Viv Corringham: Soundwalkscapes


Navel-Gazers #54 is an interview with Viv Corringham who is going to talk to us about her latest release Soundwalkscapes, on the Flaming Pines label. This album caught my attention immediately for a number of reasons, starting with the title: what’s a Soundwalkscape? I’m sure we’ll get the scoop from Viv - whose website is captioned “singing-walking-listening” - and looking more closely at the titles while making my way through the music, I’m already starting to grasp it. The foundation underneath each track here is a sound-walk through a specific place. They’re not exotic locations - not to me anyway, having grown up on Long Island, and settled in London… likewise one gets the sense that to Viv - another artist who vacillates between the U.S. and U.K. - as well, these settings are incidental. The liner notes explain: “It began with a self-imposed rule: on the first Monday of every month in 2023, wherever I find myself, I will take a walk. I’ll record the walk, the environment and my improvised sung response to the sounds and situation." I really like that mission to respond and the surprising directions it seems to send these sound-walks. Perhaps we can think of our questions as a response to Viv’s response. Let’s see how she responds!






AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! I normally start here by asking an artist about their background - I wonder if we can frame that in terms of the sound-walking specifically? It’s showcased on this album and is such a vital part of your work, how did that all start and evolve?

Viv Corringham: I’ve liked walking since I was quite young. I remember getting picked up by the police once when I was 13. They thought I was a runaway because I was walking by a highway about 15 miles from home.

I’d always sung in resonant spaces and with sounds I heard as I walked. But walking really became sound-walking about 25 years ago for me. There were 2 main events that triggered this.

One was volunteering on Resonance FM when it started in 1998. This was the first time I had heard so much sound art. I was very affected by people like Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax who work with the idea of our sense of place. That was something I had always been interested in - why do certain places affect us? How do we develop attachments to places we know well? What happens if we are forced to leave these places, or they change beyond our recognition? The composers I liked were using field recordings and electronics but I started to wonder if it might be possible to make this kind of work using my own medium of singing.

The second event that happened to me around the same time as the radio was meeting and working with composer Pauline Oliveros who has been a big influence. Her approach was to try to listen to everything all the time, without judging the sounds. This reinforced the interest I already had in those loud, everyday city sounds that it is often tempting to try to block out or ignore. I decided to bring them into my work and also to study with Pauline for a certificate to teach Deep Listening.

Soundwalking for me combines listening, my improvising voice and place. Walking and singing are both embodied activities - moving through an environment while responding vocally to what is heard, remembered and imagined.

My first efforts were called Vocal Strolls and became a regular show on Resonance FM for a few seasons. They consisted mainly of me wandering alone in the city while listening to the environment and responding with improvised singing. I recorded these drifts with binaural in-ear microphones which I still use.

I moved on to what I called Urban Song Paths, which connected more with the histories and function of the places I moved through, inspired by the Kaluli song path form from Papua New Guinea which is described by Steven Feld.

After that came my longterm (and continuing) project Shadow-walks in which I work with individuals and their “sense of place” - especially very familiar places, the idea of home and how this relates to memory and personal history.

I have also led many soundwalks for groups, including school children, made multi-channel versions of my walks and also two geolocated soundwalks.

Soundwalkscapes is the most recent project and follows a self-imposed rule:

On the first Monday of every month in 2023, wherever I found myself, I took a walk. I recorded the walk, the environment and my improvised sung response to the sounds and situation. Back home I added extra vocals, often electronically processed, as I remembered the walk.

AC: Let’s talk about the places where you found yourself. I know that you live in New York City, and I guess the visit to London is when you and I first met last April. Sag Harbor, Long Island is a location familiar to me but not one I personally associate to any kind of sound art. What were you doing on Long Island on those two occasions, do you go out there often? What do you recall about those walks?

Viv Corringham: Sag Harbor is where I spend most of my summers and I stayed there all year during the pandemic. I could freely walk every day seeing almost no-one and I did quite a lot of work there- including a cassette Here in our distant corner we wait. The two online groups I was already playing with- NowNet Ensemble and Doug Van Nort’s Electro-Acoustic Orchestra -became very important at that time. So for me the place is very connected with sound and music!

One thing I’ve found quite shocking is how much of the beach is private, and that was the impetus behind January’s walk in Sag Harbor. I began that piece by chanting some of the many notices about surveillance and what is forbidden on the beach.

