PATHS FOR A LISTENER
(originally published by Proboscis, London)
(originally published by Proboscis, London)
Perhaps it’s in a single moment when each of us truly begins listening.
Setting Out (Looking at Listening)
Where do I see people listening? What is it I should be looking for?
An ear propped somehow against the air?
Is it anything as overt as a cupped hand placed beside the head?
As the hair momentarily pulled back?
When do I see people listening? And at what times of day should I be looking?
Of course, there is always hearing.
What does listening really look like?
Sound for a Literary Practice
Sound is so much an expression of situation, a time and place, personality and environment. Sound exists as information, it exists as music and noise, and it exists as an affirmation that there is life—when its vibrations move between us as shouts, cries, laughter or speech and fulfill a communication.
Listening, then, becomes a type of ‘reading’ as we learn to make meaning and take direction from those signals, notes and utterances passing into our ears. Perhaps even when actually reading, we are engaged in a sort of listening: Listening to those voices in the head reproducing the arrangements of letters and patterns of words that we internally ‘pronounce’.
Demanding listening will only encourage a contempt for listening. Noise does this. So can a schoolteacher’s command or any voice demanding we ‘pay attention’. Is demanding listening as unreasonable as demanding that a student who has not learned to read go ahead and read anyway?
So can listening be taught? Or can a kind of listening, at least, be encouraged? Stimulated?
Think about this idea of listening as a vital component of literacy, that is, as a skill that must be practiced in a variety of contexts as it is being learned.
One way to develop as a listener is to document the sounds one hears in certain places and in certain situations, at certain times. Call this an ‘audio journal’ or maybe even better, an ‘otic diary’. ‘Otic’ meaning, “of or having to do with the ear”; maybe just unusual enough a word to encourage innovation, some playfulness, and a different kind of self-awareness between everyday life and the pages of a journal. Such a diary might begin with the vocabulary one associates with sound and listening:
waterfall thunderstorm racket hubbub drum hiss roar
bang beep whisper noisy echo trumpet headphones screaming yelling
peace and quiet walkie-talkie whack thump piano stutter motorway earache
euphony crescendo screech cacophony radio rip crumple smash burp sough tinkle
ppffffffft aarrggh huh ssshhhh mmmnn
List the sounds you hear on your way to school or work.
Find the sound of something you cannot see. What do you imagine it is?
Describe it with words, a diagram, or a picture.
How could you use letters of the alphabet to spell the sound of the wind?
What is the first sound you hear when you wake up?
“From my bed this morning I heard a great boom resonating in the lightwell. It startled me—even the window pane made a flexing sound--yet I realized how it could likely be some banal noise, such as a backfiring taxi, merely dramatized by the acoustics of the building. “
Here are some excerpts from the painter Charles Burchfield's journals:
“The foggy light comes over the ding-donging house-tops of the dirty town—a carpenter’s hammer resounds,; a rain-spout clatters, a train-bell clangs;--a soft sigh comes out of the south and there is a sticky dripping sound from the thawing earth—is it the frost escaping?”
“The absolute silence was impressive—it was like a vast tomb—even the calls of the chickadees &kinglets, of the falling of the snow from dead oak-leaves only emphasized the silence.”
“Here in the church the sounds from the outdoors that leaked in only made the morning more vivid thru the way it “stung” my imagination—one window to the north was half open, thru which I could see (and hear) the wind-“shattered” mass of maple leaves…”
“Walking under the leaves I felt as if the color made sound.”
Find a place along the path to sit down. Close your eyes (use a blindfold even) and draw as you listen. Try this in a car, a bus, a train…on a park bench….in your lap.
Find somewhere in the room where you can be comfortable and I will play you some sounds. Make sure you are more than an arm’s length from each other so that you have your own space. While you are listening, I may come around and make some small noises beside your ears. After a while you can draw or write about what you imagine you are hearing…
Can you hear a difference between the sound a pencil makes on a piece of paper and the sound a wet paintbrush makes?
How many different sounds can you make with your piece of paper?
(Try tearing, cutting, crumpling, rustling, flapping, balling up and tossing. Roll it into a cone and make an announcement through one end. Whistle along its edge and then drag it along a surface in the room.)
“I heard a rainbow singing”
What made you hear a rainbow?
“Something was making the sound of crackling light.”
“I stand at a chink in the wall, a fist-sized hole where a clod of moldy brick has crumbled and left a hollow. Just inside, bits of cloudy water hang and hold. When I turn my ear to the opening, there is nothing. This space is like a vacuum and quickly I pull my ear away from the unnerving void and restore sense to the left side of my head! Earlier, a low-pitched creaking sound from behind a wall had drawn me to a similar chink, dank with loose bits and knots of vacant webs. Through this ‘window’ I could just make out a bright spot of grass and the edge of something swinging to and fro across the opening on the other side. So it is that I walk along the canal, looking and listening in such places.”
“Why is it that I want so badly for this sight to sing? Has someone ever articulated this compulsion to draw sound out of some silent something? Is this that ear inside the mind—the thing that is ‘psychotic’? It doesn’t worry me though. When I am drawing a voice from a cloud or a chink in a wall…it is not a voice that talks to me uncontrollably, in a fever. It’s just that there is a sound I’d like to hear but can’t. Perhaps this explains the beginning of my obsessions?”
What parts of your body belong, at times, to your ear?
The eyelids? Fingers? Solar Plexus? Mouth? Hair?
