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The Disruptive Nature of Listening

By Hildegard Westerkamp

Keynote Address International Symposium on Electronic Art,
Vancouver, B.C. Canada August 18, 2015


A true state of listening cannot be acquired by force. The order to listen
- LISTEN! we all have heard and experienced it - guarantees a closing off,
a turning away, a non-listening, possibly even a permanent disturbance in
our once open and trusting listening channels. It is perceived like any sound
that annoys, disrupts, hurts, or injures: we cringe, we try to block it out,
might fight it, may want to get rid of it, but we will not listen.

          By its very nature listening is a continual and gentle process of opening.
We usually know when we are in that place of perceptual receptivity and we
know when we have lost it. Listening is never static, cannot be held on to,
and in fact needs to be found again and again.

          As such, it is disruptive in its nature. Paradoxically, while a grounded and calm
state of mind, a sense of safety, peace and relaxation are essential for inspiring
perceptual wakefulness and a willingness and desire to open our ears, normal
routines, habits and patterns will be disrupted and laid bare in such a process of
listening; noises and discomforts inevitably will be noticed, and all kinds of
experiences will be stirred and uncovered. Listening in fact implies a preparedness
to meet the unpredictable and unplanned, to welcome the unwelcome. How do we
reach such a state of listening, why would we want to?

I would like to dedicate this talk to John Hull, author of the book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness. He passed away on July 28. The news of his death reminded me of a remarkable lecture he gave in the UK in 2001 at a conference on Sound, Culture and Environment. Like his book, this lecture was essentially about his experience of turning blind when he was in his 40s. His was not a "print speech" - he was not reading his text. The expressiveness and intonation of his voice created an extraordinary listening atmosphere in the room and added another dimension of depth to his words. He was a true orator in the sound-sense of the word. He spoke from his whole being.  Let me read you a few quotes from that lecture:

I don't study sound. I live in sound.1

In the case of the ear, I learnt that you don't actually listen with your ears,
you listen with your whole body. 2

The senses tend to establish a subject/object division. But when you really see,
you are absorbed in what you see. So it is when you hear, when you listen.
You no longer are aware that you are listening, because you have become absorbed
in what you are listening to and so the subject/object distinction disappears.
In other words, you hear with your heart, because you become one with the sound.
The sound is in you, is you. And blindness has taught me that, and I was grateful for that. 3

Interestingly enough similar words come from the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, whose only aim in life, as she says in her TED talk, is to teach the world to listen, to listen with our whole body and to learn to sense our body as a resonating chamber. When she performs - and some of you may have experienced her - she literally seems to be inside the sounding music, with her whole body sensing the vibrating sound waves of all the pitches and frequencies in the music. My challenge today is to create a similar listening atmosphere in this room. It is not unlike composing, which of course always poses the same challenge.

Sound Example 1: Like a Memory: remembering in words

 At this moment I am - we are - in Vancouver, Canada. It is August 18, 2015. We are together in this room. But really, we could be anywhere in any time zone, it could be any season of the year, any time of day or night. Whether we listen to this room, look at it, smell or touch it, there are no identifying features that would give us a clue in which city this room may be located.  Architecturally it is a no-place, one that might be found in many cities of the world. We are listening to the global soundscape of the typical institutional or corporate indoors.
          Outside of this room and all over the city a sound will be heard at noon that is characteristic for Vancouver. But I doubt that it will penetrate this space. It is pretty loud and is located not far from here in the harbour.

Sound Example 2: O Canada Horn, far

It's the O Canada Horn, a soundmark exclusive to Vancouver. When we hear it we know we are in Vancouver. The late Robert Swanson and his company Airchime designed this horn as well as a number of foghorns, train horns, factory whistles and boat horns that characterize our local soundscape. More about this later...
          The title of my presentation today is The Disruptive Nature of Listening, intentionally chosen to create a meeting between the theme of this year's ISEA, Disruption, and my own life-long involvement with listening, soundscape studies, acoustic ecology and soundscape composition.
          When I speak of the disruptive nature of listening, I agree with Michael Stocker who writes: "Our experience with sound unfolds as a continuous now". 4
          If we open our ears to this experience of sound unfolding as a continuous now it inevitably includes an opening to surprises, to the unexpected, to the difficult and uncomfortable, to noise or potential discomforts with silence. It means staying with the sound for a time no matter what reactions it may elicit in us.
          No doubt we all have had to grapple with discomfort when exposed to disturbing soundscapes or unsettling inner chatter. At such times, do we decide whether we open our listening further to the reality of that discomfort and try to affect changes - which is what I would call the disruptive nature of listening - or do we try to ignore it and psychologically shut it out - which is when the sound itself is in danger of disrupting our lives, stressing us, precisely because we are trying to shut out something that our ears and bodies are still receiving, still perceiving.

