Shh. Listen.

by Linda Carroli
July 2011

The world hums and pulses with sound and hymn. An intrepid network of field recordists draws out these rhythms, recognising that these sensescapes have something to tell us if only we’d listen. Renowned cultural planner Charles Landry has noted that urbanisation results in a proliferation of sound and often the pleasurable sounds – like music, talking and laughing – are drowned out by noise. As individuals move around, plugged into their portable music devices, they are selectively removed from the auditory envelop of the city.

The World Listening Project (WLP) is an American based organisation devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording. WLP reminds us that “some of our most profound experiences in life are not seen; they are heard”. Our own experiences of place are often imperceptibly shaped by sound or noise. A search for a still place to read, retreat from the din of traffic, immersion in the beat of a dance party, honing our attention to catch the tap of rain on a tin roof, drumming of fingers on a table or the acute realisation of calm quietude while standing on central western Queensland’s grassy plains. We seek sound, we make sound, we recoil from sound and we feel sound.

WLP is associated with Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, which explores the role of sound in natural and cultural environments. Acoustic ecology has clearly grown into a movement that is attentive to the need for restoring our connection to auditory experiences in place and space and there is a concerted effort to promote public dialogue about the identification, preservation and restoration of natural and cultural sound environments. It’s interesting to imagine that societies can lay claim to an acoustic heritage or that noise has detrimental impacts on natural ecosystems; and that sound is an integral part of spatial history. In Brisbane, artists Gavin Sade and Priscilla Bracks recently engaged these ideas in their exhibition, Lumia, held at the State Library of Queensland. Through interactive media, sculpture and installation, they considered a range of ecological issues including the experiences of crickets and lyrebirds as species that are acoustically sensitive and impacted by the changing machinic and technological environment wrought by humans.

Recognising that people often do not consciously or actively engage with their acoustic environments – either as producers or listeners of sound – the WLP has initiated World Listening Day (WLD). This year’s event is the second WLD and will take place on 18 July with a program of events across the globe including Australia and New Zealand. WLD was instigated by Chicago-based WLP co-founder Dan Godston who said that last year’s event saw several hundred participants on six continents. He anticipates this year will be bigger.

“I find it exciting to be in communication with so many interesting people who are jazzed about sound ecology, soundscapes, and other related topics,” he said.

“Participants have so many different backgrounds. There are a lot of musicians, sound artists, composers, bioacousticians who are involved, but there are also other people in a lot of other fields who are participating - urban planners, architects, educators, activists.

“Hopefully anyone who has any interest in our environment and the future of our planet, as well as how humans can cohabitate with other animals and plants could find interest in WLD.”

One of the participants is Brisbane-based sound artist Lawrence English whose project Site Listening will be featured in this year’s Queensland Music Festival. The project is comprised of site recordings from across Queensland and extends an invitation to site-listening, as distinct from sight-seeing. Rather than a gaze drifting across or grazing on the landscape, site listening is a call for attentive listening, a quietening of inner cacophony to experience immersion in and awareness of a sonorous experience. Listening takes time and we need “to allow the space to speak”, says English. While it requires practice and readiness, the result is a heightened sense of self in place. As English notes, there is an absence of auditory history in the recollection of our cultural past. This absence “is increasingly the focus of study and conversation – specifically about the role sound may play in the comprehensions we build and maintain of the world around us”.

Guided by residents in diverse and widespread localities, English revealed fresh sonic perspectives on the everyday sounds of Queensland. As part of WLD, Queensland’s residents and visitors are encouraged to experience the sites dotted across the state including Cape Hillsborough, Brisbane Forest Park and Mt Hypipamee. The sites are mapped on the project website along with GPS coordinates and recommended listening times.

World Listening Day is encouraging involvement through Sound Walks, in which participants listen discriminately in place as well as make critical judgments about the sounds heard and their contribution to the balance or imbalance of the sonic environment. In Perth, artist Perdita Phillips, who also participated in the 2010 event, will be organising Sound Walks at North Lake and Central Perth, with details yet to be confirmed.

“With regards to WLD last year, we walked from the 1pm time cannon on Arthur Head above Bather's Beach down High Street through Fremantle,” Phillips said.

“Walking with your ears open is a very great pleasure as it lays out the patterns of the terrain in new and unexpected combinations - and with new landscapes comes the possibility of change.”

Phillips’ work is significantly engaged with underlying themes of ecological processes and a commitment to human resensitisation to the physical environment. Walking is an important “process and material” in Phillips’ work and she describes sound walks as extending “the senses, combining real and imagined terrains and generating sonic/spatial dissonances pointing us towards broader contemporary tensions of wonder and irrationality, sustainability and individuality, cosmopolitanism and belonging and resilience and change.” In other words, these simple, open and mindful forays might lead to alternative ways of imagining and shaping the world.

There is also a possibility that Melbourne-based Australia Hears will be organising a Sound Walk with their client group, raising awareness of a misunderstood spatial and embodied relationship between people who are hearing impaired and their auditory environments. Sound is as much about memory, reverberation, distortion, perception and trace as it is about physiology. Also in Brisbane, Consultant, Cultural Planner and Curator John Armstrong and I, under the umbrella of the Placing Project, have designed an 8km walk through the changing landscape of our outer northern suburb – transiting from highway through residential streets and through urban forest. In particular, we hope to explore how sound influences our sense of place and community. After the event, the sound walkers will be able to post their audio recordings to Radio Aporee which is creating a sonic snapshot or soundmap of WLD. Radio Aporee will also provide a broadcast of the 2010 recordings on their streaming website. Later in the month, on 30 July, the Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology, is collaborating with Melbourne Open House to guide a ‘Soundwalk of Your City and its Buildings’.

As English notes, “human ears are remarkable filters and it pays to be aware of what we subconsciously and consciously choose to block-out”. Attentive listening is intended to engage cognition by peeling away the filters so to enable focus on more subtle sounds and fully experience our environments. New technologies enable collective record keeping, swapping and sharing as participants post their sound recordings to social maps and other social networks. Such acts address that concern of the absence of a historical record, sharing movements and moments from the pulse of the world. 

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