The Ecology of Listening: How We Experience Sound by Paul Paccione Paper delivered on April 4, 2002; Western Illinois University’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture (Published in ex tempore, Volume XII/1, Spring/Summer 2004)
There was something marvelous about the song: it actually existed , it was ordinary and at the same time secret, a simple, everday song which they were suddenly forced to recognize, sung in an unreal way by strange powers, powers which were, in a word, imaginary; it was sung from the abyss in every uttrance and powerfully enticed whoever heard it to disappear into that abyss. (Maurice Blanchot)
A lecture on listening should begin with a story, and I’d like to begin with what is perhaps one of the more fantastic tales about the listening experience. It is from the eighth century BC - Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. As many of you already know, this is the tale of the Greek hero, Odysseus , who after leaving his home to fight the Trojan war took ten years in his journey to return home.
The one episode in this long journey home that is of particular interest to us this evening is Odysseus’ encounter with the enchantresses, the Sirens. In Greek
mythology, the Sirens were sea nymphs, with the bodies of birds and the heads of women. Legend has it that they had such beautiful voices that sailors who heard their songs were lured into danger on the rocks from which they sang. It is a song that Odysseus is destined to encounter on his route home - a song that will tempt any sailor to ruin.
Just prior to his encounter with the Sirens, Odysseus is forewarned of the danger of their song by the sorceress Circe.
but listen to what I tell you now.... whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voice in the air no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their fathers’ face....
Soon afterwards Odysseus and his crew will arrive within hearing distance of the island of the Sirens. In order to prevent his crew from hearing their song, he has his men stop up their ears with wax, and commands them to continue rowing past the island. But Odysseus wants it both ways. He can’t resist. He is determined to be the one man to hear the Sirens’ song and still survive. He has himself firmly bound to the mast of the ship, so that he can hear the Sirens’ voices, yet cannot be physically drawn into danger by their song.
We were just off shore as far as a man’s shout can carry scudding close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship was racing past and burst into their high shrilling song..... So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer. I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder, Permedes and Eurolochus springing up at once to bind me faster with rope on chafing rope. But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake, once we could hear their song no more, their urgent call my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me.
What was so compelling about the song of the Sirens? We will never know - it is left for our ears to dream about. The poet brings us to an extreme situation, and here introduces to us a world of unheard sounds. Something remains untranslatable, indescribable.
Poetry and music are listening instruments that are capable of expressing ideas and emotions that are often beyond the reach of our ordinary, everyday
language. It was at the beginning of the twentieth-century, in the third movement of his Three Nocturnes, that the composer Claude Debussy gave voice to the Sirens’ song - to what Debussy described as the “sea and its countless rhythms....the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.”
PLAY EXCERPT 1: Three Nocturnes, by Claude Debussy, Mov’t. III: “The Sirens.”
I cannot speak for you, but as for myself, I’d allow myself to be caught. Such is the power of sound, of music, of language, and such is the subsequent risk involved in listening. “Listening involves risk,” wrote the French critic Roland Barthes, and, “listening will exist only on condition of accepting the risk.” The risk involves stepping into the unknown. As a result of listening, we may find that the world is not as we understand it to be.
The listening experience may extend anywhere from the easy to the impossible. To listen is to be open to experience - to be prepared to become in some way different from what we already are. Without this openness there is no genuine listening. Whether listening to language, the sounds of everyday life, nature or music - a demand is made upon us that does not allow for secure detachment. Listening pulls us into the world. We are often called into questioning by our
listening and we are tested by what we hear.
To listen is a choice (you can choose whether or not to listen and how to listen) and the story of the Sirens presents us with three possible listening choices.
1) Non listening: This is a refusal to listen, a means by which we protect ourselves from what is being sounded. We, literally or figuratively, stop up our ears with wax.
2) Defensive listening: This is to hear without listening, in order to protect our inner selves. It is to bind oneself to the mast and try to hear the Sirens’ song without risk.
