World Listening Day took place last week, and as I understand it, it is all about not taking sound for granted – an admirable goal indeed! But it is worth taking a moment to consider what sorts of things we might be taking for granted about sound as a concept when we decide that listening should have its own holiday.
One gets the idea that soundscapes are like giant pandas on Endangered Species Day – precious and beautiful and in need of protection. Or perhaps they are more like office workers on Administrative Professionals’ Day – crucial and commonplace, but underappreciated. Does an annual day of listening imply an interruption of the regularly scheduled three hundred and sixty four days of “looking”? I don’t want to undermine the valuable work of the folks at the World Listening Project, but I’d argue it’s equally important to consider the hazards of taking sound and listening for granted as premises of sensory experience in the first place. As WLD has passed, let us reflect upon ways we can listen beyond our ears.
At least since R. Murray Schafer coined the term, people have been living in a world of soundscapes. Emily Thompson provides a good definition of the central concept of the soundscape as “an aural landscape… simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”(117) As an historian, Thompson was interested in using the concept of soundscape as a way of describing a particular epoch: the modern “machine age” of the turn of the 20th century.
Anthropologist Tim Ingold has argued that, though the concept that listening is primarily something that we do within, towards, or to “soundscapes” usefully counterbalanced the conceptual hegemony of sight, it problematically reified sound, focusing on “fixities of surface conformation rather than the flows of the medium” and simplifying our perceptual faculties as “playback devices” that are neatly divided between our eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, etc.
Stephan Helmreich took Ingold’s critique a step further, suggesting that soundscape-listening presumes a a particular kind of listener: “emplaced in space, [and] possessed of interior subjectivities that process outside objectivities.” Or, in less concise but hopefully clearer words: When you look at the huge range of ways we experience the world, perhaps we’re limiting ourselves if we confine the way we account for listening experiences with assumptions (however self-evident they might seem to some of us) that we are ‘things in space’ with ‘thinking insides’ that interact with ‘un-thinking outsides.’ Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama, in their chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, put it the most bluntly, arguing that
Recent decades of sensory history, anthropology, and cultural studies have rendered banal the argument that the senses are constructed. However, as yet, sound scholars have only begun to reckon with the implications for the dissolution of our object of study as a given prior to our work of analysis.(546)
Here they are referring to the problem of the technological plasticity of the senses suggested by “audification” technologies that make visible things audible and vice-versa. SO!’s Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has also weighed in on the social contingency of the “listening ear,” invoking Judith Butler to describe it as “a socially-constructed filter that produces but also regulates specific cultural ideas about sound.” In various ways, here, we get the sense that not only is listening a good way to gain new perspectives, but that there are many perspectives one can have concerning the question of what listening itself entails.
But interrogating the act of listening and the sounds towards which it is directed is not just about good scholarship and thinking about sound in a properly relational and antiessentialist way. It’s even less about tsk-tsking those who find “sound topics” intrinsically interesting (and thus spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about things like, say, Auto-Tune.) Rather, it’s about taking advantage of listening’s potential as a prying bar for opening up some of those black boxes to which we’ve grown accustomed to consigning our senses. Rather than just celebrating listening practices and acoustic ecologies year after year, we should take the opportunity to consider listening beyond our current conceptions of “listening” and its Western paradigms.
For example, when anthropologist Kathryn Lynn Guerts first tried to understand the sensory language of the West African Anlo-Ewe people, she found a rough but ready-enough translation for “hear” in the verb se or sese. The more she spoke with people about it, however, the more she felt the limitations of her own assumptions about hearing being, simply, the way we sense sounds through our ears. As one of her informants put it, “Sese is hearing – not hearing by the ear but a feeling type of hearing”(185). As it turns out, according to many Anlo-ewe speakers, our ability to hear the sounds of the world around us is by no means an obviously discrete element of some five-part sensorium, but rather a sub-category of a feeling-in-the-body, or seselelame. Geurts traces the ways in which the prefix se combines with other sensory modes, opening up the act of hearing as it goes along: sesetonume, for example, is a category that brings together sensations of “eating, drinking, breathing, regulation of saliva, sexual exchanges, and also speech.” Whereas English speakers are more inclined to contrast speech with listening as an act of expression rather than perception, for the Anlo-Ewe they can be joined together into a single sensory experience.
