Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening–Pauline Oliveros
“CAN YOU HEAR ME?!” “I CAN HEAR YOU!!” “IT’S A VAN GOGH PARADE!!” . . .were some of the enthusiastic replies when artist Elana Mann, musician Juliana Snapper, and other members of ARLA (Audile Receptives Los Angeles) arrived on the scene at Occupy LA with giant hand-made ears. Mann co-founded ARLA in the Spring of 2011 with Snapper, filmmaker Vera Brunner-Sung, and choreographer Kristen Smiarowski. After studying scores and techniques on listening developed by composer Pauline Oliveros, ARLA developed a workshop geared toward Occupy LA that included a listening parade in which they held up the giant ears and protest signs with ears on them. Snapper recalls, “The simple physical presence of people carrying large paper-mache ears was met with a kind of hungry recognition…recognition of what it meant that we were holding the symbols (giant ears).” They led workshops, listening sessions, and discussion groups. They performed Oliveros’ sonic meditation “Teach Yourself to Fly” and a composition written by Mann and Snapper entitled “People’s Microphony.” And a project was born. Through personal interviews and audio-visual examples, I document, contextualize, and analyze its work.
Mp3=The People’s Microphony Camerata performing “Teach Yourself to Fly” Pauline Oliveros
I am happy that Elana Mann chose to use my Sonic Meditations for the People’s Microphony project. These pieces are meant for anyone that wants to perform them regardless of musical training.” –Pauline Oliveros
For Mann, active listening is “a process of tuning in simultaneously inward and outward. Active listening allows for an awareness of and an opening up to sounds around me and also a digestion of what is happening inside of me in relation to these sounds.” Much of the recent focus on this practice comes from the music and sound art worlds, as well as acoustic ecology, a field formed from the overlapping area between science and art that concentrates on the importance of experiencing and investigating our sonic surroundings with detailed care and respect to understand its importance on our world and our place within it. Mann’s work addresses a unique angle at the intersection of these fields: listening’s empathetic effect on those whom you are listening to, a consideration arising from a project she worked on between 2007-2010 with Iraq war veteran Captain Dylan Alexander Mack, called “Can’t Afford the Freeway.”. “Can’t Afford the Freeway” highlights how her collaborations emerge as conversations between involved artists as well as the audience. Speaking to Mann about the project, she stated,
Alex created some recordings for me and I kept listening to them over and over again trying to figure them out. I eventually produced more interviews with him and realized that he needed his story to be heard and I needed to try and understand his story. So I created a project in which I attempted to listen as best I could. Listening to his recordings made me feel close to him, but I also recognized that no matter how many times I heard his words they were still foreign to me. Still the very act of me struggling to listen was important for both of us, and I think this is true of many interpersonal/political and social situations. You can never experience what it is like to be someone else, but active listening opens up a space of empathy and connection. I also think we can see how a lack of active listening is affecting the political landscape in the United States so negatively, by producing a highly polarized and vitriolic environment.
And what about at Occupy LA?
At Occupy LA I was hopeful that there would be a place for listening to voices that had not been heard before and sometimes that happened. Other times people used the space for projecting, not receiving. I think that there needs to be strong voices making themselves heard, but I don’t want to lose the other part of that equation, which is those voices being quiet and listening to others, and themselves.
Mann, thinking and researching about social, aesthetic, and political points of listening and voicing, felt there was something to be considered about the “radical receptivity and the core message of the OWS movement” and its global amplification of voices struggling to be heard. In the Spring of 2012, she formed The People’s Microphony Camerata with Snapper, a radical experimental choir based in Los Angeles exploring the process of the People’s Microphone. The exact history of the “People’s Microphone,” or “People’s Mic” is unclear, but its use in the Occupy Movement has already become iconic. Ted Sammons discusses the implications of the People’s Mic for communication in his October 2011 post, “‘I didn’t say look; I said listen’: The People’s Microphone, #OWS, and Beyond.” The human microphone is a way to deliver one person’s message to a large group of people in situations where amplification tools, such as bullhorns, are either not allowed or unavailable, or if the acoustics of a space distort amplification. The speaker calls, “mic check!” to alert their intentions. Those around them call back, “mic check!”, until the gathering understands something will be said. The speaker breaks their statement into short sentences, pausing to allow those around them, or the “first wave,” to repeat them in unison. They then pause for those further away, or the “second wave,” to repeat again…and so on until those in the back of the gathering have heard the statement.
