Soundpaths – an audio journey across Manchester


Yonatan Collier’s Soundpaths is an immersive sound installation, accessed via an app, around Moston and Harpurhey, a suburb just north of Manchester. The installation produced as part of SICK! Festival’s Mindscapes program, taps into your phone’s GPS and lets you walk, run or cycle around a designated route. Reflection by James Zatka-Haas

photo looking down on an orange sticker on the pavement, next to a pair of shoes

James Zatka-Haas at the begnning of the Soundpaths walk

An orange sticker stamped onto the pavement beside Broadhurst Park, I stand on it and tap into an app – a sudden burst of silver techno swamps my ears, merging with the concrete. Slowly I begin pounding up Lightbowne Road, wondering whether I can keep up with this tempo. I see dog walkers and runners hooked up to their own soundscape and then trail off into a woodland to my left. The high midday sun dapples through the trees, a robin shares his nook with a great tit. I turn down the volume so that the environment seeps through the headphones, fusing the real and artificial. 

A large clearing emerges. I stride off into the outer regions of the app’s map and find a small valley – the 4/4 beat works surprisingly well whatever the view – with a wooden path just wide enough for me to follow.  A fallen tree crosses from one side to the other and almost obstructs my way, a stream trickles beneath the path, I can almost feel it. As I walk the soundscape no longer evolves but appears to contract, as if I had reached an auditory dead-end. I take this as a sign that I should turn around.  

This experience is best reckoned in broader strokes – the soundscape floats around general zones rather than strict paths – so I focus not on specific details but an assemblage of impressions, psychic patterns and synchronicities nestled deep within the terrain. 

photo of a church against a cloudy sky

James Zatka-Haas passes a church on the Soundpaths walk

Westwards through Kenyon Lane I see many churches – Anglican, Catholic, Pentecostal –  serving local spiritual needs. At St Dunston’s Parish Centre I am told of a wedding that happened long ago between the parents or grandparents (I can’t quite remember) of the speaker in my ears. Now the doors are shut and Ivy snakes the walls. A little further on a funeral procession emerges. A family dressed in black roams the pavement, a coffin laden with flowers is carried onto a hearse. I wait and bow my head, thinking about life’s full circle.

At the junction with Moston Lane, as if on a synchronistic cue, a different speaker mentions fish and chips at the exact moment I smell something deep fried. The smell punctures my nose and I am back in Brighton on a Friday night. I turn down the volume again and hear people talking of other places, healthcare costs, school exams. These small impressions of other lives, combined with the stories I’m told through the headphones, merge my world with this one, making me rethink just how much of a stranger I am.   

Left onto Moston Lane, a man in a red Peugeot waves and says hello and I wonder if I know him. A van is parked on the curb with the back doors open; boxes are spread out on the grassy knoll, people wait in line to purchase unknown items. There are many languages spoken, different backgrounds merging into one, yet here like everywhere else Covid has left its scars: torn facemasks litter the streets, small businesses paste foreclosure signs onto windows, restaurants open for takeaway only. In my headphones a reggae beat, a dub wobble springs to life out of the roadworks and traffic. A voice tells me that the community here is a strong one – neighbours get on well, they take out the bins, help with the shopping, provide care. The voice tells me that this is not the place of its past and is certainly not what the newspapers say it is. Although I’m a stranger here I can’t help but agree. People want to talk to you, ask what you’re about.

At Goodman Street, uniformed terraces in signature red brick, a game of hopscotch scribbled in chalk over tarmac, a chorus of singers in my ears, a sheet of bright sun paints the northern side. I walk and settle myself. My body glides through the impression. The voice of Hannah Ashcroft and her guitar fixes the scene in time.  

At Boggart Hole Clough I follow the winding brook. The chorus has made way for ambient strings mixed over field recordings of the local wildlife. Sharing the path with a crow – a bird which neatly fits into the woods’ reputation for being haunted – I walk as if in a state of reverie. The pine and birch appear to me ancient; the sound of the brook, summoned from a place far away, winds gently to my right guiding my feet. I dip a hand in its cool waters to reconnect.

Photo of an elaborate grave headstone of white alabaster sculpture of the virgin mary in a cemetery

James Zatka-Haas walks past a cemetery on the Soundpaths walk

With each step towards the end, memories return to me in cascades. Back on Moston Lane I climb up to the Cemetery for a brief meander. The last time I was in Manchester my grandmother was dying. I remember rushing back to London in order to board another train to Chertsey, where I stayed with her all night in hospital.

Now the cemetery is lit grey by a dull afternoon light. In my ears, a woman talks about taking school kids to this place, mortality is on the curriculum. There are many people lying here, Brian Grimshaw (beloved husband of Jean) and many, many others watch over the town from idyllic resting places.

In walking, the lives of others and perhaps even the dead – their memories, movements, actions – become magnified. You catch glimpses of life as the unsullied observer of things. When your ears are occupied your other senses pick up more of this world. They see more, smells linger in the nose, the soles of your feet feel each step, your heart opens up. 

Yonatan’s music weaves in and out of this stream of understanding. The music overlays impressions onto the senses, it paints zones of emotions like a topographer drawing out their map. These two worlds, the emotional and physical one, meet in unison here. They elevate the mind out of its shell and spread it across parkland, rivers and roads, nestling it deep within the undergrowth, letting it linger and rest. 

I return to where I began in Broadhurst Park. In my ears, a crowd roars and chants for an empty football field. The chorus, accompanied by an orchestra reaches its crescendo as I meet the final stretch. Back on the main road school kids sit around at bus stops twiddling thumbs, the busy traffic trembles my ears. I am tired now, my left ankle aches, my right foot – usually the stronger one –  reaches the final orange dot barely able to make another step. I take off my headphones and look around, the traces of the music still linger in my head like a dream from which I’ve just emerged.

MINDSCAPES is a programme produced by SICK! Festival in Manchester, partnering with cultural institutions in The Netherlands. You can find details of the route of Yonatan Collier’s Soundpaths across Manchester, alongside information on how to take part and download the app via the Mindscapes website.