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Brandon LaBelle: On listening

Key to the sound arts is an active consideration of listening as an experience that locates us in the world. The sound arts draw out listening to query how the ear conditions our perception and understanding of things. In doing so, it is my proposal that the sound arts ultimately highlight sound as a specific paradigm, and listening as a performative mechanism by which to reflect on the behaviors of audibility, and what it means to hear and to be heard.

What interests me is to engage the ear and to outline the complexities of audition with the ultimate aim of presenting a deeper backdrop to the sound arts, as a platform for and of listening. My text here then takes a step back, aiming for the practices of sound art in order to address their conceptual center.

From such inquiries, it is my intention to also give detail to an «acoustical paradigm» in which listening is an active coordinate, if not its main generative figure. It is my view that sound gives radical input into the production of relational exchanges that support contact with the vital energies always already animating the world. The circulation of sound dynamically puts us in touch with the material world precisely as vibrant and vibrating matter. I want to focus on the question of listening to explore such relational intensities and how it can be appreciated to unsettle singularity, as well as hinge together – subject and object, private and public, animal and human, life and ghosts, and to ask how such relationships contour the sound arts.

Self, environment

As a sensory experience, listening tunes us to the surrounding environment, giving focus to particular sounds, while also remaining susceptible to distraction and disjunction, by all that is exterior or adjacent to any single point of attention. Singularity in fact is at odds with sonority. In this regard, sound's inherent temporality and ephemerality radically conditions the ear by immersing us in intensities always already difficult to grasp and yet often immediate and direct. Such operations are necessarily spatial, and as Barry Truax highlights, act as dynamic means for orientation. Rather than sound registering a particular sound, Truax proposes instead to think of sound as «mediating, or creating relationships, between listener and environment.»[1] Listening does not so much discern, point from point, body from body, rather it registers all that surrounds us, creating links and connections between ourselves and the environment. The ear collects the passing of audible events in its folds to resonate with such multiplicity, orienting us precisely as one among many.

Jean-Luc Nancy deepens this perspective by underscoring listening as the very coming into being of the self. Listening, as Nancy states, «functions as a primary separation» where the resonance of sound, of the audible, forms the individual body as a relational interior. To listen is to hear oneself as a subject: in the midst of this «pure resonance», the body is brought into relation with itself, its surroundings, and in doing so, appears as a figure. To be a body for Nancy is already to resonate, to listen, to be hollowed out and brought into relief by the sonorities from an exterior.[2]

Here, we may explore a distinction between hearing and listening. Following Roland Barthes, hearing is understood as a «physiological operation» while listening is more «psychological»; hearing is a bodily function whereas listening is a decisive act – to listen is already to focus one's attention, to exert a particular effort.[3] I would further emphasize though how hearing and listening interweave, for surely while we listen we also hear, and while we hear we also listen. Audition, as I'd stress, is precisely an oscillation, tuning us to multiple narratives and with multiple focal points. To listen and to hear are moments of overlap, constituted by the foreground and the background together, by that which draws my attention forward as well as all that hovers outside, to the side of one's focus. In this regard, listening oscillates across such states of attentiveness, often functioning below the line of conscious attention, in a state of subliminality while linking to the animation of bodies and things around us.

Modalities of the ear

The oscillations between listening and hearing, thus, describe a movement between foreground and background, between an object of attention and its context, between one and many. Given that sound is a movement of air pressure, in a continual state of flux, listening must, in a way, negotiate the sheer intrusiveness of sound – its restless and itinerant behavior. If we were to listen fully, at all times, we would most likely find ourselves unable to do much else. In this regard, the ear is a natural filter, open at all times yet continually pushing back against sound, to defend the body against such oscillations and energies. Listening may register where we are, precisely by shifting focus, locating presence as a backdrop that comes forward at times, certainly, but which we might also force back or resist: we hear also so as not to listen. Listening, in this regard, is an act by giving attention to events and people around us, and by also spatializing ourselves, drawing us out and away from the greater field of sound.

Michel Chion describes such operations through a triad of listening modalities. As he outlines, the first modality is that of «causal listening» – a listening in order to gather information, to find the particular source; secondly, «semantic listening» – listening to decipher a code or language; and finally, «reduced listening» – listening to the sound itself, apart from its cause or meaning.[4] Developed within the field of musique concrète in the 1960s, Chion's outline lends to appreciating listening as an oscillation of attention, a negotiation that shifts from back to foreground, object to surrounding, and that moves in scale to register particular relational orientations, from source to its context. That is, a process of tuning and detuning.