Sound Example 3: Construction Noise and Yoga

Such a listening experience means that we learn to understand how we listen and that the act of listening grounds us within our own inner world from which - in turn - inspiration springs. Listening cannot be forced. Quite the opposite: true receptive listening comes from an inner place of non-threat, support, and safety. As such listening is inherently disruptive as it puts a wrench into habitual flows of time, habitual behaviour of daily life.     

          From that stance we may be better equipped to deal with the environmental, social, and political challenges of this decade. The intense corporate push for us to succumb to a 24/7 time perception is threatening to disrupt deep and profound life rhythms in us and as an extension is also disrupting dangerously the earth’s biological, environmental and ecological conditions. The following words by Jonathan Crary might reinforce why we urgently need creative and forceful tools to challenge this trend.

24/7 steadily undermines distinctions between day and night, between light and dark,
and between action and repose. It is a zone of insensibility, of amnesia, of what defeats
the possibility of experience.
...The planet becomes reimagined as a non-stop work site or an always open shopping mall
of infinite choices, tasks, selections, and digressions.
Sleeplessness is the state in which producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause,
hastening the exhaustion of life and the depletion of resources. 5


Photo credit: Hildegard Westerkamp. The image was posted at one of the transit stops of Vancouver''s Canada Line.

As artists we cannot help but notice all this. It is our lot to express what we notice, express what moves us. As such we are the troublemakers, the disruptors of normality.
          And when we work with sound we are by nature engaging with the flow of time and the sonic quality of any time span. We could be the ideal interceptors of a no-rhythm, continuously humming 24/7 life style and time flow.

Sound Example 4: exhaust, Canada Place

You can hear this building exhaust at Canada Place. Although sonically quite attractive, it does add to the humming mix of all the building exhausts in the city. On clear summer nights I can hear this mix from my back porch, like a hum from a nearby factory. 

Sound Example 5: Train Horn Vancouver

In this recording, made in 1978, I was obviously pleased to hear the train horn, which coincidentally broke through the dull urban hum right after I had commented on it! However, this train horn sound, which then could be heard every evening around 9 p.m., has disappeared from the soundscape. Over 15 years ago Canadian Pacific Railway, the CPR, discontinued the train traffic to the relief of the residents along the Arbutus corridor. Just this week, though, the longstanding controversy has intensified as the CPR is attempting to re-activate its dormant rail line. Will we hear the train horn again? If so, its sound in the current context would signal nothing but unresolved matters.
          Let me go back to what I called the city roaring in the previous recording. Artificial control of air and light is an integral aspect of highrise building design and means an excessive amount of energy use. Sonically this translates into electrical hums from artificial lighting and broadband sounds from air conditioning inside and from the buildings' exhaust systems outside. 6 The internationalism in urban design has not only resulted in visual but also in aural sameness. A rather sinister acoustic extension of this is the so-called functional music, or mood music, that is heard in many such buildings all over the world for the express purpose of increasing profit.

Sound example 6: Oakridge muzak

Air conditioning and music are usually centrally controlled. Trying to make any changes, let alone turning the sounds off, becomes a journey in uncovering layers and layers of bureaucracy and centralized building design. It is not surprising then that these all pervasive humming and music-doodling soundscapes are now generally accepted as a normal building ambience of the corporate indoors, in fact let me call it our "new silence" in contrast to street and transit noises outdoors.
          It is only when we experience the sudden shut-off of these building sounds that we get a visceral sense of the dull, never changing "new silence" sound wall that has surrounded us all along. Power failures best demonstrate this and allow us to experience a physical reprieve and relaxation from the broadband sound waves that impact our ears, bodies and psyches in their dull quietness all day long if we work in such environments. Given the ecological issues of energy use we must finally confront, such an acoustic disruption could be a potential teaching, ideally powerful enough to inspire architects and engineers to make fundamental changes in urban building design.
          As you heard earlier, Vancouver has its identifying soundmarks, as most other cities in the world have as well. In 1977 as part of our new radio program "Soundwalking" on Vancouver Co-operative Radio, my friends Joan Henderson, Ann Holmes and I did street interviews about the O Canada Horn. We asked people whether they have heard the horn, what they think of it and whether it carries any significant meaning for them. At that time, the horn blasted at an ear splitting 108 decibels every day at noon, from its original location, the top of the old BC Hydro building, three blocks away from our recording location. We timed it so that we collected people's comments from 10 minutes before noon to 10 minutes after noon, with the horn sound occurring in the middle.
           Just before 12 o'clock Joan and Ann talked with a young woman, who was intensely critical of the relevance of our question. In fact, she was quite aggressive and a little condescending about how we could waste our and her own time with such a meaningless inquiry, when so many more important things needed to be addressed in the world. "You are talking to someone pretty socially conscious here, you know" she says. And then, Boom, the horn goes off. Silence...

