Clarity during lockdown

Emma Welton studied music at Manchester and York Universities, UK. She performs on violin, viola and double bass with Lavolta ensemble, Exeter Contemporary Sounds, and others.

During the 2020 COVID lockdown, she created Exeter Sound Walks, a collection of short walks shaping a specific experience. The work is shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards.

Here, Emma discusses her piece.

Exeter Sound Walks were born out of the first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK in spring 2020. Our ears were amazed by the clarity and detail of sounds without cars and other machines. The experience caused a new, collective sensory openness and awareness. I am holding a space for continued listening, allowing us to keep remembering the magic revealed when we lifted the blanket of road noise, and paused long enough to notice.

Initially, I offered Exeter Sound Walks as an outdoor activity to do while in lockdown: a way of sharing a listening experience which can feel connecting, even if we walk and listen at different times. It was a creative project for Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Exeter Family Orchestra. The Sound Walks have since grown their own legs: I am making two Sound Walks each month for a year, deepening my relationship with our suburban habitat.

My Sound Walks are musical compositions, revealing and shaping a particular listening experience for somebody else. They are for people who are open to a different kind of walk, and perhaps to experiencing a familiar place in a new way. They are short in distance (about a mile) and long in pauses. I dissuade people from driving to perform my walks, preferring to encourage people to walk in their own neighbourhood with a similar attentiveness.

The walks are drawn in pencil as illustrated maps to download from and designed to print on one sheet of A4. I think of them as graphic scores. People performing these sound walks have a direct experience found through their own ears, unmediated by technology. I want to lift people out of their communion with phones and screens and find joy in the simple act of walking and listening; waking up our ears, being present and receptive, rather than inwardly contemplative. It’s an outward-facing behaviour.

The composition process comprises walking a route, allowing sounds to find me, pausing now and then, exploring different acoustics.
I also play on objects I find, being curious about the potential for sounds and interacting with them. I always hear things I’m not expecting and which I haven’t noticed before. I don’t expect sound walkers to hear exactly what I have heard, but I pick out things they are likely to hear, and suggest possible ways of listening and playing.

As I listen, new questions emerge: What is the music, here? Is it a rich soundscape? How is it balanced? Are there lots of different sounds, or does one dominate? What happens when we move through it? What is revealed if we stay in one place? What can I learn about the inhabitants from the sounds they make? All these questions find their way into my compositions.

I find that listening truthfully, where we receive sounds without hiding from or judging them, reveals our relationships with each other and the rest of nature. As Bernie Krause in The Great Animal Orchestra reveals the changing rainforest through its music, I turn my ears to us and our habitat, and think about how we fit into – and co-create – it.

For we can’t only observe this habitat music as outsiders. As quiet as I try to be, I can still hear my own breathing, my footsteps. Animals, birds, insects, humans, the wind, water, the consequential and the intentional sounds all compose this music. Exeter Sound Walks aim to reflect the truth of us in our space.

If we listen inclusively to the music of our habitat we can learn what is the relationship between human-originated and non-human-originated sound. We can then consider whether we have got the ideal balance. Perhaps, if we attend to the reality of the habitat we have grown used to, we can imagine it sounding different, either in the past or in the future, even if change feels impossible now. We might tend it differently.
I make space for this imagination in my Sound Walks.

Sound Walks, together

Initially I believed that Sound Walks are best done alone. However, in this time of enforced separation people crave activities to do together, safely. People have asked me to lead group sound walks, and so Sound Walks, together was born in September 2020. We talk little, walk slowly, make space for each other and connect our hearts through shared listening. We talk afterwards.

Emma’s overview of her work is the tenth in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards talking about their work.

Emma Welton

Emma Welton

Emma Welton is a composer and performs on violin and viola. With Icebreaker she has performed contemporary music internationally, including at New York City’s Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Centre, with Brian Eno at the Brighton International Festival, an...


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