The group’s trademark intensity sometimes carried over to the audience. Mann discovered such transference often had to do with prior associations with a location or context. Mann recalled a particular performance at the Occupy movement called “Chalkupy” that was formed in response to a protest running simultaneously with the LA Art Walk, in which activists had handed out chalk and told stories of police repression while chalk drawings were created on the walkways. The police shut down the art walk and a violent struggle ensued. The Occupy LA movement called for people globally to take to the street with chalk in protest, and the day was called “Chalkupy”. The audience of protestors was mixed and tense, and when the PMC began their performance of a highly emotive score called “Sob-Laugh” by Daniel Goode, people were either drawn to or repelled by the performance.
I think there was some fear about the vulnerable revelation of emotions in the space of the protest. Many of the Occupy LA protests were so risky that everyone had to be extremely tough to exist in that activist space. I respect that. Still I think there are other things that can happen in a space of protest that bring out different feelings. Some activists wanted us to be more musically conventional, “why can’t you just sing some folk songs like normal protest choirs,” we were asked. But we really were not into that kind of thing. . .
In most protest situations, the audiences welcomed their activities. Many shared that it opened up a new space where people could meet each other as humans rather than adversaries or collaborators. Mann edited and published a monochromatic grassroots songbook with the various scores the PMC received for performance, opening up the circle for anyone and everyone to perform and feel that closeness.
Sometimes it was hard to translate a piece that worked during a group rehearsal to something for an audienceperformer situation. . .The PMC never fully developed how to deal with audience participation, but this is something I have been developing on my own in working with students on PMC materials. The scores from the People’s Microphony Songbook and the techniques Juliana and I developed when we first formed the PMC create an immediate closeness within a group, which is remarkable.
From the “People’s Microphony Songbook”: Many voices that were once silenced are now resonating through large crowds, not only of activists, but ordinary people all over the world, assisted by internet networks, and a simple technology called the People’s Microphone. The People’s Mic expressed the interrelated desires of collective and individual voices to speak and be heard, to hear one’s words spoken back through different mouths, and to digest someone else’s words through one’s own body. Beyond projecting an individual’s voice further then it can resonate on its own, the People’s Mic has implications for all of the bodies in its vicinity. It energizes listeners in ways the microphone or megaphone cannot by making listening active, vocal, and embodied. The project, like the Occupy movement, holds all the complexity, beauty, and drive of being human, whether you consider it “working” or not. When I asked Mann about how changes within and towards the Occupy Movement affected the choir, and whether they were winding down or taking a new form, she answered:
I think more than anything else, our group faced a lot of the same challenges that the Occupy Movement faced challenges in horizontality, in the push and pull between interior and exterior exploration, in the sometimes painful vulnerability of investigating the intimate personal and political space with others. I think the project is still developing. The choir still communicates, and some members are currently collaborating with composer Daniel Corral, but the PMC does not meet and rehearse like we used to I think it will continue to wax and wane. In the meantime, I am still working on ideas of active listening. I am currently creating a project called “Listening as (a) movement” within an under-served neighborhood in Pasadena, CA, exploring ideas of radical listening within a specific neighborhood.
In an age of constant bombardment of stimuli, our heads scream with thoughts, opinions, arguments, and expressions. With our current technology, our input and output can be a constant rush of snap reactions and impulses, which has a profound effect, of course, on our day-to-day lives, on our culture(s), on our politics. But these circles cannot be affectively complete without the other side. We need someone to hear us, and, more then that, we need someone to listen to us. And we, in turn, need to listen to them.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Fall refuses to stay put in Kansas City. The past month Kansas City temperatures have skyrocketed to 70 comfortable degrees fahrenheit and plummeted to 20 chilly degrees. I decided to partake of a wonderfully mild Sunday afternoon last Thanksgiving weekend to do another one of my Kansas City soundwalks, this time the fall edition. Fortunately the weather was cooperating, and I didn’t have to worry about how long I could resist standing in the cold.
