Home > Articles > audible silence – a personal reflection on listening to sounds outside of our attention

Inspired by the 2021 theme for World Listening Day: The Unquiet Earth, we are fortunate to feature this reflective essay by multi-talented artist Jez riley French. It is a generous and beautifully written contribution with embedded audio. We hope you find it inspiring and challenging; an offering to evoke respectful understanding of sound’s complex nature and elusive meanings. Based on four decades of experiences through childhood to fatherhood, Jez’s reflections align closely and resonate deeply with the mission of the World Listening Project. Please enjoy!
—Eric Leonardson, President & Board Chair, World Listening Project  

By Jez riley French

nb. you will nead headphones or conventional speakers to hear some of the sounds given as examples here. Computer speakers won’t register a large percentage of the frequencies.

…hearing the timbers of home creak at night. A low tone, humming from my bedroom wall; the washing line, moored to the outside wall feet below the window.

house cooling

home warming again in the morning, further, quieter shifts.

 

I am in a dialogue with memory and the perception of sound, always towards a constantly obscuring reply. Piecing together trajectories. As a young child I remember hearing the timbers of our house creak at night and early in the morning; cooling down, warming again, combining with a very low volume, tonal, shifting hum coming from my bedroom wall; a painted white metal hook moored a washing line that stretched down the garden, resonating, if the line was tight, with the wind.

Home, and the women who created it, my mum, is where my interest in and personal connection to listening began, and, importantly for the context of this article, where I learnt to avoid the straight lines that are so often mapped out for us. It wasn’t only about sound; sound as in that which was available to my eager ears, filled as they were with music and the quietude that my mum always tried to ensure was available and valued. It was also about how we define, decide and filter experience, including of sound. I learnt as much about listening from the understanding my mum had for the value of the everyday things that might be overlooked as I did from sounds drifting in through my open bedroom window, mixing with my early attempts to soundtrack still photographs, or with the surface crackle, the surface hiss of vinyl and tape. I learnt as much by watching how conventions could trick their way through our defences, questions forming around the fabric of expectations and perceptions. I stumbled through learning, looking in, always it seemed from a slight distance somehow. When music first really grabbed my attention I dived in with an unquenchable thirst, combined with an innocence that read the energy of creativity as being a space for all questions, being a place of community. Forty plus years on I still have that thirst, though I admit that alongside the constant fascination with exploring sonic realms one can only do so in ways that (should) also bring into focus how readily we still cling to systems that construct borders, how the coded structures present in all areas of the arts, and wider society, seem too often to inevitably lead to exclusion and bias. 



On the verge of my teenage years the division between pre-existing definitions of music and sound blurred as I rejected straight lines, shied away from tropes and cliques, relying instead on an intuitive response. I played around the edges of conventional forms; pushed against, listened underneath, looked elsewhere whenever I sensed uniforms. I spent my early teens with guitars, effects, synths and tape, but my wide listening was granular. I become more and more interested in duration, scale and sounds that I could imagine but had no way to access at the time. I found more space in listening to sounds above, below and outside of our attention, and as an artist / musician these are areas that have fascinated me for several decades now. When I am asked how I discovered my interest in these resonant realms I have to reply, clumsily perhaps, that it was a natural consequence of questioning things I was not supposed to question. Questions that still often result in negative reactions. You cannot find the unmapped by following a clearly signposted path towards a pre-set destination. You can certainly observe that which is off the map whilst on such paths, but you have to be prepared to get lost, to question why we frame learning and the acquisition of position via well defined and formalised routes more than desire lines at least. Some will, without question, spend years learning microphone placement techniques. Others will look at a microphone and ask what happens if you do with it that for which it was not intended or designed. Both can be seen as valid of course, but, and this would take a much longer article to discuss in detail, I argue that the ‘rule book’ approach can carry with it a weight that nullifies the creative spark all too often when accompanied with other forms of conventionality. I say this as a male, being aware, from my teens, of the ways in which sound technologies have been colonised, and colonial, in ways that limit us all. They limit our access to knowledge, material and inspiration, and of course they have limited different communities in various ways. Right now, in 2021, we can at least say there has been progress, but as we think about listening to the planet we still do so, largely, in ways that objectify and attempt to define or own place.

