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 set out a few ideas here.

Listening as practice

The more I work on environmental sound art, the more I’m convinced that it work best as 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: listening takes us away from a purist, ‘sound-as-sound’ approach; 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 unhelpful 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, a 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. 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

I would question 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). Foucault’s analysis is that power is not necessarily bad; rather it is ambivalent, a productive force full of possibilities, but also dangerous, open to abuse.

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.

Babylon shall fall

Where to start? Perhaps with my sense that the sheer accumulation of dramatic events, both in the UK and far beyond, demands some kind of response from an academic in my position. And a growing concern that my research interests in sound and audio media might be, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to the pressing matters at hand: a nuclear disaster in Japan; uprisings, unrest and civil war erupting across North Africa and the Middle East; drastic cuts to UK public services; riots and looting in England; crisis and debt in the Eurozone; the phone hacking scandal; the list goes on.

I find myself living in a nation governed by a privileged elite who insist that ‘we are all in this together’, when it is plainly obvious that they have sufficient personal wealth and connections to shield them from any significant downturn in their own economic fortunes. Under their rule, the UK has become a place where a girl who stole a mismatched pair of trainers from a smashed up shop has been given a 10 month jail sentence, yet no grounds can be found to prosecute (b/w)ankers like ‘Sir’ Fred Goodwin, whose reckless mismanagement of the Royal Bank of Scotland led to a bail out in which an incomprehenible £25 billion of government money has been lost. Goodwin has walked away with a £16 million pension, and our legal system is apparently unable (i.e. unwilling) to do anything to prevent this. That money would buy nearly 140,000 pairs of Nike Air Max trainers. Matching pairs.

And yet much of my time in the last six months has been spent adjusting to a new job in Glasgow, writing funding applications for research on sonic geographies, making audio recordings, taking photos and making minimal techno music. On recent excursions, I’ve found myself recording the sounds of a modernist ruin, the howling of the wind in fences around my local sewage works, and the fizzle of metal-studded winter tyres on cars in Finland.


Is this pure escapism, a kind of apolitical aestheticism? I have a weblog, and I have strong opinions about the unfolding economic and political mess – surely I should be speaking (or writing) up?

Looking around, however, there is no shortage of half-baked, narrowly informed, pre-fabricated analysis being rolled out on all sides of every debate. The danger of saying something stupid and unconstructive seems particularly high. As does the danger of speaking about things of which one has very limited experience or knowledge. For example, why did the BBC decide that David Starkey, a celebrity historian and TV presenter, should have anything worthwhile to say about rioting and youth culture? Or that Jeremy Clarkson – a man who has made a successful career in the media by performing an exaggerated caricature of insensitive, chauvenistic, materialistic masculinity – would be worth quizzing about public sector strikes?

I have a background in social research with children and young people, including on issues of participation and inclusion, and I’ve also spent some time as a youth worker. Yet when it came to the riots in England I genuinely didn’t know what to make of them. The immediate responses on both the right and left seemed inadequate. David Harvey’s commentary, for example, was pretty much exactly what you would expect him to say based on his previous work. Blame global capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s such a familiar diagnosis that I’m left wondering whether it really adds any insight.

What seems more useful at this point are propositions for action, and in this respect a recent public speech by Harvey seems more constructive, particularly towards the end:


Meanwhile, most mainstream politicians and commentators are offering solutions that seem incredibly negative. The rhetoric is all of necessity, difficulty, tough decisions, limitation, reduction, deficit, essential measures. A miserable, miserly discourse that makes me feel shrouded in permanent drizzle, even when the sun is shining outside. What about joy, hope, fun, play, freedom, life, love? Surely these are things we need most of all right now.

So, here is my end-of-2011, ramshackle, recycled, rehashed, cobbled together, incoherent, poorly-thought-out five point plan for growth – some things that I, you, we could do that might have at least a small chance of making a positive difference.

1. Pay less attention to the mainstream media and party politicians. Both have become largely theatrical, about performance, maufacturing spectacle, entertaining an audience, and the production of celebrity personalities. I don’t know about you, but for me much of the information I’m receiving about the various unfolding crises is being mediated by this process. It’s easy to slip into taking it seriously. Incessant hyperbole and graphic images can seep into the unconscious. Turning off (the radio, the TV, the internet) becomes a survival strategy. If in doubt, do it! We’re also lucky in that the internet has massively diversified the forms of mediatisation available to us. After the riots, I found the London Sound Survey’s recording of looting – which, to my ears, sounds a bit like a rowdy street party – to be an interesting contrast to the looping helicopter footage of burning buildings on the TV news channels.

