Thoughts on “Sounding Griffintown”

Posted on October 15, 2010

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It was a Tuesday afternoon, around five o’clock, when I started my walk with Lisa Gasior’s audio guide to Griffintown, one of Montreal’s most interesting boroughs.  The sun had begun its slow descent behind our city’s tall buildings as Ben, Emily, Charlotte and myself made our way to the corner of Notre-Dame and Peel.  The temperature had dropped more than I would’ve liked and I was carrying a ridiculously oversized backpack.  However, after pressing play to Gasior’s first audio file from Sounding Griffintown, I forgot all about my bag and the cold (at least until the end of the walk).

Emily, Ben and I broke out the digital SLR’s and were flickering away as we wandered through the streets of Griffintown.  Charlotte walked ahead of us.  My attention would shift from the recording to the real sounds around me, and my eyes from my viewfinder to the structures bordering the sidewalks.  At first, I had a hard time focusing on the sounds and visualizing all the stories that the voices in my headphones recounted.  I got a little confused as to where I was supposed to walk and what to look out for as Gasior explained some of Griffintown’s geography and history.

Nevertheless, I pressed on.  Soon enough, I fell into the rhythm of the recordings and began to get more involved with the fascinating anecdotes I was being told about Griffintown.  The charm of the neighborhood overwhelmed me and the voices of past residents triggered my imagination.  My eyes saw industrial buildings, cars, trucks, and traffic lights while my mind imagined children playing in the streets, their mothers yelling at them from small apartment windows, and their fathers returning home from work or heading off to the pub.  I could hear the boats come in through the Lachine canal and the bells of St-Ann’s church.  It was interesting to hear the memories of the borough from decencies past while trying to warp the present reality in my mind to visualize what the voices in Gasoir’s soundtrack described.  It was regrettably hard (but not impossible) to match what I could actually hear and see with the former residents’ descriptions of the boys and girls clubs, the schools, the church and, perhaps most important, Griffintown’s ambiance.

The plane crash story and the tale of Mary Gallagher were two of my favorite sections in Sounding Griffintown. I think Gasior’s storytelling techniques used in recounting both these events were terrific.  The plane crash episode was made very realistic by the amount of details included in the recordings.  We hear different people describing the same horrible accident in very subjective manners, but they all tell the same story and the singular details they add are compiled to give a very realistic feel to the tale.  Also, the superposition of the verbal storytelling and the sound effects that depict the crash works wonders in weaving all the different, personal accounts together to tell a story of the community, through the community’s voice.  The same devices and technique are used in the telling of Mary Gallagher’s tale.  She begins with several different people’s beliefs about the legend, then moves on to a single storyteller’s account, adding to the track sound objects and effects designed to make his speech more compelling and his images more vivid.  What I also found particularly interesting was that in my mother’s hometown, they tell the same urban legend.  This village, although more rural than Griffintown, also has a prominently Canadian-Irish population.  However, this version held that the girl was decapitated in the forest and therefore roamed the woods surrounding the town.

As one may understand from the earlier paragraphs, I had a very sentimental and nostalgic response to Sounding Griffintown.  It stirred up feelings in me as a Montreal native, as a young artist with (some) Irish blood (as diluted as it may be) and as a witness to a neighborhood’s rich, sad and fascinating history.  Furthermore, my experience with Gasior’s piece from the point of view of a sound student and media critic was a very enlightening one.  Among other things, “Sounding Griffintown” brought to my mind the idea that an art piece in whatever media can sometimes be more powerful by being very discrete about it’s form.  I thought Gasior did a great job in maintaining the listener’s desire to sustain disbelief.  In other words, she let the formal aspects of her work recede into the background of the listener’s attention so he/she could focus on its content.   With a subject as rich and interesting as the history of Griffintown, I think that a conscious attempt to bring attention to the constructed nature of her project would’ve lessened her piece’s impact.  Her montage was made in a way that merged ambient sounds, narration and live (outside) sounds so smoothly and seamlessly that it almost felt like a chaotic and beautiful subversion of verisimilitude.  (Here, I use the term verisimilitude not in the sense that Sounding Griffintown mimics reality, but that it represents it in both a documentarian and narrative manner while capturing the listener’s attention by using invisible editing.)   In other words, I lost myself within her work and began to forget that I was wearing headphones.  This type of effect is difficult to achieve, especially in a medium as uncommon as Gasior’s and I believe that the fact she “pulled it off” made her project that much more powerful.

Another thing that helped Gasior in engaging with her listeners is the portability of her text.  Take my personal experience as an example: I took a tremendous amount of photos while walking and kept Gasior’s audio files on my iPod even after the walk.  Then, prior to reflecting upon my primary encounter with her work, I listened to sections of the sounds that I had missed because of outside distractions or those sections that I had particularly enjoyed.  That, coupled with the fact that I could still view images I had taken that evening, was extremely effective in jogging my memory and preserving the strong impression that Gasior’s work had on me.

Simply stated, I though Lisa Gasior’s Sounding Griffintown, was a wonderful piece and, although I didn’t want to solely praise her work, I can’t seem to think of one thing I would change in it.  The piece demands from the listener to be engaged and then rewards their attention and concentration by regaling them with anecdotes and teaching them about the history of a fairly unknown portion of Montreal.  The experience makes the listener a more sensitive and informed human being; it delights the senses, enlightens the minds and provokes thoughts…  Isn’t that what all art should do?

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