Ears Wide Open: Perfecting the Art of Listening in Creative Communities
What is a person with a violin if the violin itself doesn’t produce any sound?
When Audio Arts and Acoustics Assistant Professor Florian Hollerweger takes out his violin to perform John Cage’s “4’33” on the first day of class he tells his students he will perform “a piece of music” for them and tells them that he will walk out of the room and come back in with the violin at which point he will commence the performance. The students are invited to clap if they wish. Then he will perform the piece, after which they can clap again, if they wish. Hollerweger then leaves the room, comes back with his violin, and…stays in stillness.
The stillness is punctuated by various “movements,” but “4’33” is mainly marked by the absence of sound from the violin itself. As Hollerweger, who got the idea from Professor Keeril Makan at MIT, says, it is a piece where “allegedly nothing happens.” But then, as he notes, you start paying attention to what does happen at a violin performance if the violin isn’t being played. It’s a new way of experiencing sound, performance, and your place as a listener of a larger piece.
Hollerweger and his colleague Visda Goudarzi both teach sections of “Listening to the City,” a course originally ideated by Senior Associate Provost Nathan Bakkum. For many students enrolled in Hollerweger’s section, his performance of 4’33” is their first introduction to a new way of perceiving sound, conceiving of listening as an artistic practice, and learning in an environment marked by non-traditional modes of discourse.
For Assistant Professor and music technologist Goudarzi, who is also teaching “Listening to the City,” a course in which many students are gaining their first introduction to the field of audio arts and acoustics, the first day for students is equally ear-opening. Goudarzi starts with a sonic meditation and an introduction to Pauline Oliveros, a sound artist who ushered in the practice of deep listening to professionals in the field.
Both Hollerweger and Goudarzi, utilize non-traditional pedagogical models to encourage students to be comfortable with listening and sound production as artistic practices remains paramount throughout the semester. Goudarzi takes pride in bringing new methodologies to each class. She notes, “Last week, we did vocal sketching of different places students have been on their way to school…then they had to imitate those sounds with their mouth.” Exercises like this allow students to conceive of new ways of digesting sound, interpreting what they hear, and transmitting that information to audiences.
Hollerweger has an equally innovative methodology in his courses, which are marked by almost a total absence of written text. He says, “I have decided to base my section of the course on the premise of deliberate avoidance of written texts as a pedagogical method.” This means assignment instructions recorded as audio files, student responses turned in as audio files rather than written papers and grading as a listening practice as well. Hollerweger uses this practice as a “way of challenging all of us to think about what it means to teach a class and learn in the class.”
Both Assistant Professors lead guided sound walks through the city where students are responsible for taking in sound and using listening as an artistic practice. They also encourage students to work together in various community settings across the city to collect, manage, and arrange sound to reflect their artistic visions. Furthermore, for the soundscape projects, the students are asked to create an auditory document of a specific auditory culture to capture the soundworld of a group in the city.
Of course, these classes are about more than just listening and storing information. Building on long traditions of artists like Max Neuhaus and John Cage in the 1960s, Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros, R. Murray Schafer, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Barry Truax working in acoustic ecology and soundscape composition in the 1970s, those working in ambient sound and expression and sound collages in the 1980s, and the work of sound artists and anthropologists in the 1990s, both Hollerweger and Goudarzi encourage students to stretch the boundaries of accessibility and output when it comes to listening, recording, and producing sound.
As an essential outcome of Goudarzi’s course, students engage with the ethics of sonic representation and the countless ways in which auditory cues inform our understandings of ourselves and others focusing on those underrepresented in the field of audio. In course discussions, students address the discourses around various types of sonic production that are used as tools of power and control, as well as ways in which participants in auditory communities have subverted those discourses and reclaimed power.
As Hollerweger says, “This course is a little bit less about achieving the best quality sound recordings. It's more about audio as an everyday medium.” Goudarzi agrees. It’s about using audio to connect people to a creative process. She says, “Audio as a creative process is also very important because for a lot of them in their fields, audio might be a side component. Whereas here, they have to create something auditory and they see the importance of our ears.”
From going into unfamiliar communities of interest to have new auditory experiences to conceptualizing sounds into sound collages to taking students on soundwalks around the city, Goudarzi and Hollerweger are working to broaden the lives of their students and their students’ creative capacities. What they’ve found is that their students are astoundingly motivated by auditory input and inspired to create pieces outside of their comfort zones. So, the next time that you find yourself by a lake, or walking down Michigan Avenue, or in the presence of an interesting sound, take a moment, close your eyes, and listen. You never know what you may be inspired to create.