Some thoughts about listening

As part of my AHRC fellowship about audio methods and sonic environments, I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. Angus Carlyle and Cathy lane from CRiSAP have an edited book on the topic about to come out soon, ‘On Listening’, to which I’ve contributed a chapter, so I thought I’d rattle out a few of my ideas here.

Listening as practice

The more I work on environmental sound art, the more I’m convinced that what makes it interesting when it works well is a combination of both representation (an echo of another space and time, a there-and-then) and elements of performance, of practice (something happening in the present, here-and-now). Both are important. Thinking about the performative and practice aspects, listening is fundamental. It’s the most basic practice in sound art, the activity from which work begins and with which it ends. Here’s sound artist Mark Peter Wright sharing his thoughts on the matter:

I think Mark’s right: forget about all that purist sound-as-sound stuff, listening is a multisensory, multidimensional form of attentive experience, a messy mingling of self and world. The common social-scientific, political and mass media definitions of listening are a dead loss here. Social scientists in particular have cloth ears when it comes to sound. They make much of the importance of listening to the ‘voices’ of people, but in practice they’re mainly interested in the communication of meaning, an almost anaural fixation with writable words, a “linguistic imperialism that subordinates the sonic to semiotic registers” (Goodman, 2009: 82). Musical notions of listening at least acknowledge aurality, but still tend to privilege the expressive communication of human emotions. I like how sound art can open up a much more expansive sense of listening.

Listening as affective

In his writing on film sound, Michel Chion suggests a three-way typology: causal listening, in which the listener strives to determine the source of a sound; semantic listening, which involves interpreting meaning, as in listening to spoken language; and reduced listening, a term borrowed from musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, in which attention is focussed on the aesthetic qualities of sound (timbre, texture, pitch, rhythm, etc.) without reference to source, context or meaning. But this is too limited as a schema for understanding environmental sound art, which gives rise to other kinds of listening as well. How about, for example:

  • Embodied listening, that part of listening in which sounds are felt not only in the ears and head but throughout the whole body as physical vibration. Geographer Michelle Duffy has been developing this idea through what she calls a visceral conception of listening.
  • Affective listening, those elements of embodied listening that give rise to palpable affects. If brought into conscious awareness, these affects will likely be understood afterwards as emotions. Steve Goodman writes about how certain extremely low or high frequency sounds, at high amplitudes, can generate a sense of dread, fear or anxiety. Other recent work on this theme includes Anja Kanngieser’s paper about the affective geographies of voices, and Paul Simpson’s paper developing a postphenomenological account of listening, drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy. All of this is quite different to the more anthropocentric understanding of emotional listening common in music, where emotions are understood as something communicated by the performer to the audience.
  • Associative listening, in which sounds evoke imaginative associations, the listener drifting into something more akin to Proustian reverie than a search for distinct causes or meanings.
Listening in Waverley
A listening walk in Edinburgh, led by Jonathan Prior, stopping to take in the cavernous reverberations of Waverley Station.

Listening as power

It’s time to ditch the assumption, common amongst sound artists, acoustic ecologists, musicians etc., that listening is always a ‘good thing’, that more of it will make the world a ‘better place’. Listening is involved in many techniques of power, if power is understood in Foucaultian terms as simply actions that affect other actions, operating at an everyday, micro-scale (see my papers here and here). If we follow Foucault we also have to accept that power is not necessarily bad; rather it is ambivalent, a productive force full of possibilities, but also dangerous, open to abuse. Like all good things in life.

Foucault emphasised the power of sight, the ‘gaze’ and technologies of “permanent visibility” (1977: 201), but many techniques of power centre on aurality. Think of listening in processes of self-creation, as in counselling and therapy; territorial sound-making, from animal distress and warning cries to geopolitical broadcasts to sound system culture; scientific forms of listening, from stethoscopes to hospital alarms to ultrasound imaging (Tom Rice has a new book all about this); listening as part of surveillance and controlling people’s behaviour in institutions such as schools; the increasingly common addition of audio recording to CCTV technologies; the automated voice announcements of modern transport, machines incessantly telling us what to do; all the tantalising and tedious forms of capitalist sound production in marketing and advertising; the use of forensic audio in crime detection; and exercises of outright control and domination through listening, such as in espionage and military situations. That’s quite a list.

