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.