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Polytectures: Exploring the city with a soundtrack

By Alejandro Bustos on October 26, 2012


To quote the great English novelist George Orwell, to see what is in front of your nose is a constant struggle.

This insight is something that all Ottawa residents should keep in mind, for if we open up our eyes and ears to our city, we will see that our urban landscape is quite beautiful.

I was thinking about this while listening to Polytectures, a brilliant musical guide to some of Ottawa’s most impressive downtown buildings.

Directed and narrated by Montreal composer and musician Antoine Bédard, this soundwalk is similar to an audio guide in an art museum, in which a narrator explains a series of paintings while you stroll through the gallery with a headset.

Describing 10 separate buildings in downtown Ottawa, this architectural audio stroll begins underneath the Plaza Bridge by the National Arts Centre, before embarking on a journey to such notable landmarks as the new Convention Centre, the Parliament Buildings, the Supreme Court of Canada, St. Andrews Church and the C.D. Howe Building on Sparks.

The audio guide (which can be downloaded here) contains a description of each building, followed by a musical piece that interprets each individual edifice. To do the walk, you must download the music onto an Mp3 player and then follow the route outlined on the provided map while listening to the narration.

In regard to the musical scores, the bulk of the compositions contain experimental electronic sounds, which is great if you like techno or science fiction film soundtracks like me, but not that appealing if you have more traditional tastes, like my father who accompanied me on the walk.

Photo by Alejandro Bustos.

If you were to ask my opinion, I would tell you that the songs range from hypnotic, electronic soundscapes to audio collages of superimposed sounds.

For instance, the Andrée Préfontaine track that interprets the Government Conference Centre on Rideau Street contained (at least to my ears) a heavy cello-sounding rhythm that was reminiscent of a moving railway car, which makes sense given that the building was originally a railway station.

Ottawa’s hip hop and electronica group A Tribe Called Red, meanwhile, produced a thoughtful political number for the West Block of Parliament. As I strolled by this iconic symbol of Canadian government power, the track contained recordings of a political protest on the hill, along with a voiceover that raised provocative questions on colonialism, state control and Canada’s treatment of indigenous people. (See here for more music from the group.)

Another track that caught my attention was the interpretation of the Supreme Court of Canada by the local group My Dad vs Yours, whose haunting guitars and military-sounding drums seemed appropriate for describing a formal courtroom.

If you were to ask my father, on the other hand, he would reply that he didn’t like the music very much, but that the narration was quite interesting. In fact, he told me that he planned to do the walk a second time, although probably without the musical interpretations.

For more background on the audio stroll you can see this video.