CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Eric Leonardson wants you to listen – really listen – to the sounds around you. The scrape of your shoe on the sidewalk, the buzz of insects in the trees, the clank of metal from a construction site – the sounds we might usually tune out or cover up with headphones.
Leonardson is a sound engineer, composer and performer, and a professor of sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has an interest in acoustic ecology, which promotes an understanding of the social, cultural and ecological aspects of the sonic environment.
He has been leading soundwalks for nearly a decade, and he’ll lead six soundwalks in Urbana this week as part of the Sonified Sustainability Festival at the University of Illinois. The festival celebrates sustainable practices in the arts.
A soundwalk is just what it sounds like. Leonardson leads groups on a walk, often – but not always – in a natural setting, and he gives instructions to help the participants listen more closely and become more aware of the sounds around them, both natural and man-made. They can include biological sounds from living creatures; sounds from the earth, such as wind, water or thunder; and human-generated sounds.
“This is special moment where we slow down and take note of those things that we otherwise would have been ignoring,” Leonardson said.
It also helps people realize the soundscape is not a static phenomenon, but it is constantly changing, he said.
Leonardson will lead soundwalks April 27-28 at 2:30, 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. The April 27 walks will be at Meadowbrook Park, and the April 28 walks will be at Busey Woods. They are free, but tickets are required and the walks are limited to 25 people each. Tickets are available at https://krannertcenter.com/sonified.
Soundwalks can have several purposes. One is the simple pleasure of it, Leonardson said.
They can also have a therapeutic effect as a walking meditation. Sounds can invoke memories, both positive and negative, he said. Leonardson said soundwalks often have a calming effect on participants.
“You’re taking a little time out of your daily routine and slowing down, listening to the crunching of sand or grass or gravel, or the scraping of your foot on a concrete sidewalk. All those subtle things you usually wouldn’t notice. You can hear it almost as a musical composition,” he said.
Soundwalks help make people more aware of what their auditory environment can tell them about the world.
“There are a lot more people interested in or concerned about the environment on a lot of different levels – the quality of food, air and water, climate change,” Leonardson said. “Being tapped into sound is a really important way to understand some of these changes. Sometimes a lot of information is not visible, it’s audible.”
Soundwalks also help participants notice the sounds of their own thoughts.
“We use language to think. Sometimes, if we’re anxious, we get caught up in the conversation in our own minds,” Leonardson said.
“During a soundwalk, you may find sounds you are ignoring because you don’t like them or because they are interference,” he said. “But at least you walk away knowing something about your world and your relationship with it that you didn’t.”