Deep listening experiment enlightens

Ice crackled, car horns blared, fireflies flew and jellyfish danced during a deep listening concert by ethnomusicologists Tomie Hahn and Sean Williams on Thursday, Sept. 17, in the Esch Hurvis studio. Organized loosely over the course of three days during classroom sessions, late night rehearsals and early morning experimentation, the six stories, called “memory-scapes” by the performers, involved a dozen or so Lawrence students and faculty.

Hahn and Williams envisioned the performance as an experience of “deep listening,” an act of unfiltered perception first explored by composer Pauline Oliveros in the 1950s. The story goes that Oliveros set a tape recorder on her window sill, listening to her surroundings as the recorder preserved its mechanical, objective perspective. When she listened back to the tape, she was shocked at how much of her sonic environment her mind had filtered out. She had not listened deeply.

Oliveros realized that she could, as a deep listener, take a more active role in composing what she believed to be the “grand composition” around her. Her point was that we all are constantly surrounded by a symphony of sorts; to create order from the chaotic sonic data constantly streaming into our ears, we sift out the vast majority of that vast composition.

I took part in Hahn and Williams’ performance with the hope of listening deeply and collaborating in a really strange fashion. But at the performance—which I’ll just say I thought went fairly well—I found myself thinking most about what my peers in the audience were thinking of me.

This self-conscious line of thinking didn’t necessarily detract from my performance, but it felt strange and twisted nonetheless. Just as I had this moment to connect with my environment and explore my own artistry, I was vastly concerned with whether or not I seemed capital-c Cool.

To me, this seems selfish. But I actually don’t think it’s simple enough to label this impulse as plain old selfishness, mostly because you could also find a way to describe deep listening as a selfish act.

We can describe deep listening as a selfless, transcendent act—an act of going beyond day-to-day sonic perception—or we can say thorough perception and sensation is evolutionary, animalistic even.

Even if we describe deep listening as something that is beyond the animal, there’s still something selfish there. When Oliveros bemoans that she has missed out on parts of the grand composition, what she really wants is to get something aesthetic out of 100 percent of her sonic environment. Is she listening deeply or greedily? Is she an audiophillic version of Gordon Gekko?

So it’s hard for me to say, “Well, Jon, it’s selfish to wonder whether or not you are cool while your fellow artists dance in shredded grocery bags to the gorgeous sounds of Dean of Conservatory Brian Pertl’s didgeridoo and Sam Genualdi’s ambient guitar.”

I don’t think it’s as simple as cool-concern being selfish, as opposed to deep listening being selfless, brainy and fulfilling. I also can’t say for sure just how bad or un-bad that sort of self-conscious thought is.

All I know is that while I pranced up and down the aisle masquerading as a reindeer during Tony Capparelli’s ‘14 “Eena”—a depiction of sleigh rides across frozen lakes under Norway’s northern lights—the thought of reputation that popped into my mind felt indisputably icky.

Williams’ story, the final performance of the night, transported us to an Indonesian rice field on a clear night alight with fireflies and stars. Traffic was all but silenced by the surrounding brush, replaced by incessant frogs, bugs and twinkling lights. The point of Williams’ piece—with its boomwhackers, Christmas lights, mirrors, aluminum foil and dancers—was a lonely feeling of floating through limitless space.

I know from speaking to several audience members that Williams’ story was one of the evening’s highlights. A lot of this most likely came from an enveloping, overwhelming feeling, yet I wonder if there’s a certain aspect of total floating loneliness that can’t be captured in a crowded studio space.

This isn’t to say that dozens and dozens of people enjoying a moving performance is a bad thing; all I mean is that my peers in the audience can’t remove themselves from the whole performance-experience equation, just as I certainly couldn’t remove them from mine.