Sound example 7: O Canada Horn, excerpt from Soundwalking

The young woman's stance switches instantly. Her wall of defense and aggressiveness collapses and a deeply vulnerable person is revealed. The sound of the horn literally hits her like a lightening bolt and penetrates her armour. She is speechless. When she does try to speak, her voice breaks and she is consumed by total astonishment at her own strong reaction. Her sadness seems enormous and she becomes thoughtful and reflective.
          It is hard to let her go. How will she carry her experience with her on that day? Will she be okay?
Obviously the injustices and inequalities in our society had concerned and stressed her for a while - yes she was a socially conscious person - but the listening epiphany revealed her sensitivity and opened up her being beyond social consciousness and political correctness towards deeper feelings of pain. She was mourning the perceived loss of sounds so characteristic for the Vancouver she loved.
           Our listening radio microphones that day were meant to create a little disruption and make people think about the daily sound of the O Canada Horn. That had been our intention from the start. We did not, however, expect to meet such a sensitive listener with such a strong and very real reaction. It is this kind of sensitivity in listening that lays bare realities in our soundscapes. No one else of the people interviewed mentioned the issues of disappearing sounds in the Vancouver harbour soundscape, and the ecological implications of such a phenomenon.
           Let me stay with the theme of disappearing sounds for a minute. My long-time colleague Bernie Krause has recorded natural sounds since the 1970s and has accumulated hours and hours of recordings from all over the globe. On this year's World Listening Day he contributed a series of four recordings made 50 miles north of San Francisco in Sugarloaf State Park, which powerfully illustrate issues of climate change and the California drought's impact on the biophony in this area over the past 11 years.
          The recordings are represented on a spectrogram, which consists of 4 fifteen second examples - 1 minute total - from the years 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2015. According to Bernie the recordings were made in exactly the same spot, mid April, and with carefully calibrated and repeatable settings, same protocol, same equipment. The 2004 segment apparently was similar to the density and diversity of the previous 10 years at the same spot, with the sound of a nearby stream showing on the lower part of the spectrogram and several different species of birds occupying the upper half. Listen now to the dramatic changes in water sounds and bird song density that have occurred since 2004.

Sound example 8 with Spectrogram: Bernie Krause, Sugarloaf Park 7

This year virtually a silent spring in that region, and as Bernie Krause states further, "an accurate outcome of Rachel Carson's prediction in her book Silent Spring, that she wrote more than 50 years ago." 8
          Vandana Shiva, the environmental activist of high caliber from India, who has fought for changes in the practice and paradigms of agriculture and food for many years, spoke at the International Water Conference, here in Vancouver on July 2001. I was then struggling to finish my composition Attending to Sacred Matters. Vandana's speech miraculously removed whatever block I had been experiencing and the piece acquired a clear flow, like water. I'll play you the excerpt that includes her voice.

Sound example 9: excerpt of Attending to Sacred Matters.

 An ongoing listening practice tends to become a way of life that inevitably reveals and amplifies that which is ignored or normally avoided. Listening not only grounds us within our own inner world from which inspiration springs, but most importantly it inspires new ideas and changes the quality of soundmaking, speaking and musical expression. Michael Ende in his book Momo, describes such listening:

...Another time, a little boy brought her his canary because it wouldn't sing.
Momo found that a far harder proposition. She had to sit and listen to the bird
for a whole week before it started to trill and warble again. 9

Momo, a little girl, is a literary character symbolizing someone who refuses to loose touch with her special perception of the people and the world around her. She senses and perceives the dangers implicit in a society driven by hidden interest groups and manipulations. In this society the Grey Men represent the Timesavings Bank, where time can be deposited and returned to the client later, supposedly with interest. Momo does not engage in the stressful and hectic rhythms of such a society - a perfect, if fictional example of what I am addressing here today. She is someone, who disrupts gently, essentially, through her listening.
          Such strength of perception becomes a matter of survival, when disruption itself has become the social norm, when the conditions of a 24/7 world have been internalized, when there is an inability to slow down, when in fact the interruptions, invasions, and noises of so-called modern life are addictively needed. And Jonathan Crary describes well the reality of such a world:

Everyone, we are told - not just businesses and institutions - needs an "online presence" needs 24/7 exposure, to avoid social irrelevance or professional failure. But the promotion of these alleged benefits is a cover for the transfer of most social relations into monetized and quantifiable forms. It is equally a shift of individual life to conditions in which privacy is impossible, and in which one becomes a permanent site of data harvesting and surveillance. One accumulates a patchwork of surrogate identities that subsist 24/7, sleeplessly, continuously, as inanimate impersonations rather than extensions of the self... Sensory impoverishment and the reduction of perception to habit and engineered response is the inevitable result of aligning oneself with the multifarious products, services, and "friends" that one consumes, manages, and accumulates during waking life. 10

