Listening to myself listen - S. Arden Hill

The performance of listening in actual and constructed sonic environments - an ethnography of listening

"Deep listening is listening in every possible way, to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing. Such intense listening involves the sound of daily life of nature of one's own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep listening is a life practice." - Pauline Oliveros

"In the dizzy affirmation of our logos there is hardly any logical space left for the hidden but essential tradition of listening." - Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening

It wouldn't be difficult to imagine the complexity of our sonic environment. It is jammed packed with sound events to be listened to and others we choose to only hear. Sound is produced by nearly every action, detail, tool or device, and at infinite levels that as John Cage discovered, need special equipment or rooms to be identified audibly. The identification of sound is an act of listening, which should be distinguished from hearing. Hearing is "an involuntary act that happens through our primary sense organ, most people can hear. Listening is noticing and directing attention and interpreting what is heard(1)." Every day of our lives we hear traffic, mechanical sounds, the various sounds of movement, i.e., ruffling of bags, and layered voices as in a busy café at lunch hour. These are sounds we choose to not interpret, or play attention to and are sounds that are ideologically silenced. Listening draws on knowledge, or a repertoire of defined sounds and experiences with those sounds. It is a process of observing, distinguishing and then classifying sound. A process altered by a listener's place and role in the listening, by his knowledge of the sound environment, and listening skill. Part of the process of listening is selecting from the sonic environment the focus of our listening. The selection process, or the act of focusing our listening attention on sound sources in the sonic environment whether the focus is on voices, telephones or an orchestra is where this paper's topic lies. How do we choose the focus of our listening experience? And can that process be described?

The focus of our listening attention varies from person to person, and from group to group. A listener's focus can fluctuate due to his skill of listening, degree of interest in the sonic environment and physical ability. No doubt can be drawn from the statement that an acousticologist, or sound designer for film has a much more technical listening process than a lawyer, or bank teller. As well the interest invested in sound by a musician, or a piano tuner is much greater than a retail salesperson. There are also cultural variations of the focus of listening, which is an interesting subject studied by some ethno-musicologists that I have yet to explore, but sensed while listening to a group of Balinese singers singing and listening attentively to their fellow chanters and the music of minimalist composer Bernhard Guenter compared against some local musicians. The emphasis I am trying to assert here is the amount of variation involved in the focusing process of listening, and the problem with trying to create a paper like this using more than the author as a source for research. My intention for the following paper is an ethnography of listening and it couldn't be more specific, as it involves only the author as source for research. The idea behind this ethnography is to study the process of listening and the listening to a few sonic environments, and to describe the focus and change of focus of the listening. This will included a description of some listening experiences I was involved in, and the formulation of a partial hypothesis. To prepare the reader, for the ethnography, and the description I will briefly introduce a couple of contemporary listening hypotheses. This is an interesting subject that has received very little attention by academics and the like, and I feel is equal to the study of language in many senses. To recap, my thesis is more of a research question than a statement: How do we choose the focus of our listening experience? And can that process be described (as an ethnography)?

What is it are we hearing? Actual and constructed sonic environments

"The only thing that is not art is inattention." - Marcel Duchamp

"There is no such thing as balanced indifference. There is no center or axis; it cannot be found, or is absent." - Michael Serres, The Five Senses

A sonic environment is where our listening takes place. It is a term that was used in abstraction by Canadian composer, theorist and professor R. Murray Schafer in the book, the New Soundscape to describe:

An environment of SOUND with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by the individual, or by a society. It thus depends on the relationship between the individual and any such environment. The term may refer to actual environments, or to abstract constructions such as musical compositions and tape montages, particularly when considered as an artificial environment.(2)

