Tag Archive | Pauline Oliveros

Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations

Sound and Pedagogy 3**Co-authored by Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low

Are you listening?

Because sound specialist Julian Treasure argues, “We are losing our listening” due to the invention of multiple methods of recording and with the world being “so noisy . . . with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen, it’s tiring to listen.”  In response, Treasure claims that we need to improve our conscious listening skills; he suggests teaching the skill of listening in school.

As co-directors of the “Education and Life Stories” working group of a large oral history project, we have been thinking a good deal about listening and pedagogy. The project is entitled  “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and other Human Rights Violations,” shortened here as “Montreal Life Stories project.” From 2007 to 2012, a team of university and community-based researchers in the frame of the Canadian Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) Program recorded life story interviews with approximately 500 Montrealers who experienced mass violence and displacement. Members of the survivor communities (Tutsi, Haitian, Cambodian, and Holocaust) were key partners in both the research and the diffusion of the project, fundamentally shaping the project’s philosophy, activities and outcomes.

One of the Education Working Group’s principle accomplishments was developing an educational package called We Are Here, containing five Learning and Evaluation Situations (LES), the curricular units in the Quebec Education Program. The units are designed for “cycle two” secondary school, where the students are generally 14 to 16 years old. As of yet, these have not yet been piloted, but we plan to do so.

we are hereOur goal while designing “We Are Here” was to have teachers and students engage with the life stories of human rights violations, in order to foster a more inclusive cultural memory that would develop “le vivre-ensemble,” our capacity to live well together.  Featuring the stories of immigrants and refugees to the province, the curriculum offers students a more complex understanding of human rights violations. First-person accounts bring world history and politics to life, helping us to understand the processes and human costs of violence and war, and expand our awareness of our fellow residents and citizens. At the same time, we recognized that the difficult stories of human rights violations make particular demands upon their listeners. We needed to consider how to ethically support students and teachers in engaging with the stories of people who have survived traumatic experience—while, importantly, respecting the interviewees themselves.

We sensed from the beginning that these goals and commitments would require us to develop our own “pedagogy of listening” to support teaching and learning from the life stories, and we foregrounded listening in all of the materials. For instance, each unit begins with the students listening to one or more project interviews, in the form of digital stories edited collaboratively by the interviewees and the editor. These digital stories tend to be under 10 minutes and bring together video, images, sound, and text (see for example, Bracha Rosenblum’s digital story). They are much more accessible than the original video interviews, which can be many hours long.

There is an irony in building a case for listening in schools. Students are commanded daily to “be quiet and listen to the teacher.” Despite the long history in educational theory of critiquing this model, the student-who-listens-in-silence versus the teacher-who-speaks-loudly is still regularly invoked in practice as an ideal relation. The demand for silence is in part a pragmatic response to the inherent noisiness of schools filled with people. At the same time, the listening imperative is also a key tool in the establishment of teacher authority and power.

Image by Flickr User I Am Rudy

Image by Flickr User I Am Rudy

We wanted to rethink the process of listening in our curricular design beyond these traditional power dynamics. Our pedagogy of listening draws on concepts of testimony, communities of memory, dialogue, and the principle of shared authority in oral history, which we describe in detail elsewhere (forthcoming in the Journal of Curriculum Studies). In this blog post, we explore our pedagogy’s indebtedness to philosopher and musicologist Peter Szendy’s work on listening and its potential in the public school classroom.

Listening begins with the desire to be signed and addressed

The address is a central notion in Peter Szendy’s Listen: A History of Our Ears. The early 2000s, as Szendy explains, saw the birth of the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster (created by Shawn Fanning in 1999), where listeners exchanged and circulated music. Through the lens of file sharing, Szendy began reflecting on the rights of listeners and the nature of musical listening more generally. He argues that sharing shapes the listening act: while listening can be passive–I am listening to you, receiving what you are saying–we also offer up what we are listening to. Rather than envisioning listening as a two-way engagement, Szendy triangulates it, structuring listening around a listening subject, the sonorous object the subject is listening to, and the addressee (le destinataire) of the subject’s listening. In Szendy’s theory of address, as we listen to somebody or something, we also address our listening to an “other” (who might be another beside me, or in myself).

That students would address and engage with “an other” through their listening appeased, in part, our concerns about having students listen to difficult stories of mass violence. If listening is akin to a peer-to-peer sharing system, students were somehow not “alone” anymore in the experience; listening is a building of relation.

Closely related to the concept of listening as address is Szendy’s idea of signature, especially through the digitalization of sound where “listeners become authors” (136) naming, tagging, and classifying the files that they share with others.  Szendy describes this process in terms of the singularity of listening:

It is more simply as a listener that I want to sign my listening: I would like to point out, to identify, and to share such-and-such sonorous event that no one besides me, I am certain of it, has ever heard as I have (3).

While all listening necessarily involves an appropriation of what has been listened to, we wanted to amplify the process of students “signing” or marking their listening, and so making it their own. We would deepen students’ engagement with the video interview and the “other” by having them actively edit, rework, even remix, and so adapt the original. We gave students the right to enter into the difficult stories from the survivors interviewed in the Montreal Life Stories project, responding as individuals and as members of a classroom community.  While the dynamic of students listening to and making something in response to the life stories takes many forms in our curricular units (including timelines, maps, and audio-tours), we here share the unit which most explicitly embodies the remixing in Szendy’s notion of listening.

What a Story!

What a story!: Life stories and digital storytelling, is designed for senior students in the  English Language Arts, and asks students to work in groups to create their own digital story version of a segment from one of the life story interviews.

In the preparation phase, the students listen to a 5 minute digital story of a Holocaust survivor living in Montreal that enables them to discover the multimedia elements and narrative structure of a digital story.


In the production phase, students approach their main task: producing a 5 minute digital story from a 34 minute life story interview with another Holocaust survivor. The phase begins with “deep listening” exercises where students work in groups to summarize the story and decide which parts of the larger interview they would like to keep in their edited versions. In doing this, they reflect on their experience as “listener“ vs. ”reader” and their responsibilities as listeners of difficult stories.

While the expression “deep listening” recalls the work of the composer Pauline Oliveros, in the Montreal Life Stories project the concept stems more directly from the notion of  “shared authority,” a phrase coined by oral historian Michael Frisch (1990) to describe the process of co-creating an interview. The community-university model was collaborative at all levels, and researchers and the researched were partners in dialogue. In turn, we frequently used “deep listening” (as in the profound listening between interviewers and interviewees) as an expression during our working sessions. The concept also draws on the work of oral historian Martha Norkunas on interview techniques and deep listening exercices; her visit to the project shaped our curriculum design process, and students are encouraged to engage in dialogue and sharing, and to “Listen with close attention and deeply, in an empathetic and respectful manner.“(13). These appeared, to our eyes, to be consistent with Szendy’s notion of listening as address and signature.


The production phase continues with the creation of the digital story, the editing and the montage. Students then reflect on the ethics of the process of cutting and reworking another’s story, exploring the way narratives can be modified, the meaning built into the digital story vs. the meaning of the interview, and the question of narrative form.

Peter Szendy chooses the deejay, or of the musical arranger, as a figure for the contemporary listener. Indeed, we imagined the students in groups, headphones on, in front of computers, slowing down the cadence, augmenting the sound, rewinding or fast-forwarding, cutting, pasting, annotating. We thought of them as highly skilled listeners, intervening in what they were listening to and interpreting their listening for the “other” (  in the manner of composition theory in which students are asked to write for real audiences for real purposes). As deejays of their listening!

Having students edit the life stories of others, especially stories of violence and war, brings with it risks of misinterpretation and manipulation. However, the unit asks students to think carefully about these risks, and unlike projects which use testimonies in the service of someone else’s argument, this editing assignment has students select from the larger interview in order to craft a narrative that respects the original. As Norkunas says, “When Michael Frisch coined his now famous phrase, “a shared authority,” he wrote of the shared responsibility of listener and narrator for creating the interview document, for interpreting it and for sharing the knowledge created.”(2) If editing and interpreting are critical to the process, adds Norkunas, “the first moment of creation takes place in the interview, in the act of listening.” Hence, the ethical issues raised by the editing assignment–and more generally by having students and teachers engage with personal stories of human rights violation–are addressed by considerable attention to the act of listening (13), and by the cultivation of trust, dialogue and sharing. In short, an attention to the “other.”

Rather than deciding that this content is too challenging for students or reproducing a passive listening dynamic in which students listen to the interviews in reverential silence, we work to support student engagement — as both an attention and response — with these stories as part of a community of listeners. And while listening to these stories can be difficult work, we hope that through our pedagogy of listening, students will gain a greater awareness of the lives of those Quebecois who are not often part of the national narrative, and grapple with some of the difficult knowledge of human pain and survival.

Bronwen Low is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. She researches the implications of popular culture for education, curriculum theory, and adolescent (multi)literacy practices. Areas of interest include hip-hop and spoken word culture; informal, arts-based and participatory education with youth; and community media and participatory video programs.

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

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Radical Listening and the People’s Microphony: A Conversation with Elana Mann

Members and collaborators of ARLA (Paula Cronan, Juliana Snapper, and Elana Mann) participating in a General Assembly at Occupy LA City Hall, November 11, 2011

Members and collaborators of ARLA (Paula Cronan, Juliana Snapper, and Elana Mann) participating in a General Assembly at Occupy LA City Hall, November 11, 2011

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. PM2

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.

ARLA Ear Strengthening Workshop, Occupy LA site, November 11, 2011, Photo by Carol Cheh

ARLA Ear Strengthening Workshop, Occupy LA site, November 11, 2011, Photo by Carol Cheh

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.

To explore the People’s Microphone as an affective device, Mann and Snapper issued a call:“If you know how to sigh, grumble, and laugh, then you have an expressive voice and something to contribute.”  
Mp3=I Smell Blood” by Andrew Choate
The members of the PMC had varied backgrounds, experiences with art and music, leadership histories, and very different opinions on politics.  Some saw the group as part of the Occupy movement, some saw it as a meditative or musical space, and others felt it more activist oriented.  The scores the group received from an open call contained and provoked varying emotionality, opening the group up– after much practice and discussion–as an intense, but safe, environment.
Mp3=“Why Is Predictable Luv Boring”  by Rachel Finkelstein
Members of People’s Microphony Camerata rehearsing in Los Angeles, April 15, 2012, Photo by Jean-Paul Leonard

Members of People’s Microphony Camerata rehearsing in Los Angeles, April 15, 2012, Photo by Jean-Paul Leonard

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.

The PMC performing "Sob  Laugh" at the "Chalkupy" protest in downtown Los Angeles, Image by Daniel Goode

The PMC performing “Sob Laugh” at the “Chalkupy” protest in downtown Los Angeles, Image by Daniel Goode

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!

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Within a Grain of Sand: Our Sonic Environment and Some of Its Shapers”–Maile Colbert 

“Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom”–Travers Scott

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