Towards collective listening

So I think it makes sense to ask the question, of any instance of listening: what work is this listening doing? What are its effects? Sometimes the listening situations offered by sound art just reproduce the tired docility of the concert hall or fine art gallery: a passive audience, listening obediently to a revered artist. At the other end of the spectrum, home listening and headphones, while affording the comforts of privacy, can feel overly individualising, especially with internet audio. I find sitting at a computer checking out recordings on SoundCloud quite isolating after a while.

The kinds of listening I’ve been more enthused by lately have been set up to have more collective, participatory effects. There’s nothing particularly new about such approaches, and they are incredibly simple to set up. For example, Jonathan Prior recently led a listening walk around Edinburgh, taking a group of 12 people around the city centre through various sonic environments. At the end we all chatted about our responses, and all kinds of ideas and experiences came out. The walk properly reconfigured my sense of the city.

And as mentioned in my previous post, I’ve really enjoyed taking up James Wyness’s idea of the ‘soond gaitherin’ or, since I sound fake-ass trying to do a Scottish accent, the sound gathering: an informal situation where you book a room, set up a playback system with some half-decent speakers, and invite people to come along to play field recordings they’ve made, or just to listen, and have a chat about them. I find I listen more openly in a group setting, and as long as you can steer clear of it turning into a ‘guess the sound’ pub quiz round, the range of responses can be fascinating and thought provoking.

Actually giving people a chance to listen together, then to discuss and make sense of what they’ve heard: a simple, almost traditional idea, with none of the wow factor of the latest new music genre or technological invention, and yet with a quietly radical potential to reconfigure the audience/artist relationship.

Work in progress: researching audio methods

Last year I was awarded an early career research fellowship entitled “Researching sonic environments: exploring audio methodologies” by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This is taking place during 2013. I’ve been spending time with sound artists and researchers who work with environmental sound, observing what they do and thinking about its effects and functions. This all builds on a paper about using phonographic methods for geographical research that I recently published with fellow sonic geographer Jonathan Prior.


The fieldwork has taken place in the UK, Brussels, Berlin and Athens, and has included doing listening walks and audio walks, attending site-specific performances, installations and an environmental sound festival, making field recordings and videos, working with audio maps, trying out different mic set ups, running environmental sound workshops, interviewing people about their work etc etc.


Akio Suzuki's oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013
Akio Suzuki’s oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013

So what have I actually found out? Well, loads obviously, but one of the main themes emerging is…

Decontextualising and recontextualising: making works that involve more than just sound

Field recording, the core method of environmental sound art, decontextualises sound, lifting it out of place and sending it into wider circulation: “as a listener, I hear just as much displacement as placement, just as much placelessness as place, for the extraction of sound from its environment partially wields its power by being boundless, uprooted and distinct.” (LaBelle, 2006: 211) But playback recontextualises sounds, re-placing them, and the nature of that process is crucial to how field recordings function.

To put it another way, it’s easy enough to make field recordings, but what then? Where are they going to be played back, who (if anyone) will be listening, and what kind of effects do we want the playback situation to create? This is largely a question of geography, about the kinds of social and physical spaces in which environmental audio works are presented.

If we pursue sound as sound-in-itself, to the exclusion of other aspects of life, ultimately this takes us towards an acousmatic approach which “strips sound of any visual referent, linguistic description, or direct narrative, relying instead on the qualities of sound itself, its manipulation and construction.” (LeBelle, 2006: 209). But however much context is removed – even if the audience is blindfold, a method favoured by sound artist Francisco Lopez – there is always a (multi-sensory) recontextualisation on playback. Life always involves more than just sound.

Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez concert. Image from
Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez performance. Image from

The recontextualisation involved in the acousmatic contemplation of pure sound is sometimes quite rarefied, arguably even bourgeois and culturally elitist: abstract electroacoustic works presented in multi-channel concerts, fine art settings such as white cube galleries, perhaps a CD or digital download for attentive home listening. This assimilation of environmental sound into the traditions of western music and fine art is likely to reinforce the conventions of those traditions, such as the idea that music is created by an individual artistic genius for the gratification of a passive audience. It’s also likely to make environmental sound inaccessible to people who don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’ with those traditions.

