Freya Johnson Ross ‘Are you an expert in everything?’

This text is about the listening that can get lost in the translation of recorded sound to text in the process of knowledge or cultural production. It considers this as a way of highlighting ways we do or don’t listen, and the politics of listening as viewed through the construction and use of sound archives. The material has its origins in research on and within the British Library sound archive, as well as new interviews.


Donald, Jack and the hens.

Insect sounds of the ‘70s.

Poplar corpse atmosphere – the names!                     [oh hang on it’s copse]


18.15 plane goes over – and talking about stereotyped views of what African music was

at the beginning of golden slippers – a woman – being the one apologising I think like oh I made a mistake if that happens again just keep going…
Interesting re this dynamic in context of music making. But also

discussion of oh

ms Oh you can hear the pencil sound!

enmity between media and academia* cheap/careless precious/inaccessible problematic issues between the worlds, discussing her spanning

[interviewer’s phone goes off]


Navigating through we begin at first with names and categories, indicative of people, places or things we might want to listen to. The context and processes through which the recordings have been made and collected are not immediately visible though. It is possible to scan through and search without other sensory cues snagging or shaping your attention.

How do the ethics of use and reuse differ between disciplines; is interpolation more sound than remaking with words? Spending time listening in an archive as a researcher, or a musician, or an artist, or a whatever, invites reflection on whether the making of an archive disrupts processes of transmission. The formation of a repository crystalises the political dynamics of documentation, access, and use which might have been more easily ignored. Listening to musicians talk about listening as learning is very different to listening to intimate reflections on relationships, or views on nationality you find offensive. The shifting context of archived sounds presses the need for new ways of addressing this.


Who is the listener to the archive?

a focus on talking not listening – the listening is silent

that means that I end up talking in a sort of vacuum – or that’s what it feels like to me [yess it is exactly like that]

10 I’m thinking ‘i’m talking, who is this for, someone in the future? Well I don’t know what to say to them, I want to say it to you!’


How much do we notice the sensation of being listened to in different ways? How does it feel to be recorded – perhaps validated or preserved? Does the recording of the first listening (yet it might not be) have the potential to leave an abiding sensation of being listened to? Discussing this with archive-es suggests this is less usual than you might think – it’s hard to know who might be listening in a meaningful way.

Methodologies for listening have been designed to try to address power dynamics in different ways. When these are embodied face to face in recorder and recordee it can result in power struggles – sometimes amusing and sometimes tough, leaving an imprint on what we can hear afterwards, but often not without interpretation. It’s rare to hear, it could be good to hear, but it might be less clear without the personal memory of inhabiting one of those positions.


and I began promoting what I later discovered is called a listening therapy. People who came w mags about psychiatry up their jumper – I said that won’t be any good – what you have to do is listen.

‘Listening others to speech is thus not a strategic or tactical practice aimed at achieving a predetermined goal, because that kind of instrumentality violates the alterity of others as well as the demands of present moment.’ (Lipari 2013)

2.25 well I think its…tc tc tc aren’t all relationships complicated

[weird bit where the producer asks, I think only the young man if his phone is off]

. Long silence around 8.
9.20 that’s my interpretation obviously

[interviewer’s phone goes off]


When do we just listen, and is that possible? Interpersonal listening can be a balm, including when it is uneven. This does not need action on the part of the listener in order to have meaning, and also has the possibility of inherent worth. A sound archive offers an opportunity where the relational nature of listening is mediated in a specific way, and we can choose to explore this plane consciously and listen without intent. What are the problems with a valorisation or an unhitching from action though?

The excavation of politics which can be made possible. Different schematizations of listening have represented the move from hearing through understanding and interpretation, and dimensions of public and private. The feminist notion of the personal as political, specifically embodied in the practice of consciousness raising, arguably presents an account that recognises and connects the political dimensions of listening focused on process as well as of listening focused on outcome.


contempt discourse      ha

the younger man seems too keen to speak – too many yeahs and keen to talk about himself

‘I’d like to hear more about your experience but first of all let me tell you a bit more about my father’ [I don’t know if I can bear any more]

the birds are singing too loudly. Difficulty in hearing – as ever – makes you listen so closely watching someone fall 50ft. [I feel a physical shiver]

‘it’s nice to hear it’s good to hear’


As we attune ourselves to an environment or a situation we connect to our learned sense of place, and with it how much we are listened to. Simultaneously ingrained by unequal structures yet with points of malleability.

The ongoing centrality and invocation of listening as political practice – requires attention to the subtlety of the quality this takes on. How should we evaluate this practice, what are the valuable or significant dimensions – on both an individual and a collective level?


‘this tube was designed to contain’

Lots of long pauses for breath

[I feel hard and pressed re mortality listening to him – so frightening to be like this/or treated as though you were] 40 talks about watching someone fall 50ft. [I feel a physical shiver listening]

0.15 can you just go back slightly, the nuns sitting on either side,

this interplaying – literally listening, listening, and then playing together is important. I also keep thinking about the Dean – the video, the conversation, the reading, the reenactment etc.

14.40 she’s always the arranger of everything


Limbs, lobes to limbic. Arrangements are retelling, in this case via the shifting of mediums. In the shift to text we can move further from the processual and physical dimensions of listening, but with the opportunity to consciously look back on these and reflect on what we want to keep. In the text we can consider how the emotional connection might be constructed.

Without invoking a hierarchy, in arrangement are we able to see the productive meeting of artifice and authenticity? The acknowledgement or even exposure of this process opens space in any discipline to reflect on its epistemological underpinnings.



Selected Bibliography

Abu Hamdan, L. (2014) Contract: Forensic Listening and the Reorganisation of the Speaking Subject. Cesura//Acceso, 1, 200–225.

Lacey, K. (2013) Listening publics: the politics and experience of listening in the media age. Polity, Cambridge.

Lipari, L. (2013) Listening Others in A. Carlyle and C. Lane (eds) On Listening, pp:156-159. Uniformbooks, Axminster.

Lipari, L. (2014) Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania.

Lynn Stoever, J. (2016) The Sonic Color Line: Race and Listening in America. New York University Press, New York.

Oliveros, P. (2010) Sounding the Margins: Collected Writings 1992-2009. Deep Listening Publications, Kingston, NY.

Tourle, P. (2016) White noise: sound, materiality and the crowd in contemporary heritage practice. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 1–14.

Withers, D. (2014) Re-enacting process: temporality, historicity and the Women’s Liberation Music Archive. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 20:7-8, 688-701.

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