aural thoughts

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  1. The room is almost completely dark, lit only by a projector screen and some fairy lights I have placed on the currently empty table. I breath slowly, trying to look calm and collected. I go over everything once more in my mind. Performance. Presentation. Participants discussion. The first person walks through the door, I smile and ask them to sit down anywhere, anywhere they like around the table.

     

    No turning back now- let the séance begin.

     

     

    Points of Listening is a monthly programme of experimental workshops centred on and around practices of listening, together.  “It is an expanded and nomadic arena for practice and research that facilitates experimental scenarios with a participatory and performative emphasis.” ) It is co-convened by Salomé Voegelin and Mark Peter Wright in association with CRISAP, University of the Arts, London.

    For my Points of Listening session, I have proposed to perform a live piece of art, newly created, called ‘Aural Séance’ with a post-performance presentation and discussion. The work is part of my current practice based PhD in sound art at UAL.  My research degree investigates ‘inner sounds’ – sounds we hear as part of our inner worlds of thoughts, emotions and desires. It aims to call those sounds forward, to focus our attention on them, as well as define what they are and what they mean to us.

     

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    The table is full. Mark Peter Wright introduces the session and then it starts. I slowly walk up to the top of the table, look at the participants and start. I tell them how dangerous a séance can be. Tell them to focus, to close their eyes. I start to walk around the table, slowly. I summon the sound of darkness. The sound of fear. The sound of kindness. I keep walking around the table. I make sure they are aware of my presence by lightly touching their shoulder, their hair, their arm. Sometimes I stop, listening with one of them. I talk to them about the sound we are both listening for.

     

    ‘Aural Séance’ aims to, first and foremost, to focus our attention towards our capacity for inner listening, inner sounds. Through my research, I have found that – perhaps because we are a culture focused on the visual in many ways, perhaps for other reasons -  people frequently start by telling me they never hear inner sounds, that they don’t exist. I have devised various strategies for focusing your mind ‘sonically’, to listen inwards. Often, those same people who told me that they don’t hear inner sounds will speak to me again, later, maybe hours or days or weeks later, and tell me they DO hear inner sounds, they just never paid attention to them before. ‘Aural Séance’ aims to re-focus the participants attention towards these internal sounds.  

    " ‘Aural Séance’ aims to, first and foremost, to focus our attention towards our capacity for inner listening, inner sounds. "

    How, then, can we hear without our ears? We are all aware of the expression ‘our minds eye’ – but do we have a corresponding ‘minds ear’? This question has been present in my research throughout - if we need our ears to listen, how can we then listen to our minds? One way of theorising and thinking through this issue has been with the help of French philosopher Maurice Merlau-Ponty. He argues that we are wrong to divide our experience into ‘body’ and ‘mind’ – we experience things as one being, as what he calls a ‘body-subject’ – an intertwining of body and mind. Thinking of hearing in this way means we can talk about a thinking body, but also, more importantly, a hearing mind. Merleau-Ponty also argues that there is not as clear a border as we would like to think between ourselves and the outer world. He speaks of experience and ‘pre-personal’ – the ‘I’, he argues, comes later with reflection. In the moment of experience, the border between us and the world is shifting, porous, changing. ‘Aural Séance’ uses the format of a Victorian style séance to explore this theme of ‘openness’ within inner listening. The idea first started to take shape while reading Lisa Blackmans book ‘Immaterial Bodies (2012)’, in which she discusses threshold experiences, which she defines as: “phenomena which suggests some kind of transport between the self and other, inside and outside, and material and immaterial” (Blackman, p 20)  A séance is interesting in this context, as it’s an experience which raises questions about the ‘contained’ nature of our inner selves. It consists of a group of people listening for, looking for or feeling towards ONE thing, sensation, spirit or sound. Frequently, the group of séance participants report they all experienced the same thing. This still stands whether you believe in the spirit world or think their experiences are just based on suggestion – a group of people somehow shared in a ‘inner’ experience.

    In ‘Aural Séance’ a group of participants are asked to all listen towards the same ‘inner’ sound. The sound prompts are designed to be abstract, to avoid triggering an obvious, recognised sound – the ‘sound of water’ is not used, but rather the sound of kindness, darkness etc. The participants are aware both of each other, and of the facilitator/artists presence in the space, and their listening towards the same sounds as they are. To further highlight this, and create a sense of a shared inner listening experience, I stop and listen WITH individual participants throughout the séance – talking to them about the sound we are both listening towards, while lightly touching their arm, their shoulder or just leaning against their chair.