Schafer placed an immediate emphasis on the importance of perceiving our sonic environment and integrated many "ear cleaning exercises" into his teaching designed to hone listening skills. He believed the "general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of the society(3)." This notion was extended by Pauline Oliveros into the idea that awareness of the sonic environment, connects a listener more closely with her culture, and into the hyperbolized hypothesis that "how we listen creates our life . . . Listening is the basis of all culture(4)." Further research into the sonic environment by Canadian composer and educator, Hildegard Westerkamp suggests a Postmodern approach to the sonic environment, "there is a complex and mysterious place between a sound and the listener's experience of it. A sound occurs. And is Heard. But by which person? From which culture? In what mental state? What physical state? What psychic space? With what intellectual knowledge? Which past experiences? What age? From which gender?"(5) Westerkamp's reflection on the sonic environment, as the place between sound and listener recalls Saussure's concept and sound map, but concerns Derrida's différance. Although I am hesitant to fully agree with Schafer and Oliveros on their very interesting illuminations, it was my intention to introduce their ideas alongside Westerkamp's so those ideas could resonate in the reader's mind while reading through this paper. Oliveros' notion of 'how we listen creates our life' underlies my hypothesis. Schafer's definition of the sonic environment, including the distinction between actual and constructed, or artificial environment will guide this ethnography into the listening events, where the emphasis will be on the listener's focus in the sonic environment. Actual environment will be the first to be explored.

Daily environments such as the street, the park, shopping mall, University, restaurants, at home, and nature are the some of the environments meant by 'actual environment'. These are places where the decibel range and textures of sound are as diverse and transitive as the people and objects that fill them. These are places cluttered with high levels of noise, sonic intrusion and sound pollution. Sonic environments such as the street illustrate the need for the distinction between hearing and listening. There are thousands of sounds in the audible environment of the street which can be heard, but there are only a few that need to be listened to. Why is it we only hear a crowd of forty pedestrians but listen for bells, horns or the ring of a cellular phone? Schafer suggests these latter sounds are "signals which must be listened to because they constitute acoustic warning devices(6)." In environments like the street sound signals such as the acoustic warning devices draw our immediate attention or focus, e.g., sirens, cries, and familiar voices. These sounds have been programmed into our repertoire of listening focal points to alter our attention's focus if they are present, when they are not present and when if they are expected in the environment, they are absent. Any research into listening and the sonic environment could discover the commonality of this type of focusing on signal sounds or immediate focal sounds but I will describe one.

I expect from the sonic environment of a café in the early evening high levels of noise i.e., multiple planes of unfamiliar voice, espresso machine noise, and other café sounds . . . in a situation like this listening attention for people trying to have a conversation is more focused on their conversing locuter's voice. This was the case of one of my recent meetings with a friend at the Second Cup. The place was packed with people, and everyone's voice was raised to such a high level that it was uncomfortable. Music was also being played in the background of the café which did not make the sonic environment of the café more desirable. To hear and manage a conversation with my friend, I had to not hear the other voices that surrounded us, and listen to her voice. This involved disengaging from the audible range that the surrounding voices and music occupied and registering the texture, and tone of my friend's voice. More simply I had to only hear the voices and music filling the café, and listen attentively to my friend's voice. At one point a couple stood right behind us and had a conversation as effervescent as ours. Their voices unintentionally mingled and taunted our ears, playfully trying to prevent us from having our conversation. It would have been absurd to have asked the other couple to move away from our conversation, so we had to listen more attentively. Like removing the nails from a house, during the process of focusing on what was ideally the reason I was listening; my friend's voice and the semantics of the conversation, I had to quite mechanically remove from my listening, the sounds that characterized this café's sonic environment. The ideal situation of the café experience was listening to my friend, a single audible source and paying little attention to the surrounding sonic environment. Like the sound of a siren in a situation of emergency, the voice in this situation won over my listening habit.

In contrast to the voice in the sonic environment of the café, non signaling mono-audible sound sources in actual sonic environments such as in nature, construction environments or in the home or car . . . can become focuses of our listening. In environments such as these the attention given to the focus of the listening isn't for the appreciation of the sound, but for the allocation of a problem or in part due to a disturbance in the regular hearing environment. Such sounds as an ephemeral tick in a computer's hard drive, a squeak emitted from a car or a loud banging have this quality. They are sounds that become the focus of our listening, and everything else including spoken discourse becomes what is only heard. Recently I was disengaged from a film, due to listening attentively to an incidental sound in the theater. The sound that stole away the film's soundtrack from my attention was a tapping of an audience member's foot. The sounds emitted from the film soundtrack were rich and poignantly beautiful. Several cellos played somber drones and melodies, but there was this very thin, "tap, tap, tap" that echoes in my left ear. It did not follow the rhythm or tempo of the cello's music, and was scattered in its consistency. Because the tapping entered a sound environment where listening focus normally has little interruption, its presence was so overt and magnified too such a degree that the disturbance regardless of how hard I tried couldn't be ignored. When the malignant tapper finally ceased his tapping, I was so removed from the film and sonic environment, that 15 more minutes passed before I opened the environment again for appreciation. In this situation the sound which was ideally supposed to be focal in the listening, the soundtrack, i.e., cellos, was blocked by a non-signaling environmental sound, the tapping.