This will tend to create a closed loop – people interested in aestheticised sound, making aestheticised sound for (mostly) other people interested in aestheticised sound. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but its function is quite limited, providing a specific kind of stimulation for a particular minority interest group. That critique could of course be applied to this website, since realistically most readers will be those who already have some sort of interest in sound. That’s fine by me – creative and academic communities need their own spaces for discussion and exchange just like any other group – but they also need to engage with people outside those communities as well, especially when their work concerns something as radically decentred, expansive, collective and participatory as the wide world of environmental sound in which we all live.

I’m convinced that working with environmental sound has a more lively, infectious potential to enrich everyday life and ‘ordinary’ people’s (i.e. not just sound artists’ and musicians’) relationships to places and environments. That enrichment may often be quite modest and subtle, but environmental sound is pervasive, an ever-present unconscious background (Cox, 2009), so even small changes could be significant.

To get some of that potential to flow, my research suggests that environmental audio needs to be recontextualised in ways that make it more meaningful for more people – i.e. more relevant, more inviting, more connected to people’s everyday concerns, routines and spaces. Based on what I’ve observed, there are lots of ways that this can be done. I’m tempted to suggest that the more of them can be thrown into the mix, the better. For example:

  • Using sound to investigate issues that are not just about sound, but tap into a wider interest. That might be something universal like food and clothing (e.g. Felicity Ford’s work with wool), or a more specific topic such as hospitals (e.g. John Wynne’s Transplant project), international air travel (Cox and Carlyle’s Air Pressure), or even something as prosaic as hand dryers in public toilets, which soundscape composer John Drever has been researching:

Alternatively, one can work with audio in places where there are specific local issues of concern to people who live nearby, as in my work at Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary, and Peter Cusack’s recent input into urban planning in Berlin:

  • Using a mix of media, adding spoken commentary, text, still images, video or dance alongside environmental audio to thicken up the experience, activate a mix of senses, furnish contextual details, tell stories.
  • Presenting environmental audio in public spaces through installations, audio walks and performances. There are many things to consider here, but maybe the most important is how people are already using particular public spaces, and how to work with that. For example Noel Lobley, who works on the Pitt Rivers Reel to Real project has been taking ethnomusicology recordings out of the archive and into the communities in which they were recorded. In one case this involved hiring a donkey cart, loading it with a sound system and riding through South African townships playing Xhosa music.
  • Bringing people together for sociable gatherings, collective listening and convivial discussion around environmental audio. Fundamental to field recording, acoustic ecology and soundscapes is the idea that we are always in the midst of a vast, uncontrollable world of sound, immersed amongst many different sounding bodies. The seclusion of galleries, concert spaces and individual home listening to websites or CDs seems at odds with that. Here’s James Wyness explaining his idea for ‘soond gaitherins’:

  • Mixing different ways of working with and thinking about sound. Carsten Stabenow told me that one of the most important aspects of the Tuned City festival he runs is how it mixes people from different backgrounds – sound artists, scientists, cultural theorists, architects etc. This involves inviting people with different perspectives on sound onto relatively neutral ground, and allowing them to hang out, eat, drink, walk and talk together:

  • Subverting playback spaces. If environmental audio work is being presented in traditional gallery or concert situations, this can be done in ways that playfully critique or subvert their restrictive spatial and social conventions. Jonathan Prior has created an alternative audio walk for the Scottish National Gallery that cheekily détournes its exhibits. For example, visitors are instructed to stop before an oil painting depicting the crucifixion of Christ, and hear snippets of an interview with celebrity magician David Blaine talking about one of his painful endurance stunts. I witnessed another example in a soundscape work, ‘Strata’, by Mark Peter Wright, Sophie Mallett, Yiorgis Sakellariou and Brigitte Hart from the London College of Communication. The piece was made for the BE OPEN ‘sound portal’, an unreconstructedly modernist surround sound playback environment created by engineers working for Arup, temporarily located in a public space in London, and deliberately designed to shut out the sounds of the city outside. The following clip starts with one of the field recordings used – the lively calls of a hawker at a London flower market, recorded by Sophie Mallett – followed by Sophie explaining how they used this to bring the messy sounds of London back into the purified space of the sound portal.