The other beach walk I did in June was on Havens Beach, which is public. I was collecting sea water for a performance when I came across a notice warning against contact with the water because of high bacteria levels. The scenery is beautiful but the element of toxicity is what informed the final work.

Most of the walks occurred in Manhattan, where I live. Two follow my regular routes - one goes over to East River and a small local park in February, the other to Central Park in May. I’m interested in Seneca Village, an African American settlement that was swept away to build Central Park, and the work relates to that history.

In March I followed the route of the Minetta Creek which no longer runs above ground. I’ve long been interested in “lost rivers” and previously made work about the Fleet and the Walbrook. (The Walbrook walk will be on Volume 2 of Soundwalkscapes which will cover July to December 2023). When I follow these lost rivers I usually carry some texts that I sing/speak: about the history, culture and function plus writings from the time when it existed as a river.

The only London walk I made for January- June Soundwalkscapes was at the Barbican in April. I like its Brutalist concrete and it’s interesting to sing there. I was mainly concerned with the acoustics: flat or textured concrete, curves and hollow spaces. Plus splendidly creaky escalators.

AC: I’m curious as to your thoughts on hands-on vs hands-off approaches to field recording. Less than a minute into ‘Soundwalkscapes’ some post- or pre-production is clearly afoot (I hear two Vivs!) - still, the original recordings serve as the foundation to the end. Could you talk about your process of composition and the moments when you make those decisions?

Viv Corringham: That’s an interesting question! Actually I’ve never considered myself a field recordist. I don’t have high-quality equipment and I don’t spend time waiting for certain sounds or positioning the microphone in a particular way. I simply walk through an environment and interact with it vocally, recording as I go with binaural mics.

However, I hadn’t added electronic processing to environmental recordings until this project. I always felt that the sounds were interesting enough as they were and didn’t need me messing about with them. But for Soundwalkscapes I was often walking through very heavy traffic in New York and I made the decision to modify its relentless, full-spectrum density by playing with some time-stretching and pitch-shifting. As for layering my vocal recordings, I started doing this with Shadow-walks 20 years ago. I recorded all the vocal layers as I walked. This was a decision made as I re-trod a person’s route and felt I needed several voices at a certain place to relate to something the person had said or a particular mood or sensation that had occurred there. I always recorded the voice without listening to the ones I had already done, which often created some dissonances when combined, which I found interesting. Until recently all my soundwalking work used only recordings made on the walk, and this was a deliberate decision.

Sound Studio 80s
In Soundwalkscapes I added vocals in post-production. I also used electronic processing on them. In live improvised music gigs I’ve long used guitar pedals or iPad apps, but before the pandemic I had never used any vocal effects in soundwalk work. Then, when Shadow-walks had to change to an “at home” version and people were describing their walks to me, I was imagining and responding to them from my workroom. It seemed pointless not to use all my tools, especially as some of their walks had a dream-like quality which seemed well-served by minimal, strange electronic vocals. I continued this approach in Soundwalkscapes, which was always intended as a project where post-production would be quite important: making the soundscape from the soundwalk.

AC: I like those methods and that you’re not shy to use them.

There are a couple of specific passages I’d like to ask you about. On track 2 (Carl Schurz Park) there’s a weird section around 2:30 with a guy saying “celebrate”, and kids shouting. What’s going on there?

What about on track 4 (Barbican Estate), at the beginning you are singing along with this high pitched drone, that’s such an odd sound, any idea what that is?

Viv Corringham: On track 2, I can’t actually hear the word “celebrate”, but what’s happening is quite amusing. A sports teacher (I presume) is working with lots of very young infants and trying to get each of them to kick a football into a line of miniature goals at the far side of the tiny playing area. He encourages them to shout “goal” when they get there. But before they even kick the ball, nearly half the kids have fallen over and most of the rest are heading in the wrong direction.

On track 4, I’m walking past a huge construction site at Moorgate. I’m on one of the Barbican “highwalks” and getting the full force of machines, sirens and beeping lorries reversing. They blend together in a way that interests me - I’ve always enjoyed singing with building sites.

AC: A unique soundscape in a part of the city I always find odd!

You mentioned the second volume of this project, and your walks for the remainder of the year including one on the lost river Walbrook. What can you tell us about how the project developed over the course of 2023? Was there any evolution in your approach or your thinking? And in January 2024 did you just… stop? What was that like?