2. Believe that Babylon shall fall. I’m talking about Babylon in the Rastafari sense of institutional oppression, the various forms of government and policing, and the bureaucracy, lies and corruption they engender. It’s very difficult at the moment to resist thinking in terms of ‘us and them’, and a revolution that will happen at some particular point in history. Babylon fits with that, but I have a different interpretation, of Babylon as a system that we’re all enmeshed in, all reproducing, but that is also continuously falling. ‘Shall fall’ then becomes less a prophecy of some future event, and more a recognition of the inevitable failure that is endemic to processes of control and domination. Check out my current favourite downfall of Babylon anthem, an absolutely deadly Rhythm and Sound track from 2003. It’s the perfect mantra for our times:


3. If you live in England, consider moving to Scotland. The Scottish Government is as problematic as any parliamentary system, but the level of bullshit appears to be several orders of magnitude lower up here. Alex Salmond is certainly a celebrity of sorts, but to nowhere near the extent of Cameron, Clegg et al. We have some sensible things like proportional representation, free prescriptions, ambitious green energy targets, and the government will pay your fees for higher education if you’ve been living here for 3 years or more. It’s by no means perfect but right now it feels way better than what is going on down south. The weather can be hard work, but things like mountains, beaches, islands, wildlife, fewer traffic jams, plentiful clean water and stunning whisky more than make up for that.

4. Do as many fun things that involve no exchange of money as possible. Yes, this is flippant, yes it’s frivolous, and yes it’s the sort of trite bollocks you’d find in a self-help book, but: every time you have fun without exchanging money, you are actively chipping away, albeit in a tiny way, at the whole crisis-deficit-fear mentality, reminding yourself that your personal happiness does not depend solely on money, and flicking two fingers at western societies’ ludicrous, obsessive, crippling subservience to financial markets. The more of that the better in my view.

5. Finally, let’s resist, in all possible ways, big and small, the appalling marketisation and consumerisation of UK higher education. If you’re based in the UK, consider signing this petition in defence of public education. It’s going to Westminster so it probably won’t make a blind bit of difference, but it might help raise the profile of the issue a bit. The full text of the White Paper being opposed by the petition is here. Thinking a bit more widely, the Globalise Resistance website seems helpful. And there are obviously all kinds of more direct actions that academics can take, and in many cases are taking: informal peer support, giving free talks and public presentations, freely distributing electronic copies of publications. So here’s an offer: if anyone wants any of these things from me, get in touch.

Happy Christmas, and all the best for 2012..

Chris Watson workshop audio

Jonathan Prior and I have produced a five minute audio piece documenting the workshop led by Chris Watson earlier this year. It’s a mixture of recordings we made on our trip out to the seaside at North Berwick and a few clips from an interview we did with him at the start of the week:


Event: the uses and abuses of field recordings

This is a little late notice, but I’ll be presenting at an event at CRiSAP (Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice) in London tomorrow. Info as follows:

the uses and abuses of field recording

June 9th, 2011, 3pm to 6pm
Podium Lecture Theatre
London College of Communication


On the 9 June this year CRiSAP is holding its fifth research symposium. In celebration of the beginning of our two year EU Cultural Partnership Project, the event will explore the role of field recording in artistic practice. We have invited eight speakers who all, in different ways and for different reasons, use microphones to capture something of the world around them: Viv Corringham, Peter Cusack, Felicity Ford, Michael Gallagher, Ruth Hawkins, Bill Thompson, Salomé Voegelin and Mark Peter Wright.

For this symposium we wanted to try something a little different and adapt the PechaKucha format where, while presenters are talking, their chosen 20 slides are each projected for 20 seconds. According to its originators this “makes presentations concise, and keep things moving at a rapid pace”. We want to spice the pot a little by asking the presenters to conclude with 2 minutes of recorded sound.

This exciting event will conclude with tea and cakes and a concert featuring Viv Corringham (voice); Peter Cusack (guitar, saz, samples & electronics)

Viv Corringham and Peter Cusack perform songs, mixed with improvisation, and soundscapes created from environmental recordings – all controlled live. Songs are from the Eastern Mediterranean area, including Greek rembetika and Turkish folk, others are self written. They will be joined by flute, shakuhachi and ney player Jan Hendrickse.

“Interesting, challenging stuff…” Folk Roots

“ingeniously crafted settings… make for fascinating listening… unorthodox yet entirely persuasive arrangements” Julian Cowley, The Wire

All are very welcome and admission is free.