The current expansion of interest in listening to sounds outside of those accessible to our naked ears, inevitably therefore has that same potential unless it is accompanied by a concerted, active focus on challenging and dismantling faulty borders, thinking about ones own complicity and, very importantly, remembering that as much as some of us might enjoy the study of sound, acoustic ecology or sound art, those things are not the listening itself, and we must resist the drift towards an imposition of an elitist, privileged view of sound on the world, even if it has become, rapidly, the default position. Everyone listens, every living thing listens (sensed or auditory) but; “How bizarre that we think of ourselves as aware of racial, gender or physical / neuro ability based biases, oppose them, speak out against them and yet are comfortable with a very small handful of disproportionally white, & still largely male, academics defining, framing and taking ownership of sound and listening for the world”.

(from the talk ‘Audible Silence: Listening to the Unheard’, early 2000’s)

Theoretical listening should sit, equally, alongside the personal or the intuitive without resorting to classifying such connections as uncritical or of less value, less right to be included in conferences, books, zoom events. When it comes to located sound (field recording for example) documentation is never impersonal, never non-human. Every choice, every technology, every decision in the use of the technology and material carries with it our fingerprints. An interest in stepping back should also incorporate the realisation that our inability to do so is dependant on how capable one is of thinking through the process at microscopic levels but in ways that always apply the same enquiry to everything that interacts with these processes. We are complicit and hierarchies that favour one approach over another have nothing to do with the listening and everything to do with our one species and its inability to put aside a dependance on power and position.

 
One can arrive at a question or an insight from multiple angles, and this is also how the unquiet has been revealed; not through pursuing cold disconnection from the materiality of sound, but through experimentation, chance and deeply engaged passionate links between individuals, communities and species. One cannot become an expert in listening to the sounds we are discussing here, because to believe that of oneself immediately limits the openness to them. One would become merely an expert in re-contextualising the listening of others, and unfortunately that is still a route to positions of influence. I would go further and say there is no such thing as an expert on located sounds at all, because all we are doing is listening to traces, filtered through the experience and technologies of one species whilst guessing and translating that of others and the environment in general. I am not an expert even in listening with and to myself because, simply, the exploration continues. That is the point of it. That is listening; an infinite, momentary reassembly of myriad variations and interactions. How can we listen to the unquiet earth if we can’t even hear the noise of our own impositions? 



Questions, questions…but of course alongside them is the fascination, the pleasure and, if one is lucky, the sharing of listening in our reaching for community. With this in mind I will speak a little about some parts of my own journey with these forms of listening;



My first album, 4 or 5 self copied cassettes, I recorded whilst still at school. It featured one side of feedback (created with a guitar and clear input loops) and the other was a tape piece created by eroding sections of the same tape itself, allowing reversed fragments of previously recorded material to emerge through the hiss and crackle. These early works weren’t influenced by music or sound theory, but rather stemmed from the quirks of seventies home cassette recorders; the dash across the room when listening and realising that the tape was being chewed, the music wobbling very slightly at first, then becoming slurred and fragmented. Perhaps the normal reaction was to throw the tape away, especially as usually trying to recover it from the player led to it snapping, but I remember trying to flatten it as much as possible, re-spooling it and recording over it to hear how it changed the sound in ways I could not control. The ridges and creases of the tape, I decided, became part of the work; the unquiet made audible. 



In amongst, alongside the other elements of life I spent time listening and recording cassettes, then mini-discs, featuring the sounds of empty and occupied buildings, surfaces, salt, empty tape, feedback loops, situations and experiences.

