Radical Listening and the People’s Microphony: A Conversation with Elana Mann
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:
“Sensing Voice”–Nina Sun Eidsheim
“Within a Grain of Sand: Our Sonic Environment and Some of Its Shapers”–Maile Colbert
*a longer version of this piece is forthcoming in Senses & Society 6 (2), July 2011.
In 2007, I received an invitation to a recital that would take place in my bathroom; the artist offered to present an underwater concert in my tub. My reaction? “Crazy,” I thought. “Why go to the trouble of singing in an element so far from ideal?” After a year of mulling it over, though, I finally realized that what I had dismissed for its hopeless impracticality might—precisely because it was impractical—offer fresh perspectives on singing and listening by resituating these familiar activities in vastly unfamiliar territory.
The underwater singing practiced by contemporary American soprano and performance artist Juliana Snapper challenges audiences to confront their unexamined assumptions about the relationships between the voice and materiality, the sensed and the singular. How do the physical and sensory properties of singers’ and listeners’ bodies affect and participate in the music we create and the sounds we hear? How do the physical space within and the matter through which sound travels shape what we hear? And how do the relations between these aspects affect what it feels like to sing, and what it is possible to hear?
During the spring of 2010, while I was working on an article about Snapper’s project and teaching a seminar on the multi-sensory aspects of music, Snapper offered to mount a participatory version of her project for my class. She took us through some exercises in a large swimming pool in downtown Los Angeles. The first exercise paired us up; one person gently held the other under water, while the person underwater made sounds. I was paired with Natalia, who shouted––but with my ears above the water I couldn’t hear her voice.
So we tried another strategy: one person made sounds underwater while the rest of us put our heads and ears in – and then we could hear her. We found that the deeper into the water we descended, the more difficult it was to sing high notes. Fast tempi were also difficult to maintain; Natalia’s attempt resulted in muddled sounds.
We found that the deeper into the water we descended, the more difficult it was to sing high notes. Fast tempi were also difficult to maintain; Natalia’s attempt resulted in muddled sounds. Surprisingly, while sung sounds didn’t seem very loud, small internal throat sounds were incredibly powerful. These exercises demonstrate how much the medium through which sound waves flow affects their characteristics: their speed, direction and so on. It also shows that in order to register sound, the listening body (including the head) must be immersed in the material through which the sound flows.
The next exercise linked the six of us together by the arms; three participants stood in a line, with their backs against three others. We sang in a drone-like manner, playing with our voices above the water, at its surface, and then slowly sinking into it. We felt the sonic vibrations largely through direct contact with each other’s bodies. Of course sound also passed through the air and water, but because the most immediate path was from one body to another, this was the sensation that overpowered us.
At the end of the day, gathered around the poolside fireplace, we discussed how different singing felt in a liquid environment. We’d discovered that aural experience is predicated on physical contact with sound waves through shared media, in this case water and air, flesh and bone. We noted that the shared medium makes a great differenceto how we experience the voice, and that the sound we ultimately hear depends partly on what is sung, and partly on the medium through which it passes (and how our bodies interact with that medium). In other words, in Snapper’s workshop we discovered that sound is a multi-sensory experience, tactile as well as aural. It also became clear that sound and music involve much more than traditional theories and notation can capture. (For a more thorough discussion of the differences between singing and sound underwater and in air, please see my forthcoming article.)
I would like to underscore here that the character of a given sound source is not stable. Instead it is dependent on specific material conditions, and on particular relationships between the elements involved. A sound signal will move with a given speed depending on the material––air, water, metal, glass, etc.––through which it is propelled. As humans register the sound it will move more or less directly through the ear drum or bones (and then transfer to the inner ear) depending on the relationship between the material through which it is propelled and the materiality of the ear. The part of the body that registers sound also plays a role in its apparent directionality.
For example, our ability to hear in “stereo”––two distinct signals, left and right––is the result of sound entering our bodies from two directions (two ears). Because we most frequently deal with sound as it is propelled through air, we take this as a given and adjust our musical and acoustic research (and thus our concert halls and (performance spaces accordingly).
By highlighting the material aspects of sound and their reception, Snapper reminds us that what we hear depends as much on our materiality, physicality, and cultural and social histories as it does on so-called objective measurements (decibel level, soundwave count, or score), which are themselves mere images. Our experience of sound is a triangulation of events in which physical impulses (sonic vibrations), our bodies’ encultured capacity to receive these vibrations, and how we have been taught to understand them are at constant play, and subject to negotiation. In the experience of sound, what becomes clear is not a stable explanation of what sound or music is. Instead we are led to understand that each such account is a composite manifestation of our perception of sound at a given moment in time and place.