The Place Where You Go To Listen, an intriguing sound installation at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska presents some very intriguing ideas. Last week I introduced John Luther Adams and his work Dark Waves as a means to begin exploration of this modern American composer. More important to me than the mesmerizing beauty of Dark Waves are the sounds of the natural world that Adams’ works force me to confront in a very real and tangible way.
What exactly does it mean to listen – to truly listen deeply? What influence does the space around us have, and how in a distracted and noisy world, do we perceive what is happening sonically at all times?
The world is indeed a very noisy place. So much so, that we have become out of necessity quite accustomed to ignoring a great deal of the noise around us. Though noticing most noises around us is not essential for daily survival, becoming more sonically attuned to your surroundings is a developable skill and one that can reap rewards both musically and personally.
Having spent many years living in a fairly rural area while growing up (and having moved there from the outskirts of a city) I began to notice not only how quiet it was in the country, but just how loud it actually was in the city. The ear becomes accustomed to excessive noise in a very rapid fashion – think about how loud your car stereo seems if you have been driving on the freeway but suddenly come to a complete stop. The stereo seems louder when in fact it is no such thing. The only change has been in the environment around you and your perception of how the noise (stereo) relates to what is surrounding it.
Deep listening, then, is a process of mentally parceling out the complex and distracting layers of the outside world in a more organized and concrete manner. Deep listening means developing a type of concentration so intense that you are able to override the natural instincts of the brain – to ignore non-threatening noises – and consciously hear all of the sounds in your environment as they interact with each other. Deep listening means to find a place – your own place – where you are able to most simply and readily take in the unfiltered sounds of the world.
What The Place Where You Go to Listen made me realize when I first experienced it a year ago is that the place where you listen should be everywhere. There is no need to set aside a special physical space where you allow yourself to listen in a concentrated manner. Deep listening means that that space is always with you, a permanent part of your being. It means developing a sense of acoustical hyper-awareness that you are able to consciously tap into when desired.
The installation at the museum shows very clearly that even at its quietest, the world is an acoustically busy place. Earth tremors, the wind, animals, and if you happen to be near the Arctic Circle even the aurora borealis (northern lights) make some noise. Granted, many of these sounds are entirely indiscernible to the human ear but that makes their existence no less real. Deep listening doesn’t mean being able to tap into sounds that our ears quite literally can’t hear, of course. But what this installation did for me was show that even I, a much attuned listener, was missing out on a great many things. Even though I’ve developed my listening skills through years of practice (it is after all my greatest hobby) there was – and still is – room for improvement.
The place where you listen – in both the most literal and abstract sense – must be you. A vigilance of purpose and a focused mind can give you access to a sound world greater than you could possibly imagine.