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Andra McCartney (1955-2019): ‘She taught me how to listen’

The trailblazing researcher, sound artist and generous mentor transformed her field and all those who crossed her path
January 19, 2021
By Taylor Tower

Andra McCartney, caucasian woman with white, shoulder length hair and bangs smiles at the camera. Andra McCartney. Former student David Madden: "She was part of a small group of scholars that developed the first sustained gender critique of electronic and electroacoustic music."

Andra McCartney, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies from 1999 to 2016, died in Peterborough, Ontario, on October 17, 2019, after a battle with cancer. She was 64.

An internationally recognized sound artist, prolific author and researcher, she was a leading voice in the field of acoustic ecology, or soundscape studies, which uses sound to study the relationship between human beings and their environment.

Friend and former student David Madden (MA 08, PhD 13) met McCartney when he began his graduate studies in 2006. He says her work bridged theory and practice, reframing knowledge production in the humanities.

“Her scholarship is foundational in bringing studies of sound and music in conversation with communication and media studies,” says Madden.

“She was also part of a small group of scholars that developed the first sustained gender critique of electronic and electroacoustic music,” he adds.

“Anyone whose scholarship sits within the area of what is called research-creation owes Andra a debt of gratitude and a citation.”

Born in Fleetwood, United Kingdom, McCartney moved to Canada in 1968. She earned her BA in Cultural Studies from Trent University in 1983, her MA in Adult Education from St. Francis Xavier University in 1990 and PhD in Music from York University in 1999.

She began at Concordia as a lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies that same year, moving to assistant professor and then to associate professor from 2004 to her retirement in 2016. In addition to research supervision, she taught courses on sound production, research-creation and sound theory.

As a soundwalk artist, she led public walks and created gallery installations, recordings, performances and radio works, some of which were featured on CBC Radio and released via Deep Wireless, Terra Nova and the Canadian Electroacoustic Community.

She published over 50 articles in many venues including Organised Sound, Leonardo Music Journal, Perspectives of New Music, Musicworks, Axis Voor de Kunsten V/M, Contact!, Array, Resources for Feminist Research and Borderlines.

In 2006, McCartney co-edited a special issue of Intersections: Canadian Journal of Music with Ellen Waterman of Carleton University. The issue explored gender and sound technologies and was based on papers presented at the In and Out of the Sound Studio conference directed by McCartney and held at Concordia in July 2005.

Her book chapters appeared in several edited volumes, including Performing Nature, Aural Cultures, Gender and Music and Ghosts in the Machine. The latest, “Listening to Traffic with Guts and Antennae” is included in the book Sound, Media, Ecology, published in 2019.

She was also a member of Concordia’s Centre for Sensory Studies and Hexagram.

‘Nurturing through education’

Associate professor Owen Chapman (PhD 07) studied with McCartney while pursuing his doctorate in the early 2000s.

He took an independent studies course that first term with McCartney, whose passion and devotion to the field and to teaching was palpable.

“Not only were we invited to gather sound-based data and help coordinate events, Andra consistently integrated us into her artistic and scholarly publications and supported our efforts to produce our own independent works,” says Chapman.

He created his first soundscape piece as a research assistant for McCartney’s Journées sonores: canal de Lachine project, which focused on listening to the canal’s urban environment over time via soundwalks.

Initially, Chapman was frustrated with the process — he was assigned to a section of the canal that was difficult to reach and felt his recordings were nothing but traffic noise. Forced to get creative, he rigged up some microphones to his bike helmet and rode along his route. The result was surprisingly rich, creating a soundscape that seemed to encapsulate the area in all its layers. He coined these “sound-rides.”

Chapman's soundscape recording along the Lachine Canal, July 2001.

The experience reshaped Chapman’s relationship to listening and inspired his exploration of the sounds he discovered along the route, including bumblebees busily working.

“When I completed my PhD, Andra gave me a graduation gift — a painting of a spot by the Lachine Canal that held a special significance to me in terms of the sounds that I learned to find there,” says Chapman.

For him, this thoughtful gesture was just one example of the care and attention that she brought to teaching.

“This nurturing through education is one of the things I will remember most about Andra and which I most hope to emulate in my own teaching,” he says.

Lisa Gasior (left) and Andra McCartney at Gasior's thesis defense.

Andrea-Jane Cornell, another research assistant on the Lachine Canal project, also witnessed this inspired generosity in McCartney.

“She could always find something to question, opening new paths and branches to further knowledge,” says Cornell.

Sandra Gabriele (PhD 04), Concordia’s vice-provost of innovation in teaching and learning, served as a research assistant on the project during her PhD program. Later, she would join McCartney as a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and in 2014, became the department’s chair.

“I will never forget Andra’s enthusiasm in mentoring me as a new doctoral student, completely unfamiliar with sound studies,” says Gabriele.

“Undaunted by my lack of knowledge or experience, she welcomed me to her team, taught me what I needed to know and sent me off to explore Montreal using new tools and new ways of understanding the world,” she recalls.

Lisa Gasior studied with McCartney during her time as an undergraduate and master’s student, and worked alongside her on the In and Out of the Sound Studio project. The two would remain close friends.

As one of very few women working in sound production in the video game industry, Gasior says the themes of the In and Out of the Sound Studio project and conference continue to inspire and inform her in her career.

“She brought together this group of amazing women working in sound production, many of whom were trailblazers in their fields. The experience of organizing the conference with Andra was infinitely rewarding.”

Andra McCartney pictured on an autumn day, walking away from the camera on a 'soundwalk' Andra McCartney on a soundwalk. Photo by Andrea-Jane Cornell.

A continuing legacy

Despite her declining health, McCartney continued to share her passion and expertise with students, leading a workshop on listening at Trent University in May 2019 via video conference.

“Andra’s love of all soundscapes, natural and urban, and her practice of soundwalking changed my perspective of the world around me,” remembers Gasior.

“She taught me how to listen and soundwalking became a form of meditation for me.”

In a blog post to eContact!, McCartney described soundwalks as simple yet profound.

“The act of focusing on that moment, that place and time, leads me to hear that place differently, to understand it in new ways,” she wrote.

As an act of remembrance, her son Daniel Hughes suggests embarking on a soundwalk.

“Take a moment to pause, centre yourself, acknowledge your presence in the environment around you and listen. Listen for her presence. If you knew her, you will be able to hear her.”

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