The ways of experiencing the world intimated by Geurts’ Anlo-Ewe interlocutors play havoc with conventionally “transitive,” western understandings of what it means to “sense” something (that is, to be a subject sensing an object) let alone what it means to listen. When you listen to something you like, Geurts might suggest to us that liking is part of the listening. Similarly, when you listen to yourself speak, who’s to say the feeling of your tongue against the inside of your mouth isn’t part of that listening? When a scream raises the hairs on the back of your neck, are you listening with your follicles? Are you listening to a song when it is stuck in your head? The force within us that makes us automatically answer “no” to questions of this sort is not a force of our bodies (they felt these things together after all), but a force of social convention. What if we tried to protest our centuries-old sensory sequestration? Give me synaesthesia or give me death!
Indeed, synaesthesia, or the bleeding-together of sensory modes in our everyday phenomenological experience, shows that we should loosen the ear’s hold on the listening act (both in a conceptual and a literal sense – see some of the great work at the intersections of disability studies and sound studies). In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty put forth a bold thesis about the basic promiscuity of sensory experience:
Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear and feel. (266)
Merleau-Ponty, it should be said, is not anti-science so much as he’s interested in understanding the separation of the senses as an historical accomplishment. This allows us to think about and carry out the listening act in even more radical ways.
Of course all of this synaesthetic exuberance requires a note to slow down and check our privilege. As Stoever-Ackerman pointed out:
For women and people of color who are just beginning to decolonize the act of listening that casts their alternatives as wrong/aberrant/incorrect—and working on understanding their listening, owning their sensory orientations and communicating them to others, suddenly casting away sound/listening seems a little like moving the ball, no?
To this I would reply: yes, absolutely. It is good to remember that gleefully dismantling categories is by no means always the best way to achieve wider conceptual and social openness in sound studies. There is no reason to think that a synaesthetic agenda couldn’t, in principle, turn fascistic. The point, I think, is to question the tools we use just as rigorously as the work we do with them.
Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general.
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On July 18, 2014 all are invited to participate, observe, engage, and celebrate ways of listening with care for our sonic environment in the annual World Listening Day. This year’s theme is “Listen to you!” But first, listen to Eric Leonardson as he reveals the history of World Listening Day and more to kick off SO!’s third annual World Listening Month.
Five years ago Dan Godston came up with the idea for World Listening Day, inspired by the pioneering work of the World Soundscape Project from the 1970s, and its founder, author, and composer R. Murray Schafer. With a group of Chicago-based sound artists and phonographers we started the World Listening Project, a non-profit organization “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” The impetus for the WLP came from Dan as well; he connected us with Bernie Krause, the musician-turned-bio-acoustician now a global advocate for preserving the disappearing natural soundscapes and the species that make them. The World Listening Project began with a confluence of people interested in field recording, media art, experimental music, and ecology with the potential benefits in using the web to present a global soundmap and recorded archive of the world. Connecting with people like Krause who are concerned with sound in the environment continues to lead to new connections and an expanding network of people from many different disciplines and attitudes.
Dan first broached the idea of World Listening Day as a question. He wrote that it “…might be a good occasion to draw attention to listening practices, acoustic ecology, soundscape awareness, and so on.” He noted that there was already a World Listening Awareness Month. But, its focus didn’t include soundscape awareness. As seems to have happened with Earth Day, we were concerned World Listening Day may be no more than a symbolic gesture for what really needs to be a daily effort.
With that unanswerable question hanging, Dan Godston announced the first World Listening Day in June 2010, setting the date as July 18, R. Murray Schafer’s birthday. Through email, the World Listening Project website, and social media, Dan made sure as many people as could were informed. The idea resonated and caught on. At the time I was visiting in Berlin and enjoyed meeting with young artists at their sound art gallery, Berg 26, and their esteemed teacher, Martin Supper. World Listening Day was a perfect vehicle for a project they were already planning. Udo Noll jumped on the idea, too. His radio aporee online soundmap fit right in.
After I returned to the states, the first national conference of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology was held in Chicago. A week afterward, July 18 arrived. Much to our relief and surprise, hundreds of people had responded to Dan’s call for participation, locally, nationally, and internationally. The Nature Sounds and Night Skies Division of the U.S. National Park Service at Fort Collins, Colorado observed it and produced this excellent World Listening Day web page. Each year, Udo Noll creates a special “sonic snapshot of the world” on the aporee.org soundmap site. From Portugal, Luis Antero produces a World Listening Day show on Radio Zero. Public, institutional, and media interest increased in subsequent years. The BBC Radio reported about World Listening Day last year, when I also celebrated with Murray Schafer for his 80th birthday at the Stratford Summer Music Festival, in Ontario.