3) Open listening: Finally, this is to relinquish expectations, to listen carefully and with an open mind. It is a way that opens up instead of shuts off the opening-up and gathering-in of the sonorous field. It is other things as well: the capacity to be touched and moved by what one hears: to be open to, intertwined with and enchanted by the magical quality of the perceptual world, and to be unafraid of the possible consequences. To be what the poet Rilke described as “a being with no shell, open to pain, shaken by every sound.”
What I have described as “open listening,” however, is not an end in itself. It is
just the first stage in the listenerâ€™s development. The starting point is our capacity to listen. Eventually the ear must learn to make choices, to discriminate, to seek new relationships and develop new resources. It is not necessary that one become a musician in order to develop oneâ€™s listening capacity. However, the development and cultivation of our listening capacity requires disciplined practice, patience and the utmost concentration. There can be no time limit imposed on this developmental process. When does listening stop? Never. Where does listening take place? Everywhere.
Another story, this time from the twentieth-century, is the novel Contre SainteBeauve, by the French novelist Marcel Proust. In one episode the author relates how the sound of a spoon clinking on a plate retrieves a beautiful summer day from his past. Proustâ€™s involuntary recapturing of a memory from the past is an example of a type of listening that safe-keeps, that hearkens - the listening that recalls.
I remember how once when I was traveling by train I strove to draw impressions from the passing landscape.....Since then, calling to mind those trees streaked with light and that little churchyard, I have often tried to conjure up that day, that day itself, I mean, not its pallid ghost. I could never manage it, and I had lost all hope of doing so, when at lunch not long ago, I let my spoon fall on my plate. And then it made the same noise as
the hammers of the linesmen did that day, tapping on the wheels when the train halted at stations. The burning blinded hour when that noise rang out instantly came back to me, and that day in all
The American composer John Cage once said that “if people learned to listen they might discover that they preferred the sounds of everyday life to the ones they would presently hear in the concert hall... the distinction between music and sound (or noise) portends a deeper division, namely one that divorces the listener from the world.”
Similarly, when requested by a publisher to write a book on the history of techniques of orchestration, the composer Claude Debussy replied: “I have no desire to write a ‘history of orchestration through the ages’.... To be honest, you learn orchestration far better by listening to the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind.”
Another American composer, Morton Feldman, recalls how he gathered all the sound material for one of his percussion pieces while sitting on a beach, one lazy summer afternoon, on Long Island.
I wrote it in a few hours, just sitting comfortably on the beach. And I can actually conjure up the memory of doing it - that kind of muffled
sound of kids in the distance, and transistor radios, and drifts of conversations from other pockets of inhabitants on blankets, and I remember that it all came into the piece, these kinds of wisps of sound things that donâ€™t last....
French composer Luc Ferrariâ€™s composition, Presque rien #1 (Almost nothing, Daybreak at the Beach) (1970), is a vivid and evocative environmental soundscape portrait of the everyday activities in a small fishing village that invites us to listen to the sounds of the world.
PLAY EXCERPT 2: Presque rien #1, by Luc Ferrari.
This work demonstrates what a powerful listening tool the recording microphone can become for the composer - allowing the composer to get up close to and capture the multidimensional characteristics of transitory sounds. The composer must be passionate about the sounds he records, in the same sense that the photographer must be passionate about the things he photographs.
Another skillful listener who listens with care is the naturalist. The naturalist learns to recognize patterns of sound and to associate them with different species. Recently, the New York Times has been running a series of articles on a search that is currently taking place in the Louisiana Bayou for the ivory-billed
woodpecker (once the largest woodpecker in North America: 20 inches tall) - a bird that, until recently, was thought to be extinct. The last official sighting of this bird was in the 1950’s. Recent search teams have been unsuccessful in sighting the bird. However, they have heard and recorded a brief sequence of raps, a unique drumming signal that the ivory bill makes when it is hammering bark off of a tree. It now seems that listening for the bird is the best hope for obtaining reliable evidence of the bird’s existence.
PLAY EXCERPT 3: Field recording of Ivory-billed woodpecker
Our first reaction after hearing this sound may be, “is that all there is?” But what may sound to us as insignificant knocking is in this case, for the naturalist, the only possible evidence of the survival of a member of a species.
