Stimmenspur: Sound Trails in the English Garden

The album-cover of the audio experiment, which you can download or stream to your phone. We are currently working on a shorter lunchtime version as well as a guided tour that features parts of the experiment. (Photo by Vera Kovács, 2017)

By Vera Kovacs

Have you ever burst into tears when a song came on the radio that reminded you of a loved one lost? Have you ever avoided going a certain route or into a room in your house where you once had a bad experience? Have you ever mimicked the hand gestures of a loved one you missed because it comforts you in a familiar and yet very powerful way? The human brain is one of the biggest mysteries in the world, so it comes as no surprise that certain sounds, places or movements will activate emotions, memories, and instinctive reactions in us. The knowledge that resides within us is not just a cognitive function, but also an embodied experience that we, as humans, project into everything that surrounds us. Moreover, things that we hear, see, touch, smell, or do, inadvertently change the way we experience the world; they change us. How can we enrich the field of the Environmental Humanities by taking seriously the way in which sensory experiences affect our lives? Katharina Müller, friend and co-dreamer, and I, believe the project we have created, Stimmenspur – Sound Trails in the English Garden, can help to answer the question of sensory enrichment. In the following short blog entry I introduce this project, its roots in anthropological research, and the ways in which our concept may be used in the field of environmental studies. We call it an audio experiment. It is our interpretation of an audio guide. By downloading or streaming it to your device, and by using our map for the English Garden in Munich,  you can take a 2-3 hour stroll and listen to over 100 minutes of audio material. The 21 stations of this audio experiment offer you a variety of ways in which to experience the English Garden. You can improve the meadows by collecting trash as explained to you by Thomas Köster, the director of the park himself. You can listen to the first recorded version of the English Garden song by DD Beck,or you can relax your shoulders and take a couple of deep breaths with meditation guided by yoga-teacher Sandra Reinalter. We coined the phrase ‘audio experiment’ because the outcome depends on the listener: what he or she is willing to experience, imagine, do, or listen to will always lead to a different answer to our primary question: what does the English Garden have to tell us? Katharina and I, as the researchers, creative minds, and editors of this audio experiment, were driven by the ambition to find and use all possible means of transferring knowledge. Our efforts have resulted in a site-specific, participative, performative, and sensory audio experiment.  The above possibilities which the guide offers are just a few examples of how the listener might engage with the audio material, the garden and its inhabitants – including humans, animals, and plants – and with their own views as well as needs. Thus, the listener will never experience the English Garden the same way again. Instead, he or she gets access to a form of perception that is not prescribed, but is completely unique and subjective.

Sandra Reinalter is one of many yoga-teachers who use the garden as an environment and backdrop to their yoga-lessons. She says the green of the park activates the heart-chakra and recharges its positive energies. (Photo by Vera Kovács, 2017)

Now, it would be great if we could claim that we are the first ones  to ever sail the stormy seas of this great unknown called an audio experiment. The truth is  that we had some extremely inspiring examples to learn from. The field of soundscape ecology, acoustic ecology, and bio-acoustics is one field that was really inspiring for our work. The fields of social and cultural anthropology does in fact have a large tradition of sensory, sounded, and performative approaches. The Leviathan (2012, 87’), a documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, ignored almost all rules of traditional documentary-filmmaking. They shot their film with GoPros hung on sticks, attached to the outfits of fishermen, and floating next to carcasses of fish. Through the lack of dialogue and the extremely expressive imagery and sound, Leviathan speaks a non-verbal language—and it has a lot to tell. We are not speaking about a stand-alone project either: the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University concentrates solely on research into the realm of the sensory. The term ‘sounded anthropology’ stems from Steve Feld, maker of the Voices of the Rainforest (1991, 60’). In the course of one hour, the listener experiences the sounds of one day in the rainforest, including the life, work, and songs of a Melanesian tribe. His research is rooted in the ethnomusicology of Colin Turnbull. Starting out in Vancouver, Canada, R. Murray Schafer laid down the foundations of an academic future for soundscape studies. He and his team visited several cities in Canada and Europe, recording and composing their soundscapes. These sensory ethnographic documentaries and soundscapes only contained sounds however, and did not use what they consider more traditional ways of knowledge-making, such as interviews or instructions for the listeners. For Castaing-Taylor, the ultimate goal is letting go of the researcher’s intent in order to create something real and unaffected by the presence of the ethnologist in the field. Sarah Pink on the other hand, author of Doing Sensory Ethnography, points to the advantages of a researcher aware of his or her sensory modalities and perception. Her method “walking with video” is what sparked our idea of a guided tour in the English Garden: Pink worked with members of the slow movement in London and asked them to give her a tour through their community garden. She would film how they moved in the space they created, and how they would interact with the plants. She calls this a “sensory apprenticeship”. Our idea was to take this “sensory apprenticeship” and to make it available to anyone interested. This then led us to performance studies. We didn’t want to just tell people about walking and talking with those working in the English Garden: we wanted to make the EXPERIENCE itself accessible to anyone. After all, experience serves as anthropologists’ raw material.

Our makeshift studio in Katharina’s apartment. We took turns reading the commentaries under the table covered by blankets.  We hope to record our next project in an actual studio, so let us know if you know of one! (Photo by Katharina Müller, 2017)

Thus, every time someone picks up our shared experience, and walks the Sound Trails of the English Garden, they would do so through their particular way of seeing, sensing, and moving. They would see the garden and walk through it at their point in time: the time of the day and the season would affect their experience and, as is our intention, add a different meaning to the Sound Trails left behind by us.

