Tag Archive: listening

Tweets about Sound

(Picture taken in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, somewhere in the wilderness…)

I don’t really know what to do with Twitter. I mean, tweeting about personal trivialities is boring and the 140 characters of a tweet only leave space for a less-than-complex form of communication. But sometimes less-than-complex can be good: reading a short punch line that sticks in mind, social or political commentary that reduces complicated issues to an invocing sentence without simplifying matters. Anyhow, I decided to use Twitter as a kind of container or scrapbook for citations concerning sound, listening, noise and silence I find in books, films or articles. It’s not about collecting the best sound quotes that everybody already knows, it’s more like a personal anthology of findings while being exposed to media, little gems I don’t want to forget and that have a particular meaning to me because they appeared in a certain context. I hope it doesn’t look like I’m boasting with cultural knowledge, maybe it does… Well, here are the tweets of sounds of the last two years:

“Movement is the silent music of the body.” – William Harvey

“There is a silence where hath been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be in the cold grave under the deep deep sea” – Thomas Hood

“Tonight I’m a noisy swamp squelching under your bare toes.” – Dorothy Porter

“Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolih acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Lauscht, hört aber nichts. Nichts regt sich, spricht. Das Dorfgehirn, zerschlagen, schaut mit kleinen Augen.” – Steffen Popp

“Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening.” – Salomé Voegelin

“The final thing. The illiterate. The dumb. Speech? Quiet but still something? Noises? Nothing?” – Tom Lubbock

“Their pleasantness or unpleasantness is felt without the listener knowing where the grounds for such feelings lie.” – Hermann von Helmholtz

“Du musst doch hören können was ich denke.” – Franziska Schaum

“And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.” – Jennifer Egan

“And her shape is of such mysterious nastiness that you brace yourself to listen…” – Henri de Régnier

“Hunderte Töne waren zu einem drahtigen Geräusch ineinander verwunden, aus dem einzelne Spitzen vorstanden, längst dessen schneidige Kanten liefen und sich wieder einebneten, von dem klare Töne absplitterten und verflogen.“ – Robert Musil

“The ghost is fascinated by the soldier’s mysterious sound device.” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (script of “Tropical Malady”)

“Und groß die Stille/groß wie der frischgeteerte Himmel/man müsste sie hören können. Ein tragender Ton für ein paar Sätze” – Christoph Aigner

“The static’s like the sound of thinking. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush.” – Tom McCarthy

“In den Regen gesprochen, geflüstert. Staub u Schatten – welch Großeslärmen doch um die-Toten ist. Um die Lebenden Stille” – Reinhard Jirgl

“The longest silence is the most pertinent question most pertinently put. Emphatically silent.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” – John Keats

“Im Sehen erfassen wir das Skelett der Dinge, im Hören ihren Puls.” – Erwin Strauss

“As if that sound were forming, unlikely as that might be, into a single high, strong voice striking the ear as if trying to penetrate further than into the mere human sense of hearing” – Franz Kafka

“The most exciting moment is the moment when I add sound… At this moment, I tremble.” – Akira Kurosawa

“On the way to a full silence the mark of language brands the body with a reminder of the time.” – Delphine

“Was aber ein regelmäßiges, stumpfes, sinnloses und sich stundenlang wiederholendes Geräusch angeht so müssen die Gehirne wohl verschieden gebaut sein.” – Kurt Tucholsky

“One can see looking. Can one hear listening, smell smelling, etc…?” – Marcel Duchamp

“By listening, one will learn truths. By hearing, one will learn half truths. Lucky numbers 6, 14, 19, 27, 30, 34.” – from a fortune cookie

“Bloom heard a jing, a little sound. He’s off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers. Jingling. He’s gone. Jingle. Hear.” – James Joyce, Ulysses

“Fear of sound, fear of sounds, all sounds, more or less, more or less fear, all sounds…” – Samuel Beckett

