Deep listening

How everyday sounds matter: learning to listen deeply to sonic messages of place

By Melissa Van Drie

Deep listening is often cited as a key regenerative design practice that can help foster a participatory attitude towards the environment and can help change human mindsets to better understand what it is we are trying to sustain. Yet it isn’t always clear what deep listening even means or how to get started. This article considers how becoming attentive to the sounds made by critters around us can help activate thriving relationships between species.

One brisk afternoon, I went walking in the Dyrehaven forest near Copenhagen. As I moved through the trees, studying various kinds of mushrooms, I was interrupted by an unfamiliar sound. A low moaning came from somewhere deep in the forest and seemed to move through the tops of tree branches. I didn’t recognize the sound, but I desired it to be animal. My imagination woke up at that moment, as did my senses. The forest seemed to take on another quality of life. I felt like a visitor within an active and vibratory network happening in subterranean depths between fungi and roots, in the air between insects and birds, and on the ground between a variety of critters, some with very persistent voices. Yet I reasoned, beasts don’t really exist anymore in such forests, and that this sound was most likely made by human machinery…

Top image: Devils Ear mushrooms cohabiting with trees in Dyrehaven Park, Denmark. Photo by M. Van Drie.

Bottom image: Who is making that strange forest sound? Not being able to identify sources of sound permits the magic of the real to emmerge. (Image: Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, France ca. 1294-1297, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 130I, fol. 344r)

Unlike vision, which is often connected with certainty, the experience of listening has long been associated with doubt, curiosity, and the possibility of multiple meanings. Perhaps this is why sonic experience can easily open up human imagination, allowing us to carve out different sorts of investigations and questions, ones that dig deeper into interspecies cohabitations.

New Zealand-born composer Annea Lockwood has worked with such qualities of doubt to cultivate practices of attention and noticing detail, beginning with her pioneering Glass Concerts in 1970. In a 2020 conversation called Earwalks No.1 initiated by fellow composer Maayan Tsadka, Lockwood explains: “I wanted to work with sound which people could not identify. If you can’t identify a sound, the process of attempted identification is very powerful and kicks in right away when you hear something; it’s a visceral survival process. If you can’t identify a sound then you listen to it more and more closely. The more closely you listen the more you hear and the more detail you hear… one comes to think about the sound as a source of energy”

Belgian-born philosopher of science Vinciane Despret’s initiation into deep listening began with a physical jolt when she was awakened by “a blackbird singing its heart out, singing with all its might, and all its black bird talent” (“Inhabiting the Phonocene with Birds”, Critical Zones 2020, 254). The virtuosic beauty of the bird’s sonic improvisations was first a source of wonderment (have a listen outside your own window on early spring mornings). Perhaps what became even more striking through those moments of attentive listening was the bird’s insistence on what is important.

For the blackbird, Despret writes,“something has importance above all else, and nothing is of importance other than the fact of singing […] What that blackbird reminded me of, or rather made me experience, in its way, was the extent to which it is important that things have importance. That we [humans] should be there, available, to receive and hear things’ stubborn insistence on having importance, that we should be responsible for welcoming these importances, and not the originator of them” (Ibid., 254).

Such moments of active listening to the sound environment do help underline multiple ways of living that happen in a place at any given time, no matter how fragile. Yet there is something even more powerful in Despret’s statement because it speaks directly of how sonic experience can shift human mindsets: from a position in which human design must determine what is important to a place, towards a position in which human design receives what is important from inhabitants of a site, and then finds a means to convey that importance. What begins as a nighttime awakening from a bird outside can contribute directly to a revision of design practices and planning strategies for regenerative cohabitation. This is the power of sound to open new speculative spaces that include different voices, different relations, different intentions.

Limestone Ear Votive, Ancient Egyptian Collection Louvre. Photo (C) Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Decamps

In the end, I did find the source of that mysterious forest moaning. I ran right into it. Entering a clearing, I happened upon a group of deer performing a mating parade. A robust and heavily antlered red deer stag opened his huge mouth and sounded out a deep and magnificent roar. The power of this utterance traversed my body, momentarily stilling me and all the other deer in the field.

Sounds are not a backdrop to our world, they are the vibrant relations that connect creatures of all kinds to place. Starting to listen is simple, especially when one is jolted into the act by a roar or a song: it starts by being physically and mentally present in a place and noticing a sound. However, it’s the practice of staying with that sound in other realms of life that is more difficult. I refer to Despret again who asks: How can we convey “narratives that bear the mark of what is important to birds and that pay respect to the dogged desire to sing”? (Ibid., 255). For stakeholders in transformational projects, I ask: How can our projects that elaborate place learn from and engage with generative powers of the soundings of earthly critters?

The Red Deer Roars in Dyrehaven.

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