In our first World Listening Day podcast for Sounding Out!—SO! has joined in observing WLD by hosting a yearly “World Listening Month” Forum since 2012– we learned from Pauline Oliveros, the pioneering composer and founder of Deep Listening, that most folks, including cognitive scientists, still don’t know what listening is. We also highlighted how technologies of recording and concern for environments undisturbed by human activity are bundled together in interesting, divergent ways. Tom, Monica, and I are working on a second podcast to debut here on Sounding Out! on World Listening Day on July 18th 2014, that digs into such concepts as “acoustic identity,” “soundscape composition,” and “listener recognizability,” among others we rarely encounter in everyday conversation.
We hope WLD 2014 will involve even more people and organizations who will notice and spread the word on into the future. Most importantly, we work toward the shared realization that everyday should be World Listening Day.
Toward that end, we reprint the WLD 2014 “official” instructions below. Participation in the past four World Listening Days exceeded our expectations. In this fifth year we anticipate even greater activity and interest. here are 15 days remaining to plan a World Listening Day activity—whether individual, group, or social-media oriented—so jump right into the 2014 World Listening Day activities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org about your plans. Please be sure to include “World Listening Day” in the subject line or http://www.worldlisteningproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/2014_WLD_participation_form.pdf” target=”_blank”>download the 2013 World Listening Day participation form here. Thanks!
You are invited to participate in the 2014 World Listening Day an annual global event held on July 18. The purposes of World Listening Day are to:
- Celebrate the listening practices of the world and the ecology of its acoustic environments;
- Raise awareness about the growing number of individual and group efforts that creatively explore the Acoustic Ecology based on the pioneering efforts of the World Soundscape Project, World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, La Semaine du Son, Deep Listening Institute, among many others;
- Design and implement educational initiatives that explore these concepts and practices.
This year’s theme for World Listening Day is “Listen To You!” Some questions to consider:
- How do you make yourself heard by others?
- How do you listen and what do you hear when you want to be unseen?
- How might the sounds you produce adapt to your nearby environment?
- What might a “listening ethic” be?
- How might such an ethic apply particularly to understanding the relationship between humans and other living creatures?
World Listening Day is co-organized by the World Listening Project (WLP) and the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology (MSAE). July 18 was chosen because it is the birthday of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, founder of the World Soundscape Project and author of the seminal book, The Tuning of the World.
WLP and MSAE invite you to participate in the 2014 World Listening Day, on Friday, July 18 and also through the week of July 14th-20th.
Some suggestions on how you can participate and organize may be:
- A soundwalk or a listening party with people who make, listen, and discuss field recordings.
- A performance event that explores your soundscape and how we can listen to our sonic environment.
- A private / solitary way, by listening attentively to your soundscape.
- An educational event that relates to acoustic ecology, field recordings, or a similar topic.
- Contact local groups participating in World Listening Day and get involved.
Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based audio artist and teacher. He has devoted a majority of his professional career to unorthodox approaches to sound and its instrumentation with a broad understanding of texture, atmosphere and microtones. He is President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and founder of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, and Executive Director of the World Listening Project. Leonardson is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
[Editor’s Note: Both Eric Leonardson and Jennifer Stoever will be speaking at the Invisible Places Sounding Cities: Sound, Urbanism, and a Sense of Place conference in Viseu, Portugal on World Listening Day 2014. Here is the website: http://invisibleplaces.org/.]
Featured image: “Dancing Mania @ Mlbk” by Flickr user Lieven Soete, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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This is the fourth and final post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Nicole Furlonge, click here, for Maile Colbert‘s piece click here and for Regina Bradley’s post (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.
This week we have something a little different in store for our readers. The good folks from Everything Sounds, Craig Shank and George Drake Jr., wrote a post for us on the role of listening in their podcast. However, they approached it as a transcript of their podcast. One of the things we like about Everything Sounds is that their approach to discussing sound is like a conversation, and so listeners feel like they are hanging out with the hosts as they go on sonic adventures. Moreover, they have recorded the post as an Everything Sounds podcast episode, so that you can choose how to experience this blog post: either as a written/visual text, audio text, or read along while you listen. Also, feel free to respond in our comments section to the listening challenge they present at the end of the post. We want to hear your stories about sound too!–Liana Silva-Ford, Managing Editor
Craig Shank (CS): I’m Craig Shank
George Drake Jr. (GDJr): …and I’m George Drake Jr.
CS: This is an Everything Sounds blog post.
GDJr: If you’re not familiar with Everything Sounds, it’s a podcast and public radio show about the ways that sound plays a role in art, science, history, and culture.
GDJr: Don’t forget about the time that we somehow managed to get on the subject of using music to encourage…you know…tortoise-love.
