Setting Out (Looking at Listening)
Where do I see people listening?
What is it I should be looking for?
An ear propped somehow against the air?
Is it anything as overt as a cupped hand placed beside the head? As the hair momentarily pulled back?
When do I see people listening? And at what times of day should I be looking?
Of course, there is always hearing.
What does listening really look like?
Sound for a Literacy Practice
Sound is so much an expression of situation, a time and place, personality and environment. Sound exists as information, it exists as music and noise, and it exists as an affirmation that there is life— when its vibrations move between us as shouts, cries, laughter or speech, and fulfill a communication.
Listening, then, becomes a type of ‘reading’ as we learn to make meaning and take direction from those signals, notes and utterances passing into our ears. Perhaps even when actually reading, we are engaged in a sort of listening: listening to those voices in the head reproducing the arrangements of letters and patterns of words that we internally ‘pronounce’.
Demanding listening will only encourage a contempt for it. Noise does this. So can a schoolteacher’s command or any voice demanding that we ‘pay attention’. Is demanding listening as unreasonable as demanding that a student who has not learned to read go ahead and read the passage anyway?
So can listening be taught? Or can a kind of listening, at least, be encouraged? Stimulated?
Think about this idea of listening as a vital component of literacy, that is, as a skill that must be practiced in a variety of contexts as it is being learned.
One way to develop as a listener is to document the sounds one hears in certain places and in certain situations, at certain times. Call this an ‘audio journal’ or maybe even better, an otic diary. ‘Otic’ meaning “of or having to do with the ear”; maybe just unusual enough a word to encourage innovation, some playfulness, and a different kind of self-awareness between everyday life and the pages of a journal. Such a diary might begin with the vocabulary one associates with sound and listening:
waterfall thunderstorm racket hubbub drum hiss roar whoop
bang beep pitter-patter whisper echo trumpet phonological splash peace and quiet walkie-talkie whack thump piano stutter motorway earache euphony crescendo screech cacophony radio rip crumple smash burp sough tinkle purr thrum clang om ah re mi
ppffffffft aarrggh huh ssshhhh mmmnn
• List the sounds you hear on your way to school or work.
• Find the sound of something you cannot see. What do you imagine it is? Describe it with words, a diagram, or a picture.
• How could you use letters of the alphabet to spell the sound of the wind?
• What is the first sound you hear when you wake up?
“From my bed this morning I heard a great boom resonating in the lightwell of our apartment block. It startled me—even the window pane made an eerie flexing sound–yet I realized how it could likely be the vibration from some banal noise, such as a backfiring taxi, merely dramatized by the acoustics of the building. “
Here are some excerpts from the painter Charles Burchfield’s journals:
“The foggy light comes over the ding-donging house-tops of the dirty town—a carpenter’s hammer resounds; a rain-spout clatters, a train-bell clangs; a soft sigh comes out of the south and there is a sticky dripping sound from the thawing earth—is it the frost escaping?”
“The absolute silence was impressive—it was like a vast tomb—even the calls of the chickadees and kinglets– the falling of the snow from dead oak-leaves only emphasized the silence.”
“Here in the church the sounds from the outdoors that leaked in only made the morning more vivid thru the way it “stung” my imagination—one window to the north was half open, thru which I could see (and hear) the wind-“shattered” mass of maple leaves…”
“Walking under the leaves I felt as if the color made sound.”
Find a place along the path to sit down. Close your eyes (use a blindfold even) and draw as you listen. Try this in a car, a bus, a train…on a park bench….in your lap.
Find somewhere in the room where you can be comfortable and I will play you some sounds. Make sure you are more than an arm’s length from each other so that you have your own space. While you are listening, I may come around and make some small noises beside your ears. After a while you can draw or write about what you imagine you are hearing…
Can you hear a difference between the sound a pencil makes on a piece of paper and the sound a wet brush makes?
How many different sounds can you make with your piece of paper?
(Try tearing, cutting, crumpling, rustling, flapping, balling up and tossing. Roll it into a cone and make an announcement through one end. Whistle along its edge and then drag it along a surface in the room.)
I heard a rainbow singing.
What made you hear a rainbow?
Something was making the sound of crackling light!
What parts of your body belong, at times, to your ear?
The eyelids? Fingers? Solar Plexus? Mouth? Hair?
From listening, we move off in different directions. Like one who was so interested in what he was reading that he put the book down, looked up and walked away–perhaps even left the house. Listening can be like this. A listener may be led to walking, drawing, writing, singing, or maybe sleeping?
How can you change the sound of the wind by moving your body? In what ways can you change the shape of your ear to change the shape of what you are hearing? Try speaking while pulling the flesh of your ear forward.
My grandfather, who worked in radio, taught me this as a way for hearing my own voice more truly as it would sound ‘on air’. The cavities of my chest and head resonate my voice and make it sound deeper to me than it is to my listeners. By pulling the ears forward some of these lower ‘corporeal’ frequencies are removed from my hearing.
Put your ear to the wind and listen for direction. What happens as you turn your head? How do you shape your hands to shelter your ears from the wind? Where can you go to find shelter from the blustering noise?
“In the narrow corridor between the busy streets someone has stopped to have a phone conversation. This voice is amplified by a reflection off paving stones and high walls of the buildings on either side. Just past this talker, the corridor makes a 120-degree turn. Mostly all of the doors and gates at the backs of shops are at least partially open–fans, refrigerators, generators, ducts, pipes…pulses from concealed tasks and objects, murmurs from storage rooms. Further on, a group of well-dressed men and women seem to make important plans. There is not much room to pass. When I merge into a busy street again it is like a switch has been thrown. These sudden changes in the volume of the environment punctuate my day. I quickly find the staircase down. Already, at the first landing, my sternum rumbles. “
Susceptible to sound at its fundamental level of vibration, the body, at times, becomes ‘otic’.
I am reminded again of something my grandfather once described to me. As a photo-journalist, he had attended a symphony concert in the company of Helen Keller. Sitting behind her, my grandfather noticed how her hands moved throughout the entire concert, keeping perfect time with the music on the armrests of her chair.