From listening, we move off in different directions. Like one who was so interested in what he was reading that he put the book down, ‘looked up’, and walked away, perhaps even left the house. Listening can be like this. A listener may be led to walking, drawing, writing, singing, or maybe sleeping.
How can you change the sound of the wind by moving your body? In what ways can you change the shape of your ear to change the shape of what you are hearing? Try speaking while pulling the flesh of your ear forward.
(My grandfather, who worked in radio, taught me this as a way for hearing my own voice more truly as it would sound ‘on air’. The cavities of my chest and head resonate my voice and make it sound deeper to me than it is to my listeners. By pulling the ears forward some of these lower ‘corporeal’ frequencies are removed from my hearing.)
Put your ear to the wind and listen for direction. What happens as you turn your head? How do you shape your hands to shelter your ears from the wind. Where can you go to find shelter from the blustering noise?
“In the narrow corridor between the busy streets someone has stopped to have a phone conversation. Their voice is amplified by the paving stones and high walls of the buildings on either side. Just past this person the corridor makes a 120 degree turn. Mostly all of the doors and gates at the backs of shops are at least partially open--fans, refrigerators, generators, ducts, pipes…pulses from concealed tasks and objects, murmurs from storage rooms. Further on, a group of well-dressed men and women seem to make important plans. There is not much room to pass. When I merge into a busy street again it is like a switch has been thrown. These sudden changes in the volume of the environment punctuate my day. I quickly find the staircase down. Already, at the first landing, my sternum rumbles. “
Susceptible to sound at its fundamental level of vibration, the body, at times, becomes ‘otic’.
(I am reminded again of something my grandfather once described to me. As a photo-journalist, he had attended a symphony concert in the company of Helen Keller. Sitting behind her, my grandfather noticed how her hands moved throughout the entire concert, keeping perfect time with the music on the armrests of her chair.)
Listening in Places
Try knowing a place by finding out about its sounds.
Corridors, canals, lightwells, stairways, conduits.
Betweenities – neither here nor there, yet there is something so distinct that happens in such ‘places’. A multiplicity of presences, though often out of sight, collect and overlap, making a strange mix for a listener.
“On the right hand side, a railing supported by hollow metal bars about four inches apart runs continuously along the corridor but for a few feet where there is a break to allow a turn into a gate. Activated by a ring on the finger of my casually dangling hand, these makeshift pipes chime out a bright stuttering vowel which fades down the corridor at my back. The voices of two or three children from behind a hedge stop for a moment and the foliage rustles. Moving a bit faster to avoid being seen, my hand still playfully drags an extended finger with its ring.
Funny how everything can be heard yet so little seen of all that is going on in the places adjacent to this public corridor. Slowing down or stopping, I become an eavesdropper and a suspect, as there can really be no other business here but to quickly proceed through, from one street to another. But now that I have stopped I'll at least finish with my description: On my right, a brick wall overhung by a hedge on its far side, and on my left, a high chain link fence plugged here and there with plastic bags, leaves and drink cans. I hear a diluted noise of children and pitched clanging and imagine that these sounds originate from beyond the low wall and trees I can see across the empty playing field. Is there some sort of ‘hanging glockenspiel’ in a playground over there? A woman in a trench coat hurries around a corner and catches me off guard. I wonder how she perceives me standing here off to the side, listening? Or am I invisible, like silence? Is the listener a conspicuous personality in places like these? Am I really not as passive as I had thought? I must hurry along through to the street now. "
Sound may catalyse the imagination. Of course this happens unconsciously all the time but when it is ‘listened’ for – that is, with intent – creativity takes a different path…
Make a decision based on a sound you hear.
“Listening to a recording made along the trail from earlier in the day, I feel my presence blurred. I am a long way from the cliff trail now, prone and relaxed beside a window. Foul weather sputters in the street and a hybrid apparition of wind and traffic and rain murmurs at the windowsill. The recording refers me back to a particular place and its lighting, its smells, my actions and the environment there; and a time. The room has such conditions of its own that influence me. It is much like I am in two places at once; not quite a simultaneity, but a feeling that time overlaps in me. I have a fuzzy understanding of what it means to make oneself a field.”
A Path Through a Field
All the spaces between destinations, everything along the way that lures us into detouring, changing course or stopping altogether, while considering the freedom of our movements, may be thought of as a kind of field. It is not so simple to say that a particular edge or boundary is what determines a field’s beginning or end. There are fields which are patches of land covered in grasses and flowers where we go to lie down for a bit to think or rest. And there are those fields which are observed and studied for the sake of what’s in them; actual places of research regarded, idealistically, as separate from the observer. Then there is a field which may be considered the sum of pathways – the twists and turns we have made along a route. Sometimes I have moved from water to sand to grass to pavement and never left a single field. I know that this has much to do with a continuity I’ve created through my observations (my thinking, my sensitivity and my imagination, as well as my movements) that fuses seemingly disparate locations into a field of my own. This field ends as soon as I lift my attention and discontinue the conscious relationship I have been having with it. Now I am just walking through a place, driven solely by an urge to get myself on to other things--a pressing phone call, a shower, food.
Technologies for Listening
Even the most restless and impatient of listeners will grant unusual attention to the sound of his or her own voice. Perhaps this is a fundamental stage of the ego as it distinguishes itself from the others. With a portable recording device, a listener may record his or her thoughts, feelings or observations with immediacy and even, indulge impulses privately. Somehow, the device with its buttons and switches, its shape and the feel of it in the hand, along with its portability, make it a desirable object-companion. It is worth considering how such technologies inspire innovations in the fundamental practices of reading, writing and speaking. Maybe the recording device is just the thing to encourage something to happen for the first time?
