Listening to Places. Exercises Towards Environmental Composition - Robin Parmar. Derry (Northern Ireland): Void Gallery, 2022
by Marcel Cobussen
Write down all the sounds you can hear, in a vertical list on your page […] First, note the temporal quality of the sound […] Then, add one or more arrows to indicate motion […] Finally, categorise each sound according to origin:
E = Earth sounds (e.g. water, wind, rock)
H = human sounds (e.g. voice, whistle, baby crying)
A = animal sounds (e.g. birdsong)
T = technological sounds (e.g. alarm beep) (p. 11).
This is how “Part A: Listening Exercises” of the small booklet Listening to Places. Exercises Towards Environmental Composition begins. It is written by Robin Parmar, an Irish sound artist and lecturer in video, film, and visual communication. The booklet (only 53 pages) consists of two parts: “Part A: Listening Exercises” and “Part B: Recording Exercises,” preceded by a brief “Introduction” and a foreword by artist and lecturer David Beattie. He writes: “The exercises gathered together in this book offer an opportunity to engage with the unfamiliar through sound, or more accurately through listening. It encourages you to develop a practice of listening” (p. 1). Basically consisting of listening (and recording) exercises, the booklet resonates with, for example, R. Murray Schafer’s Ear Cleaning (1967) and Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening (2005), both also mentioned in its reference list.
In the Introduction, Parmar briefly presents the concept of “platial listening,” most readily explained as a listening to places, to sites. He makes clear that places are not simply “there,” waiting to be “discovered” by passers-by, by listeners. Every place is a social construct, an accumulation of experiences (p. 3). This connects very well to a whole body of literature in which it is argued that actions, interactions, and practices are co-constitutive of a place. Place is both the context for such practices and the product of those same practices (see, for example, Sarah Pink’s Situating Everyday Life Practices and Places from 2012). By starting to listen attentively and closely to places, one might engage with them differently; they might get different or additional meanings, because, as a result of this careful listening, one discovers unfamiliar elements in and of these places, for instance. Parmar concludes his introduction by stating that listening to places may thereby contribute to a certain (necessary) respect and care for the spaces we inhabit.
The exercises he proposes to help the listener get to know a certain place better or differently sometimes also contain practical or more philosophical questions: “How do you know a sound is farther away?” (p. 12); “Can you tell that a sound was originally very loud, even though it’s faint by the time it reaches you?” (p. 13); “Is it the sound that is in motion, or is it the sound source in motion?” (p. 16); “What makes a sound noisy?” (p. 39); “Is there a political context to noise?” (p. 40). Certainly, if you really give attention to these questions, they might help you to pay more attention to your sonic environment, to the qualities of individual sounds, and also to the relationship between sound and the social or political composition of a site.
I was a bit less enthusiastic about the B-part, “Recording Exercises.” While the listening exercises in Part A can be performed by people with no real experience in listening more carefully to everyday sounds as well as by “professional listeners,” Part B was, in my experience, a bit too simplistic and straight-forward, and thus less instructive. Yes, I assume that everyone knows or understands that a professional recorder with external mics will produce a better field recording than a mobile phone and, yes, when crackles disturb a recording, cables might be broken, and you should check them. And the seven tasks Parmar offers to guide you in making a composition of your field recordings – first, set up a new project in you Digital Audio Workstation, and continuing through to seven, export the results of your work to a new audio file – might be helpful for only the most digitally inexperienced. However, despite my slight disappointment with this second part of the booklet, the listening exercises are quite nice to do, either alone or, for example, with a group of students in a sound studies class.