Even though the weather was wonderful for a soundwalk, I couldn’t choose where to go. I have blogged about three soundwalks so far, and for each of them the choice seemed more organic: for my first soundwalk, in 2010, I wanted to walk around my new neighborhood and begin to understand it from an aural point of view. For my second soundwalk (in 2011) I went to one of my favorite places in Kansas City, the Country Club Plaza, and provided a snapshot of the sounds of spring in this busy area of Midtown. On my personal blog, in time for World Listening Day 2011, I talked about sounds from my own porch for a summer edition of my KC Soundwalks series, in order to think about the soundscape where I live. However, for this fourth soundwalk my only requirement was that it be a place I had not been to before. I wanted to venture out to somewhere new and encounter it not just with my eyes but also with my ears. Technically, I could go anywhere in Kansas City and do a soundwalk, but that was the one thing keeping me from doing a soundwalk: I couldn’t choose.
Last Sunday I decided I had to just get in the car and go. I had planned (and postponed) several soundwalks up until that day (I had even tweeted that I was leaving the house, in hopes of that forcing me to commit), so that day I planned to finally take some time to do my soundwalk before I went back to work. I got in the car with my daughter, destined for the West Bottoms neighborhood. I figured I’d take the long route instead of the quick and easy highways. As we drove along the side streets, I saw a park—a park neither of us had been to before, Jarboe Park—and I figured we could stop there, play for a while, and then drive off for my soundwalk. In any case, she might be good and tired by the time we arrived at our final destination, and I could put her in the stroller while I recorded and took notes.
That’s not what happened.
Once we arrived at the park, a moment of inspiration hit when I saw some musical instruments of sorts as part of the jungle gym, something I hadn’t seen before.
When we arrived, Jarboe Park was deserted. The bare trees didn’t make it any more inviting, but the park is in newly minted condition and full of bright colors. It showed no signs of life, or wear and tear; in fact, the jungle gym and the swings seemed new. (According to The City of Kansas City, MO’s website, this park was remodeled in 2011.) Jarboe Park is located in a residential neighborhood, across from Primitivo García Elementary School. During the semester it surely gets more use. Perhaps it was too early on a Sunday for families to be out and about at the park. Coincidentally, a family appeared about an hour after we arrived, but they went to the basketball court across the street.
The first thing that caught my attention at the park was the presence of musical instruments set up at the entrance. I do not remember seeing anything similar before at a children’s jungle gym. There was a set of bells, a xylophone, some rainmakers, a whistle, and a drum set. Their presence seemed to indicate that making sounds/music/noise was also part of the experience of being in the park as well as part of the experience of growing up. Sound, specifically making sounds, became part of play, in this context.
In the quietude of the noon time the sounds these instruments made felt a little sad instead of happy; the fact that there was only one child (ok, two, including myself!) playing with these instruments made their sounds stand out more, in relation to, say, the sounds of the trains and the highways (which I will discuss below). At the same time they drew attention to the fact that they were the only sounds that the park was making. If the park were busy, the sounds of the instruments would probably fade into the soundscape instead of being the loudest sound. However, the fact that we were playing with these instruments–versus playing instruments–made the park seem less lonely. We were part of the sounds, we were making sounds, and that seemed to distract me from the fact that we were the only people there making sounds. Although the plastic and metal instruments were not like traditional instruments, I wondered what their purpose in the jungle gym were. If the spider web and the swings are meant to exercise certain parts of the body and practice certain ways of socializing, what did the instruments teach? Perhaps the instruments are meant to teach children that instruments produce sounds, and they produce them in different ways. Lastly, the instruments and the act of creating sounds must use a different part of the brain–and my daughter was quite excited to play with the drum set!
Other than the sounds of the instruments, I also noticed the sounds of the highway and the train. I found a corner of the park where I could stand and record the sounds of the city:
Kansas City is intersected by train tracks, and it almost feels like if you pay close attention, you can hear a train in the distance at any corner of the city. In fact, in the dead of a lazy afternoon or the quiet of the wee hours of the night I can hear the trains’ whistles, announcing their passing through the city, from my neighborhood of Rosedale in Kansas City, Kansas. If soundwalks can be a sonic ethnography of a city, my soundwalks have so far revealed that the sound of trains are an essential part of the KC soundscape as well as a reminder of the city’s history: the Kansas City Stockyards. I could also hear the low buzzing of the cars on the highway, another sound I’ve come to recognize as uniquely Kansas Citian, or at least part of my soundsscape. The murmur of the traffic ways is like the sound of Kansas City’s blood coursing through its veins.