In contrast to musique concrète's interest in reduced listening, to hear sound as an object beyond its particular contextual anchor, John Cage embraced listening as an experience of multiplicity fully wed to social life. His project throughout the 50s and 60s was developed around a vital appreciation for sound in itself, underscoring listening as a way of being in the world that also fully accepts all that happens. In other words, Cage underscored sound as a field of activity in support of indeterminate and chance-oriented becoming. Following Cage, we might add to Chion's triad a fourth modality, that of «maximized listening» – a listening to the sheer force of sound as interruption, interference, and differentiation, as a multiplying operation: a listening to everything and in everyway.

As Pauline Oliveros' work proposes, listening is a potential channel for communing with the entirety of presence that fills the earth and the sky. Her «deep listening» project underscores audition as a holistic coming together: «I am in my house now. Outside, sounds are attenuated by the insulation. I hear a dripping faucet and the ticking of my cuckoo clock. They combine and are joined by the refrigerator. The planes from Palomar airport dwindle in through the furnace openings.»[5]

Oliveros' sonic account of her environment attempts to notate the continual flow of sound events, catching the multiplicity of sounds as they envelope her in their stirring. In doing so, her diary also brings forward a particular tension between sound and seeing. Even as she attempts to notate all that she hears, the linearity of the text undercuts the full simultaneity of the audible. Her sentences place each event one after the other, giving narrative precisely through the sensible eye.

Marshall McLuhan set out to underscore such tensions in his Understanding Media (1962), by claiming that «Only the phonetic alphabet makes such a sharp division in experience, giving to its user an eye for an ear, and freeing him from the tribal trance of resonating word magic and the web of kinship.»[6] McLuhan's appreciation for «resonating word magic» also echoes Jean-Luc Nancy's engagement with sound as a primary force, over and above the linguistic, as the very backdrop to «becoming a subject».  Following McLuhan, listening is precisely a model for integration, an environmental «tribalization» of our global community contrasting sharply with the «literate man» conditioned by the predominance of the ocular and the readable, which for McLuhan diminishes the connective dynamics of being in the world. The eye, in other words, creates distance and separation, figuring objects, bodies, and spatialities within an analytical field of relations, while the ear brings things together. Listening registers the push and pull of energies, oscillations, pressures and their voicings. While the eye may assess the surroundings, pinpointing things in the distance, and examining through an ocular perspective the world around, listening is less discerning. It deals with all that happens, whether in front or behind, under or above, at all times.

Desire, trauma

As Walter Ong proposes, these primary, phenomenological dynamics of listening carry a significant trace of the other: «the sound world» is «the I-thou world where, through the mysterious interior resonance which sound best of all provides, persons commune with persons, reaching one another’s interiors…»[7] Following Ong, sound brings forward the interiority of persons, as an animating force lined with the deep materiality of the inside: each body, object or thing from which a particular sound arises is literally «exposed», brought into the open, made exterior and available to the other. To listen then, is to receive into oneself the interiority of another – sound comes inside, through the ear as well as the skin; it touches us, to send vibrations inward. Thus sound, as Ong evokes, is the very means for communing beyond the surface of the look, the gaze, and the face, beyond the dynamics of what it means to be seen. The listening self is, therefore, one immersed in the ebb and flow of so many interiorities. As Steven Connor further states, «The self defined in terms of hearing rather than sight is a self imaged not as a point, but as a membrane; not as a picture, but as a channel through which voices, noises, and musics travel.»[8]

We are immersed in sound, as waves and oscillations of energy that envelope us, to touch a deep nerve. Sound, therefore, carries deep emotional force, often linking us to more ephemeral, ambient and embodied experiences. The self defined by listening is prone to a particular vulnerability, where the uncontrollable force of sound may invade the body, to haunt our environment with ambiguous and uncertain stirrings. Sound is, therefore, often a ghostly matter, linking to the spirit-world, to the dead, and other seemingly inorganic stuff. Sound, in other words, proposes that what lies underneath, or still and silent, may also at times, come to life. 

Didier Anzieu highlights our relation to sound through the concept of the sonorous envelope, suggesting that Ong's «sound-world» is an important means by which we may commune with others, as well as figure ourselves as subjects, as a skin always touched by others. The immersiveness of sound, while overwhelming, may also produce a primary link with the maternal body: sound, as a «fluid» agitation moving around the body, may deliver primary fantasies of being in the womb, returning us to an elemental state less bounded and less defined as a singularity.