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Those unmindful when they hear, for all they make of their intelligence, may be regarded as the walking dead.” – Heraclitus

“While a word awakens other words, silence raises no echo. Silence only prolongs silence.” – Edmond Jabés

“Hearing is a physiological constant, listening is a psychological variable.” – Bruce R. Smith

“This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” – Martha Ainsworth

“Noise and nausea, noise and nautical, noise and navy have the same etymology. We never hear white noise better than when at sea.” – M. Serres

“I don’t push the sounds around.” – Morton Feldman, responding to Stockhausens question about his secret

“And just imagine that in this infinite sonorous silence everywhere is an impenetrable darkness.” – Béla Tarr, Werckmeister Harmony

“I try to listen to the still, small voice within, but I can’t hear it above the din.” – Eliza Ward

“The only sound that I hear, the only sound in the entire world, is my heart beating.” – Dexter

“Imprisoned in a cage of sound, even the trivial seems profound” – John Betjeman

“Das Schweigen wird nur zum Zeichen, wenn man es sprechen lässt.” – Roland Barthes

“Im Ohr nistet eine Spinne, im anderen eine Grille.” – Michelangelo

“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” -Shakespeare

“Any given silence takes its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound.” – Susan Sontag

“Noise may have lost its power to offend. Silence hasn’t.” – Dan Warburton

“When I am inside a sound then I am inside time.” – Christoph Korn

“Sound: everything we hear and many things we don’t” – Allen S. Weiss

“Sound is touch at a distance.” – Anne Fernald

“We should be sensitive to the thread of silence from which the tissue of speech is woven.” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

“…unlike other sounds, noise is a nomad; it has no place to go once it has departed.” -Haroon Mirza

„Er fühlte sich wie gehäutet von der Scharfkantigkeit der Geräusche…” – Ralf Rothmann

“…the roar of more slamming doors, the last one finally hammering shut, leaving the room satured in silence.” – M. Danielewski

“L’odeur du silence est si vieille.” – O.W. De L. Milosz (“The odor of silence is so old.”)

“Gerade weil sich die Musik der wörtlichen Beschreibung entzieht, finden sich unter Musikkritikern die größten Metaphoriker.” – R. McCormack

“Hearing silence is successful perception of an absence of sound. A deaf man cannot hear silence.” – Matthew Nudds

Point of Listening

In an article for Eurozine, Les Back reflects on the importance of listening and takes writer Primo Levi, radioman Studs Terkel and literary traveller Flemming Røgilds as examples for their accurate attentiveness. He concludes that “the value of listening is to keep a bridge open in the present between the past and the future. The listener – as the society’s ear – establishes an ethical link to those who are not heard or who are ignored.” Attentive listening is here descriped as a requisite for an utopia of a better society. Some already speak of an “acoustic turn” since our culture is supposedly changing as it moves from the dominance of the sense of seeing towards the sense of hearing. This can be seen as if the pendulum swings back into direction of the ear since many philosophers are convinced that in the middle ages the sense of hearing was valued much higher than the sense of seeing. Religion priotized the ear as the organ to hear the voice of god. Luther said, the ear would be the crucial organ of a Christian.

The repeated notion of a polarity between the ear and the eye was called an “audiovisual litany” by Jonathan Sterne in his book “The Audible Past“: following this differenciation, hearing is immersive while vision is distancing, hearing is emotional while vision remains rational, hearing tends towards subjectivity while vision tends towards objectivity and so forth. He critizes the theological undertones of this audiovisual polarity. And indeed, listening is a commodity that can be facilitated in many ways. This year, David Miliband declared New Labours death and announced in the New Statesman: “New Labour isn’t new any more. What I’m interested in is next Labour. And the route to next Labour is to be listening.” But apparently listening is also a crucial ability for the salesman. When I was googling the term “point of listening” earlier this year as an acoustic equivalent concept of the films point of view, I came across this passage in “The Point of Listening is Not What You Hear, but the Listening Itself” by Charles H. Green:

“The main reason for listening to customers is to allow the customer to be heard. Really heard. As in, actually being paid attention to by another human being. This kind of listening is listening for the sake of listening. Listening to understand, period—no strings attached, no links back to your product, no refined problem statements. Because that’s what people in relationships, at their best, really do. (…) Relationships are the context for successful selling. Relationships are based on trust; they predispose us to engage in qualitatively different kinds of sales conversations. And listening—unrestricted, unbounded, listening for its own sake—is the way we develop such relationships. And therein lies the paradox. The most powerful way to sell depends on unlinking listening from selling—and instead, just listening. Listening not as a step in a sales process, and not as a search for answers to questions. Listening not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The point of listening is not what you hear, but the act of listening itself.”

Silent listening, my blogs title, is also spotted as a new trend in communication:

“Silent Listening is an essential business skill. It’s especially important in sales. It shows people that you are fully engaged and care about what is being said and who is delivering the message. It helps us to remember people’s names and intricate details. With Silent Listening, you are also showing compassion and congeniality (Emotional Intelligence). It helps to build strong relationships.”

This is exactly the marketing lingo I hear echoing when you speak to an extremely friendly salesperson on the phone, as I did recently to order my first smart phone. The whole conversation was embellished with cordial remarks and late birthday wishes, only the problem with my contract couldn’t be solved and he promised to call back later which he never did. The feeling that this guy wore a mask of trained friendliness and attentiveness was not leaving me, this big smile painted on his face just to hide the pressure from steep sales figures imposed on him to achieve. But this attitude is not restricted to the sales area, as this quote from “The Listening Point” by Lloyd Steffen proves:

“The ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for one’s partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. (…) We are in need of a theology of listening, for a willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love.”

That the act of listening is becoming something like a religious mantra is also true for the area of sound art and contemporary music since John Cage introduced listening for the sake of listening. I have the feeling that many artists like to use the listening dogma only as an excuse for self-indulgent and hastly produced music or conceptually idle sound art. To refer to listening as a cultural technique that we have to learn, as many do when talking about reduced listening or any other form of hightened perception of music or sounds, often comes with patronizing undertones and feels like an echo of high culture elitism. Today listening is a four-letter word, an empty shell for politicians, priests, salesmen and self-help gurus. The point of listening should be one that fluctuates between times of higher alertness and times of in-attentiveness. I sometimes don’t want to listen, I want my attentiveness to rest and take a break. When I go to a concert or listen to a piece of music, I want my attentiveness to be rewarded with something more than only the experience of listening. Recently I was in a concert with partly unbearably loud passages literally hurting in my ears and wondered about the tolerance showcased by most of the hipster audience. Is it that this attentive and zen-like openness of avant-garde listeners is the new theology of listening, are they caught in the moral act of unrestricted, unbounded engagement? Or is it that if I am tolerable to any kind of sound and music, of whatever loudness, my tolerance reflects nothing else than sheer indifference?

Everyday Listening

Hugo Verweij runs the blog Everyday Listening which quickly became one of my favourite spots on the internet for sound-related findings and reflections. Hugo is a composer and sound designer but also gives lectures at the Utrecht School of the Arts, which might be the reason why his site is so well informed and focusses on the mediation of sonic ideas instead of the navel-gazing and self-promoting many blogs of composers and musicians indulge in (like mine I suppose…). Since February Hugo runs a series of “Five Sound Questions” on a weekly basis where many artists contributed their answers and revealed some intersting insights in their personal views on listening, favourite places for their sound qualities and sound-related childhood remembrances. I was happy to answer his questions as well (ah, here it is again, the navel-gazing…).

Listening is Making Sense

The second issue of gruenrekorders field notes is titled “Listening, Documenting” and features a longer essay by my own called “Listening is Making Sense”. There are other texts by Gabi Schaffner, Stefan Militzer, Yannick Dauby, Lin Chi-Wei and an interview with Walter Tilgner. English and German versions of the PDF magazine can be downloaded here.

