe her memories: “Those steps used to be so beautiful!” and “We had some good times.” When I stopped in those places I felt a strong sense of her presence and did not need to calculate how to sing her walk but simply allowed it to emerge through my voice.
Every special walk contains an element of an interior journey through a personal landscape, but Cobh provided the most extreme example, as I was guided on a walk without moving. John was 87 years old and could no longer physically walk, but offered to describe his favourite route as we sat in his room looking out to sea.
His description of the walk used both current and former place-names and combined personal reminiscences with history and mythology: his midwife grandmother’s story of infanticide by the docks, a creation tale about the island foxes, memories of growing up in an Irish Republican family, and much more. Our walk, unrestricted by the speed of an actual journey, lasted several hours. Usually I am able to participate in the sensory experiences of a person’s walk, but that was obviously not possible in this case. However, the quality of John’s storytelling created a common ground where I felt included in his inner walk.
As I retraced his route through the real streets of Cobh, I had the strong sensation that I was not only in this time and place but also in the old Queenstown, walking through many layers of history and memory. This was reflected in my improvisations, which combined very free vocalizing with echoes of traditional Irish music and keening.
Before I move on to my last example, I should mention a surprising point that has often occurred to me. This may well be a project where my gender is helpful. I have never been asked to account for my movements or for my loitering, unlike many male sound artists who record in public spaces. For example, I have the freedom to stand for some time, with no apparent purpose, just outside a school. Also, it is possible that people find it easier to trust me, share confidences and take me on a walk because I am female and therefore not seen as a threat.
Nine people took me on their special walks in Porto. As we walked I learned about their lives, philosophies and personalities. They introduced me to places I may not have found by myself or understood their significance if I had. The walks were as follows: a sociologist’s short route through extreme examples of social diversity, two strolls through the walkers’ former neighbourhoods, a sample of what my architect guide described as the “collage city”, a retracing of daily errands, a visit to a special place, and three walks by the sea that related to childhood.
What is a special walk and how do I reflect it with vocal improvisation?
The Special Walk
I am very struck by that sense of place which, according to sociologist Clifford Geertz, has not diminished in the contemporary world: “For it is still the case that no one lives in the world in general. Everybody, even the exiled, the drifting, the diaspora, or the perpetually moving, lives in some confined and limited stretch of it - “the world around here.””
(Geertz, Clifford. “Afterword”. In Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld & Keith H. Basso. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996.)
Certainly, in my own project I have discovered that walkers generally select routes that reinforce a connection with their own locality, however mundane the walk may be. Few choose walks where natural beauty is the main feature; mostly the walk is embedded in their daily lives and, even with young people, often it relates to their own history.
My vocal soundings have not become formalized into a system but remain an intuitive response, often to the undercurrents of the walk. After listening to my recording of the original walk with the person, I consider what it is that I perceive to be the essence of that person’s walk. This may be a particular mood, a sense of history, some aspect of their observations, the sound of their words, or many other factors. As I set out alone to walk their route, I try to embody this essence and allow my singing to emerge freely from this source.
However, while my improvisations aim to honestly express another person’s walk, still the fact remains that as I follow their path I am also taking my own walk at a different time, in different conditions. As an improviser I naturally respond with sound to these elements. My walk acknowledges the “now” as well as the “then”.
Attitudes to walking differ in certain ways between Europe and North America, but the notion of the “special” walk seems to be widely understood. Through my improvisations and compositions, I am trying to convey people’s special relationship with familiar places and also how that links to the interior landscape of personal history, memory and association. As Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities: “Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased.”
(Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. London: Vintage, 1972.)
Copyright Viv Corringham