Our research is obviously strongly rooted in experimental work in anthropology, but how does the power of experience contribute to a study of the environment? During an interview with Thomas Köster (Managing Director of the English Garden) he told us how the Garden suffers. It suffers from an overwhelming number of 5 million visitors a year; it suffers from the litter left behind by the crowds; it suffers from people leaving the intended trails and traipsing through sensitive meadows. Köster sees this and the gardeners see this, but to the untrained eye, the garden is still a paradise with waterfalls, birds, and the most green one can get in a city of 1.5 million. The average visitor will never know that people start gathering trash from the great meadows hours before sunrise in the summer, that the grass is replanted regularly to cover up the damage done by sport-enthusiasts, or that foxes and birds die from consuming poisonous cigarette buds. So what do you do in order to make people see? What is most effective? Taking a picture of garbage? Explaining the damage cigarette buds and beer caps cause to the animals and plants? We argue that an audio track, which enables you to listen onsite, may effectively reach a smaller audience, but those who listen to it will have a plastic bag in their hands, they will bow down to the meadow, feel the cold metallic edge of the beer caps, and experience collecting at least 10 of them while listening to the voice of the park director. They will then move on to another station, but they will see what the informed eye sees, because they will have truly acquired that knowledge.

The Sound Trails in the English Garden are neither the first nor the last projects to combine the sensory, sound, and performance in a playful manner for a serious purpose. Janet Cardiff has created a number of walks, among them Her Long Black Hair (2005, 35’), which takes people on a walk through Central Park in New York. Susanne B. Schmitt, a sensory ethnographer, is currently co-developing immersive choreographic audiowalks about taxidermy with dancer and choreographer Laurie Young for several museums across the world. Katharina and I hope to work together again soon. I for one can never walk the paths of the garden the same way again. In embracing the sensory awareness wholeheartedly, I experienced an intimacy with this place that was just as rewarding as it was hard to bear. Not only are my memories of the time spent with the Sound Trails project seeped in the beauty of this place, but the garden now holds a part of me, with all my hopes, trials, and errors. Each  time I go down its winding roads, it is as much an encounter with the English Garden as it is with myself. Each spot, each view, sound, and smell is laden with emotion and memories. I feel exposed in a way I have never experienced before. Also,  most of my previous papers at the university were addressed to a deep and discreet drawer where they will likely stay forever. Putting out my voice as an anthropologist has opened my work up to scrutiny and criticism for the very first time, but I have come to realize that this confrontation will be an inevitable and vital part of my work moving forward. True encounters, I have learned, are always embodied, highly personal, and embarrassingly intimate affairs, and opening up to them takes effort.

The last station of the Sound Trails in the English Garden bids you farewell by the Kleinhesseloher See. The tour has reached its goal, as I remain sitting there long after it’s over, in the position of the Thinker by Rodin. (Photo by Katharina Müller, 2017)

Literature

Feld, Steven. “Waterfalls of Song: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea.” In Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso, 91-135. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996. 

Hollweck, Ludwig (ed.).  Der Englische Garten. Literarische Spaziergänge. Rosenheim: Rosenheimer Verlagshaus, 1989. 

Mayerhofer, Johann. “Geschichte des Münchner Englischen Gartens von seinem Beginne (13. August 1789) bis zur Errichtung der Hofgärtenintendanz (9. März 1804).” In Jahrbuch für Münchner Geschichte. 3.Jg., 1-52. Bamberg: Buchner, 1889. 

Papillion-Piller, Angelika. Der Englische Garten in München als „Volksgarten“. Die Ziele seiner Initiatoren und die Reaktionen der Bevölkerung bis 1830. Magisterarbeit at the Institut für Deutsche und Vergleichende Volkskunde LMU. München, 2000. 

Pink, Sarah. Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: SAGE Publications, 2015. 

Samuels, David W., Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa & Thomas Porcello. “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology.In The Annual Review of Anthropology, vol 39 (2010): 329-345. 

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny Books, 1994. 

Schaub, Mirjam. Janet Cardiff: The Walk Book. Berlin: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, 2015. 

Schmitt, Susanne B. Ein Wissenschaftsmuseum geht unter die Haut. Sensorische Ethnographie des Deutschen Hygiene-Museums. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2012. 

Audio 

Cardiff, Janet: Her Long Black Hair. 2005, 35’. 

Feld, Steven: Voices of the Rainforest. 1991, 59’. (last accessed am 16.06.2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTiRw7kx97E) 

Schafer, R. Murray: Harbor Ambience. In: R. Murray Schafer: CD1: The Vancouver Soundscape 1973. 6:31’ (last accessed 15.06.2017: http://www.sfu.ca/sonicstudio/excerpts/HarbourAmbience.mp3) 

Turnbull, Colin: Mbuti Pygmies Ituri Rainforest. 10’ (1956 & 1957) (last accessed 16.06.2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW2lv7_2KQg) 

Film 

Castaing-Taylor, Lucien and Véréna Paravel. Leviathan. USA, 2012. 87’ 

Macdougall, David. Doon School Chronicles. Australia, 1997. 143’

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