Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day
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.
Featured image: “” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, CC-BY-2.0
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SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014–Eric Leonardson
SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014
SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
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 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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