Video & Sound – Thoughts on a Soundwalk

Assignment: My classmates and I visited Central Park to go a soundwalk created by artist Janet Cardiff, titled “Her Long Black Hair”. The piece was funded by the Public Art Fund. 

To my surprise, I found myself very emotional in Central Park today. Call me jaded, but after living in New York City for fourteen years and working near Central Park South for eight years, I expected to have a walk through the park like all the others I’ve had over the years. Beautiful but overused. Natural but artificial. The lung of the city but congested with lots of people on a Saturday.

However, Central Park and I were lifted up into another realm through sound.  Thanks to Janet Cardiff and her soundwalk “Her Long Black Hair”, I saw the park in a new way as the past was replayed over the present, many times into the future.

First of all, Cardiff is a fortune teller. There really WAS a man reading the newspaper when she said “Turn to the right. There’s a man on the bench reading the paper.” (!!) Read on for my impressions on the rest of the piece.

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As promised, a man reading the newspaper on a bench.

Concepts

Here are three things that resonated most with me during Cardiff’s sound walk.

  • Common vs. singular: Several times, Cardiff transformed people’s common rituals in the park into singular and spontaneous performances. For example, I was certain Cardiff put the man reading the paper there just for me. But the piece was created in 2005. There must be countless men reading newspapers on that bench each month.  Cardiff must have done her research to know this. She certainly relies on them to be these unwitting New Yorkers if she features them so early on in her soundscape piece!
  • Overlapping layers of time: Cardiff says in Track 2: “Go towards the tunnel. Now we’re walking across where she stood. One time across another.”  Instead of time being a linear experience that can never be repeated, Cardiff’s soundscape makes the argument that past and present can coexist on top of one another, through replayed sound and memory.
  • The present moment frozen in time:  Cardiff wove together ancient and contemporary stories to explore how moments can be lost but still seared into one’s memory or in a photograph.  I found it incredibly rich and moving for Cardiff to fold a contemporary NYC story about a woman photographed by a man in Central Park into the themes of an ancient Greek story of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice in Hades.  Humans and memory don’t change much, but technology does! Would Orpheus have wanted a camera to photograph Eurydice?

Techniques

As we prepare to make our own soundscape in class, here are a few  more thoughts Cardiff’s piece and the techniques we’ll be using.

  • Narrative arc:  Whether or not Cardiff drew a chart of her narrative arc, I’m sure it would be packed and detailed! I’m curious how much she planned in advance or built as she went.
  • Character:  I would describe Cardiff’s piece as a stranger who acts so familiar with you, that you unwittingly get wrapped up in her story. Other adjectives would be mysterious, a little urgent, contemplative, and revealing.
  • Context/Symbols/Space: There are many of these in the soundscape. For example, Central Park is a major context for the piece, signifying a more contemplative mindset than while walking down 5th Avenue. The soundscape’s map is a very familiar wayfinding tool that symbolizes where to walk. Lastly, the space around me was manipulated through the directionality of the sounds in the piece (for example, people speaking behind me, a golf truck roaring past me), leading to several very unnerving experiences!

With only two weeks to create our own soundwalk, we’ll have to see what we come up!