Thus, listening oscillates between the plenitude of a primary sensuality and the unsettling interruptions of a noise that may, in turn, overwhelm or threaten. Listening, in other words, can deliver a deep sense of unease. In contrast to McLuhan and Ong, noise may give us precisely what we do not want to hear. As Mladen Dolar suggests, sound's inherent ambiguity sets us on edge: «There is an eerie quality to sound – can it be that only I can hear it? Does it have an 'objective' status at all? Is it in my head or does it come from outside?»[9]

The self as membrane, where sounds and musics may pass, lends to harmonious mingling as well as forceful rupture, a tearing apart that also «pluralizes» and multiplies: noise might be the very force that ruptures all forms of representation, that splinters each space into additions, that causes every communication to fragment into an array of possible trajectories, in support of multiple narratives. Listening moves between foreground and background, focus and distraction, to link life and death, organic and inorganic, and provide a voluptuous route for the imagination as it weaves together fantasy and the real.

Ethics, politics

Fundamentally, such operations of the ear, in linking interior to interior, body to body, draw out stark questions as to the ethical and political. To hear, in bringing myself into association with a horizon of an expanded sociality, immediately locates listening within a framework of power, generosity and political representation. To be heard, in other words, is to often cross boundaries, to demand recognition, to seek a place at times within difficult geographies. Making sound is thus an act that explicitly interferes with an existing pattern, lending to conversations or refuting others. In this way, to listen is to give way to the force of another; to give attention, or «lend an ear» to what is separate from me contours the movements of listening with degrees of tension as well as fragility.

Such power play of listening, according to Dolar, turns voicing into a social and psychological drama. «By using one’s voice, one is also always already yielding power to the Other; the silent listener has the power to decide over the fate of the voice and its sender; the listener can rule over its meaning, or turn a deaf ear. The trembling voice is a plea for mercy, for sympathy, for understanding, and it is in the power of the listener to grant it or not.»[10]

Les Back examines this «sociology of listening» and ultimately underscores how listening provides an important platform for recognition: to hear the other, the excluded and the overlooked in today’s diverse and multi-cultural world. As Back states, «sociological listening is needed today in order to admit the excluded, the looked past, to allow the ‘out of place’ a sense of belonging.»[11] The ethics of the ear is thus a negotiation between giving and taking, a dialogic procedure in which one's attention may give support for the inclusion of another.


In moving in and out of focus, listening also moves in and out of different relational meetings and territories: it readily supports the body as a figure in space, a subject touched and touching the world, affording sensual agency to being somewhere, at a certain time – a perceptual link actively tuning and detuning self and surrounding in a flux of inertia and momentum. Yet this impressionistic, sonic coordinate is also dynamically located within a duration always already shaped by social structures, apparatuses of control, the politics of identity, an economy of relating. To touch and be touched is a feverish event onto which a variety of forces meet. This can be further appreciated through the work of many experimental musicians and sound artists, whose use of an art of listening is mobilized to collapse the distances generally instantiated by the viewer/viewed dyad operative within the visual arts – in other words, to carve out a space for the operations of an active listening. While modes of participation and interaction remain key strategies within arts' practices, the sound arts fundamentally presuppose such strategies. In other words, participation and interaction are already active within the sound arts precisely because sound does not wait to be asked: it already moves toward a visitor, to inculcate a situation of immediate relation, direct meeting, integration, negotiation. It is already linking multiple spaces, supporting associations between body and object, you and I, here to there, and promoting certain resonances across multiple skins.

As I've tried to map here, listening performs to create a dynamics of sharing that readily trespasses lines of representation, to haunt us with images of a common skin, or of ghostly bodies that seem to speak again: primary connections, of self and surrounding, and the intensities of a politics of what can be heard and when. Thus, an aesthetics of sound is never truly free from the pressures of the world.


[1] Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing), p. 11.

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).

[3] Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 245-6.

[4] Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: sound on screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[5] Pauline Oliveros, Software for People (Baltimore, Smith Publications, 1984), p. 24.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (London: Routledge, 2001, 1964), p. 91.

[7] Walter Ong, The Barbarian Within (New York: MacMillan Company, 1962), p. 29. 

[8] Steven Connor, «The Modern Auditory I», in Rewriting the Self, ed. Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 211.

[9] Mladen Dolar, «The Phonetic Burrow», in Parole #2 (Cologne: Salon Verlag, 2012), p. 33.

[10] Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 80.

[11] Les Back, The Art of Listening (Oxford: Berg, 2007), p. 22.

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