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7 Audio Journeys that Let You Escape New York While Walking Its Streets

From an artist-led exploration of Central Park, to a field guide for a toxic waterway, here are seven recommendations for New York City sonic journeys.

Central Park, the setting for Janet Cardiff’s “Her Long Black Hair” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Maybe you have walked in Central Park, or taken the Staten Island Ferry, an uncountable number of times, but have you really listened to the birds, the voices of your fellow commuters, and the waves of the harbor? Sound walks can encourage new ways of understanding even the most familiar places, and are the perfect summer escape if you can’t physically leave the city. Here are seven recommendations for sonic journeys, from an artist-led dialogue on Brooklyn gentrification, to music created by the steps of your feet.

Her Long Black Hair

“When you’re in a city like New York, you have to think of all the sounds like they’re a symphony, otherwise you go a bit crazy,” says artist Janet Cardiff near the beginning of “Her Long Black Hair” (2004–05). The site-specific audio walk was developed as a Public Art Fund project, and you can still find the audio and accompanying photographs archived online. Set in Central Park, it starts on a bench at the southern point of the Manhattan green space, merging ambient noise, music, poetry, and the regular rhythm of footsteps into an immersive binaural soundscape. Cardiff narrates the 35-minute exploration, which often blurs outside noise and recordings from the artist’s own walks, as you follow the path of a mysterious, dark-haired woman. By the end, you and Cardiff are breathing as one.

Passing Stranger

Passing Stranger” is a 95-minute wander through the history of poets and poetry in the East Village, from one of Allen Ginsberg’s many apartments, in which Jack Kerouac worked on The Subterraneans, to e. e. cummings’s verses on McSorley’s. Produced by Pejk Malinovski, the audio tour is more than just a documentary, weaving together archival recordings, readings, noise from the streets, and neighborhood commentary on the ongoing gentrification of the area. Music by John Zorn and narration by Jim Jarmusch guide listeners from the Bowery to Avenue C, drawing attention to the building where W. H. Auden lived (after Trotsky moved out) and the enduring literary significance of the St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. The guide is available as a free download, or you can do some armchair exploring with the online interactive map that combines video and photographs into a multimedia experience.

Beginning John Luther Adams’ “Soundwalk 9:09” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Soundwalk 9:09

Ahead of the opening of the Met Breuer branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Luther Adams created “Soundwalk 9:09” to link the two Manhattan sites. Named for the time it took the composer to walk the eight blocks between the two structures, it involves a crowdsourced cacophony of city noise, from overheard voices to jackhammers and birds, layered with ambient tones. One section is meant to be heard while walking downtown, the other uptown, both fostering a closer appreciation of the urban landscape. As Luther states in his note to the listener: “The ideal listening balance between the ‘live’ and recorded sounds is one in which you aren’t always certain whether a sound you’re hearing is coming from your ear buds, your imagination, or from the streets around you.”

Southside Stories

At several points during “Southside Stories,” your guide, artist Shannon Carroll, invites you to take off your headphones, and step into a business you’ve just learned about, or seek out the person whose story you’ve just heard. The free audio walk was completed in 2014 by a team led by Carroll as part of the UnionDocs Living Los Sures documentary project. It’s set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with dialogue on the gentrified neighborhood and its Latino community that is being edged out by rising rents. “People look at us like we’re foreigners, and they don’t realize that if it wasn’t for the Spanish people that stood here, this wouldn’t be a neighborhood,” one resident says. Binaural audio mixes street sounds with the voices of the neighborhood, which highlight sites that might be overlooked by newcomers, such as street memorials and an overgrown lot populated by huge stuffed animals and a tiny herb garden, partly cared for by a retired woman named Carmen. It ends at Toñita’s, Williamsburg’s last Puerto Rican social club.

Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A Field Guide to Whale Creek

Launched this summer by the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies, a media art collective including Nick Hubbard, Rebecca Lieberman, and Marina Zurkow, “A Field Guide to Whale Creek” is an audio expedition through the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “There’s more life than you might think in Newtown Creek,” says the voice on the free audio field guide, perhaps sensing your skepticism about seeing much nature in a waterway designated an EPA Superfund Site. Threading together history, commentary on the park design, and observations on the birds, fish, and other wildlife that call this industrial zone home, the guide takes listeners on a loop along the waterfront. You learn terms like “digester eggs” (the futuristic silver spheres at the nearby Wastewater Treatment Plant) and “black mayonnaise” (the toxic mix of oil, arsenic, incinerated ash, and polychlorinated biphenyls that coats the creek’s bottom), and end your tour at a curious fragrance garden, planted at one of New York’s smelliest intersections.

The Gaits

The Gaits: A High Line Soundwalk” has become a regular New York City cold weather event. Make Music New York annually organizes a sound parade for their winter edition, inspired in part by Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” boombox gathering in Washington Square Park. However, the free app, featuring sound composed by Lainie Fefferman, Jascha Narveson, and Cameron Britt, can be downloaded anytime for iPhone or Android. Entering the High Line in Manhattan at Gansevoort and Washington streets, listeners walk the elevated park to West 30th Street, their footsteps morphed into gongs, guitar chords, the ripple of splashing water, and claps of applause along the way.

Ferry Play

This Is Not A Theatre Company’s “Ferry Play,” written by Jessie Bear and directed by Erin Mee, uses the route of the Staten Island Ferry as the stage for its “podplay.” Available for iPhone or Android ($1.99 for either), one act is set over the Manhattan to Staten Island leg, and the second on the return, with one character asking you to “smell it, who is around you, what they’re eating, the perfume they wore this morning, the sea. See it, the horizon, the sky, be outside with me now.” The ferry crowd, from tourists jostling for a photograph of the Statue of Liberty to downtown workers returning home, become the actors, and in turn you’re encouraged to consider their individual stories. If ferries aren’t your thing, the company recently launched “Subway Plays” for the underground commute.

The Staten Island Ferry leaving Manhattan (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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