Another recent article in the New York Times, entitled “Listen Closely: From Tiny Hum Came Big Bang,” reports that scientists have discovered, in Antarctica, traces of colossal sound waves (like the those resonating from an organ pipe) that were at work when the universe was but a fraction of a second old and no bigger than a human fist - a tiny hum that some scientists say ignited the Big Bang. The universe continues to resonate from the explosion, and it seems that now the medieval myth of the “music of the spheres” has taken on far greater
significance than that of poetic metaphor.
The Medieval world believed that music was directly related to the proportioned orderof the universe, and that the sounds produced by the turning of the various planets created one continuously sounding celestial harmony. The myth of the music of the spheres was born in ancient Greek times. And it is by way of another great listener, Pythagoras, who in hearing and measuring the ratios between the sounds made by a smithy beating out iron on an anvil, that mathematics in Western culture was born.
Thus the composer, the naturalist, the scientist, the mathematician are all listeners. One may add to this list the psychoanalyst, the poet, the actor, the director, the storyteller, the preacher, the teacher, the automobile mechanic. One does not have to be a musician in order to develop an ear for the music around us. However, processes of self-development do not occur in a vacuum. We are psychological, social and cultural beings, and our listening is often subject to both psychological and cultural variables. “We bring ourselves and our conflicts to words, to poems, and pictures, as we bring them to the world;” writes the literary critic Frank Kermode, “and thus we change the poems and the pictures, or perhaps it is ourselves we change.”
One of the factors that must be taken into account in any attempt to understand the listening experience is the psychology of the listener: what the individual brings to the listening experience in terms of background, personal history, knowledge and experience. “In reading a poem or listening to a piece of music the listener makes it his own,” wrote the American composer Roger Sessions. “In many respects, it is the individual imagination of the listener that plays a role in defining the musical emotion.”
In the jungles of Brazil, listening to the music of his favorite composers: Wagner, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, the cultural anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss writes beautifully about experiencing music: “ The intention of the composer becomes actual through and by the listener.... Music has its being in me and I listen to myself through it.”
In addition to the psychology of listening, we must also take into account the cultural dynamics of listening: how both historical and geographical cultural difference shape the various protocols for listening. A genuine culture is an organic growth, the development of which is motivated in great measure by a potential for listening, a capacity to receive, keep and remember. Each culture has its own way of understanding the world through sound. The Japanese word for music is “ongaku.” Ongaku means the enjoyment of sounds; it is an allembracing concept. Its refinement is noted in the following passage from Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, which describes the peculiar melody produced
by the everyday process of boiling water in a tea kettle:
He could make out two pine breezes....a near one and a far one. Just beyond the far breeze he faintly heard the tinkling of a bell. He put his ear to the kettle and listened.
But what of those listening experiences that stand apart from the realm of the everyday? The auditorium in which I now speak is a cultural artifact. It is a place specifically designed for focused hearing. It is closed off from the outside world and the sounds of everyday existence. It is meant to house musical performance of a very specific kind - a one-way communication system: from composer, to performer, to listener. It is designed to encourage focused listening and to enable the performers to project to the listener - it facilitates communication in one direction.
A musical performance cannot be separated from its social function, from its place within a musical community, from an acknowledged tradition, nor from the circumstances in which it is heard. The choral music of the Renaissance composer Josquin Des Prez evokes the vast expanse of the Renaissance cathedral. The voices are swept away into this vast expanse as they soar in search of the immense mystery of an invisible God. Wherever one moves in the cathedral, one is in the middle of the sound. The beauty of the choral music of
the Renaissance lies in its ability to convey a religious ideal - God as a presence whose center is everywhere.
PLAY EXCERPT 4: Missa Pange lingua, by Josquin des Prez, “Sanctus.”
Unlike Josquin’s, Gustav Mahler’s world is one in which “the Self” is at the center. It is the world of the romantic composer, virtuoso performer and conductor. The inner turmoil of the self (the composer as tragic hero) is laid bare and dramatically exposed. It is a music of the great concert halls, and it is aimed directly at you, the audience.
