listening unprimed

I was at a conference on field recordings last night, and at some point one of the presenters mentioned the need for a structure, in order to place yourself in the condition to listen.

‘You wouldn’t listen without a structure’, he said.

And what happens to the unexpected, the fragmentary, the overheard sounds that catch us at those times when we’re not prepared ‘to listen’ and yet seem to capture our innermost selves nonetheless?

If we consider listening as an exclusive, absorbed and solely focused activity resolved in self-confined and self-induced moments of intentional awareness, a great portion of the complexity and elusiveness of listening goes lost. It might help to even stop considering it an ‘activity’ for a while – to let go of any implication of intention. To think of listening not as a linear, directional tool but as a softer-edged device, not perhaps outlined by ‘structures’ but by biomorphic accretions, liquefying odd-functioning contraptions, uneven syncretisms at best.

If we consider listening as possible only through and by means of a structure, then we favour the discursive, contextual approach and leave out all the engrossing, enticing qualities in listening that defy structure, discourse, perhaps even reason.

One of the clearer moments in my history of listening dates back to 1999. I was visiting the Venice Biennale and at some point on walking along the pathway leading to the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, an echoing sound seemed at first to come from far away, then revealed itself as slowly and continually building within a circumscribed portion of space. The experience was defining – not ‘only’ for the quality of the sound as such, but for the combination of that sound with that place. I was then a student and had no idea of artists working with sound. What I knew then is, that sound opened up an unexpected dimension in my being there. I was surprised and teased into an unknown aural fold that day. The experience of that sound stayed with me anonymous; a riddle for many years.
Only five years later did I learn that at the 1999 Biennale I’d experienced a work by Max Neuhaus. At the time, it had appeared ‘only’ as an unexpected, continuous hum that caught me unprepared, unveiled a depth and somehow transfixed me and my aural experiences.
I listened with no structure, and yet listen I did.
And my experience of that continuous sound remains a riddle to date, nonetheless.

To listen is to become aware of each of our moments of being in a specific place at a specific time. The call for a ‘structure’ for listening seems to dismiss all those moments of unexpected aural occurrences that catch us unprimed – unprimed as a blank canvas on which colours are not fixed: they seep into the fibers, they are let free to flow away, off our own borders. No brushes, control or intention, only their movement and ours as we absorb it.

And so often with our ears unprimed, sounds dig deeper in our understanding of a place, a landscape, ourselves.

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