I built contact microphones as a teenager, to listen to the sounds of surfaces, and hydrophones to record sounds being filtered through liquids. I collected books, cheap ones from second hand shops that were gathering dust, and one of these was ‘Sounds of North Atlantic Fish’ by Dr. Marie Poland Fish, describing the sounds in a way that resembled concrete poetry at times. I’d heard a few albums of whale sounds by then, including the well known ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ (still often credited to only Roger Payne and Frank Watlington, despite some of the recordings and much of the research having been by Katherine Payne

but I still remember one of the first times I placed a hydrophone in a river and heard, by chance, the sound of a submerged scaffolding pipe being slowly filled with the tide, and in a local pond and heard pond skaters buzzing. I still have that recording, somewhere, in the boxes of tapes still to be digitally archived.

I took some time away from releasing work during the nineties, as I ran a music distribution company, and by the time I reached Volume 20 of the pieces I felt ‘worked’ (whatever that means. I’m still not sure and I am certain it can’t be put into words), around 2001 or so, I decided that sharing them via tape swapping and between friends was something I wanted to expand into releasing a cd to the wider community of listeners. It contained contact microphone recordings of bridges and wind turbines as well as hydrophone recordings of canals and submerged pipes, made during the previous five or six years. It also included a track of the quiet sounds of an apartment, sounds on the edge of audibility. They came from a personal enjoyment of listening at micro-levels to such sounds and an interest in how doing so could affect ones experience of place. To reference my earlier comments about maps, I have always enjoyed visiting a new place and not using them. One might miss some of the tourist traps. One might even spend some time feeling lost, but the unexpected discoveries, the experience of realities that aren’t filtered or carefully presented form memories that matter.

 

Volume 21 followed shortly after, with more recordings using contact microphones and hydrophones; of tables, jetties, heating pipes, rivers and fences recorded whilst out exploring with my daughter,  the artist Pheobe riley Law

During this time I was also starting work on a series of pieces under the title audible silence, focusing on the resonances of surfaces and spaces in buildings of some personal importance or connection.

I’ve had a fascination for listening to architecture since childhood and developing highly sensitive contact microphones (and adapted geophones) has allowed me to connect with structures in ways that continue to reveal new possibilities and ideas. I don’t ascribe to the separation of species and dominance inherent in the word nature so for me a recording of a table in Kettle’s Yard is as much about nature as one of any element in any environment that has been shaped by other living entities. What we can perhaps most draw from such listening isn’t constrained by the functionality of the technology used, or the acquisition of a sound as an object itself, but in how durational listening can allow place to impose itself on us, outside of the limits of our normal attention.

We can use these forms of listening not only to question our interactions with other species but also how we define, control and order our sense of creativity. Is Sound Art placed within a built structure any more worthy of position and praise than that of the space itself? I am not talking here about the role of the architect, especially given that most rarely have a practice that involved the role of listening. but rather how spaces have their own mutable sonic life.

…and we can go even deeper, below the surfaces, into the realm of infrasound; frequencies normally below our range of hearing. We humans have a limit around 19-20hz, but using specially adapted geophones and self-designed software we can listen to some of the frequencies below that, frequencies that normally we would only be able to sense as physical forces. Indeed we are vibrated by infrasound all the time, modulating every molecule of our being, every atom on the planet;

Infrasound has an odd gentleness to it, especially when one is recording the subtle shifts of, hopefully, non-dramatic planetary action. Of course however, there is nothing really subtle about the massive forces created by the earth spinning on its axis, that of tectonic plates moving or geothermal activity forcing its way through the tundra in Iceland, for example.

My path into located sound was via music, and this form of creative expression is still something I am drawn to, often in terms of exploring the use of duration and of how we listen as individuals and audiences. I use multiple contact microphones and geophones in the salts project for example; recording the buildings themselves filtering the sound of ensembles performing within them.

I think about how we sit, in neat rows, facing the performers even when listening to supposedly experimental music. How formal we are still. How fascinating it is to sit in the roof space, basement or even outside a building, with its windows open, and experience the collaboration between performed sound, structural space and locale. 