PLAY EXCERPT 5: The Song of the Earth by Gustav Mahler, “Mov’t I: “The Drinking Song of Earthly Woe.”
The great outdoors is the original contextual space for musical performance. In another part of the world the wandering minstrel Ram Nepali, moves from village to village in Nepal, playing the sarangi (a vertically held, bowed, small string instrument) for anyone who will pay for his meal. In the following statement Ram states his belief that all of nature is music:
My nature where I am born - the forest, the birds, and so many butterflies, nice rivers, and the mountains: this is music. Sometimes birds are dancing, sometimes there is fog, sometimes it is cloudy. This is all music.
The following excerpt was recorded live on a hillside outside Katmandu. Note the way in which the natural echo of the hillside valley sets in motion vibrations that speak for the unique sense of place that surrounds the sound. The music itself was inspired by the sudden appearance of a cloud of butterflies that appeared dancing on top of the water, as Ram was sitting by a river with his instrument.
It was all silent. And the sight of the dancing butterflies was so beautiful. And I started to play this music.
PLAY EXCERPT 6: The Butterflies of Jumia, by Ram Nepali.
We are surrounded by and filled by a continuous field of sounds: the language we speak, the sound of tires on the pavement, the rustle of leaves in the trees. Listening pulls the listener into the world of sound and moves us to establish a relationship between our world and a different world. To listen is a subjective choice to immerse oneself in sound and to extract meaning from its presence. Each person has his/her own listening experience, and may reflect on it. The
question to ask is - how is “what do I hear,” different from “what am I listening to”?
One must attend “to the things themselves,” insisted Edmund Husserl, one of the founding fathers of phenomenology (the study of the essential qualities of experience). One must be receptive to the pure immediacy of the experience at the moment it appears. Husserl was interested in how time appeared in consciousness and for this reason he was particularly interested in music.
Music is made up of a sequence of sounds that exist in time. These sounds are transitory and impermanent; they belong to the realm of temporality; they cannot be grasped or possessed; they are always in the process of leaving us. Listening to music demands the recognition and perception of the memory of the past, the impression of the present and the expectation of the future: a gathering together of past, present and future. The act of listening to music immobilizes passing time; in the words of Claude Levi Strauss, “it catches it and enfolds it as one catches and enfolds a cloth flapping in the wind.”
In one of his letters to his father describing how he composed, Mozart writes of his own experience of this musical phenomena:
....soon one part after another comes to me, as though I were using crumbs in order to make a pastry according to the rules of counterpoint. Then it becomes even larger, and the thing truly becomes almost finished in my head...so that afterward I look over it with one glance in my mind, and hear it in my imagination not at all serially, as it must subsequently come about, but as though all at once.
But is a reduction to the pure immediacy of the listening experience even possible? If so, what else is involved? In what ways are the listenerâ€™s perceptions colored by autobiographical associations, cultural prejudices, our preconceived analytical conceptual categories, our immediate environment? How can we prevent these things from hampering our ability to truly listen?
One must bring concentrated attention to both sound and to the listening process itself. The listener must be consciously aware of, and suspend, the pervasiveness of certain taken-for-granted beliefs and responses which may intrude on the listening experience. Listening means not just listening to what we already understand - to confine ourselves to a given repertory of terms and standard articulations - but listening for what may exist beyond the more familiar conventional systems of evaluation.
“Listening speaks,” is how Roland Barthes describes what takes place in active listening, and it is in the musical experience that listening most eloquently speaks.
Musical sounds are vehicles for expression embodying distinctive kinds of information, and they are organically dependent upon performance. Composer, performer, and listener form three indivisible degrees of relationship in the making of music. From conception, to composition, through performance, reception and understanding, musical communication is an interactive listening process. If each part of this communication process exists in an environmental relationship to the others, then an ecology based on listening can exist. The various links in this chain of communication do not exist isolated from one another but instead resonate into one another.
