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.

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..

Experimenting with Geography

‘Experimenting with Geography: See-Hear-Make-Do’ is an event dedicated to developing a diverse range of craft skills associated with audio, visual and site-specific methodologies, at different city locations, both inside and out-of-doors. It will take place at the University of Edinburgh, 3rd-7th May 2010.

Applications are invited from early career researchers and PhD students to participate in this ESRC-funded International Training School.

I’m really excited about this event. We have a great line up of guests including sound artists (Jacob Kirkegaard, Matt Rogalsky), visual/site specific artists (Louise K Wilson, Sans Facon) geographers (Nigel Thrift, Trevor Paglen, Hayden Lorimer, Eric Laurier) and a visual anthropologist (Sarah Pink). It’s going to be a whole week of fun stuff. We even have some fully funded places (travel, accommodation and food costs all covered).

Check out the project page for more information and how to apply to take part: