On a recent cloudy morning, at the corner of Isabelle and Esther streets in the Highland neighborhood, I heard a duck quack. A digitally altered quack, that is, set against a short melodic wave of synthesized music.
I was at my first stop of “Overlooked, Overheard” a geolocated audio piece created by musician and sound artist Douglas Laustsen. Using data from Austin’s 311 service, Laustsen pinpointed hundreds of spots where the public requested city work. A tree branch in the street, potholes, a streetlight out, a loose dog, a malfunctioning traffic light, dead wildlife, debris in the street — the quotidian needs of a city neighborhood.
Using an app for geolocated audio tours, Laustsen created a soundscape for each spot. He composed a catalog digital sounds — the altered duck quack, a buzzing chainsaw, a jackhammer, a pounding thud, the clicks of a crosswalk signal — and laced them together with synth-based music. Each spot has maybe a minute or two of sound. Laustsen enlisted several other musicians in the project: Casie Luong, cellist Henna Chou, and flutist Seetha Shivaswamy.
“Overlooked, Overheard” launched June 1 and it’s entirely free to experience. Details on downloading the ECHOES audio tour app, and starting points can be found at overheard.lownote.net.
Or, you can join Laustsen for free guided Saturday morning walks on June 12 and 19. He’s conducting a workshop on how to create your own audio tour. Events sign-up is at https://overheard.lownote.net/tickets/
Laustsen lives in the Highland neighborhood and has a studio is Govalle. The two neighborhoods bookend the busy Airport Boulevard corridor as it cuts diagonally from Austin’s eastside to the northwest. Like many central city neighborhoods, both Highland and Govalle are experiencing the intense pressure of gentrification and skyrocketing real estate prices.
Laustsen may have created his project during the pandemic but it is not pandemic-related per se. Rather, it started with a discussion he had on Nextdoor, the neighborhood based social network. Someone complained about rising property taxes and said they couldn’t think of anything useful their taxes supported besides libraries.
“It got me thinking that the reason this person couldn’t see value in how their taxes were spent was because so much of what the city does is invisible,” Laustsen told me. “You might see a sign letting you know there’s road work up ahead, but there’s no signs around town saying ‘we fixed this’ or ‘we keep this cleaned and maintained.’”
Austin was in a period of diluvial rains when I tried out the Highland Neighborhood Park route (Laustsen created four routes for each neighborhood). I made it only a few points along Esther Drive before the skies opened up to another downpour. I retreated to my car, and for a while drove from point to point. At the site of an injured/sick animal report I heard the sound of a cat purr laced with comforting music; Near a pothole fix, a deep mechanical thudding.
“Overlooked, Overheard” is intended as a walking tour, an invitation to slow down, listen, and consider. But as the rain refused to stop, and after idling through neighborhood streets, I tried a different tactic. I drove up and down a several block stretch of West St. Johns Ave. where Laustsen has dozens of overlapping geolocated sounds. And what I heard was a delight — a musical cacophony and city sounds, an aural symphony of municipal works.