This spur-of-the-moment soundwalk made me think of how listening and sound can prompt reflection about the identity of a neighborhood and of a city. As I wrote down notes, I wondered: how do parks add to a community’s soundscape? The sounds add to the community’s identity as a residential area as an area that is amenable to the presence (physically and in aural terms) of other people. Soundscapes are connected to our ideas of what constitutes a neighborhood, and specifically how important common spaces like parks are, with all the sounds that may ensue. On a broader level, my Kansas City soundwalks are helping me piece together a soundscape of Kansas City, and to think through sound as a way to understanding the urban culture of this city, with its music, its fountains, its sports, and its trains, among other things. I feel like my listening practices are directly tied to my developing connection to this Midwestern city.
Postscript: I never did make it to the West Bottoms that Sunday. But it’s still on my list of KC spots to visit.
Featured Image: “Downtown from Top of Liberty2″ by Wikimedia user Hngrange, under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!
When I got to São Paulo in January, 2012, I had only a slight idea of how my fieldwork would unfold. Even though I had planned to investigate the relationship between everyday sounds and ways of using public spaces in São Paulo, Brazil, I was certain that that I wanted to observe São Paulo’s Anti-noise Agency (known as PSIU), responsible for supervising noise emission from bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other commercial establishments. My original idea was to consider noise from an anthropological perspective – as a point of entry to discussions regarding social problems in the city. To meet this end, I began to focus on ‘controversial’ sounds. ’Controversial’ sounds are interesting to study because they make audible the question of spatial rights and the intersections of private, public, and civil spheres in the constant (re)construction of a city.
More than 11 million people live in São Paulo; on average 110,ooo in each of the city’s 96 districts, a population higher than that of 95% of Brazilian cities. São Paulo is known for being Brazil’s economic hub. It boasts the highest rate of migrants from other countries and from other Brazilian cities (including many from the northeast of Brazil, which is a notably impoverished region). There is a striking economic disparity: 1.3 million people live in slums spread throughout the city. While the richest district holds 300 thousand jobs, in the poorest there are only 136. While some can afford to pay R$ 500 (roughly 245 US dollars) just to get into a nightclub, others will spend that amount over the course of a year, going to unlicensed bars in peripheral districts. São Paulo has more helicopters per capita than any other city in the world; and one third of its residents spend more than 1 hour commuting to work, usually in overcrowded busses and trains. There are two very different cities here – one which is impoverished, and the other wealthy.
Within the context of a broader discussion of citizenship, controversial sounds need to be studied across social sectors. These sectors work in tandem to form the democratic society of São Paulo. For this reason, I have focused my research on four interrelated social branches.
As I said, first I went to PSIU, the executive branch of São Paulo. At PSIU I learned how certain sounds are regulated and how those responsible for making loud sounds are punished. I accompanied the agency’s engineer to a routine weekly inspection, and learned that people do not know much about legislation (sound limits allowed, zoning law, etc.), and that they know even less about what they need to do to achieve the sound pressure limits established by law.
I also observed the legislative branch. There, I was happy to discover that the technical standards most related to urban noise and acoustic quality were going through a major revision in 2012. These standards are important because most city ordinances are modeled after their criteria of measuring and evaluating sound.
The third branch is economic. In 2010, a coalition of professionals (mostly from São Paulo) specializing in ‘acoustic quality’ created ProAcustica, a non-profit organization whose mission is “to disseminate the benefits of acoustic solutions in civil construction as a primary factor for comfort and health of users at home, work, or any other urban space, and also as a element for sustainability of enterprise and of the environment.” ProAcustica’s constituents are mainly architects, acousticians, civil constructors, engineers, and building material developers.
Over the course of my fieldwork, I have attended many ProAcustica meetings and interviewed many of its members. Only in the last few years has there been an articulation of acoustics and economics that demands more effective urban planning and, most importantly, quantitative criteria that can encourage civil constructors to deliver acoustically comfortable dwellings. ProAcustica members want to relate the risks of noise pollution to the greater public in order to expand their market. ProAcustica is particularly interested in traffic noise as a critical aspect of our urban soundscapes. Still, most people seem to consider traffic noise an inevitable consequence of urban life. They either get used to it or move somewhere else. For example, I live with my cousin next to Congonhas Airport. I can see the airstrip from my window. Even though he spent a few thousand dollars installing noise-isolating windows, I still wake up everyday when the first planes landing at 6AM. Thanks to these planes, the sound in my bedroom reaches 90 dB(A) with the windows open. My cousin says that he has gotten used to it. But if we leave the windows opened it is impossible to listen to the TV.
The last social branch that I examined was civil society. What is the practice of making and listening to sounds in São Paulo? Are there localized ‘controversial’ sounds? In 2012 loud music in public spaces has been at the center of debates in the press and community meetings.
The pancadão (‘big punch’ in Portuguese) are parties that happen mostly in the peripheral neighborhoods of São Paulo, where very little leisure space is able to accommodate large numbers of people. For this reason, these parties happen on the streets and plazas, attracting thousands of youngsters that go to flirt, drink, and dance to the sound of Brazilian funk. The music comes from car speakers. Sometimes three or more cars will park a few feet from each other, blasting Brazilian funk throughout the night. Most of the lyrics contain metaphors referring to sex, but recently there has also been a wave of more extreme “ostentatious funk” (funk ostentação) coming from São Paulo. Here are two examples of popular funk ostentação songs that can be heard emanating from the pancadão, the first is MC Guime’s “Tá Patrão,” and the second, MC Rodolfinho’s “Como é Bom Ser Vida Loca.”
There has also been a link between the pancadão and drug traffic. Tellingly, there is branch of ‘forbidden’ funk that exalts drug dealers and robbery while also affronting the police. These parties persevere because everything is mobile: the music, the drinks, the drugs, and even the place for having sex – everything is supplied by the cars and can move around whenever there is a risk of conflict with the police.
Presently, I am conducting research in two peripheral regions. One is the place where most funk MCs originate, and the other is where new strategies of shutting down these parties have been implemented by the police. The Operação Pancadão is an operation that gathers military and civil police, PSIU agents, and other administration officers. This task force measures sound emissions, apprehends and punishes the responsible, then impounds the cars. Once you cut the sound, partygoers disperse – often seeking another pancadão close by. One police chief reports having mapped more than 200 places of pancadão in São Paulo.
Because of this fieldwork, I believe that the field of ‘applied sound studies’ needs to be developed further, both inside and outside of the academy. It is crucial for urban planners to develop qualitative methods to understand how residents evaluate the everyday soundscape. In Europe , for example, there is a group of scholars working on new methods for assessing and improving soundscapes based on how residents perceive the environments in which they live. I also see the potential for scholars interested in sound-related nuisance to work with conflict mediation. During the weekend 60% of all calls received by the police dispatcher (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.) are from people complaining about some nuisance, usually loud sounds. Understanding urban sounds as a phenomenon which impacts several different social sectors can empower interested parties to put forward alternatives. Ideally, these alternatives will allow marginalized youth to enjoy their music without being bullied by drug dealers or assaulted by policemen. At the micro level, conflict mediation scholars could provoke a sense of dialogue between neighbors and help them to find solutions for conflicting sonic behaviors.
Please listen to the accompanying podcast, “Listening to São Paulo, Brazil,” for the opportunity to listen to the soundscape of São Paulo, as I walk you through these spaces of sonic conflict.
Leonardo Cardoso was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he studied music composition at UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul). In 2005 he entered the Ethnomusicology Group at UFRGS as a research assistant. From 2005 to 2008 he participated in projects with indigenous communities in Rio Grande do Sul. In 2008 he started his Master’s in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin under Prof. Veit Erlmann’s advising. His interest in film music led him to write his thesis on the experimental field of visual music in Los Angeles. He is working in São Paulo, where he is currently conducting fieldwork on urban noise, for his PhD. Leonardo is also a photographer, composer, and sound collector. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org