     

    The séance comes to an end. I stop at the head of the table, and ask everyone to take a deep breath. Slowly open their eyes. I warn them that they should leave any sound they heard behind in this space, as they might otherwise haunt them in their daily lives. I walk out of the room and turn on the lights.

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    After performing the piece to the group, I have designed a short presentation to start discussion on the themes of the work. As is often the case, people are keen to discuss inner sounds, what they are, could they hear them? As I try to move the discussion on to other topics, such as he definition of ‘inner’ and how listening, inner listening and seances starts to question our understanding of it, the participants linger on inner sounds. Some of them are sound artists, and want to know if I have advice for listening inwards. Some of them wants me to describe the sounds I hear. Some want to talk about the sound of dreams.  They are an amazingly generous group of people, all willing to share experiences and discuss the work and how it affected them. I am left with the feeling of moving to quickly, of retrospectively wishing I allowed more time just to discuss inner sounds.   

     "As is often the case, people are keen to discuss inner sounds, what they are, could they hear them?"

    I have been both excited and nervous about doing a Points of Listening session for a long time, and I’m so glad I finally did one. Reflecting on the session, what was said, the work and its contexts has since defined an area which looks a lot like a chapter for my PhD. Performing your work, and then allowing a discussion and feedback on it might seem like a daunting thing to do (it did to me anyway!) but it was worth it.

     

    Can YOU hear the sound of nothing?

     

    Yes

     

    What does it sound like?

     

    (Silent listening)

    Previously published on the UAL Post Graduate Blog

     

  2. You may or may not know that I have called my Instagram account ‘silent scores’.  Among other things on there, I often post ‘scores’, like the one below.

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    Silent Score Instagram post 

    But what is a ‘silent score’? I started to explore the idea of visual scores - musical scores made using images, texts or graphics – as I started to become interested in what I call ‘inner sounds’ – sounds we hear as part of our inner world of thoughts, emotions and memories. I was studying towards an MA in sound art, and we were asked to create a score as one of our assignments. Even though I can read music, I did not really have much interest in creating a ‘regular’ score. I started to research scores which did not use regular notation (like Pauline Oliveros and Cornelius Cardew) and also people who used regular notation, but in ‘irregular ways (like John Cage, for example). The idea I came up with was to use objects to create a score.

    I had imagined this score to be played by an orchestra (which was specified in the brief of the project) but of course, as I presented at university, I did not have an orchestra (no surprise there!)

    "I developed the idea of the ‘object score’ - it lost the idea of an orchestra performing it and became a score for you and your minds sounds – the objects were used to trigger or suggest ‘inner’ silent sounds within the audience’s mind."

    Something about lining up the objects I had collected and asking my fellow students and lecturers to imagine the orchestra playing them made me think. Do we hear sounds in our minds? What kind of sounds? How do these ‘inner sounds’ influence our experience of ‘outer sounds’? To explore this further, when I had the chance to exhibit my work in Brighton, I developed the idea of the ‘object score’ - it lost the idea of an orchestra performing it and became a score for you and your minds sounds – the objects were used to trigger or suggest ‘inner’ silent sounds within the audience’s mind.

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    'Score for silence' exhibition, Brighton  

    The exhibition generated some really interesting conversations with visitors and made me realise two things – the first one was that there was such a thing as ‘inner sounds’ – enough of the audience members I talked to had heard or experienced them. And, secondly, I realised how little research there was on this topic. That is when I came to the conclusion that I really wanted to focus on ‘inner sounds’ for my PhD research, which I applied for and started the following year.

    So, why ‘silent scores’? One of the things I really like about visual scores are that they are very inclusive - Cornelius Cardew’s famous visual score ‘Treatise’ can be thought of alongside his work with improvisation, and the belief that anyone should be encouraged and welcome to play instruments – no matter your ‘level’ or prior knowledge. ‘Treatise’, in a way, democratises this reading of a score – no one has ‘expertise’ in making sense of it, so everyone is sort of at the same level when they try to interpret it. Visual scores also leave a lot of the interpretation to the performer, which is perfect when you are interested in exploring something like the sound in someone’s mind!

    "One of the things I really like about visual scores are that they are very inclusive."

    I always want to create work which is accessible and interesting to anyone – you shouldn’t have to be a expert in sound art or musical notation to understand. And I think sound and hearing are fascinating and useful things to consider, so want to introduce them to as many people as I can!

    My Instagram ‘silent scores’ then, is one of several ways I use images, text, graphics and instructions in my work to explore and ‘trigger’ inner sound experiences. I will finish of with a final visual score for inner sounds...

     

    Think of a sound the image suggests

    LISTEN, IN SILENCE

     

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