By Jonathan Wu
This kind of sonic perception signals towards Martin Daughtry’s notion of “palimpsestic listening.” Daughtry extends the notion of the textual palimpsest—which are historical “parchments that were reinscribed after the original writing had been erased”—to sonic experiences as a way to, “foreground the multiple acts of erasure, effacement, occupation, displacement, collaboration, and reinscription that are embedded in music…as well as in acoustic experiences more broadly” (9). Within this formulation, palimpsestic listening brings hidden layers to the surface and attempts to hear “things unheard, and barely heard…and strain to listen past the acoustic foreground” (9).
As a framework to engage with the sonic life of Kensington Market, palimpsestic listening is productively analogous to the architectural characteristic of the neighborhood as it attends to the layers of agency and the processes of inscription and erasure that goes into place-making. Within my focus of neighborhood voices, this form of listening attends to the negotiation of competing desires that produces and reproduces the neighborhood on multiple levels. For residents such as Tam, her various voices is a means to navigate the relational structures of the neighborhood and build relations within it. As she highlights in our conversation, “how do you voice your anger and how do you push back? It’s hard because you want to be liked in the neighborhood.”
On a collective level, different groups embedded in the market are in on-going discussions and disagreements on the characteristic of the neighborhood, as exemplified by the debates on what constitutes as noise. Or, even at a larger scale, there are the various voices of the neighborhood managing the encroachment of gentrifying voices coming from the city and corporate representatives. Accordingly, palimpsestic listening provides a way to examine beyond the market’s acoustic foreground of multicultural sonic markers that have increasingly become beacon calls for tourism over the years, with the extraordinary exception of this current year.
Furthermore, these layered voices complicate the acoustic foreground of Kensington Market, destabilizing the assumed coherence of multiculturalism that the neighborhood is meant to represent. It asserts the multiplicity of Kensington Market’s soundscapes, which are not apolitical, but are the very mediums through which the politics of place-making occurs and the neighborhood’s local democracy expressed. Focusing on voices in particular leads to further inquiry into the sonic spectrum of what is heard, unheard, or silenced altogether and the implications of these circumstances.
So while there are a number of ways to describe the market—national historic site, tourist hotspot, food market, shopping area—it is important to emphasize that Kensington is a neighborhood.
Literary scholar Tom McEnaney argues in his 2017 monograph Acoustic Properties: “More than the ‘network’ or the ‘community,’ the neighborhood defines the sphere of influence…that [structures] political and cultural relations” making the notion of the neighborhood “a politically powerful organizing principle with material consequences” (12 – 13). As such, a neighborhood like Kensington Market—with its various political activist voices—necessitates a palimpsestic orientation to traverse through the sonic layers of urban immersion that go undetected by tools and methods such as portable recorders and soundwalks.
Some closing thoughts. Through understanding Tam’s listening of the market and Martin Daughtry’s notion of “acoustic palimpsest,” the sounds of Kensington Market become—in addition to “colorful and lively”—acutely relational. As many sound scholars have emphasized in various ways, to speak of sounds is to speak of relations and sociality. And given its rich history of and the deep sense of investment felt by its current residents, Kensington Market presents a distinct Canadian case study of the ways that our notions of voices and neighborhoods in urban contexts sonically make and remake the other.