The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter
The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter.

There’ll be more updates here as the research progresses. Thanks to everyone who has participated in the research so far. And thanks especially to the AHRC for funding the fellowship. It’s proving to be an invaluable opportunity to deepen my thinking and practice in environmental audio, and has also helped me to build working relationships and friendships with others in this field.

Risky engagements: some thoughts on geography and art

I’m uploading some audio clips from a recent presentation I gave at an event on ‘Risky engagements: encounters between science, art and public health’. This took place at the University of Manchester and the Whitworth Art Gallery, 5th-6th January 2012, and was organised by Kozo Hiramatsu of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, anthropologist Rupert Cox, and sound artist Angus Carlyle.



The event was designed to spark discussion of the issues raised by Angus and Rupert’s Air Pressure project, currently installed at the Whitworth. An immersive video and multi-channel audio work, it centres on a site in Japan where the runway of an international airport has been built right beside a traditional organic farm. Two farming families refuse to move, despite pressure from the authorities to re-locate, and the intense noise at the site. The exhibition is on until the 12th of February and is well worth a visit.




I presented some thoughts about about art-geography collaborations, of which there have been an increasing number in recent years. I spoke about a project I’m just starting, The Invisible College, a collaboration with public artists NVA (more on that soon; for now see NVA’s website). I also made some more general comments about four issues that seem to come up when academics and artists work together. These are:

1. Epistemology

2. Evaluation
(I would add to this that in my view, the lack of established criteria for this is a good thing; the resulting sense of uncertainty seems productive and useful.)

3. Politics
(Below is the image I refer to in this, from the Office of Experiments website)

4. Publics


The other contributions spun together a vast array of approaches and topics. From the Japanese side, there was a talk about noise around the airport from an acoustics and health perspective, and presentations about Minamata disease, the history and politics of a radiation poisoning incident caused by US nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, and the Fukushima disaster. The UK presenters covered the future of waste (including some stuff about a Finnish project to build a permanent nuclear waste storage facility that will be sealed for 100,000 years), collaborations between arctic scientists and artists, a wonderful story weaving together the September 11th attacks and HIV, John Wynne presenting his work with sound in a transplant hospital, and Peter Cusack airing some recordings from the zone of exclusion in Chernobyl, and some wicked drone action from shipping in the Thames estuary.

So, a mind-expandingly diverse melting pot of ideas. Thanks to Rupert and Angus for the invite, and to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for funding such an interesting event..

Creative Practice Primer

For those of you who haven’t yet seen this…

One of my recent projects has produced a ‘Creative Practice Primer’, a resource for researchers who wish to experiment with creative methods, particularly where digital media are involved. Based on a workshop at Dundee Contemporary Arts in November 2010, it contains documentation of several small projects, advice on techniques and technology and relfections on experimentation in research:

There’s a lot of sound and audio stuff in there – covering contact mics, hydrophones, field recording techniques etc. Any feedback would be appreciated..

Sound, space and power in a primary school

I’ve just had a paper published in Social and Cultural Geography based on my PhD research in a primary school. It’s all about how sound is used in the exercise of power in schools. It’s part of a special issue on spaces of education. If you have access to the journal, you can download it here.

I had another paper in Surveillance and Society last year that is a bit broader but also has some stuff about sonic surveillance. That journal is free to access, and you can get my paper here.

This is all pretty cool as these are my first academic publications touching on questions of sound. The research was just conventional ethnography – no audio recordings sadly. However, I did go on to make a short film called Seven Primary School Spaces in 2008 where the sound was a major focus. Check it out:

I’ll be showing this film at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference this year in a session on ‘Moving Geographies: Film and Video as Research Method’ which is being organised by Katherine Brickell, Bradley L. Garrett and Jessica Jacobs from Royal Holloway..