Locate a sound in the distance. As you walk towards this sound, record a description of this sound and of your path in all its details. Get as close as you can to your target sound and then record it.
Try varying the distance of the microphone from the sound you are recording.
Try placing the microphone inside a cardboard tube, a trashcan, a handbag.
Lay it in your lap.
Recording adds a level of thoughtfulness or intent to what a person says. Such self-consciousness may be constructive. Playback and listening may lead to speaking again, this time with refinement, or it may lead to writing. Maybe even walking and heightened listening?
For the future:
Listen to a recording of your voice from a long time ago.
Scavenging for Sounds
Find a ringing sound or find a way to make one.
“Where is that particular sound when I need or want it? Now I must go looking for it. Turning over the leaves of the neighbourhood, waiting out the right time of day… the right season. When are the conditions just right?”
Put your ear to a surface and listen.
We come to understand so much about our environment through the sounds it makes. Much of the cognitive map we make of our surroundings comes from what we hear of it.
If we complement this instinctual action with one that is wilful and determined we may discover other layers of sound that teach us things about where we are. The Listening Hike could take place on a playground and it could take place in a city neighbourhood or park. The hike could lead into a wilderness of sorts so that the act of listening might relax and surrender to wider spaces. All kinds of environments, natural/unnatural, interior/exterior, public/private could be explored. The act of listening itself, in these different locations, might be compared, perhaps with an emphasis on the different ways in which we make use of sound.
Predict the sorts of sounds you might hear in a place before you get there.
A hike that is designed for listening might encourage someone to go on and begin listening intently to the world; to acknowledge the possibilities for a place being a composition of sounds as much as it is of fauna and flora, sediments, structures, smells, human activity, histories and times of day; and to engage with a place, naturally, as a sound-making being, realising the potential of an area and its objects for becoming instruments in imaginative and otic hands.
Explore the idea of an instrument from scratch.
How can you make sounds with leaves? With two small round stones?
Imagine a noise of rocks that is not mighty. Small round stones, found by the water or along the edges of gardens, make innumerable sounds when rubbed together. Placed beside the ear, these stones, with the immediacy of their purring, sound like insects or fountains.
How many sounds can you make with your feet on different kinds of ‘ground’?
Containers filled with small stones, sand, seeds, shells may become rhythmic shakers in the right hands. Drink bottles become wind instruments while walking or sitting. Slats of wood or metal, rubber bands, string or wire mounted across an open container resonate when struck and may even be tuned.
Stir puddles, rub stones, crunch leaves, drag branches, play with air…
Where along the path can you find a wire to pluck?
Where can you thump a hollow?
Implied Sound (the sonorous image)
Think of a stone wall, a slab, something rooted, something firmly set with the appearance of heaviness, or blank surfaces. Here is an appearance of silence. At least until one really starts looking and the stillness yields to the movement of ants along a crack or sunlight blinking in flecks of mica. These motions are slight and quiet.
“I lay a piece of drawing paper on an overlap of concrete and brick along a ramp joining the concourse to a footbridge above. With a few pieces of grass I find sprouting from a crack, I rub away at the paper, transferring a few of the lines and producing a stain and some tears in the paper. The rubbing becomes a record of this contact. Somehow, indirectly, it is like a sound.”
“Along one of the more industrialised segments of the canal there is a modern footbridge; a clear cylindrical enclosure. One of the curved panes is shattered but intact, a cortex of branching fissures that overlays the sky and rooftops. I imagine the day of some action against the glass. I care nothing about the motive and method. The sound it must have made is the most real thing.”
Features of the environment insulate the listener: doors, walls and windows, of course, as well as hedges and overhangs, sunken walkways and enclosures. Maybe even clouds? Materials play a part too. At a distance, a sound may be tamed, not by anything other than that distance which puts some time between the signal and the ear.
“On the park path, the gate to the street at my back, the traffic noise is softened. Its attack is subdued and the details are swallowed somewhere in the expanse of air above the grass and swaying trees. Without blare and screech, there is something like water in the distance.”
“I began a walk in the atrium of the museum, when the usual crowds were absent. Perhaps because of the relative emptiness on this strange day I was able to discern more clearly the acoustical effect of the steady 'murmur' – a shadowy noise – way up, hanging in the air just beneath the glass panes of the dome. Similar to the bunkers and the oil silo, the dome above this great marble room shapes the air so that sounds decay with a seemingly infinite 'half-life'. A cloud of tones risen from the ends of words, from bodies in contact with surfaces and edges of the room, clatters from the cafe, bells, buzzes, alarms... a sneaker sole squeaking across a marble step plunges its note deep into this ambient cumulus where it resonates long after the sneaker has left the room. Or so it seems. Imaginably, it does not take many 'voices' to produce this effect and so, on a quiet day, the shadow becomes more evident. From the staircase I listen and notice how a coffee cup, a ring-tone, a conversation, a zipper on a handbag, contribute their moments to this evolving mass.
Noises soften in such a cloud.”
Where do you go to listen to your thinking?