Still, within the definition of actual sonic environments another example can be described. The actual sonic environment referred to here is a University classroom environment. It is within this sonic environment that voice has ideally the dominating tenor or sound role. Voice embraces concepts in the classroom, but in the following example voice was listened to for its sonic quality. In an honors seminar on Symbolic Anthropology this past year, I participated in a private acoustical study of voice during an open discussion. During the discussion between the students and professor, I sat silently listening not to the concepts of the discussion but to the phonetic, and prosodic qualities of their voices and textural sounds in between the concepts. It was fascinating to hear the varying degree of texture in the eleven voices, i.e., in their initial few words a bursting intonation, then a quick plummet to near regular tone of voice. New words and sounds were created through the layering of interrupting voices, and the clamor of the discussion was reminiscent of listening to several radios at the same time tuned slightly off a station's frequency. Douglas Kahn while talking about William S. Burroughs experiments with several radios in between stations, makes an interesting comment about listening not to "the concert but to the psyche, oscillating between stage and seat, constantly interrupting or melding in a mix that is ironically the means through which an idea of unity is negotiated(7)." I interpreted the psyche to be the sounds that were meant to be heard, with the concert being what was available to be listened to. Kahn's comment reflects my private study in the sense that the listener inverted the ideological process of listening to the intended sonic environment, the composition (later defined as the artificial or constructed environment) and made the aspect meant only to be heard, 'the oscillation's between stage and seat', listenable. The sounds that I was listening too in the classroom discussion were the oscillations between speaker and content, sounds that unified the concepts of the discourse with the context of the speaker. This was an interesting ear cleaning exercise that disclosed some temporal personalities and relationships in the classroom. From here I want to move onto the other type of sonic environment, the artificial or constructed environments.

What Schafer defined as the artificial or constructed sonic environment was the classical composition, such as the New Music Festival or Groundswell, operas, film soundtracks, lectures, Sunday sermons, radio and net broadcasts and formatted music are artificial sonic environments. These sonic environments differ from what I was calling the 'actual' in the sense, taking the soundtrack as an example -the soundtrack exists on a piece of film and was developed as a composition. It also exists in the space of the theater the soundtrack as a projection from the speakers in the form of sound. I took the 'actual' to mean the ether of the soundtrack in the room, with the artificial, being the soundtrack itself(8). Constructed(9) sonic environments result from various degrees of difficult work and deserve the attention that most listeners offer. But how do we decide what to listen to in a constructed environment? When people walk away from a film they rarely remember anything about the soundtrack including the dialog. On the rare occasion when the latter comment becomes contentious, sound is forgotten for dialog. Even for someone like myself, who creates soundtracks for films it is more commonplace to walk away from a film knowing more details about what was said, then what was played by the musicians, or created by the foley artists to play with the images and pad the dialog(10). The focus of the listening, if listened too, would be the voices carrying part of the narrative of the film. Film makers and writers like Whit Stillman, are conscious of the function of the dialog for modern audiences and do their best to redirect the focus onto the dialog rather than on the images found on the screen, by making the dialog extra sharp and witty but heavy and disagreeable. In a similar constructed environment, Rudolf Arnheim discovered another example of this.