The purpose of this process is more than one of transferring sound: it is a process for the negotiation of meaning. Musical communication can serve as a model for communication in our everyday lives. The writer Christopher Small believes that the meaning of music lies not just in musical works but in the totality of the musical performance: “It is an activity in which humans take part in order that they may come to understand their relationships with one another and the greater pattern which connects.” In this sense, a musical performance can stand as a metaphor for relationships between person and person (chamber music),
between individual and society (the concerto), between the individual and the natural world (musique concrete), and between the individual and God (the Mass). These various musical genres have the potential to teach us about relationships in all their complexity. â€œThe world of social action and event, the world of time and process, has a particularly close association with the ear. â€œThe ear listens, and the ear translates what it hears into practical conduct,â€? wrote Northrope Frye, in the Anatomy of Criticism.
An ecology of listening requires more than just contact with sound. It requires sensitivity toward sound, a curiosity about how it operates and how it affects us, and about how it interacts within various forms of communication. Ecology is defined as the study of the relationships between living organisms and their environment. The word ecology is originally derived from two words (oikos and logy) meaning, roughly, house and word. Ecology is the study of conditions of inhabiting, and an ecology of listening involves listening as coexistence and cohabitation. But definition is not my final concern - it is rather the search for possible ways in which we can dwell with, abide by and co-exist with sound, to create the space where listening can be carried out with care (a concert hall, a cathedral, a hillside, a classroom, between each other and inside ourselves).
Listening is a reflective experience. It is only through repeated listening and a willingness to suspend standard time measures that one can gain a finer sense
of discrimination. Listening belongs to time and, in today’s world, time’s flow is no longer integrated - it is fragmented. A multitude of modern-day distractions encroach upon our listening. Experience now comes to us via a series of shock waves. It has become harder and harder to listen, not only to music, but to the sounds around us, to each other, to our cultural history, and to ourselves.
Skillful listening is both accepting and critical. Ultimately, it is creative. The practice of listening consists of both the cultivation of one’s own sensibilities and the ability to acknowledge the sensibilities of others. Each of the individual examples I have presented to you this evening (from literature, science, and music) establish a ecological connection (that is, an intercommunication and a mutual engagement) between the sound of things and the inner being of the human self. Listening begins within ordinary routines of everyday day life (listening to the rich multiplicity of the world) and ends in what is yet unheard (the imagination). “The soul dreams and thinks, then it imagines,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard.
Listening is ultimately an aesthetic skill, and the aesthetic experience demands time, solitude, patience, reflection and ultimately trust - a responding receptivity. The listening experience is a reciprocity-governed process that is dependent on the ability to listen to what the material is telling you. It demands that sound be lived directly. Good listening requires a disposition to get close to and listen to
what the other has to express - and the ability to look inside the material and ourselves with the ear. Preservation is characteristic of a listening attitude. Sound is housed in memory, and it is in this sense that the philosopher Martin Heidegger has written eloquently about listening as both “a gathering, a sheltering - a hearing that preserves.”
In his poem, “Listening to A Dead Language,” W.S. Merwin beautifully expresses the way in which listening can safe-keep, and preserve the expressive potential in all language and in ourselves:
There is nothing for you to say. You must Learn to listen first. Because it is dead It will not come to you of itself, nor would you Of yourself master it. You must therefore Learn to be still when it is imparted, And, though you may not understand, to remember.
What you remember is saved.....
I would like to close my lecture with our listening together to a complete musical composition that in some mysterious ways embodies everything I have been speaking about. The piece I have chosen for us to listen to is Charles Ives’ The
Unanswered Question. It is a short work (5 minutes in length), for solo trumpet, woodwinds and strings. Ives wrote this piece at the turn of the century (1908) - a period of turmoil in society, culture and the arts. This was the time of the advent of modernism. Listening to it now, at the turn of another century, the work maintains its original power to nourish reflection in the listener.