CS: Obviously, radio shows use sound to tell stories. How else would they do it? However, we wanted to tell stories about sound. The best way to reign in our slightly unwieldy premise was by asking questions. How do artists use sounds? What sounds result from the natural world, daily life, and industry? Why is sound important? What can we learn about our own experience through sound?
GDJr: Sound plays an important role in our lives. It makes sense that it would, right? Sound is everywhere. Complete silence is virtually impossible. There’s always something generating a sound somewhere. That’s good news for us since we’ll always have something to talk about on the show.
CS: When Sounding Out! approached us about contributing to the blog for World Listening Day, we were flattered. Then the reality set in. We’re just two guys that make a podcast. It’s unlikely that anyone would consider us experts. Our education involved studying sound and music, but it was mostly in the context of creating radio.
GDJr: We were initially drawn to radio because of music, but over time we began to appreciate how songs, voices, and sounds were used to share information and tell stories. Radio is a medium that spoke to our curiosity about the world as well as the role that sound plays in it. After spending so much time working with and around sound, you can’t help but notice all of the ways it can influence everyday life.
CS: We aren’t scientists, inventors, acousticians, artists, or anything other than radio producers, but Everything Sounds allows us to speak with experts and creative people that can help us learn about the influence that sound has on us.
GDJr: This may be the exact reason why the show resonates with listeners. In many cases, we’re learning something new right along with you. We’re able to ask questions and make sense of new information. After we gather the information we organize everything to make more sense, find supporting information, check the facts, and try to reassemble all of it in a way that is fun and engaging.
CS: The reaction to the show is humbling and beyond our expectations. When we started producing the show we were unaware that it could have a real-world impact. However, we’ve heard from listeners that thank us for opening up their ears and helping them reconsider the role of sound in their daily lives. We’ve been touched by stories from listeners with vision difficulties that tell us how much they appreciate the show and its treatment of sound.
GDJr: One of our listeners commented that their ability to recognize and classify sounds was well-developed as a result of their condition. They said our show made them want to find ways to record some of their experiences with sound and share it with others. We’re always delighted to hear that the show generates any kind of reaction, but it’s especially meaningful when it makes listeners want to create, investigate, or learn after the show ends.
CS: …and inexplicably, some people actually think we’re funny. I’m not even convinced we’re funny.
GDJr: If we are, it’s probably not intentional. Let’s get back to your point. Making a connection helps to spark an interest in learning about and exploring sound. If people think Everything Sounds is funny, informative, entertaining, or “ear-opening,” then we have managed to get people to think about sound and hearing more deeply. Even if it’s only for a few minutes each week, sound becomes the center of attention. If we make the show enjoyable for listeners, then we open doors to topics that they may not have considered in the past.
CS: The wonderful thing about learning is that you don’t have to be an expert to do it. You just have to be curious. Even the experts use their imagination and curiosity to solve problems and explore unanswered questions. Accessibility is extremely important when it comes to creating an intellectual spark that encourages people to stop , think, pick up a book, or search on the internet for more information. Even though we are sharing information that is new to us, we try to make it entertaining and less intimidating.
GDJr: We don’t want to overstate our contributions to listeners’ lives. We’re fully aware that we’re competing for their time and attention. Everything Sounds has probably become background noise for many hours of laundry folding, dinner preparing, or late-night driving. Despite this, we value all listening and levels of engagement.
CS: By listening to podcasts or radio programs the world can come to you through your headphones or speakers. If someone can’t make a trip, then we can provide the material to construct the scene in ears and minds.
GDJr: So, what are the scenes that we’ve created? Well, in the very beginning, episode 1 in fact, we talked to a sound artist named Jesse Seay. Craig and I had no idea what the show would sound like, how it would be structured, or if anyone would even care. The only thing we knew is that we wanted to do a feature on her “Mechanical Tide” piece. Sculpture is inherently visual art form that sometimes may be difficult to translate on the radio. So, we were interested to learn more about one of many artists that has found a way to incorporate sound elements into their work. A simple interview with Jesse would have probably given us enough to work with, but to bring some life into the story we decided to see the piece in person with her.
CS: At the University of Chicago we were able to capture Jesse interacting with the piece, talk to students, and run into tour groups that reacted to Mechanical Tide. This episode taught us a valuable lesson. Capturing honest, real, and unscripted moments is essential to telling stories about sound.
GDJr: All of the time and writing in the world couldn’t create moments as memorable as when we simply keep the tape rolling and listen for the surprising sounds of the real world. We need some consistency for the sake of telling coherent stories, but including surprising and unexpected audio adds a great deal to our episodes.
CS: In the first episode of our second season we spoke to Nick Zammuto. He’s a musician that has performed with The Books and more recently Zammuto. Over the years, Nick simply kept the tape rolling whenever he could to capture as much of the world around him as possible. Many of these clips ended up being used in his music.
