Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Art of Listening

I moved into my first apartment on my own about three months after turning 16. Apart from some clothes and a few books, my only possessions were a stereo and record collection. I worked at a nearby fast food joint afternoons and evenings after school, getting back home around midnight. Naturally, for a music-loving kid that age, firing up the stereo and blasting rock albums at full volume late into the night was the first order of business after work. Not surprisingly, the neighbors complained, and after a mere three days I was given the ultimatum to either turn down the music or face eviction. The next night, jonesing for a music fix and not wishing to get kicked out, I put on Jimi Hendrix at a very low level, laid down between the speakers and listened as hard as I could. To my astonishment, I became just as immersed in the music as I did when it was turned up loud. That's when I discovered the role attention plays in the listening process though at the time I had no idea what it was, I only knew of this discovery that music could give an equally powerful experience at a low decibel level if a special effort at listening was made. I lived in that apartment for about 8 months until finding a better place to live with some friends, listening to music around the clock, whenever I could, still playing it loud during acceptable hours, turning down and enjoying it just as much by focusing my attention and diving into the music during the late night and early morning. It seemed, reflecting back on it, that some preliminary training was taking place very useful for a future occupation as a sound engineer.

When I started mixing bar bands on the Western Canadian club circuit I soon realized that training my hearing to acquire the skill of picking out the various instruments and how they could get processed to fit in was essential to getting a good mix. Not knowing where to find ear training programs I decided to devise my own ear training techniques. We're talking ancient times here folks, when there was no computer internet, and that kind of information wasn't as easily available. If anyone knows of some good ear training programs feel free to mention them in the comments.

One of the first things I did was pick up a cassette of popular classical music by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra. Except for the Rusty in Orchestraville children's record I heard as a kid that explained the different instruments, I'd never been exposed to classical music and had no appreciation of it at the time. Whenever chancing upon it, it read to me like a foreign language to be tuned out. But I figured that if I listened closely picking out all the different instruments, that could only help in trying to hear the various sounds in the acoustically challenging venues I worked in every night. Much to my surprise, not only did this help with the ear training but I actually started to enjoy the music. At one point I got so into it that I decided that an orchestra conductor was the ultimate soundman, and that's what I should do. Contemplating the reality of what that would entail, it seemed to require years of schooling and training so I opted to stay with rock'n roll for the time being.

You end up playing a lot of small towns on the bar band circuit. Sitting outside listening to the sounds in the country night air I decided to listen for whatever sound was the most quiet as a way to stretch my ears. Later I applied that when listening to music, trying to pick out and focus on whatever instrument was set furthest back in the mix. Jimmy Page frequently buried instruments way back in the mix. I soon discovered that a similar immersion effect resulted. Everything else in the mix sounded louder and I felt inside the music, surrounded by it and part of it. It seemed an induction, a way to fully enter the space of the music as if it was the whole environment and atmosphere, not something that manifested as just one element of consensual reality. I started having more gnostic type experiences listening in this way. Sudden flashes or realizations of knowledge experienced rather than thought out or arrived at through more conventional forms of logical reasoning. Connecting with the invocation of the music was how I put it after learning magick.

A similar effect occurred when elements of a mix that you would expect to hear up front in the foreground, like lead vocals, were set back in the mix. Carouselambra, a track off of Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door album is one example that springs to mind but a lot of rock mixes in the '60s and '70s were like that. Quite a few of the earlier The Rolling Stones catalog have songs where the vocals seemed buried or at least not on top of the track like conventional mixes. This seemed like a trick the producers played to draw the listener's attention inside the song. You strain to hear what the singer is singing about and suddenly the track sounds huge because you've been drawn into it by intently listening.

The nomenclaturely effusive Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, or Brian Eno for short, came out in the late 70's and 80's with a series of recordings that he categorized as Ambient, Music for Airports, The Plateaux of Mirror, Day of Radiance, and On Land that seemed like nutrition for the ears to me. The idea, as he stated it, was to have music that was one part of the environment to be listened to or ignored as desired. I used to come home from mixing a loud raucous rock band in a hall with terrible, splashy acoustics, my ears ringing like crazy from the 110 dB sound pressure levels, and put on one of these ambient recordings at a low to moderate volume with the effect of it feeling like my ears were being massaged back to life. A whole genre of music was born, inspired by these albums. I later found out that my mentor, Bill Laswell, contributed significantly to two of these. One day Laswell and Eno were walking through Washington Square Park not far from where Aleister Crowley used to live when Bill spotted a street musician named Laarji playing an electric zither. Bill says to Eno, "check this guy out," and next thing he knows he sees Laarji as the featured and only musician on Ambient 3, Day of Radiance. Later on, in the 90's, I had the opportunity to meet and work with Laarji at a release party for a new version of Material's Seven Souls. Ambient 4, On Land featured the musicians of the original Material and financed Martin Bisi's BC Studio in Brooklyn that played a role in a number of Laswell productions. A little digression, but interesting nonetheless. Eno was strongly influenced by John Cage who is about to make an appearance in this narrative.

