Listening art: Listening is a movement

On sound and listening

Sound is not a surface, nor an object or something static. Rather, sound is a vibration that moves and bounces around a space. Soundwaves can move in front of us, behind us, over us and under us, but also against, with and through us. We don’t only perceive sound with our eyes, in other words, but with our body, too.

The body absorbs, reflects and filters sound like a sort of membrane. We are even capable of inhaling sounds. So we perceive sounds not only frontally, but omnidirectionally and transversally (in contrast with our visual mode of perception).

But sound is more than just resonance. When we listen closely to sound we can associate it with all kinds of meanings. In addition to acoustic information, sounds also carry emotional, intentional and associative information, among other kinds. Our memories, cultural background, upbringing and even the context of the present moment (e.g. whether you are in love, hungry, etc.) are all factors that co-determine the way we experience sound.

Other factors that may cause us to listen to the same sound differently include the structure of our head and body and the position we occupy in a space. Suffice it to say that listening is extremely personal and we connect with what we hear in a relational manner. Sociologically speaking, we might describe this as ‘listening diversity’: everyone listens differently, in their own unique way.

What’s more, sound can influence the psychology and well-being of both human and non-human animals in their living environments. For example, a sound can psychologically catapult a person back to their childhood. Sound can also negatively affect the social lives of non-human animals: if a certain species can no longer hear each other’s calls due to the increased volume of their sonic environment, they may migrate, or worse, die out.

In short: sound has a significant influence on us and there are many ways of listening, many so-called ‘listening attitudes’. Speaking of which, you may find this text on listening attitudes interesting.

The listener is the artist

The art of listening goes far beyond simply listening to a pub discussion or to popular music. When someone connects their own personal frame of reference with the sound that they are perceiving and makes themselves aware of the sound’s resonance, frequency, movements and dimensions, listening becomes an artistic act.

As an artist you can create worlds of sound that flout the established codes, genres, canons and formats, and in so doing engage your listening public – or, better, your ‘participants’ – all the more. In this way you can offer a more challenging and thought-provoking auditive experience. You can offer direction, but in the end it is largely the listener who is in control and who will determine their own listening approach. That’s precisely why, as an artist, it is beneficial to work in an extremely intuitive and personal manner (the more personal, the more universal). In this way the artist, in their openness, appeals to the listener’s creativity and the power of their auditive imagination.

Given the contingent nature of listening, many more factors and variables play a role than ‘the sound’ alone. In everyday settings and performative settings alike, what came before the sound and that which resonates after is just as important as the artistic creation itself. To put it another way: the artistic challenge lies not so much in the creation of sound, but in the effect of the sound on the listening experience and the emotional charge this effect carries. This is the art of listening.

Practicing the art of listening is different to the creation of sound art: in the latter case, the listening is not as centrally important as the (in many cases instrumental) virtuosity of the sound produced. There is certainly some overlap between the two, however.

The art of listening does not involve a score. You can think of it more as a sort of sonic scenography. The spatial and physical characteristics involved make it more a sort of choreography of sound than a musical composition. In this way the art of listening is readily linked with other disciplines (e.g visual art).

aifoon's mission

In our everyday lives we are usually listening on ‘autopilot’. The art of listening invites us to listen consciously again, with a beginner’s mindset: to make new connections and engage with sound in a new way. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” (Shunryu Suzuki).

A beginner’s mind listens keenly, is unbiased, open and tolerant to the diversity of listening. Adopting this beginner’s mindset can leave people (adults in particular) feeling uncertain, as they must let go of their familiar frames of reference. As an arts organisation, aifoon creates a fertile soil in which to allow the art of listening to grow without limits.

We also hope that this mindset will become a part of people’s everyday listening habits. In organising participative projects, productions and workshops, it is aifoon’s mission to auditively enrich the lives of our fellow (predominantly visual) human beings, in the hope that this richness spreads by extension to broader society and the arts in general.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert’s mind there are few.
(Shunryu Suzuki)

© aifoon vzw – No part of this text may be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement of the source