This week I had the pleasure of meeting Emma Welton, a local professional musician. Emma invited me to come and take part in an Exeter Sound Walk, something she’s been offering since lockdown grounded us all to our immediate surroundings.
The order to stay at home gave Emma more time free from her usually hectic schedule of composing, rehearsing, travelling and performing with her violin. Exeter Sound Walks were created out of this space; gentle walks with guidance on ways to hear the symphony going on around us every day – enjoyable even for the non-musical ear!
My listening tale
It’s been pretty humid this week. Monday was one of those bright, clouded days that calls for sunglasses and a hat but makes you wonder whether you need a raincoat, just in case.
I was curious to find out what was going to transpire and wondered how much physical or mental work I was going to have to do. As it turned out, my Exeter Sound Walk experience was a very relaxed, guided amble along the river, making an easy, short loop back to the starting point at Exwick Parish Hall.
Emma chatted about her relationship with music and sound, explaining how she hadn’t realised she had a ‘listening practice’ until she was asked to describe it to a friend. Music, though a great love of Emma’s, was work. It was a new adventure to bring the skill she had honed with her classical training into the day to day living experience – and find a way to share it with people like me!
We spent some time standing comfortably by the river, with a few handy suggestions from Emma to help me relax. As I began to listen – without trying to identify or categorise or judge any of the sounds (tricky when you’re right next to a busy city train station, I’ll admit) – I found myself smiling. It was both easy and soothing. There was no pressure, Emma was in charge of time and direction so I didn’t need to think about anything except hearing the sounds of nature co-existing with the city and, at one point, my own breathing.
I stood quietly with Emma, not minding that my eyes were shut as a stranger jogged by, crunching the pathway beside me. This in itself is remarkable because usually I’d feel self-conscious or at least open my eyes to make sure I was out of the way, in that overly cautious polite English manner.
We only stood for a few minutes, but it was long enough to feel the general busy-day tension diminish. I heard soft, deep wing beats coming up the river and knew they were coming towards me. Again, I didn’t even think to open my eyes. A gentle honk-honk-honk began in time with the wing beats, organising the city hums and twiddly bird song into a rhythm as the swan flew straight over my head. Emma saw it – if I’m honest I assumed it was a duck. Don’t laugh – I’ve never had a swan fly just feet over my head before and I certainly never listened to a bird’s wings, so I had no size reference!
We moved on the old mill leat, man-made stone walls built a thousand years ago were directing – conducting? – the babble and tinkle and rush of water down to the Exe. Here, Emma showed me how you can bend the ears forward slightly with your hands to make the noises change. In my case, it meant I heard the higher notes of the leat leaping over rocks further down the stream. Apparently it’s a good way to hear the leaves high up in trees in the wind.
Composing our environment
Emma’s language was intriguing. The way she talked about how humans have deliberately composed the never ending sound scape over time: with our buildings, our cutting down and growing, the wildlife we create habitats for (or not) and, of course, the new sounds of cars shooshing and broadband boxes whirring.
An hour’s leisurely stroll (with plenty of breaks) and I was enjoying myself in such a laid back manner I almost forgot to ask Emma for a photo. It definitely took me out of work mode for a while!
Emma said, “I didn’t start doing these sound walks with any particular intention. It’s not for a purpose, its’ not to get people to do anything or learn anything or change anything. If you find it relaxing or interesting then that’s wonderful. It’s just to share a way I’ve been investigating my own habitat and learning to be in the world in a different way. It’s already started to change my musical practice, I’m interested to see how it continues to inform that part of my life.”
When I asked Emma if she was going to continue meeting people to take them on Sound Walks, now that restrictions were coming to an end, she told me, “Yes, I’m going to continue and develop this. I’ve felt a certain grief at the thought of us rushing back to ‘normal’ life. I’m not sure normal exists or that any of us were living normally before. It would be really hard to bear if we lose this sense of stillness that many of us have learned or reconnected with through lockdown. We need to take the best bits and make sure we continue with them, for our own sake and the good of society and the planet.”
Emma is running further Exeter Sound Walks in Exeter. The next few are:
Sunday 29 May 2022, 2pm
Sunday 12th June (starting at Piazza Terricina)
Sunday 26th June (starting at Cygnet Theatre)
If you’d like to come along, you can book a place on our what's on page. Events are free but people choose to make a donation (‘buy Emma a coffee’) online. Some Sound Walkers have even said thank you with a written poem or given homemade cakes or a pasty!
My Exeter Sound Walk was a gentle, happy experience that won’t be forgotten. I would fully recommend joining in and taking the time to relax in your local habitat.