It was actually a book that probably had the strongest influence on how I listen. I was working with a band called The Tickets, we were playing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only time I've been there. I don't even remember the name of the book which I had checked out from the library but it was on avant garde composers. It was there that I discovered John Cage and his musically revolutionary piece called 4'33 - four minutes 33 seconds. The first performances were by pianist David Tudor in conventional, high culture classical music halls. It consisted of Tudor coming out and sitting at piano for exactly 4'33 and playing absolutely nothing! His only action was to gesture with his arms to indicate the three movements that comprised the piece. Whoever wrote the essay on Cage in this book, which I now regret not making note of, structured it brilliantly because he never out and out stated what the point of it was. When I discovered what it was about, it resulted in an epiphany that completely changed my definition of music and my perception of sound. I won't say either, but will probably give it away to those who don't already know. The writer connected it with the artistic and cultural movement called Dada. The definitions of Dada I just googled seem woefully inadequate but a fairly accurate description is here:

To quote Dona Budd's The Language of Art Knowledge, "Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I. This international movement was begun by a group of artists and poets associated with the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words da, da, meaning yes, yes in the Romanian language.

I truly "got" Dada and 4'33 during a visit to an art museum in Winnipeg when I couldn't tell if one of the pieces was missing or if it was intentional Dada art. It looked like a frame with nothing in it but the speckled and textured white wall it enclosed. Something flashed and I had what they call an AHA experience, the sudden realization of what this kind of art intended to convey. All at once I saw the connectedness and the intrinsic aesthetic nature of everything, what Thelemites call the Vision of Beatitude. This vision, though not constant, has never left. For instance, not long after, I stood waiting at a bus stop in 20 degree below zero weather in Calgary blissfully looking down the road at a car and the beautiful pattern its exhaust smoke made in the clear crisp air against a background of freshly fallen snow. It looked like a painting. No, I wasn't smoking or taking anything to engender this cognition. A short time after that, a few of us from The Tickets were on a city bus in Vancouver on the way to see a film. We rode in silence and I started to perceive all the mechanical sounds of the bus and its engine as an elaborate symphony of sorts. Nothing appeared mundane anymore, even the most ordinary situation transformed into an artistic experience.

Some time in either the late '80s or early '90's I attended a workshop by Robert Anton Wilson. One of the first exercises he had us do was to close our eyes and do nothing but listen without attempting to identify the sounds for about five minutes. He then asked us to report on the experience. It seems the point of this exercise was to show how we all live in different "reality tunnels." I suspect he picked this exercise up from General Semantics. One commonality we discovered is that we all felt slightly high from this mild meditation of listening without interpreting the identity of the sounds.

I picked up another listening exercise at a workshop I attended at the Fake Sufi School in Northern California. I was weeding in their large vegetable garden in the rural Sierra foothills when a women started telling me about an exercise her teacher had given to her to listen to as many different bird sounds as possible. This seemed both a listening and an attention exercise.

I'll leave you with a great video by John Cage on how he listens. Be sure to watch the whole thing, he makes a delightful comparison with music toward the end.



  1. Wow!!! This really very interesting. Thanks.

  2. I'd also recommend Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening exercises...

  3. Great blog. I love Kerman and Tomlinson's book Listen. I've used that as a textbook for my high school music history class for twelve years. It has many listening charts to guide listeners through a ton of music.

    I also fantasized about becoming an orchestra conductor. I loved Erich Leinsdorf's books _The Composer's Advocate: A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians_ and _Cadenza_.

    Your comment about birdsong makes me think of Messiaenn who incorporated lots of birdsongs into his music and of Eric Dolphy who used to play saxophone outside with the birds.

    Great post.
    Page 433 of the hardcover edition of Finnegans Wake has the line "SILENCE." (Page 501 of the paperback editions.)

  4. The experience you had with classical music -- if music is good, you will eventually "get it" if you try to really listen -- is one that I've repeatedly had.

    Years ago, I got a CD by a classical pianist named Gloria Cheng of the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen. At first, I could not make any sense of the short pieces. I finally looked at the titles for the tracks and realized that the melodies were based on bird songs! It was sobering to realize that the tracks were based on a form of "music" that I had heard for a long time, but didn't immediately recognize.

  5. Thanks Eric and bunnyman for the listening and book suggestions.

    I wonder if one origin of humans making music had to do with trying to imitate or play along with the songs of birds?

    1. Perhaps there's also a connection with Charlie "Yardbird" Parker & Birdland?

  6. Your experience in learning to listen at low volume matches an experience that happened to Brian Eno, as related in an interesting book by William Duckworth called "Virtual Music." Years ago, Eno was bedridden after being badly injured in an accident, an a friend brought him an LP to listen to. She put it on the turntable before she left, but it was not very loud. Eno at first wanted to ask someone to turn it up for him, until he realized that listening at low volume worked just fine. It helped spark his interest in ambient music.

  7. I think you may be on to something, Steve. Ironically, Parker got banned from the club named after him.

    I'll have to find that book, Tom. Eno tells this story in his liner notes to "Discreet Music," another favorite of mine.