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On Listening

by Angus Carlyle and Cathy Lane, Editors

Uniformbooks, 2013

200 pp., ills. 30 b/w. Trade, £12.00

ISBN: 978-1-910010-01-3

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


As Marshall McLuhan noted, we have no earlids, no way to close our ears against the surrounding, ever present, and constant soundscape. We have, however, trained ourselves not to foreground the ever-present stream of aural broadband information. When we do listen, the dynamic shimmer of sounds can problematize discrete sources, and thus understanding. Additionally, there are places where we cannot listen.

Within this context, listening has become a popular subject of study by a broad swath of academics. On the other hand, reflexive listening takes place in a number of everyday settings. This new book, On Listening, edited by Angus Caryle and Cathy Lane, seeks to bridge this gap, connect the scholarly with the experiential, and extend our discourse about the act of listening.

Caryle and Lane, co-directors of the Creative Research in Sound Arts Practice program at the University of the Arts in London, have collaborated previously on In the Field: The Art of Field Recording (reviewed July 2013). This time, they have commissioned works from artists, activists, scholars, and scientists (40 total) and curated their writings about listening into multidisciplinary perspectives ranging from anthropology, to bioacoustics, to geography, to literature, to community activism, to sociology, to religion, to philosophy, to art history, to conflict mediation, and to sonic arts including music, field recording, and ethonomusicology. Each contribution explores how skilled listening can mediate new relationships with our physical environment and the people and other species with which it is shared.

On Listening is divided into four sections. Caryle and Lane admit this division is arbitrary but capable of revealing commonalities, of making connections across disciplines, across geographies and methodologies, and, as a result, increasing apprehension.

Listening Perspectives, the first section, assembles a number of perspectives and meanings linked by the common idea that listening becomes active, creative, dedicated, and passionate.

The second section, Listening Spaces, discusses eventscapes, where “either one species or one specialized area of activity dominates, often making it difficult for us to access the acoustic space” (55). Such spaces include personal point of view while riding a bicycle, a Protestant cemetery in Rome, the airspace above a secret testing facility in the Mojave Desert, and underwater. A common theme is what constitutes ideal listening environments and the knowledge to which listening can give rise.

The essays collected in Listening Spaces, the third section, speaks to a range of technical and conceptual devices, acting like McLuhan’s extended ganglia, as probes, sent into the world, designed to stream information back to the listener.

The final section, Listening to Self and Others, explores the nature of a listener and effective listening in a variety of contexts. In each essay, the author struggles to express the essential nature of listening even while reminding us that careful listening is essential for the moral, spiritual, and intellectual welfare of both individuals and societies. The common theme: listening requires full concentration and engagement. Listening is “an attitude, a state of mind, a way of being, something that happens inside as well as coming from the outside” (153-154).

In the end, this collection of curated essays leads the reader (listener?) to realize that listening can reveal a parallel reality. This reality of listening can lead to immersion, and over time to meditative introspection. The listener is located at the center of this process, “offering an immediate connection to place and its inhabitants, sacred, and profane” (10).

Last Updated 6 May 2014

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