The 25 or so participants donned nametags proclaiming their mission for the afternoon — taglines ranged from “Shhhh…call me later” to “Silent Walker” — before setting out for a quiet walk through the downtown area. Departing from City Lights Bookstore, they passed through the maddening sound of a leaf-blower, crossed atop the pleasant burble of Scotts Creek and padded alongside the chattering noise of Main Street.
Heads turned when dogs barked and silent staring matches ensued as drivers passed with inquisitive looks.
For locals, it was an opportunity to experience familiar places from a different perspective, but for tour guide and Sylva native, Tyler Kinnear, the walk was a specialty of his expertise in acoustics and soundscapes. He led the snaking walk with a recorder extended in front of him. Later, he’ll cut and splice the recordings into short snippets of audio and archive them for sharing and reflection.
Kinnear, visiting his hometown for the holidays, is now is in his fourth year of doctorate study at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he studies music history and indulges his side-hobby of sound walks.
In addition to sound walks in Vancouver, Kinnear has done them on the streets of New Orleans and San Francisco. Two weeks ago, following the completion of his first-ever sound walk in North Carolina, he added Sylva to that list.
Sylva’s ambient sounds may not stack up to the jazzy blues emitted by street musicians of the French Quarter, the clatter of street cars on the San Francisco Bay or the black powder report made nightly at 9 p.m. from the historic naval cannon in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
But Sylva’s local noises — such as church bells, the creek and ceaseless Southern chatter — are just as important for its residents to take notice of.
“What I hoped to do with leading a sound walk was introduce local people to sound walking,” Kinnear said. “It’s really just taking time to give the ear priority and listen to what we’ve shaped and created.”
Sound clips from the walk in Sylva included recordings of kids playing outside on a creaking metal swing set, the basement of a Main Street café with muffled noises above, and poems read aloud by several of the participants at breaking points along the route.
However, the art of sound walks is not only for appreciating the fruits of the oft-ignored sense, but it also opens one’s ears to the consequences of choices made by a community.
“It’s a chance to reflect,” Kinnear said. “It gives us the option or awareness to assess or think about if we want to put pleasing sounds into the world … or does it even matter.”
For example, Sylva’s downtown area, a main thoroughfare, is laden with the sound of traffic and rumbling automobiles. Leaf blowers and exhaust fans, though they accomplish the goal of leaving a lawn barren of fallen leaves and the inside of restaurants well-ventilated and comfortable, also have a tendency to dominate the sound waves, for better or worse, drowning out the chirps of birds and human voices.
Many on the walk struggled to make peace with some of the seemingly unpleasant sounds the town had to offer, but found the easiest way to make peace was to approach the experiment with open ears.
Participant Newton Smith, 73, of Tuckasegee, said the experience forced him to pay attention to the sounds he typically drowns out on a daily basis. It also led him to reflect on the daily sounds he produces — he admitted he frequently operates a chainsaw — and the unintended effects of his actions.
“We do things that make noise that intrude on other people, everyday,” Smith said of his personal sound-print. “I’m sure many of us will be focusing more as we go on with the week, remembering the walk and remembering to listen.”
The practice of sound walking itself stems from a movement that has roots in Vancouver, dating back to the 1960s. The study of soundscapes or acoustic ecology, as it was dubbed, emerged as an attempt to bring attention to the affects of noise pollution and changes in the environment.
Since then the field has expanded and evolved. But the final judgment on a sound might be in the ear of the beholder.
“Good sounds and bad sounds are up to individual,” Kinnear said. “Your definition may be the same as mine but different from you neighbors’. One person’s music is another person’s noise.”
That point was made clear at an intersection along the walking route, when a man driving a large Ford truck stopped at the red light next to the group with his diesel engine humming. Inside the cab he sat, oblivious, chatting with the passenger and possibly listening to pleasant music on the radio.
But whatever a listener’s preference, there is an inherent importance of not ignoring the input that flows through the sensory organs on the periphery of one’s head — to do so might even be unnatural. Kinnear hoped he conveyed that point to the small segment of the population on Sylva’s first-ever, organized sound walk.
“Once you start opening your ears it’s hard to stop,” Kinnear said. “If you don’t want to look at something you can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears. We’re supposed to have open ears and listen.”