As most readers will know at the opposite end of the scale from infrasound there is ultrasound, sound above our range of hearing. This is the sensory realm of insects, bats, birds and myriad other species. We humans are quite astonishingly limited in our hearing abilities compared with how other species experience sound vibrations. We can fight disease, invent technologies to cope with physical limitations but if any one other species evolves a similar form of reasoning as ours it is highly likely that we would soon be forced to accept how insignificant we really are. I often say, as a point of humour, when giving talks that cows could sneak up on us and take over; them being a fairly large, common and loud animal in their movements and us being quite staggeringly unaware of our surroundings sonically. It might be a humorous image but I maintain it is a possibility.

Ultrasonics we are probably most familiar with in terms of the echolocation of bats and the static-chorus of cicadas.

Combined with devices that allow us to listen to electromagentic frequencies, we can also begin to grasp how much sound pollution we create, and perhaps question the effects on the health of all species. Certainly these complex sonic nets have been proven to affect bird populations in cities, and their ability to navigate more widely.

We can also use technology to listen to lightning strikes in the ionosphere, the influence of the magnetic field and even the radio fallout of starts exploding. Sound that travel around the universe indefinitely, as far as our scientific translations surmise. These can be accessed using VLF receivers, and of course, it is possible to also see how such inventions are often used as a focus of both exploration and a rather rigid, and still often rather gendered, view of the science of sound.

I remember during the nineties, when I was working in the music industry, I was asked by Music Week (an industry publication) what I thought the next big thing in music culture would be. My reply was listening. I think we’re getting there, but, as ever, the nearer we get to understanding the importance of the listening, the more obvious it becomes that we’re actually right back at the start; needing to question what we even mean by listening when we do so from a position of perceived dominance on the planet.

I am, however, still talking, in terms of the physical act, about the ear-based path. Listening is more than that, and available to all no matter whether they use their ears or are unable to for whatever reason. Sound interacts with us as a sensuality. An array of resonant vibrations and shifts. We sense sound, we are vibrated at cellular level by the infrasound created by the earth spinning. Our eyeballs shudder, our skin flexes, and our imaginations run wild with thoughts begun in our fully aware state of being. Which thoughts make it through to our ability to express them or to comprehend them is another matter and perhaps the next border of sound is to consider that our limitations don’t only frame our objectification of ‘nature’ but also account for our inability to be aware of the majority of sound that our bodies sense in other ways.

So what do we mean by listening? Often we are referring to a process that goes beyond the basic sense of hearing itself; what arrives within our attention and understanding because of the hearing. However there are obvious issues there. We all have a different experience of and ability to hear via the ears, yet we all listen, all sense sound vibrations. The musician, writer and educator, Evelyn Glennie, who is profoundly deaf, states;

“My whole body is like a huge ear in that I can use it to register rhythms, textures, dynamics and so on. Pitches can be registered by feeling them if they are played in isolation. The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest. I listen (feel) the beginning, middle and end of sounds rather than only the initial impact”

Secondly, and this forms a central aspect of my own work and interest in located sound, we apply filters. These phenomenological, psychological filters sit across our ability to listen, to give attention and to understand the power of all elements in every environment. We filter out frequencies in our daily lives that allow us to live in crowded cities, to be less affected by the low frequency thrum of traffic, architecture and the accumulated acoustic shifts created by population movements through spaces. We filter out high frequency sound also; coming from lighting and electrical goods in our houses and workplaces, and we filter to soften the sound of other species such as birds and insects who often exist in ultrasonic realities we have long since lost the ability to access even at the lowest level without technology. Importantly, I argue, we also apply the vast filters of perception in order to pacify this thing we call (invent) nature, situating it with ideas of the idyll and as a performative other; we expect nature to perform for us, to fit in around our understanding of it, to be defined by us even as we attempt to rebalance our relationship with it. As for the element of sound itself we mis-step whenever we, even with good intentions, claim to understand it. We have explained it scientifically and harness it for creative purposes, but we’re really tinkering at its edges and, importantly, it isn’t ours to claim definitive understanding of.

Our fascination with this thing we call nature is still too often focused on sounds that we find pleasing. Listening can break through those barriers, if we allow it. 