“The stone faces, the vaults and curves, of the undercroft amplify and reflect the footsteps of people passing, the clearing of throats and scraps of conversation. Wind blows through the leaves of great trees in the adjacent courtyards and notes from a lunchtime concert above are a diluted music floating down, inseparable from the soughing of leaves and a custodian's sweeping on the steps up to the chapel. The verses cut into a slab of the wall belong to a song once dedicated to devoted listeners. I am tempted to read them aloud so that I may hear my own voice resonating in this stone trumpet.
Where can you go to find a peaceful sound?
Where and when can noises make you sleepy?
Find a machine-like sound. What do you think this really is? Can you see it?
“Elsewhere in the park, a circular bench situates a listener beneath a small tree whose leaves rattle and purr in the wind accompanying the first drops of the afternoon. Everyone knows the sound of an umbrella under influence of the rain.
Later, when the sun has returned following the ominous sky and rain, people have taken to walking in the streets, many beginning their journeys home on foot. Below the window the usual traffic noises are suspended and a strange parade of voices and footsteps floats up.”
Do you like this sound? Why or why not?
A Duration of Silence (Remembering Listening)
“With just minutes to go before noon, I found myself in a great heath of overgrown grasses, the city barely visible beyond the dusty treetops, below the line of the hill. On such a hot day, the insects inside the grasses were chirping ecstatically with no breeze to upset them. I wanted to sit down to listen but it felt somehow like ‘giving up’. Would it be a disappointment at the end of the day? So I sped up my pace, looking for someplace where people would be gathering. By noon I was near a small bathing pond where a few people sat on a slope in the shade. Just as I sat down, finally surrendering to the moment of this greatly anticipated Two-Minute Silence’, a man walked up to me asking for a light. Below me, a woman turned on her side and flipped through a book. With this, I accepted that other listeners’ descriptions of The Observation – from the heart of things – would have to do once I got home at the end of the day.”
Where was the sound of something you couldn’t see. What do you imagine it was?
Where were you looking when you were listening?
What sound did you hear that reminded you of music?
an ear afoot
i’m not sure if i could ever express the purposefulness of my setting out.
looking for the perfect field in which to set down and begin gathering specimens,
only ever finding through so many stops along the way that it is my own biological pulse
continuously working to bind so many isolate objects and areas to an unexpected field
that, it turns out, is no more than my subjectivity.
on this particular day i take my pulse from a lap of foam and find
myself drawn through dusk to the deserted room of a friend,
out in the morning i am overwhelmed by the grain of mist against my face
and in my ears. for a good distance this is all i take in of the landscape.
when the road drops into a vale i discover a great muscular tree standing barren
in the hissing white day.
in a slow fit of arboreal time its roots pull up from the ground
as if this entity too is afoot.
a bright vowel rings across the mud and fades up the slope of the hill at my back.
sometimes i wonder how things come to be where they are found.
just when you begin to find yourself coursing selflessly along a footpath you are struck by something such as a dilapidated machine part or piece of siding propped vagrantly among the shrubs and grasses. this is just detail enough to prick you in the wilderness of your sentience and bring you to thought and action again.
the sonus of the afternoon touches me and, unlike the music by which i once led my life,
i am able to touch it back.
i languor in the spaces between objects. i watch as blobs of white sky
inside the arbor’s canopy, through the latticework of branches.
everything seems to exfoliate some immateriality of itself
and the air resonates with these noisy
afoot in the landscape i find myself subject to an order of wooded entanglements,
footpaths, boulders, creekbeds, weather, trees and degrees of living things.
myself become a hedge of nerves.
i cannot listen without running my hand across a surface, without inhaling a pungence, without fixing my eye on some submerged green detail.
because i am drawn to confront this world through its sonus, i liken my entire body
to an ear. the word otic describes a relationship to the area of or around the ear.
i feel that my body has become otic, that it is all a stem supporting this
precious and discerning double flower.
further afoot in the afternoon i behold an ear that is not mine, listening,
but to what i don’t know. i can just make out its shape way up the path, perched at a height among the foliage. i am not sure if i am in its range, if my footsteps fill its folds.
when i reach the spot i find only a strange sprout pointing out a direction,
wound in a spiral and faintly emanating.
listening to the sonus of a creekbed i feel my presence blurred. i am a long way from the
woods now, prone and relaxed beside a window. foul weather sputters in the alleyway
and a hybrid entity of wind and rain murmurs at the windowsill. the recording refers me
back to a particular place and its lighting, its smells, my actions and the environment there, and a time. the room has such conditions of its own that influence me.
it is much like i am in two places at once; not quite a simultaneity, but a feeling that
time overlaps in me.
i have a fuzzy understanding of what it means to make oneself a field.
cables sag and stretch across a large area of nowhere,
facilitating a uniform surge between two rooms. slivers are thrown off
like tiny spinning stars that fall slowly into the grass.
the siphon glimmers then is gone.
later, in another heart of the landscape, i duck and pass beneath a black cable hanging
across a sunken footpath, not missing a faint emanation
as if from some interstitial material coursing.
inside the ruin i am stirred by the ghost of human actions.
damaged wood and metal variously ajar and fallen, vast areas of mold across
flecked surfaces lit by stray beams, scattered broken glass and opaque pools,
mulched paper piled with feathers and birdshit, dangling wires and conduits,
holes, mounds, drips, webs.
here and there the remains of personal objects resonate and remind me of the personalities that once persevered through daily life in this mill. i move about warily,
brushing past tiny plants sprung from holes in the walls, dodging soft spots on the floor,
breathing quietly as i step into the cave of a shadow.