 So, when I speak of disruption in the sense of stopping routines, habits, unconscious gestures, reactions and behaviours, I am not necessarily implying a violent disruption or a one-time shock. Yes, a loud sound can shock, disrupt and change our ways, as we have witnessed earlier. More significantly, I am suggesting, that our listening be an ongoing practice, so present and attentive that it asserts change inside us over time, and as a result eventually in the soundscape, in our communication with others, in society at large. It is a state of ongoing attention.
          When John Cage created his piece 4'33" he essentially set up conditions for such listening - astonishing the ears of concert goers by not in any way meeting their expectations of what the performance of a piece of music in a concert hall should be. And in doing so, he gently nudged the audience's listening attention to every other sound present in that environment.
          He created 4'33" in 1952. Nowadays and perhaps not surprisingly, there is an increased emergence of pieces that attempt to slow the pace of our lives and alter our time perception. To name a few more, there is Pauline Oliveros' Extreme Slow Walk and actually all her deep listening pieces and exercises 11, John Cage's piece Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible - whose performance started 2013 and will continue until 2020.12 Then there is Jem Fine's Longplayer, designed to play for 1000 years,13 and as we speak Max Richter is composing his 8-hour lullaby Sleep.14 The pieces all invite audiences to stop and listen deeply.

Sound Example 10: Lighthouse Park excerpt 1, from Soundwalking

This was a short excerpt from my radio program Soundwalking, recorded in Lighthouse Park. You heard my much younger voice reading a quote from the writings of our own B.C. painter Emily Carr. The show ran on Vancouver Co-operative Radio in 1978/79. My original intent was to open listeners' ears towards their own local soundscape. What I did not anticipate at the time was that Soundwalking also caused a disruption of radio-time, as we knew it from regular radio listening. Even on Co-op Radio, which already had a different sound and pace than the CBC or commercial radio, broadcast time was slowed further during the program.
           I hardly ever got immediate feedback, like phone calls, and had no clue how the show affected listeners. Years later I would meet people who recognized my voice or remembered how the show caused them to stop and listen, even to sit down and relax! Only one person, a truly angry and exasperated listener, did call me during one broadcast and suggested that I should call my show Sleepwalking. For her the slow pace of the program was unbearable!
          Taking the time to listen goes against today's 24/7 status quo of hectic and stress, of racing towards riches and success, of never having time and always being importantly busy. In this larger context soundwalks become a conscious practice in learning to change our pace in a society dangerously speeding out of control. Even taking the time for soundwalks at conferences is still an extraordinary act. We are lucky in this conference: we have been given quite a few opportunities to realign our ears, brains, bodies and souls in an hour of walking, breathing and listening. Jean Routhier is offering another soundwalk today at 2 p.m. Do go, if you haven't had the opportunity yet.
          I can speak about soundwalks until I am blue in the face and you will still not really know what I am talking about. Soundwalks, just like listening itself, need to be DONE. Out of that doing comes an entirely knew experiential knowledge. This is precisely what makes out the disruptive nature of listening. The decision to do it, rather than talk about it, is the first disruption of old patters. The experience of soundwalk listening then gives us a visceral understanding of what in fact the disruptive nature of listening really is.

Sound example 11: Camelvoice

photo credit: Peter Grant

At this moment we are in Vancouver, Canada. It is August 18, 2015.
We have been together in this room, listening. Thank you.


1. Hull, John. "Sound: An Enrichment or State", in Soundscape - the Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol. 2, Number 1, July 2001, p. 10

2. ibid. p. 12

3. ibid. p. 12

4. Stocker, Michael. Hear Where We Are, Sound Ecology and Sense of Place (2013). Springer. p. xiii.

5. Crary, Jonathan. 24/7, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013). London: Verso. p.17.

6. Westerkamp, Hildegard. "Bauhaus and Soundscape Studies - Exploring Connections and Differences", published in Anthologie: Multisensuelles Design, ed. Peter Luckner, Hochschule für Kunst und Design, Halle, Germany. 2002.

7. Krause, Bernie. Contribution to World Listening Day, July 18, 2015.

8. ibid.

9. Ende, Michael. Momo. 1984. Puffin Books. P. 22

10. Crary, Jonathan. 24/7, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013). London: Verso. p. 104

11. Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening, A Composer's Sound Practice. Deep Listening Publications. 2005.

12. Cage, John.

13. Finer, Jem.

14. Richter, Max.