Before we listen, I’d like to briefly provide some background information on the composer and the work. Charles Ives was an American composer, born in Danbury, Connecticut. He was a Connecticut Yankee who lived from 1874-1954. He earned his living, all his life, running an insurance company in New York City - composing in the evenings and on weekends. “An unheard, unhonored and unsung Sunday composer,” was how Leonard Bernstein described him, in a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard in the 1970’s, tellingly titled “The Unanswered Question.”
The title alone sets up certain expectations (or questions) in the listener. Obviously, the work poses a question that goes unanswered. But, what is the question? And how is it possible for sound to pose a question? Do all pieces of music pose some kind of mysterious question that goes unanswered?
By providing a brief descriptive forward to the piece, Ives provides the listener with some reference points:
The strings play pianissimo (softly) throughout with no change in tempo. They represent the “Silence of the Druids - Who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence,” and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for the “Invisible Answer” undertaken by the flutes and other human beings becomes gradually more active, faster and louder... These “Fighting Answerers,” as time goes on....seem to realize a futility and begin to mock “The Question” - the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, “The Question” is asked for the last time, and “The Silences” are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Silence.”
Ives was greatly influenced by America’s transcendentalist philosophers (Emerson and Thoreau, in particular) and the transcendentalists asked some very profound questions about the nature of existence. In The Unanswered Question, the trumpet asks a metaphysical question. It asks this question seven times. This musical question is only a small melodic fragment (it is not a Pucinni melody), consisting of only 5 pitches. It is disjunct (using large leaps between pitches), and atonal (what some may describe as dissonant). It sounds modern. The question is intoned in the same manner each time and at the same neutral dynamic level. In performance the trumpet is off stage.
The question is answered six times by the flutes, who gradually become more
and more agitated, either by the question itself or by each other. The musical answer is arrhythmic, highly dissonant and becomes progressively more shrill. There is no agreement amongst the flutes. They have stopped listening to each other. The strings remain removed from the musical argument. They are either content, clueless, or they are just not prepared to listen - it is up to the listener to decide. The music they play is tonal. This is a more traditional musical language that contrasts with the trumpet and winds. It is consonant, sustained, conjunct, yet it mysteriously wanders aimlessly. The strings are in another time-zone from the trumpet and the winds, moving at a much slower pace, slowing unfolding the same chord progression only three times.
What is interesting about this work (and particularly American) is that Ives never resolves the musical argument. The European composer bound by tradition might feel obligated to resolve the argument (this, afterall, is the basis of the great instrumental form - the sonata).
Respecting irreconcilable differences,
Ives chooses to let the matter remain unresolved rather than force agreement.
In The Unanswered Question, the three instrumental strata coexist in separate worlds that never intersect each other (listen to each other), and at the same time they coexist and create a unified whole. It is by way of the listenerâ€™s responsibility and ability to listen to multiple perspectives - to listen polyphonically, to many different voices - that the workâ€™s unity becomes evident.
The seventh, and final, statement of the question goes unanswered by the flutes. It echoes and resonates in the silence. It is a powerful example of the creative function of silence relative to sound - the silence is as active as the music that precedes it. There are no last words.
PLAY #7: The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives.
Recorded Excerpts 1) Claude Debussy, Nocturnes, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conductor (London, 1998). 2) Luc Ferrari, Preque Rien, #2, (Deutche Gramaphone 2543 004). 3) Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (www.zeiss.com). 4) Josquin des Prez, “Sanctus,” Missa Pangue Lingue; in The Best of the Renaissance, The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips, conductor (Phillips, 1999). 5) Gustav Mahler, “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde,” Lied von der Erde; in Mahler Orchestral Songs, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitnik, conductor (Philips, 1996). 6) Ram Saran Nepali, The Butterflies of Juma, Recorded by Hans Weiseyhaunet; in The Book of Music and Nature (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001). 7) Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question, in American Elegies, Orchestra of St. Lukes, JohnAdams, conductor (Elektra Nonesuch, 1991). 24
by Paul Paccione Paper delivered on April 4, 2002; Western Illinois University’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Published on Jun 20, 2015
by Paul Paccione Paper delivered on April 4, 2002; Western Illinois University’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture