3. Critical Listening Practice and Place
[T]he experience of listening, itself an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, becomes an expression of agency and choice conducted in a condition of indeterminacy. (Lewis 2019: 443)
Receive Sound (Oliveros 2013: 184)
Beginning with a connecting of active listening and environmental awareness, a range of existing sonic practices may be “folded into” a critical practice of dwelling. Over the past few years, including during a brief easing of pandemic restrictions in the past year, I have taught a series of face-to-face workshops in instrumental improvisation and field recording, basing some practical activities and tasks upon Pauline Oliveros’ well-known practice of Deep Listening. Deep Listening may be summarized as a critical attending to one’s environment from the situated perspective of one’s own body-self, instrumentalized as an approach to making music, alone or in collaboration. Oliveros cites this practice as fundamental to her approach to living and making, with numerous practical exercises, text-scores, compositions, performances, recordings, and theoretical texts generated both as outcomes of and stimulus for “learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole-space-time continuum of sound – encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible” (Oliveros 2021/2005: xxiii). For Oliveros, “ideas, feelings and memories are triggered by sounds,” and, therefore, “[I]f you are too narrow in your awareness of sounds, you are likely to be disconnected from your environment” (Oliveros 2021/2005: xxv).
During the improvisation workshops, I facilitate group sessions in which students improvise and talk together as well as collaboratively devise short music scores that serve as frames or catalysts for further improvisation. Over the years, teaching these workshops, I have noticed a clear and audible connection between the dynamics of the group discussions and those of the instrumental improvisations undertaken by the same groups. Time and time again, the groups that succeed in talking together, in achieving a degree of balance between speaking and listening to others, supporting ideas and disrupting them, of “focal” attention and “global” awareness, also succeed in performing group improvisations that balance the contributions of each group member, responding to and emerging through their specific aural-environmental context. Just as Oliveros proposes in her own writings, through these workshops, Deep Listening emerges as a method and practice that can enhance spatial and social sensitivity as well as a kind of musical capacity – an ability to participate in and co-compose sonic forms as they unfold over time.
The practice of soundwalking, developed in the 1970s (some years earlier than Oliveros’ Deep Listening) by the World Soundscape Project, and notably by Hildegard Westerkamp, functions rather as an explicitly mobile Deep Listening, with practitioners “exposing our ears to every sound around us,” towards developing “an acoustic environment of good quality” (Westerkamp 1974/2001: 1). Those engaged in soundwalking may navigate and investigate everyday spaces in order to understand their sonic, material, and social construction. Like Deep Listening, proponents of soundwalking advocate and encourage a specifically musical consideration of environmental sound: to perceive and attend to environment as music is to learn to embed one’s self within unfolding relations. “Practice enhances openness” (Oliveros 2021/2005: xxv). While the practice of soundwalking is usually applied as a committed engagement with outdoor environments, I can adapt the practice to engage with the dynamics of my indoor home environment. Doing so engages with the question of what might comprise a domestic soundscape of “good quality.” When engaging in conscious soundwalking through and around my home, what emerges? By gently emphasizing aural awareness with my children, they are encouraged to soundwalk the space, to develop “socio-sonic” awareness (Rennie 2014) while musicalizing their perception and experience of home.
if we stir the house-sound-body-machine with enough care
submit to being stirred by it, in it
your music, my music, no music, conscious music, unconscious music
unfolds in time as a phasing and layering of processes and agencies
if we try to force the elements
the whole house coughs
everything starts – out of time
(the boiler is broken)
Salomé Voegelin conceptualizes listening as an active process of producing aural-environmental context in relation to an emerging, situated self. For Voegelin, the listener’s perception of sound not only generates an understanding of environment and location but also contributes to the ongoing identity-forming processes of a subject. Voegelin’s “sonic self” emerges in and through the complexities and entanglements of spatial, material, social and political contexts, while her own writing-through ephemeral auditory experience persistently asks “what […] it means to exist together according to listening” (Voegelin 2019: 46), tracing not answers but instances of relational intensity. The present intensities of my home in lockdown seem to embody a kind of extreme extension of the type of “functional dwelling” that Voegelin, citing Heidegger and Doreen Massey, describes as the site and practice of a “privileged traveler,” one that takes for granted the “stabilizing port of home or the comfort of a paid for hotel,” as the home “realizes the purpose of being and stands in opposition to migration and flux” (Voegelin 2019: 79). Here, the realities of my lockdown seem to amplify the kind of social interiority and relative material security – the fixity – that may accompany middle class suburban living. At the same time, the wider context and consequences of the pandemic, of domestic confinement, closed travel routes and closed borders, condemns those who may need to move away from or abandon their home, whether to flee personal trauma or political oppression, to far worse forms of confinement.