The sounds of plants are much more fascinating, and challenging to our perception of them, than we have yet to realise. As the technologies become more accessible we can, perhaps, learn to respect and represent creative ecologies with more equity, understanding that systems that thrive depend on roots and soil, not only the eye-catching foliage.

Our hearing has changed, some would say evolved. Ironically, in the context of World Listening Day and listening practices more generally, it has changed even more rapidly since the invention of recording and playback technologies and not always for the better. The use of compression and volume pressing our perception of ‘normal’ sound into a smaller frequency range, a reduced dynamic range. We are entertained, distracted by these narrow fields and perceive any other sound as noise or interference. We want sound to be comfortable, and yes, even fans of noise music want it to fit neatly into borders. Actual noise to an avid extreme noise aficionado would in fact be something like easy listening music; a confrontation to preferences pushing the listener outside of their comfort zone. Yet, we go on deciding what is sound, what is noise, what is ‘nature’. Can we take pleasure in the sounds of non-human centric environments? Of course, but my assertion is that it is our duty to question our objectification of place, and not merely be consumers, auditory colonisers.

I consider myself fortunate that I grew into my teens at a time of cultural change, through the new wave and post punk years, coinciding with the continued increase in visibility and activism around feminism, racial equality and LGBTQ rights. The energy was important; the sense of possibilities, of permission to explore and question. My first experiences with what I later learned was called ‘field recording’ weren’t conventional, by chance. They happened at a time when I was also actively rejecting certain aspects of stereotypical, mainstream male culture. I was not interested in reading books, written almost exclusively by white men, on music and sound that simply repeated so called established ways of doing things. I questioned everything. I made ‘mistakes’ that meant I listened to the sound of incorrectly connected microphones buzzing and spitting instead of what they were being aimed at. I listened to feedback loops because I had mistakenly connected an output to an input on a guitar effects board. I listened to the sound of surfaces resonating because I placed a microphone down for a minute and, importantly, as with this entire process of learning to listen, I didn’t think of any of it as right or wrong. If I was told what I should be doing or who I should be listening to or reading about, my instinctive response was to think about why those names were being viewed in that way. Was it about listening or were there aspects of distortion involved in their apparent importance? To some this did, and might now, seem needlessly contrary, perhaps it was, but whenever I am asked about how I formed a connection to expansive ways of listening I know that this questioning was central, is central to the process. Most of the works for which I am known, such as Audible Silence, Dissolves, Teleferica, Salts, and the use of certain techniques / technologies; durational listening, listening scores, contact microphones, hydrophones, geophones, ultrasonic listening etc etc, come via doing things in opposition to perceived conventions. Of course some have become an important part of working with located sound now. In the last decade or so in particular, partly through my own work to expand their use, including the microphones I build and supply to other listeners, the growth of their use has been rapid and that is, largely, positive, but we have to keep questioning, keep being aware that, as with all technologies, all approaches, we can slip into objectification easily.

I take the view that having a deep interaction with any field should mean there are lulls, periods where the questioning has more impact and the intuitive processes need to re-emerge. For me the longest lasting element of this has been since my daughter was born. She teaches me, every day, that listening is not an answer but a constant question. Newborns hear frequencies that as we grow we start to lose. Children listen, responding intuitively to sound. Adults often spend their lives trying to categorise, define and own sound. I am doing that even as I try to argue against such things here; I am trying to establish a thought-line, a theory of non-theory. To some extent we all need to do that in order to make sense of our surroundings and to form ways to live amongst our loud situations but in terms of sound and the environment, the loss of that recognition of the intuitive response has significant implications. Has sound ecology moved us forward? Is it a useful tool in our attempts to re-balance our relationship with the planet? On one level, yes it is, but at the core is the idea that these process are about our species and how it understands and tries to stay in control of environments and other species. We are not listening to the planet, we are translating it through our perception and technologies. We are not saving the planet, we are saving our place and position on it and that is a very different thing – perhaps that is all any species can or would do, but for all of our supposed intelligence how easily we follow faulty borders, straight lines.

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