i could have sat for hours beside the web-filled bore just waiting for some flutter or noise. what would a tiny ear far into that length of log make of these frosted grasses under influence of my parting footfalls
and the steeply-angled wind?
the specimens of the field resist captivity. i return with my tranquilizations and find that
they ecstatically ‘come to’ during playback. they release in spasms similar to the ones
under which they were initially coaxed from hiding. then, it is almost as if a pile of debris—
rusted flecks, effluvia, twigs and splinters—has accumulated on the floor beneath the speakers.
rusted flecks, effluvia, twigs and splinters—has accumulated on the floor beneath the speakers.
the insides of the cones show marks where they have been singed,
beaten and scraped by wings.
the siphon rasps as the days spill themselves onto the hard edges of the room.
many days after my setting out, just as the breadth of my loneliness was becoming unwieldy,
i heard a solitary and playful laughter emanate from an opening in the trees.
i heard a solitary and playful laughter emanate from an opening in the trees.
it is hard at moments like these not to give in to thoughts of the supernatural offering itself, intimately, to you and you alone. this woman’s voice coming through the trees was much like an isolate and palely glowing door, inwardly ajar like an invitation onto some adjacent world. having allowed myself these glimmers of fantasy, i now wished only that it was someone much like myself, purposefully afoot in the landscape in pursuit of some curiosity, evidence of some belief, and that we might travel for a short while together.
when at last i stepped into the clearing there was nobody to be seen. momentarily some other sound began surmounting the periphery. it was as if everything that had ever passed through my ears was coming to some ecstatic culmination in which i no longer played a part.
i am sound.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
O t i c D i a r i e s
records of touching
Betweenity is membranous. Immeasurable and momentous, so barely made
from out of the minimal duration--the slightest sliver of space--a thing needs
so it may be said that it’s had a life at all.
Relentlessly I go about touching the world, trying to get something of myself across. All we are ever up against are surfaces, yet we endlessly imagine and work to evoke an essence, or to pry loose an inside, from a rigid world of others.
Often touching makes a sound.
Wood touching skin,
A rusted disc touching sand,
Maple stems touching a flat rock.
A residue collects at the thresholds of our relationships. Communication is stricken by a certain desperation which stimulates an excess of words, gestures and signals. Much of these leave marks like crude disquieting drawings.
A metal rod dragged across a cinder block leaves a powdery trace.
A round stone ground against a clod of moldy brick leaves a corona of tiny loops.
It is almost like there is some membrane that intercedes in all our acts of communication, an infinitesimal distance in which is eaten up a bit of each transmission between two surfaces believed to be touching. Recognizing membranes, am I able to relieve communication from its potential futility?
A tympanum touched by speech,
A sheet of paper brushed by a wrist.
I am continuously in some field or another and I suspect these fields are determined by various experiences of my subjectivity. Insulated, cut off from the world from some reason, unable to impress myself upon my surroundings, to express myself to the others, I am subject to my skin, which is a surface I may touch from either side.
The pores of certain stones ring like tiny resonators when activated by a circling metal pin held lightly between the fingers.
How am I an opening that may be poured over and into?
Subjectivity matures as it empathizes with and is subsumed by a landscape. I am given presence by the gravel on the path and the light on my face. Afterwards, this presence becomes remote through the records of what I’ve touched and have been touched by.
All I can ever do is make half a sound
be it my mouth or my palms
pressed against the membrane of living things.
Once I commit to communicating with it, the object (or even a place) is somehow obliterated. It becomes imbued with my subjectivity. I cannot completely tell myself apart from it. Across a surface there is a sort of depth to be plumbed. Finding a radius and looping my hand, tracing a shape, giving in to a grain or line, I begin making a rubbing, an exfoliation and a slight swapping of skins.
Often the paper that has been placed between things is left marked with faint trajectories and whirls, is patterned, perforated, wrinkled, frayed or torn. When a rubbing results with the paper in relief, a dimension has been added to the betweenity, making it a place of its own.
Pockets of air between grains of sand conduct sound beneath the surface of the beach. I discovered this with my ear pressed to the towel, my hand scratching the dune.
Another rubbing results from an action of the hand upon the planks of a fence, a stone or a patch of ground. Crushed petal or leaf matter crumbles, secretes, reddens, greens. A time vaguely presses itself in layers. The nature of the marks refers to a material, a set of actions, and points out some places in the landscape.
Late in the day, from the latitudes of the object, a vowel sprung to distinguish my breath.
Is there such a thing as feminine listening?
Years ago when I began performing as a sound artist, I distinguished between two kinds of listeners who would sometimes talk with me after my performances. One kind of listener would ask me about the microphones I was using or something like, “What electronic devices do you use to alter your sounds?” Sometimes, once I had answered these straightforward questions, this listener would offer a brief compliment such as “Cool”, or tell me that the volume could’ve been louder, before walking off.
The other kind of listener was fewer and more far between. This one would often wait until the others had gone away and would approach timidly but smiling, like someone who had once known me but who was afraid I may have forgotten them. This listener was more interested in sharing the experience of my performance with me…
“At one point my eyes were closed and there was a sound, I think, of rubbing rocks with a hissing sound like wind, that reminded me of times as a child when I’d be in the backseat of my parents’ car on our drive back into the city after a long afternoon in the countryside. I was sleepy and full of ‘country’ smells, tastes and sounds, yet city noises were creeping back into my half-sleeping ears.”