As such, the privileged intensities of this home are socio-spatial. We navigate the rooms and a single connecting hall corridor, seeking out places to be alone and be together. The kitchen is the most compressed space of all, as this is where we all eat, where home-schooling takes place, and where much of the domestic labor (housework) happens. It is also where we tend to congregate and be together. The kitchen often sounds chaotic, yet this noise-chaos can be a life force. In lockdown, I am often with my children because they have no other social option, and the same is true of their choosing to be with each other. Being able to feel present, to hear one’s own thoughts, to listen and respond to others, to give what is needed and reserve what the self needs, is a challenge and a tension that is audible. Early on in lockdown, together, my children found and became fascinated by a song that neither they, my partner, or I had previously known by the German pop-punk group Goldfinger. The song is called “Get Away,” and features the repeating refrain “get away from me!” This causes me to consider the social dynamics of this home in terms of an echo chamber. I imagine that it is both “you” and “me” that the boys (and my partner and I) long to “get away” from. Too much you becomes too much me. LJ says she is “sick of meeting herself” in Zoom meetings. Emerging selfhood suffers entanglement, saturation. What is needed are new methods by which “me” might give “you” a break.
A listening (and sounding) practice that may be useful in pursuing and generating such a “break” is that of free improvisation. Improvisors engage in active listening and sounding to feel out, clarify, intensify, and deviate from established sonic, social, and spatial relations. Reflecting upon the process of preparing for a public performance, free-improvisors Jean-Luc Guionnet, Seijiro Murayama, and Mattin, with philosopher Ray Brassier, write:
In speaking of improvisation, we’re not just talking about the production of particular sounds or events but the production of social spaces as well. We invoke this as both a strategic term and a conceptual tool. Improvisation can therefore refer to both experimental music making as well as mundane everyday practices. But wherever it is applied, improvisation should bring about glimpses of instability […]. One should try to activate the room as much as possible and disrupt previous habits and behaviors in order to create different ones. In other words, one should strive to work against the normalization process. We have found improvisation to be a practice that requires taking into account everything that happens in the room […]. Improvisation can be an extreme form of site-specificity as well as a radical, intimate and immanent self-criticality. (Brassier, Guionnet, Murayama and Mattin 2010: 6-7)
The ideas of another philosopher, Arnold I. Davidson, as explored and recounted in conversation with another improvisor, composer and scholar George E. Lewis, connect instrumental improvisation directly to ethics and social responsibility. For Davidson, the responsibility that doing improvisation can exemplify and illuminate – or, rather, sound – does not follow from a fixed set of principles, but rather emerges through interactivity and reciprocity. Reflecting upon acts of improvising, Davidson states:
You have to listen to what’s happening in order to be able to respond. And it’s not only that you need cognitive skills but you need the moral will to keep paying attention. And it can get very difficult very quickly to pay attention in the way that requires a kind of really focused responsiveness when you don’t really know what’s going to happen. (Davidson in Lewis 2019: 443)
In efforts to give each other and ourselves “a break,” my family and I are working to listen and to improvise our social lives together in the flat, towards such a “really focused responsiveness,” while also trying to hear and test and break and remake the conventions, conformities, and identities that emerge through our shared dwelling. Attentive indoor cohabitation, undertaken as free improvisation, might be understood in terms of a shared activity of perceiving and critically engaging with, of reflexively co-composing, the self and others in relation to lived environment: a radical dwelling or, as Voegelin writes of auditory experiences, “an ‘inter-invention’ of what there is and of what we are with it” (Voegelin 2019: 47). If, as Sara Ahmed argues, homes are often comprised of normative impressions and conservative tensions, then Deep Listening, soundwalking, and free improvising may be combined as intersecting methods for reflexive dwelling – as (self-)critical, aural intra-action.
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in attempts to generate and participate in relational forms
that are open, ethical
we listen good as a basis for our ‘inter-invention’
we make, break and remake the soundscape of our home as
a nexus that we participate and share in
that we are
perceiving, inhabiting and embodying
hearing and sounding together
as improvisation, generative music
emerging form of relational entanglement, resistance and resonance