Essay by Miriam Rasch (Dutch)
Pictures by Mascha Zefanja van Kleef
Listening – whether you do it with your ears or with your whole body – is at once super-accessible and very hard. Sensitivity to sound develops already in your mother’s womb. And yet good listening doesn’t come naturally.
Pauline Oliveros relates in Quantum Listening how she taught herself at a young age to constantly direct her attention back to listening: what do you hear now? and now? and now again, fifteen minutes later? There are so many unsuspected sounds. Listen to your own listening and suddenly you hear all sorts of things that previously went unnoticed. A conversation on the train, the carillon at the train station, the roar of cars and hum of air conditioners, the tinkling of children on their way to the next adventure, silence. The unheard makes itself heard.
‘Emphasize the unheard’ is the subtitle of the symposium held at Het Concreet on this cold, gray April day. It holds a paradox. Once the unheard is made audible, in a composition or a meditation, can you still call the sounds unheard? Can you always listen to the unheard or are some sounds inaudible by definition? When a sound dies away, does it retreat into the realm of the unheard? I imagine a kind of expanse full of sleeping sounds, which sometimes make themselves heard for a moment before returning to quietness.
In the studio, we listen to Emo5, a composition that resident Huba de Graaff created in 1985, with sounds recorded in Paris. The piece sat on the shelf for almost forty years, and now it’s made heard again for the first time in the original mix: the street sounds surround us quadraphonically from four angles. Huba later explains how she uses the unheard in her work. She experiments with sounds and recordings, but over time has also begun to work with groups who are not naturally listened to. But above all, she says, a composer is in search of that which she wants to hear. If needs be, she will make the necessary sounds herself. The singing of a blackbird meets the metallic sound of a falling bicycle, and from that combination the sound artist’s imagination creates something new. It is the unheard as the yet-to-be-made-audible.
We sometimes have to let go of searching in order to allow the unheard to make itself heard. We go outside and stand along the canal to listen to the environment, under the guidance of Sharon Stewart. First we open up the floodgates – global listening – then follow a single sound to the end – focal listening – then the floodgates open again, and so on. I notice how sound is very mobile, especially, whizzing from left to right, flying upward, or disappearing into the distance. Sounds swirl around us as we stand rooted like trees along the water’s edge.
Huba tells us how she used to whirl with her sounds past microphones to get a spatial recording analogically. Sometimes she wore a tin dress, producing its own composition of feedback off her body. The wind sounds that movement brings with it are added for free. They are found sounds, like an engine pulling up outside, the clicking of the recorder, the opening of the throat just before singing. Small gifts, if you know how to catch them.
Outside in the parking lot, we don’t whirl, but do an extreme slow walk that situates us firmly on the earth. It takes so much effort for me to move one foot as slowly as possible, transfer the weight forward and then take a step forward like a clumsy yet graceful walking bird, that I forget to listen. Or are my feet listening now, to the paving, the earth, and the worms down below? After all, listening isn’t confined to the domain of the ears.
During Huba’s performance with Mathijn and Mathijs, I discover another form of the unheard. We sit silently, scattered around the studio, the three of them begin, and the people around me close their eyes. A deep concentration falls upon the room. In and out of that concentration the sound emerges, imagined, found, heard. I watch the actions of the three musicians, see how that which I hear comes into being. Seeing is hearing, hearing is seeing. I decide to close my eyes as well, to follow the others in their meditative concentration. Immediately I am bombarded with images, an anxious mood sets my nerves on edge. Memories, associations, physical affects. I open my eyes again. What is happening at this same moment inside all those others listening so silently? What is their situatedness, what moods are they experiencing right now behind those closed eyes, unheard of?
A week or two after the symposium, I get caught up in a discussion about dimensions. We all know that we don’t hear the same as a dog or a bat, or a Martian, for that matter. Who knows how quantum particles listen to each other when they interact at great distances? Who says an alien must possess ears? We can allow unheard voices to speak up, open ourselves to background noise, listen with machines to birds and insects, to radio waves. But there are so many dimensions of sound that will forever remain unheard. Like the inner voice of the other person, the sound that plants make as they grow, the tectonics of the earth, the bang of a supernova. This is the unheard that is inaudible. But those sounds play a role in the composition of the universe, too.
Hearing the unheard can mean trying to make unheard sounds audible, but it can also refer to listening to listening itself. How do we make place in our listening for the unheard in all its forms? The domain of sound is so much larger than we can hear. Only when we realize this can we become good listeners, and maybe even allow new sounds to be born from the infinite dimension of the imagination.
Miriam Rasch is a philosopher and essayist whose publications include NRC and Revisor. She is an editorial board member and mentor at De Nieuwe Garde, a mentor-mentee program for essayists of which Domein voor Kunstkritiek is the instigator. Since 2020, Miriam has been research coordinator at the Willem de Koning Academy, previously working at the Institute of Network Cultures. For the Klank&Komma lab, she asks herself how to write about listening - and related topics such as sound, music, silence, the voice or the silence of the other - that also does justice to an ethics of listening?
Author picture by Annelie Bruijn
Studio Het Concreet
Ringbaan Oost 8.02
5013 CA Tilburg