shhhh, i’m listening

Let me begin with a confession of sorts, and then I’ll get on to the point of all this, which is sound, and listening and… hearing.

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Perhaps I should start this entry with an apology, or at least an admission of guilt. No, not about being less than diligent in writing here… I’ve been busy, you see, and fortunate, for I am coming off a glorious binge of disengagement from the internet and tv, fully engaged instead in people and words and the beauties of nature and its bounty.

My first day back I was offended and assaulted by the noise of life here, the exhaust and roar of cars, the endless droning of bodiless heads on screens which seemed to be everywhere yet nowhere. The luxury and complexity of even my relatively simple home and the abundance of things to do and to buy, so many things competing for my attention and wheedling from my pocket a bill here, a few more there. The pace and cacophony of sensoral overload that we become so used to left me overwhelmed.

And yet, just five days after landing I found myself scurrying about like a little lemming to, of all places, the Apple store, to buy the latest iphone. I am an Apple lover from way back, and a few months overdue on my wireless carrier’s “upgrade” (what a marketing ploy that one is!), so this was all planned before my sojourn of a simpler life. I was accompanied by my son who is of the same ilk and circumstance, but let’s be clear here… neither one of us needed a new phone. It was pure geek consumerist greed, and with the money spent we might have instead procured an inordinate amount of the simple pleasures we had so recently embraced with gusto, or done some real good for someone who doesn’t know or care about the latest techno gadget.

I feel guilty. I love my new phone. I am a hypocrite.

But let’s go back, shall we, to a less harried mind, to the simpler observations I had after my connection (for really that is what it was) while unplugged.

Sights. Smells. Savored tastes. Sounds, such sounds! …of nature and of joy. Sounds of calm and the quiet to be able to capture them, bare feet padding, the croak of a lizard and the roar of a nighttime downpour. Children playing. Voices bouncing from one to another in cheery conversation and the murmurs of the faithful who knelt before the sparkly barbie-doll statue of the Virgin they so treasure and revere. The myriad sounds of a people who make do with so little, who are not without their sorrows but who find joy and meaning in one another without stressing out over how to achieve that elusive thing called happiness. (Cue to Emily Esfahani Smith’s piece in the Atlantic on just that… “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”)

I spoke with a man from the Carolinas who’d moved there and planned to capture the sounds particular to this place, the call of the knife-sharpener or the cheese vendor as they made their way through the streets, the crack of a machete slung with seeming nonchalance into the hard shell of a coconut. I remembered a piece I read (and unfortunately didn’t keep) about yearning for sounds which no longer exist. We all do, I suppose.

While there my hearing was honed by the lack of competition for its attention, and I heard things that normally would have been swallowed up and ignored, able instead to pause and savor them.

The experimental musician Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) samples not only the sounds of nature but also those of our techno world in ways not only creative but thought-provoking. He would most likely assuage my guilt over buying the phone by suggesting ways that I might use it to enhance rather than detract from my life. Indeed he did just that, creating an app called “Whisper,” which embodies his philosophy that “sound is inescapably a part of us … so let’s each take more control of it to enhance our lives.”

Balance. Control. It always comes down to that, doesn’t it? … yet it does seem to be harder and harder to achieve. Perhaps that is the answer: to look to those who are successful, to take cues from those like Scanner who make it all work, who make sense and find meaning in their lives and their art not despite technology, but by incorporating and embracing it as a tool for the creative interpretation of one’s reality and that of others observed, rather than wasting time mourning the way things were once, long ago. I often think that those who grew up with this have brains which work in different ways, that we don’t have to worry so much about them for they are, for the most part, reinventing ways to live that are no less rich even if on the surface they seem co-opted by technology.

How delightful I found the “sonic assignment” he offers via The School of Life’s blog (yes, I do wish I were closer and might attend some of their events instead of just read of them), in which he discusses ways to refocus and challenge our ears, alter our environment, search for silence and embrace what surrounds us, to slow the tempo, and use technology to take back control. If I could escape to his Amsterdam  weekend of “sonic exploration,” I would. (But it would cost me the price of a bundle of iphones, and multiply my guilt hundredfold.)

What really resonated with me was his mention and links to the British organization called Sound and Music, and their project titled “Minute of Listening,” which they took to 70 schools in the UK during its pilot phase last year, reaching over 20,000 children. One minute spent listening, really listening, to music, to sounds, sparked innumerable creative responses. What brilliance!

Shhhh, I’m listening…


4 thoughts on “shhhh, i’m listening

      1. Thank for the link, and here is one for you to try on that new gadget! In iTunes, search for John Cage, there is an App that allows you to create music on your phone patterned after his sonatas in which you use the piano keys, but they are various objects like screws. I produced something a while back and added a link to my blog (probably my other blog). If you play and record, plz post!

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