The Listener’s Listening

English ( Lawrence English )
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PhD Thesis

This research project explores the experience of listening as it relates to the practice of field recording. It develops an emergent theoretical framework, called ‘the listener’s listening’ - an approach to listening rooted in affect that reflects the agentive and creative capacities of the listener. A subsequent listening condition is examined which explores the relationship between the listener and the recording technologies on which they rely to capture a field recording. The ‘listener’s listening’ proposes that any listening undertaken during the completion of field recording must be engaged and conscious. It also proposes this listening to be agentive, in that it is temporal and rooted in the artist’s creative engagements in place and time. This necessitates a participatory approach to the experience of audition that engages the artist’s social and cultural milieu. The project uses this theoretical lens to ask the key question: what experiential elements are involved in conducting and completing a field recording?

The thesis is contextualized within several historical and social developments. Field recording is described as a product of particular technological, social and historical movements. The technology of reproduction emanates from Edison’s phonograph invented in the 1800s. From this development, several other innovations have been significant, principally affording an increased access to, and ease of use of, technologies including microphones, amplifiers and other recording devices, which have resulted in field recording becoming more readily available as a practice. Social phenomena that have influenced field recording across the 20th century include ethnography (Filene, 2000), sound recording (Schaeffer, 2012), acoustic-ecology (Schafer, 1993), musicology (Svec, 2013), and most recently fine arts (Lane & Carlyle, 2013). Each of these social phenomena have influenced and helped define the contemporary understandings of field recording. Finally, historical movements and various key works have also provided a contextual frame for the practice. These include radiophonic works (Tonkiss, 2003) but most especially Luc Ferrari piece 'Presque Rien ou Le lever du jour au bord de la mer' (Ferrari, 1970) is explored as the link to the creative practice element of this research project.

Theoretically, the study explores the role of field recording in relation to sound phenomena, place and listening in order to address the experiential elements of the practice. Sound, as the material content of field recordings is theorised in the absolute, existing above, below and within commonplace audition, through a vibrational ontological approach (Goodman, 2010). Following O’Callaghan (2012), the study considers sound as a series of events that are decoded, translated and apprehended from which meaning is made. Place is theorised, in relation to Morton (2007) as open, complex and flowing, and is understood as an atmosphere that floats within location. It is, the where of listening, and the zone of engagement between sound as vibration and listener as attentive and agentive artist. Listening is theorised in relation to the listener who must be attentive to the sound events that unfold in time and place, and through doing so create a unique listening. The process of listening in relation to the practice of field recording forms the basis of the new theoretical lens for this thesis.

The use of practice led and reflexive methodologies foregrounded the experiential elements of field recording. These practices were conducted and focused using sensory ethnography, and an emergent associated methodological approach ‘sound specific ethnography’. The practice led nature of the work derived the research question from the challenges identified in practice (Gray, 1996). Following from Graham (2016) and Grierson & Brearley (2009), a practice led approach facilitated the identification and development of the research question through a reflexive and relational framework. As an experiential framework reflexivity encourages the artist-researcher to refocus the day-to-day operations of their practice in order to formalise their research project. Through the sensory ethnography and sound specific ethnography methodologies I reflected specifically on sound and addressed its unique challenges and the practices required to approach it. Methods included listening exercises, audio recording, journaling and studio work.

The execution of the creative work, Approaching Nothing, offered an optimal setting to utilise the emergent theoretical positions and the methods outlined. This setting was optimal as it provided a diverse range of potential field recording opportunities across four days and nights in Vela Luka, Croatia. The site of Vela Luka is also significant historically for field recording as Luc Ferrari recorded his piece Presque Rien ou Le lever du jour au bord de la mer there in 1968, a significant contextual anchor for this thesis and the creative work itself. As the creative work component of this research project it is analysed through the theoretical and methodological tools outlined previously in this exegesis.

The main contributions in relation to the research question is that:

• Field recording is an episodic, embodied, relational practice that is informed by socio-cultural understandings. The practice is dependent on the artist-researcher embedding themselves temporally in a field of audition. Field recording is a proximate, qualitative encounter, apprehended through cognitive and affective means, and concerns itself not with the super-representational, quantitative, aspects of sound, but rather the sub-representational or qualitative.

• The ‘listener’s listening’ theory outlines the framework through which the act of listening, as it pertains to field recording, is completed. This particular approach to listening requires the listener to heighten their attention and simultaneously embrace multiple aspects of the embodied relationship that listening requires. This position is an intermediation of the artist-researcher, sound, place, and technology.

• Sound, as the object of listening and thus field recording, is ongoing, chaotic and fluxing, and it is through this that a listening pierces. The listener, as an agentive practitioner, carves out a unique listening that reflects their interests and preoccupations, from any number of other possible listenings in that place and time. Therefore, even if the place and time of listening were shared, no two artist-researchers’ experiences would ever be the same.

• Place, as it pertains to field recording, is not merely the static, physical characteristics in which sound unfolds. Rather, it is the dynamic and shifting production that reflects the listener’s affective relation with the environment that they are working in. Place is therefore an affective atmosphere and a lived in zone, that is framed both within space and location.

• A listener’s listening is affectively shaped by the senses, and acutely tuned to the resonances of place in time. The listening accepts sound in the absolute, reflecting the opportunity for sounds, and non-sounds, those that exist beyond everyday audition, to have affective potential for the listener.

• Field recordings are the capture of a listening that unfolds in a relational field of audition; one that relies on a condition being established and maintained between two horizons of audition. The horizon of audition refers to the dynamic and evolving zone of available sound that surrounds a listener (Idhe, 2007). The first horizon of audition is the organic, interior, affective and psychologically shaped listening of the artist-researcher. The second horizon of audition is forged by the microphone and recording device and is accordingly external to the listener themselves and technologically bounded. These two horizons of audition necessarily overlap in a field recording. Field recording is the manifestation of a listening that occurs temporally in place. The relation listening condition established between the two horizons of audition determines its success or failure.  
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