AMN Reviews: Angus Carlyle & Cathy Lane – On Listening

Angus Carlyle & Cathy Lane: On Listening (Devon: Uniform Books, 2013)

The act of listening is a complex one accomplished at the intersection of the world as given—the vibrations in the air surrounding us—and the world as taken—those same vibrations converted into meaningful sounds by our perceptual and conceptual makeup.

On Listening, a collection of forty brief essays, considers the act, content and context of listening from multiple perspectives. Although quite diverse, the essays all start from an understanding of listening as, above all, a situation.

The listening situation can be defined as the synthesis of sound and space within the listener’s flux of perception.  What makes the listening situation a situation per se and not just an inert condition is the active participation of the listener, through whom sound and space are transformed from brute material facts into an experienced situation. Thus the listening situation is something of a phenomenological artifact, that is, something we create through the act of listening as we receive and integrate the modalities of sound—its pitch, timbre, amplitude, duration, and so forth—into a meaningful whole that also takes in the surrounding framework provided by the environment in which sound is apprehended.

As many of the book’s contributions show, through the mediation of the act of listening sound and environment are mutually influencing and mutually revealing.  Listening conveys information about different features of the physical environment and about different physical environments themselves, as addressed in essays on the bioacoustics of underwater sound (Gianni Pavan), the sound ecology of the airspace over a military installation in the southwestern American desert (Steve Rowell), or the experience of hearing music outdoors (Jérôme Joy).

And yet it is the listener who realizes this synthesis of sound and environment through the complex act of listening. Several contributors consider the role of the listener as an active agent in creating the listening situation. Michael Gallagher, in critically examining the relationship of listening to the extraction of meaning from sound, suggests that a better approach might be to ask “what listening does.” This essay seems to be an invitation to the formulation of a theory of listening acts somewhat analogous to the theory of speech acts, and something that would be fascinating to see worked out. One possible point of departure for doing so may be offered by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter, who put listening into a functional context grounded in evolutionary demands.

Some of the essays examine the ways in which listening is mediated not only through the listener’s own perceptual and conceptual apparatus, but by the technologies enabling, hindering and otherwise affecting listening. Here too, the situatedness of listening comes to the fore, whether listening is set within a movie theater (Michael Chanan), afforded by radio—described by David Hendy in a nice turn of phrase as a continuous “jumbled aural tapestry”—or interpreted by technological models of human listening mechanisms (Volkmar Klien).

Other essays analyze listening in its social dimensions, whether as a relationship between people in conflict mediation (Jean de Dieu Basabose, Nicola Triscott), or personal narration (Polly Nash), or as a relationship to oneself through an inner voice (Diana Corley Schnapp, Daniel Smith).

The handful of individual essays mentioned above represent only a sampling of what the book holds. The wide variety of reflections on listening and the audio arts collected here ensures that On Listening will be useful to people involved in sound art in all of its aspects. This isn’t a book to be read in one sitting. Rather it’s the kind of book to be picked up and savored over multiple occasions, whether in relation to specific topics of interest or simply for a serendipitous encounter with a provocative idea.