GDJr: Nick said, “It’s an obvious rule of physics that, you know, the more you record, the more you get.” Listening works the same way. The more time you spend listening to the world, the more you get out of it.
CS: A striking example of this involved a trip to the The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. Nick was recording in front of the jellyfish tank and captured part of an unsettling conversation with a father and daughter. This conversation eventually made its way into a song called “Motherless Bastard” by The Books.
GDJr: Nick has a knack for finding ways to use the sounds of everyday life in his musical pieces. The results are sometimes uncomfortable, humorous, confusing, or odd, but taking sound from its original context allows us to reconsider its place in the real world and in art. Although Nick often has a use for his recordings, listening itself often doesn’t need to have a goal to be beneficial.
CS: Being open to those experiences of everyday life is what makes good listeners. Most of us are born with the ability to hear the world around us. However, it takes patience and practice to develop better listening habits. We can learn about other people, the natural world, our surroundings, and the things we care about by taking a closer listen. Everything Sounds isn’t meant to encourage a blanket approach to listening, but we do think it encourages people to consider the way that they listen to the world and what they are neglecting.
GDJr: When was the last time you put away your phone, turned off the TV or radio, and listened to the sounds in your neighborhood? If you’ve been in nature recently, did you take a moment to close your eyes and listen to the birds while the wind rustled the leaves on the trees? Have you thought about how different all of your friends’ laughs sound?
CS: Listening isn’t just about encountering and acknowledging the cacophony of daily life. Listening is about taking the time to notice the role that many different sounds play in a soundscape. Taking the time to process the sounds around you gives you an increased awareness of the world and your place in it. There is a wealth of information carried in sound waves. Neglecting that information would be like eating a wonderful meal and not allowing any of it to touch your taste buds.
GDJr: Deep listening serves practical purposes. It helps us appreciate our favorite music, enjoy the environment, and understand the people we love. Sounds can bring us joy, alert us to danger, keep us connected, and help us navigate our world. Listening closely allows you to hear the subtle details that many others will overlook or ignore. It helps you to become more mindful, in the moment, and intellectually engaged.
CS: So, take a moment now to listen to the sounds that you may have been blocking out while reading this post. Consider other times in your life where you may not be paying attention to the sounds around you. Make an effort to appreciate all that your ears have to offer.
(6-7 second pause)
GDJr: It’s easy to be distracted by bright colors, motion, and other attention-grabbing visual elements in our culture, but if you make the effort to listen, you’ll be able to hear diverse and nuanced examples of sounds that can create just as much excitement everywhere.
CS: In the introductory episode of the show we talked about the way sounds shaped us and led us to create Everything Sounds. In that episode we stated that the goal of the show is not to just share our own experiences with sound. We want the show to encourage listeners to have their own journeys with sound. With this blog post, even if you never listen to the show, we hope that you will recognize your own listening habits and consider ways that you can have a closer relationship with sound.
GDJr: I think that’s pretty much the whole ball of wax.
CS: Thanks for listening…or reading. Whichever one you’re doing.
GDJR: Or Both!
CS: Thanks to Sounding Out! for giving us this platform to share our enthusiasm for sound.
GDJr: We love meeting other audiophiles and geeking out, so feel free to reach out. We’d love to hear from you.
CS: I’m Craig Shank.
GDJr: And I’m George Drake, Jr. Thanks for reading or listening to this Everything Sounds blog post.
Featured image photo credit: Everything Sounds duo Craig Shank and George Drake, Jr., image courtesy of the authors.
Craig Shank is an Indiana native that developed a passion for music and broadcasting at an early age. While in college, Craig balanced internships, part-time jobs, and volunteer opportunities that allowed him to spend most of his time outside of the classroom in broadcast facilities. His interest in sound and digital media paired with extensive broadcasting experience led Craig to produce Everything Sounds with his longtime friend and collaborator, George Drake Jr. He is fascinated by the cosmos and begrudgingly acknowledges his lactose intolerance.
George Drake Jr. grew up in Chicago, but spent time in Indiana and London before returning to the Windy City. His passion for music and background in theatre as a teenager made George a perfect fit in the world of radio. Following his involvement at WIUX, WXRT, and WTTS George took his dedication to his craft to the next level when he traveled overseas to pursue his Masters in Radio at Goldsmiths College, U. of London. George has consistently allowed his ears and intuition to find and promote sounds that will have an impact. His favorite band is The Books, he enjoys a spicy Bloody Mary, and finds any excuse to wear a tie.
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