TED Talk: How Sound affects us

TED talks are mostly super slick presentations that sometimes appear to me as if someone is trying to sell me a new idea instead of making me think about it or raise deeper questions. The show part of a TED talk often leaves a stronger impact than the actual content. Maybe I only feel more in favor of insecure but somehow emotionally convincing speakers compared to marketing experts for ideas. Anyhow: recently they had Julian Treasure at TED to talk about how sound affects us and how businesses can facilitate sound to increase productivity and sales. This 5 min. presentation could be the most compressed demonstration of the effects of sounds to my thinking. If he wins over the rest of the business world, one day our shopping experiences might be accompanied by perfectly designed soundscapes and our working space is filled with bird song. Here is the first company that provides you with a nature live stream at home or at work – for free, if you manage to deal with an advertising break every 10 or 20 minutes… Brave new world…

Jean-Luc Nancy – Listening


Holding this book in my hands, I wondered what the cover illustration had to do with the subject of listening. One can see a baroque Venus lying on a bed while a boy whispers something in her ear. There is a young man on the left side leaning over his shoulder to listen in on that conversation. Okay. But where is the point? Only after labouring myself through the first – and longest, namegiving – essay of this small book, a coda reveals that the Titian painting extends to the left side and shows an organ played by the young man who then obviously seeks the attention of the naked lady. In a similar way this book blurs its message through  convoluted sentence constructions and excessive etymological word plays that may make sense in French but sound contrived and mannered in English. To give an example of how this could read:

“Listening must be examined – itself auscultated – at the keenest or tightest point of its tension and its penetration. The ear is stretched [tendue] by or according to meaning – perhaps one should say that its tension is meaning already, or made of meaning, from the sounds and cries that signal danger or sex to the animal, onward to analytical listening, which is, after all, nothing but listening taking shape or function as being inclined toward affect and not just toward concept (which does not have to do with understanding [entendre]), as it can always play (or “analyze”), even in a conversation, in a classroom or a courtroom.” (bracketed French words added by the translator, who tries to convey the layers of meaning that get lost in the English translation)

Nancy’s probably most famous publication is “Corpus” which deals with the duality of soul and body. This post-structruralist thinking in the following of Derrida seems to be imposed on the phenomenon of listening. For Nancy the human body is a resonant chamber (like the belly of the beforementioned Venus) that responds to music and sound not only through outer attentiveness but also through inner vibrations. This resonance makes the listener aware of an imminence of presence that might not be found in other art forms. In his words:

“Music is the art of the hope for resonance: a sense that does not make sense except because of its resounding in itself. It calls to itself and recalls itself, reminding itself and by itself, each time, of the birth of music, that is to say, the opening of a world in resonance, a world taken away from the arrangements of objects and subjects, brought back to its own amplitude and making sense or else having its truth only in the affirmation that modulates this amplitude.”

There might be some beautiful ideas in his text (they might even “sound” better in French), but Nancy bypasses easily a lot of aspects of listening that are crucial for a broader understanding, only to name the fact that listening is a dynamic process of learning and self-development in every human being. Comparing this little book with academic, but nonetheless much more communicative works like, let’s say Casey O’Callaghan’s “Sounds” or Alfred S. Bregman’s “Auditory Scene Analysis”, it leaves a cloud of erratic word-juggling while the latter reward the reader with fruitful insights into perception and the nature of sound.

In a post on the Wired science blog Brandom Keim writes about efforts of biologists to monitor habitats with arrays of microphones spread through the ecosystem in order to analyze the balance of species and their relationships. Bioacousticians already study the sound of individual animals but research in a more holistic manner is rarely conducted. I had to think of the hydrophone array of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut that is transmitting live from the ocean below the antarctic ice and can be listened to here. I could imagine this would be nice for other ecosystems as well, but that is pie in the sky, I suppose.