The way I have remembered it over the years is that this second kind of listener has almost always been a woman--probably less accurate than it is just memory under influence of my romantic imagination. I have valued this impressionistic sort of response to my work much more than the other I described because it resonates personally with the way I listen to the world. Well…I am not female, yet perhaps my ear is?
For this short sound collage, I have surveyed quite a diverse range of women during the course of a day at the school where I work. I know that many men enjoy the sounds crickets and water trickling over rock make too, so I have not set out to imply that women listen differently. This is merely a more literal and intentionally naïve look at the thing I believe to be closer to the truth: namely, that a sensitive ear might be thought of as a feminine ear, as the anima listening…
We Windily Winding
has hands that stir metals
in a June broth of sunlight.
And while We knows that flowers aren’t
the only peopling force of meadows,
some dismal hecklers still hollered from their gardenish rooms:
THE SWAYFULNESS OF FLOWERS IS ONE PRETTY THING
BUT WHAT YOU FIND BETWEEN WEEDS, THE COILS YOU HEAVE,
CAN ONLY BE TROUBLE IN THOSE UNCHARTED PLACES.
Nevertheless, in the wind We always wound
up in some place abandoned and peacefully machined.
Where some no-doubt heckler would have signed with KEEP OUT,
or spools of sharp wire,
or some finger-pointing siren sound.
And We merely made some jots and nearly laughed.
One Sunday it was when about to begin another adventure
We Windily remembered to pack his sack
with what every winding one needs:
-several inkdrinking pages for the taking of notes
-a finger piano made from a can
-two clementine apples (to have luminous fruit)
-a microphone, twine, and his alphabet phials
And lastly before leaving he brewed a strong pot of tea
sent in a box from an aunt in some far off and lavender country.
The inscription enclosed promised one useful thing to the drinker:
a delirious state like a map
that’s been stripped of its roads.
Later, We Windily came to one fork of so many,
and took the left turn
because of some sense that he followed.
But this way ended soon at a hedge of large leaves
perfumed like paper
that’s been blowing for days
in the high hills of air.
Here were a dozen old tires, a three-legged stool,
a boxspring, a crate,
and trails of bright glass
leading off into a swaying thicket.
And there not a body was dancing.
Above was a sign one’s likely to find on the streets,
and by some mistake it read END FRIENDSHIP.
We wrote in his book and was glad that he had
found his way to another peopled street’s end.
Beyond there’d be crumbling lovely buildings,
only between them, nothing paved,
aimless and wonderfully rubbled.
So needless to say,
We bound in the wind through the hedge
like any other open window.
It was in this slowly-becoming forest
that We found a spiral.
But before going up
(for there was never a hurry)
We went to sleep
by some long ago-left April tractors,
S i t e S o n o l o g i e s
Site Sonologies was conceived for the group exhibition “Sites and Exhibitions” at Southern Exposure Gallery, San Francisco, August 31-December 15, 2001
“There are times when I am so compelled by a sonic detail of the city that I suspend the purposefulness of my walk and surrender my otic body to a sound. A strange clock of sounds exists in the interstices of the seasons, days and seconds. A sound in intervals coursing through the exposed pipes of a building....timed sprinklers sputtering and hissing.....playgrounds, bells, refrigeration droning, grates rumbling, the soughing of the leaves, hounds under influence of a full moon. Imaginably, we could draw a map of this ambient city.”
My intention for ‘Sites and Expeditions’ is to explore the sonorous nature of the city of San Francisco. Typically, my work treats an aspect of ‘wilderness’, whether this be overtly...isolate in the thick of things, or implicitly...beside some ruinous detail of the city, a crack sprouting with tendrils or a hard edge crumbling. In documenting ‘sounds’ for this exhibition, I imagine that I will explore more completely than I can with my audio recordings and performances the idea of implied sounds, that is, images, scenes, and situations (social and spatial) that ‘appear’ to have some sonic potential. This way of looking at things is an obvious extension of my audio work, which often exists in a ‘field’ among found instruments and inherently ambient situations.
Over the course of the exhibition, my ‘sites’ will migrate along a path leading from the ruins of Sutro Baths at the end of Ocean Beach to an area adjacent to the Southern Exposure gallery. I’m not yet certain of all the locations in between these endpoints or what will happen there. Expect to attend these ‘events’ at times of day when a particular and ‘regular’ ambient situation is under way (I have been keeping an ongoing log of these for the past few years). Expect my own interventions...modifications, amplifications, and actual performances.
site sonology #1
I arrived at the baths around 3pm on Sunday and wandered around making audio recordings......scraps of conversation, laughter, birds, dogs, surf, footsteps crunching gravel, fog horns, belled buoys, car noises.......
Two friends of mine came along and improvised songs with guitars, bells and xylophones in a central part of the ruins. Various people at different times came close to look and listen, but mostly the people strolling about the ruins were indifferent.
A couple, wrapped in a blanket, requested a ‘love song’ and my friends obliged in return for the couple’s permission to let me take their picture cuddling on a rock during the song.
A man came over to the top edge of a wall below which I was sitting and commented, ambiguously: It sounded like shit from up there so I thought I’d come down to
check it out.
Later, in another area of the ruins I ground small pieces of charcoal with a large chunk of
cement, amplifying this action with a contact microphone and battery-operated speaker.
