Hear Below: Listening to Chicago Underground

By Eric Leonardson

February 9, 2019: On a cold winter afternoon in downtown Chicago more than 30 people gathered for Hear Below: Listening To Chicago Underground, a free, public soundwalk co-hosted by the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology and NON:op: Open Opera Works. The founders of each of these nonprofit organizations, myself and Christophe Preissing, led the diverse group of participants through the underground pedway, a lesser-known feature of Chicago’s architectural landscape, an extended, subterranean network of passageways, built over decades,, connecting key points of transportation, commerce, and government. The walk began inside the Illinois Center at the northeast corner of Lake Street and Michigan Avenue, and concluded at the CTA Blue Line Station at Washington and Dearborn.

As Canadian sound ecologist and composer, Hildegard Westerkamp describes it, a soundwalk is any walk “whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are.” As an ecological practice, soundwalking engages people directly with their own experience of listening. Some may think of soundwalks as “audio tours” in which individuals use earphones as they walk through a museum or some other site. Our soundwalk differed. Technology was optional, and using one’s willingness to change the focus from looking to listening also created unique experiences. A few days before the Hear Below event, Kerry Cardoza published this informative article about the event and the practice of soundwalking in The Chicago Reader.

While other sightseeing tours of the Chicago pedway are offered to the public, Christopher Preissing’s approach departed from the typical visual emphasis for the aural. Soundwalkers listened for the distinctive sounds and ever-present tones that define the pedway’s many rooms, corridors, and their occupants. We hope participants gained a sense of how sound and listening enhance knowledge or subvert assumptions about ordinary places and the scenes and events within, and invited them to share their experiences in words, images, and field recordings. Rebecca Kaufman and Greg O’Drobinak generously responded to our invitation with the reflections below. We welcome more comments from those who joined us. Feel to contact the MSAE at info@mwsae.org or add a comment to this post below.

Being in a Science Fiction Narrative

Rebecca Kaufman

During this soundwalk, the first things I noticed were the sounds of electronic voices in the train station, coming on intermittently, speaking in different voices that seemed to be almost talking to each other. Also really noticeable, starting in the first train station, and continuing through most of the other spaces (the only place it wasn’t really noticeable was under the Cultural Center), was the kind of constant buzzing, electronic noise that may have been made by heating systems or air circulation or something like that. When you start noticing those constant, underlying noises, it is hard not to focus on them, although they were louder in corners away from other sounds (and this mechanical noise also sounds somewhat similar to the sound of the wind howling which we listened to outside Space p11).

For optimal spatial results, please listen with stereo headphones.

For optimal spatial results, please listen with stereo headphones.

Video clip recorded at the Metra Station

The soundwalk made me notice how I think of sounds as being “fake” when they are mechanical and “real” when they are made by nature, and how it is kind of disturbing to realize we are surrounded by mechanical sounds almost all the time. At one point I heard voices, and I assumed they were from an advertisement on a tv screen (probably because to me they had a heightened, performative sound), but when I went around the corner, I saw that it was real people actually talking.

For optimal spatial results, please listen with stereo headphones.

To return to the start of the soundwalk, I noticed right away that for me, the visual blends with the sounds and it’s hard to separate them. Especially since we were in train stations, there is a certain romantic idealization of trains, which is something a lot of people share, so at that point I started thinking about the movie North by Northwest and was actively hearing myself think about it. Once I became aware that I was doing that, I was able to make myself stop, and was able to listen without my thoughts going off on tangents for most of the remainder of the time. Clearing your head of conscious thoughts (which can be “heard” by your brain) while actively listening to your surroundings brings on the meditative state that several people mentioned during the discussion afterwards. (And closing your eyes while listening definitely helps with this).

In the Metra station that had the curving silver ceilings and floors, a couple of different themes emerged. The first was that although there were a lot of people there, both seated waiting for trains, and walking toward trains, there was very little verbal noise from these people who were in many cases wearing earbuds or earphones. The constant mechanical noises were drowning a lot of other sounds out (kind of making a wave of sound that enclosed us), so it was sort of jarring when another sound did emerge, like the song “Cheek to Cheek” playing in Starbucks, and then shortly after a man was asking for food, and talking about how he considered taking his own life.

For optimal spatial results, please listen with stereo headphones.

For optimal spatial results, please listen with stereo headphones.

During this part of the walk, when we were among other people who were not part of our soundwalk, I started to notice, and other people mentioned this during the discussion, that our group felt like it was separate from the other people who were there, it felt like we were observing everything and therefore more aware of, but less a part of, the normal activity of the station. It almost felt like we were in a different dimension moving through this space.

As a final note, when we closed our eyes and listened for the sound furthest away from us, that was a really helpful way of expanding how we hear. Usually I walk around trying to get as close to the source of various sounds as I can but will start trying to listen to what is far away.

(also, this soundwalk included so many different environments, including wealth and poverty, history past and future, etc. that made it very evocative)

Rebecca Kaufman

February 15, 2019

P.S. After I sent it I was also thinking about how the soundwalks are about art, but also about science, and how being on the soundwalk felt sort of like being in a science fiction narrative.

February 16, 2019

Greg O’Drobinak recording. Photo by Eric Leonardson

Phonographic Indulgence: Perceiving the Environment

Gregory M. O’Drobinak

The Hear Below soundwalk was a very interesting experience, taking place in the pedway underground from about 200 N. Michigan, then south and west to the Red Line El station. Since it was underground, the dominant environmental sounds were often from machines, notably ones that annunciated, moved air, and transported people.

The mix of people and those machines gave rise to a gestalt that embodied emotions ranging from austere and artificial, to the humorous and poignant. My kind of place!

When I joined the group at the gathering point, I quickly set up my recording gear, a small Tascam DR-70D and an Audio-Technica BP4025 stereo microphone on a tripod. That gear enabled me to move easily with the group, but was also perfect for grabbing a sound at length in a fixed location. My open-back headphones enabled an uncolored, yet focused glimpse into that synthetic environment.

I’ve been on many soundwalks over decades, so I am quite familiar with the concept of focused, expanded listening. Most everyone uses only their ‘naked’ ears during these events, but given the unique venue of this one I felt compelled to listen most of the time through the narrowed acoustic receptors of my recording gear. I find that it affords me a way to really hone in on particular aspects of a sound environment, to study certain details much as a photographer would use certain lenses to define their point of view. Hence the term, ‘phonography’.

And doesn’t ‘POV’ have a certain fetish association with it these days? By disassociating myself from active listening using only my ‘own’ ears, I use the recording chain extension to them as a way to assimilate the sonic space in any way that it pleases me. I can focus on a particularly lovely sonic space, dwell on its various spatial aspects in an enhanced manner at that moment and then be able to once again experience it in the future at will. For me, it is the best of both worlds.

So, is this phonographic indulgence any better than the many people we observed, walking briskly through the under-city, earbuds implanted, personal sonic blasts filling their eardrums with …. what? Yes, unequivocally (in my opinion), since my focus is outward into the world, with its weird and wonderful wheezes, buzzes and hums. I revel in it! And when the batteries die and no electronics are working any longer, I still have my own ears. And I know how to use them.

I hope that you will enjoy my sonic snapshots from Hear Below. Live long and listen closely to the world we live in. It can tell you many things of how we live and what is really happening below the surface.

Gregory M. O’Drobinak, Singing Sands Studio

April 23, 2019

Listen to Greg’s full set of selected recordings made during the soundwalk at https://soundcloud.com/midwestsocietyforacousticecology/sets/hear-below-listening-to-chicago-underground . For optimal listening results use stereo headphones. Thanks to Deirdre Harrison for copy editing.