Viv Corringham: I viewed this project as an experiment, where I would try out different approaches to making work based on walks over the course of one year. I expected to find it hard at times and that I wouldn’t like every piece. Because the rule stated that I must go out on the first Monday of every month, no matter what, in August I found myself walking through a storm, recording mainly rhythms of water on an umbrella and my feet splashing through puddles. I like the final piece but the walk was hard. There were times when I was tempted to break my rule (but didn’t) and I found the restriction helpful. I realised that every walk contains something of interest and that treading the same route more than once need not be a problem.

I did two walks in Central Park, NY, a regular strolling place for me. In one walk I focussed on the former African-American Seneca Village (May) and in the other on the resonance of tunnels along the bridlepath (December). For another piece (November) I went through MOMA museum, another familiar walk. For two months I traced lost rivers, one in London and one in NY. In the second half of the year I happened to be outside my usual places for two first Mondays. In July I was at a walking arts festival in Prespes, Northern Greece, where I spent a lot of time listening to frogs. In October I was on tour in Germany and travelling by train, so my walk there was in Munster station.

I hoped the project would evolve sonically and musically through the year as I tried out different ways to play with the sounds. I had imagined a progression where I would find more and more skilful ways to use the electronic processing. What actually happened was that there were several changes in approach but no direct trajectory.

In January and February I was enthusiastically time-stretching and pitch-shifting environmental sounds but by the March lost river walk, which had more dialogue than usual, this felt less appropriate. Gradually through the year I found that I was reducing my use of processing. By December there were no electronics on environmental sounds; I was simply layering and processing my voice.

In May I experimented with losing the recorded soundscape at times and singing over emptiness. In past works I have sometimes lowered the volume of environmental sounds at certain points, but this was the first time I had interrupted a walk in this way. I was interested in showing that each work is an edited collage of sounds and not an attempt to reproduce a linear, “real” walk. I found the results interesting, reflecting a deeper response to place, and will probably pursue the idea in another project, but didn’t feel tempted to take it further in this one.

On the first Monday in January 2024 I woke up feeling that I had something to do but remembered the project had ended! It felt very strange.

AC: I certainly look forward to hearing Volume II. I guess the MOMA track is an indoor one, that sounds like an interesting shift.

What else have you got happening at the moment? I saw that you’re now having the album launch in May, I’ll try to make it to that. Anything else to mention or general thoughts for our readers before we wrap up?

Viv Corringham: I’ll be facilitating listening workshops and soundwalks later in the year, going to Northern Spain in July for a walking arts meeting and I have some improvising gigs in New York and London. But at the moment I’m busy finding ways to present my Soundwalkscapes as live performance. I’m working on a version of May (Central Park, NYC) for the album launch (in May). ‘May’ is a good one to start with as it’s quite fragmented and I’m playing around with how much of the original recorded walk to use live.

I’ve often used my walks as a basis for performance but never settled on a particular approach. However I was encouraged by a recent solo performance at Enclave festival in Mexico. I revisited a project from the year 2000, in which I followed several of London’s “lost rivers”. The river I chose for Enclave was the Fleet River which used to flow through the centre of the city but now runs underground in a covered pipe. For this new work ‘Following the Lost River Fleet’ I carried pages of quotes from writers and magazines of the time. As I walked the route I sang and chanted these words, while also responding vocally to the sonic environment and to memories from twenty years ago when I first walked and sang there.

There were ironies. The Fleet had once been the largest and most important river in London, with many springs and wells of potable water, providing power and transporting goods that included stone for the construction of old St Paul’s Cathedral in the twelfth century. However it was also used as a sewer and dump for waste from meat markets and tanneries. In 1710 Swift wrote about the stench:

“Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell

What street they sail’d from by their sight and smell…”

In the eighteenth century there was an urban myth concerning underground pigs that grew fat inside the Fleet, and finally the polluted state of the river led to its being enclosed in the nineteenth century. I was interested to note that the huge construction site by the Thames, that prevented me from ending my journey in the same place as I had on my previous walk, was an attempt to stop the flow of pollution from the “Fleet sewer”. Past and present are interwoven.

The work combined my 20 year old memories of a walk with a present walk. But even this “present“ walk was already a little in the past as I performed live to the recording of it. The performance responded to the present moment of performing and to my memories of both walks: a palimpsest of layered acts of remembering. This seems a good place to start.

AC: Sounds great, upwards and onwards! Thanks for talking to me.




Viv can can be found at her website https://vivcorringham.org/.




Images

All images uncredited/ Viv Corringham except:
3) Image by Carlo Fossati
8) Image by Ahmet Dogan
9) Image by Gina Southgate

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