Lastly, from two cassette players concealed in the brush, I amplified recordings made mostly from areas along Ocean Beach over the past few months. These sounds included much surf noise a durations in which children were playing excitedly in the sand.
site sonology #2
golden gate park
I arrived at the tunnel at 9:45. The morning was foggy and damp. About a dozen workmen were busy loading trucks with debris at the far end of the Academy service road and fifteen to twenty people were practicing Tai Chi in the central courtyard on the lawns around the fountains. Inside the tunnel, trails of mud and dried leaves ran the length of each wall.
I began by recording the local ambience from inside the tunnel, the space becoming a sort of crude resonator for the intermittent sounds of rubble falling from barrels into truck containers, hollers, the hiss of fountain water, birds, dogs, whistles and wind.
With a small rock from the tunnel floor, I walked the length of the tunnel several times while continuously scraping the stucco’d ceiling, my feet sporadically traipsing on and crushing the large crab-shaped leaves.
Then I amplified an edit of the recordings I had made from Sutro Baths (site sonology #1),
concealing the speaker beneath a pile of leaves near one end of the tunnel. At the other end I set up a small amplifier and by specifically positioning a contact mic with the weight of a rock on it, generated a pulsating feedback pattern.
During this time (about twenty minutes), no pedestrians came through.
I did see, however, several pairs of legs at different times stopped above the south entrance to the tunnel, as if observing/listening. I realize that my activities might seem a little strange and could very well discourage people from walking in.
I decided to move on to something more ‘accessible’. I continuously struck a bell with a mallet, slowly changing my position within the tunnel. Not long into this, I heard a discussion from outside the tunnel. Several children were asking a man, “What’s he doing in there?”
“It sounds like he’s ringing a bell.”
“Can we go in and see?”
“I don’t see why not.”
They came in and we had a short conversation and I let the children ring the bell.
I left the site at nearly eleven.
site sonology #3
bunker cranston/battery east rd.
presidio (west of golden gate bridge)
I had imagined what this event would ‘sound’ like only because I have explored this site several times over the past seven years and I have a sort of familiarity with the ‘instrument’. What I remember of it is that the bunker is built into a slope so that its slightly-angled roof rises from ground level (ice plants and dust along a ridge that allows a view of the Bridge and the entrance to the Bay) on its ocean-facing side and is accessible on its inland side from several staircases that lead down to a paved walkway running along a long wall set with massive steel doors. Through one or more of these ajar doors you can enter the bunker and step among broken glass, feathers, gardbage, sticks and chunks of masonry. Today I set out with a small amplifier and some recordings from this and other California bunkers that I had compiled over the years. Also, I brought with me some contact mics to be used somehow with the doors. And I brought a harmonium.
Nearing the entrance to the Bridge on Sunday I noticed that many of the roads leading to various landmarks and trailheads in the Presidio were closed off and guarded by the police. Battery East Rd. was among these sealed-off areas and so the bunker was not accessible. Of course, this is all part of a great precaution being taken around a significant feature of San Francisco that could imaginably become another target of terrorism. I ended up crossing the Bridge and spending the day in Marin, the harmonium coming out briefly and without inspiration in the parking lot of some riding stables on Route 1.
This probably qualifies as the first ‘implied’ performance in my series.
site sonology #4
I came upon this alley during my first visit to Chinatown nine years ago. Over the years, on each of my subsequent walks along this single block it has felt as if it is at the heart of a community. Like many locations in any city, this ‘site’ is so particularly evocative of the imagination. Gates and doorways, partially opened, allow glimpses of interiors and stairways leading in different directions. The windows of the upper floors are set in old brick, almost stone-shaped from all the wear, and details of domestic activities and personalities are precariously situated on the sills. Outlines of individuals hang from clotheslines. Through some windows candlelight makes shadows flicker and smoke carries smells of incense and cooking to the street.
Because I am not a resident of this neighborhood and because I am not part of the Chinese community, the mysteries of Spofford Alley are heightened a little. I cannot read the signs and I cannot take direct meaning from the conversations I overhear. Above the large curtained shop windows along street level are rows of narrow windows, most of which are open. Each time I have been here, I have heard frantic clattering and bristling emanate from these openings. Additionally, like sounds resonate in the stairwells leading below street level. If you peer through many of the gates, most of which are latched and accompanied by a buzzer, you can often see corners and edges of cardtables, wrists extending from cuffs, some fingers moving rapidly across areas of white blocks and tiny wooden rods, shuffling and positioning them, more slowly moving among ashtrays, purses, and soda cans. Over the years I have always enjoyed the ambience of these Ma-Jong gaming parlors, noticing how this sound provides a unique bed for the racket of the city to lie down on.
While the ‘performance’ here was completely implied, the sound itself certainly was not.
I imagined that anyone patient enough to commute to Chinatown and look for this obscure site would immediately recognize what he/she had come for. On the last day of this ‘scheduled’ event I did show up to make some recordings and take pictures. At around 6:30 close to a dozen children on rollerskates appeared at one end of the alley and contributed a fabulous layer of noise to the site as they repeatedly skated from one end to the other, giggling and singing the whole time.
site sonology #5
vulcan staircase (at 17th st.)
The public staircases characteristic of this ‘steep’ neighborhood above the Castro give pedestrians access to intimacies of the neighborhood usually reserved for residents whose backyards adjoin and whose windows look out into the spaces behind the streets and beyond their noises. The staircase named Vulcan rises up, westward, from Ord St.. Its whole length cannot be taken in from the bottom. It climbs through several landings, planted densely and colorfully on either side with dahlias and shrubs and fruit trees, and then makes a turn and disappears into an overhang of branches all seemingly coming down from the skirt of a towering redwood. It is in such places in the city that pedestrians might very easily, with a tilt of the head, eliminate the buildings from their periphery and, in the insulated quiet of the setting, frame for themselves a small and momentary wilderness.