Arnheim in his Essay 'In Praise of Blindness', while commenting on seeing classical musicians playing a composition, states "the movements of the musician frequently do not correspond to the line of the melody: the sliding in and out of a trombone tube has no parallel; cellists and bassists lower their hands when the music is ascending(11) . . . " Arnheim would probably argue that the focal point of the listening should be on the composition's melody and movement. It wouldn't be difficult to track down a few other signatures to mark this quote in agreement. Movement in a composition, whether it is the striking of a bow against a violin's neck or vicious sawing on a cello is what we listen too in a composition, with the residual lingering of the sounds in the acoustics, the frictional noise of the bow against strings, the breathing of the musicians playing the composition and the noise of the impact of a piano key with frame of the piano . . . being the elements of the composition heard. In a student recital at the University of Manitoba's School of Music, I had the chance to sit rather close to a violent piano player, while she played a rhythmical composition from Beethoven. Her recital style was very heavy, putting as much weight as she could on each key she played. The result was a non-intentional but evident accentual thud on each key. As she played, the dampened thud could be listened to intertwining with the composition, otherwise it would have only been heard and not registered. John Cage and later Canadian composer Jocelyn Robert included this additional sound into their compositions, with Cage even trying to amplify it through preparation. In the concert where the women was playing Beethoven, the incidental accent might have failed her in the exam, but brought me much closer to the composition. The accent had less resonance in the room then the musical note, exposing a more meticulous sense of the structure of the composition. As I continued to listen to the thud, as a mark in the composition's structure I gained greater appreciation for the composition as a whole something I probably wouldn't have if a lighter pianist played this score.

Post modernity has exposed another example of focal attention in constructed environments. This example is in the realm of the DJ, or sound mixer. Neither of these unyielding listeners listen for the ideological focal point in the songs, or recordings they are mixing. Their role is to create the mix, based on listening, that combines sounds that have a similar texture or tempo. The listening focus of a DJ is an abstract configuration in the music, bpm [beats per minute] whereas the sound mixer's attention is listening for an equal or optimized quality and balance of sound in multiple tracks of a composition. Rarely does a DJ or Sound Mixer listen to what is afforded as listenable by the composer. Rather, they listen to the elements of composition that help build the relationship in the larger sense of the mix. I heard once on CKUW, a DJ who tried as an experiment to mix two tracks that were vaguely similar only because of a similar guitar riff. When one riff was let fly, the DJ introduced the second at nearly the same volume. The bpm and drum beat were completely distinct in each track as were the remaining elements of the songs. The result as you can guess was a sonic disaster. Like Kahn's comment above, the DJ and sound mixer must listen for the oscillating sounds between the composition and the mix.

Making temporal sense of listening: a conclusion

"Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening." - Pauline Oliveros

"There are then many ways of producing words and voices on tape that did not get there by the usual recording procedure, words and voices that are quite definitely and recognizable by a consensus of listeners . . . in fact, almost any sound that is not too uniform may produce words." - William S. Burroughs, the adding machine

What I wanted the reader to get a sense of from this ethnography was that there are listenings to the sonic environment that result from our knowledge, skill, position and as Westerkamp suggested, our gender that go beyond just our sonic preferences. To call these sonic listenings ideologies is a gigantic step that I may not be able to make. What I mean by the suggestion of ideology, is the term in the most general sense, "a value neutral sense to any system of norms and beliefs directing the social and political attitudes of a group, a social class, or society as a whole(12)." Listening as a process of selecting, what in the sonic environment we choose to place our attention on can be governed by a larger system of understanding and mediation. Classical music in the western world for example, up until the mid seventies was the most celebrated form of sonic environment. It is still one of the only forms of music taught in the Universities, allowed in the professional concert halls and talked about most in music journals. There has been since Edgard Varese, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen an upsurge of thinking leading away from this mentality, but this thinking occurs in and around the schools of classical music. I believe the dominance of classical music in the ears of western society has developed a mode of listening that places its focus on the musical elements of the sonic environment, i.e., arrangement, harmony, notation . . . When a listener engages a composition and listens only to these elements they maintain this ideology. Genre can also be considered here as an ideology, as well as instrument selection. Take for example, a listening only to the cello during an orchestral performance. The point being, focusing our attention based on subjective knowledge, skill of listening, stature or gender reflects a mentality that can be associated with the notion of ideology.

In the sonic environment we have as listeners the option of engaging the ideological frame of the environment, or creating our own frame based on the environment. Like William S. Burroughs listening to three receivers in between stations, the listener has the option of listening to the tapping of the foot, or collision of the piano key against the piano's frame as part of the composition being listened too or taken as a sonic intrusion. My suggestion was that treated as a sonic intrusion, the listener would be listening to the sound and sonic environment through an ideological frame. It is very difficult to escape this frame, as I suggested in the example of the dialog residing longer than composed music in a film soundtrack. It is important here to note contemporary composers Achim Wollscheid and Francisco Lopez whose compositions are rooted in the bombardment of the listening experience promoted by Cage's 4, 33" and Schafer's ear cleansing experiments. Aiding in the process of escaping the ideological frame of listening, they both compose not the composition, but the sonic environment. Lopez calls his compositions environment recordings. They are long, very slow and quiet compositions that begs the listener to forget a composition is being projected into the sonic environment. He forces the listener to search desperately for a sound in the 'actual' environment of the listener that has been emitted from the 'constructed' sonic environment, the composition. Because the sounds in the constructed environment are too fragile and inaudible, the result of the listening is appreciating sounds found in the ether of the 'actual' environment. Wollscheid has a very similar but more overt approach to listening. In his composition, Piece for a listener(13) Wollscheid's voice breaks the silence with the instructions:

Please listen closely to the different sound in your environment. Adopt one of these sounds. Try to imagine this single sound expanded over one minute. Do not change it. Just maintain it. Try not to hum it. Just think it. Then quit(14).

The result is an uncomfortable one minute of silence, listening to your fridge, computer fan, or the sound of traffic . . . before the next track collides with silence. Instead of the listener inverting the process of the listening, as I did in the group discussion, the constructor of the sonic environment subverts the idea of what is the focus of the listening.

Concluding with these two composers playing with the notion of the listening environment might not have been the most effective and could be a little confusing, but I want to expose the reader to more alternative listening aspects and integrated ways of listening to the sonic environment. The sonic environment is a fun, and dynamic space for the adventures of listening. The way we focus our listening onto sources such as voice, sound signals i.e., sirens, and musical elements puts our listening into a frame. It is our job as a listener, to play with this frame, forcing it to melt, like a snowflake in the grand details of our acoustic ecology(15).

1. Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening.
2. Ed., Truax, Barry. Vancouver: World Soundscape Project, Simon Fraser University, and ARC Publications, 1978 Second Edition, 1999.
3. Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1977. pg 7.
4. Deep Listening.
5. Listening to the Listening.
6. The Tuning of the World. pg. 10.
7. 'Three Receivers'. TDR, The Drama Review 40, 3 Fall. New York: University 1996.
8. There is a tendency for naturalists to call concert halls or listening stations artificial environments, due to their restricted and designed modern facilities i.e., modeled acoustics. I am bothered by this tendency. Regardless of the strict design of the place of listening, factors such as mood, disposition, skill or interest of the listener... introduce natural variables into the listening much as they do in 'natural' sonic environments like on a mountain or at a lake.
9. For the remaining paragraphs of this paper I have decided against using the connotation 'artificial' meaning constructed sonic environment and opted for blatant 'constructed'.
10. This is a little unfair for the enquiry I am trying to conjure here, because of my prejudice for sound in film over dialog. It is a well known observation in media criticism that films and tv produce visual impressions rather than audible residue, see Postman's Orality and Literacy.
11. RadioText(e). New York: Semiotext(e), 1993.
12. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. Ed., Makaryk, Irena R. Toronto: University Press, 1995.
13. Sight of sound: of Architecture & the Ear (book + cd). Ed., Brandon laBelle and Steve Roden. Los Angles: Errant Bodies Press, 1999.
14. Ibid.
15. This paper is dedicated to the innovative, and kind composers Bernhard Guenter, Richard Chartier, Steve Roden, Francisco Lopez, Achim Wollscheid, Jeph Jerman, Joe Banks a.k.a. Disinformation, Steven P. McGreevy, Minaro Sato, Toshiya Tsunoda and Michael Prime.

Arnheim, Rudolf. 'In Praise of Blindness'. RadioText(e). New York: Semiotext(e), 1993.
Fiumara, Gemma Corradi. The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. London: Routledge, 1990.
Kahn, Douglas. 'Three Receivers'. TDR, The Drama Review 40, 3 Fall. New York, University 1996.
Makaryk, Irena R. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. Ed., Makaryk, Irena R. Toronto: University Press, 1995.
Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening.
Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1977.
Truax, Barry. Handbook of Acoustic Ecology. Vancouver: World Soundscape Project, Simon Fraser University, and ARC Publications, 1978 Second Edition, 1999.
Westerkamp, Hildegard 'Listening to the Listening'.
Wollscheid, Achim. 'Piece for a Listener'. Sight of sound: of Architecture & the Ear (book + cd). Ed., Brandon laBelle and Steve Roden. Los Angles: Errant Bodies Press, 1999.