Once you climb inside the cover of the overhang, the staircase becomes more private. At first, near the bottom, you step in full view of the house windows that border the gardens along the stairs and there is a slight feeling of trespass. Your voices and footsteps bounce from the concrete and walls. However, once the staircase becomes tunnel-like, ascending through the shadows of hedges and trees, you gain a privacy that is yours alone. From here, your climb takes you past a massive blackberry hedge on one side and various hedges, gates and treelines on the other, obscuring yards and walkways leading to people’s homes. Above, branches and vines twist across and mute daylight. In this steeply-angled enclosure, the murmur of dishes and footsteps and conversations, of a book or something sliding across a table, a hinge, something motoring, some plumbing.... resonates and mixes with the birds, the foliage shaking in the wind, the hammering from a backyard and natural bits falling.
Today I brought several strands of bells and hung them in the ends of a large eucalyptus branch that I found in a thicket above one of one the landings. My ‘performance’ consisted in dragging this branch behind me as I ascended and descended the staircase several times, the branch hissing and ringing rhythmically from stair to stair, its sound sustained in regular intervals at each landing. As I passed the first gated walkway, leading to the enclosed porch of a house, I found out just how my action was going to influence the ambience of the neighborhood from there on out..........
Whereas the mere footsteps and voices of pedestrians on the staircase, because of their regularity from day to day, did not seem to evoke any canine attention, the unfamiliar sound of the bells did trigger a chorus of barking from the neighborhood dogs, which inevitably escalated into the hushes and shouts of dog-owners, the slamming of doors and the frenzied clicking and patting of dog nails and paws on various surfaces. Once I brought my branch to a stop, this symptomatic noise ran its course for several minutes before the peaceful thick of things at the staircase was restored.
Site Sonology #6
the rose factory
wayland & bowdoin sts.
The ‘rose factory’ must be a blindspot in the neighborhood. I have long gotten over worrying about being hollered at while traipsing through the lanes of overgrowth and dilapidation. I’m not so sure that one can even be seen while inside the complex, as the entire block upon which it rests is bordered by a high wooden fence. Anyway, it’s not really a trespass as there isn’t a single warning sign posted. Not even a For Sale sign or old business sign. A friend of mine once suggested that maybe this place was a distillery for rose fragrances—a “perfume factory”--since at one end of the property there is a large tank connected to a sort of ‘laboratory’. Each time that I visit I am amazed that no new ‘trash’ has accumulated.......no mattresses, beer bottles, appliance parts, dirty clothes, food or condom wrappers, drug paraphernalia or bags of garbage. And the overgrowth of berry hedges, grasses and wildflowers never appears disturbed. I suppose it’s just that no one wanders in here. It’s the kind of intersection through which you’d never pass unless you lived in one of the nearby streets. So, this enchanting ruin persists without ever really accumulating any of time’s degrading inscriptions. Each time I visit I look forward to the new state this strange wilderness will have entered. Has the watermelon growing in the central corridor rotted on its vine yet? Mostly though, what will be the state of the roses that thickly fill each of the twelve long sheds?
A sonology of this place consists mostly of its silence. It is so serene, its atmosphere so concentrated, that I can reasonably imagine something like the sound of stems stretching inside the rosebushes, the hedges expanding and bumping up against the irrigation pipes, windows and doors. Imaginably, on a wet day, there would be the plink of waterdrops on the panels of glass, much of it still mounted in the rotting wooden grids, but many pieces of it also cracked and lying about in the dirt and weeds. Temple-like, such a place offers itself as a seat from which one might listen to the world. The sounds of the neighborhood and from all corners of the sky resonate equally here. The harsh edges of sounds are somehow eaten up or softened as they travel from the outskirts of the property to where a listener might sit or stand near its center. And curiously, tiny noises are somehow amplified and made significant.
For the event scheduled on Sunday the 18th I asked the people who showed up to hop over the fence with me and find ‘instruments’ or ‘situations’ with sonic potential among the plantlife and passageways. I decided my role would be to ‘listen’ to them and make occasional recordings. In a way, I realized how my documenting of their activities might make them self-conscious. This didn’t seem either good or bad; it’s just that I understood it would influence each of them in a certain way and perhaps make them especially conscious of sound as it lies latent in an object, situation or detail of the environment.
The exploration went on for a while, migrating in and out of the sheds, sliding along surfaces and edges, riveted by moments of laughter and surprised gasps, sustained also by meticulous obsession, indulgence and trance.
Often, at a distance from one of the participants, I could only infer the sound from an action. Mostly, the action itself was evocative enough. I recall a shard of glass still mounted in the framework of a window being carefully bowed by a live rose branch that had been pulled across from a thicket inside the shed. Behind me, a rusted wheelbarrow rattled in the grass, and elsewhere a brick moved circularly over the heads of nails pushing through the wood of a doorframe. Eventually, the participants moved within range of each other and seemed almost as if to be improvising while listening to each other’s ‘sound’. Then, a knot of rusted wire stretched and creaked from the pipe where it hung and below, a heap of dry petals emitted, under influence of a hand, almost a pulsation. Nearby, bits of glass crackled continuously beneath a boot while a whistle and a bark arced overhead from some coordinate in the neighborhood.