Listening Practice

Fes, Morocco, on a scrubby hill overlooking/over-listening the city. Like the view, the image in sound is dense in detail. Tiny spikes of contrast: a distant horn, sparrows flittering in the foreground, the sharper cry of a child nearby. Emerging from a grey droning sea: scooters, voices, air conditioners, idling buses, the overlapping calls to prayer. Altogether these sounds form the averaged sound of a city.

As the view confounds any understanding of the city’s order (minarets stand out as landmarks, but little else is to be read from the hilltop view), the sound adds to the confusion, the din as blurry as the myriad of flat rooftops cascading up and down the topography of the valley. What is it to listen to all of this sound, within this thickened space overwhelmed by colliding signals?

Listen to the madly twittering sparrows, but the sharp focus on one sound blurs the rest. Try to pick out a revving scooter, but is it the scooter or something else not known, not seen? Part of the fascination is just looking at the city as though it were a model train set, with tiny voices occasionally audible above the averaged sound.

A third alternative: Listen to the averaged sound and forget the names of everything, just appreciate the pure averaged sound. Is listening in this case still listening to Fes, or is the averaged sound of a city just a sound, even a kind of musical assemblage to appreciated for its own sake?

Listening encompasses all of these things: concentration on particular sounds (signals), deference to the shapelessness of background sound, and puncturing the thin divide between music and pure sound. John Cage found music everywhere, in everything. He found music because he wanted to listen, and he listened to all sounds with a devoted practice of listening. 

Recently, not traveling (at least not in an obvious way), I was walking on a lunch break from my office in downtown San Francisco up one of its many hills. I paused at a park looking over the city, and there it was again, that blend of many sounds rushing up and passing over me. If I were to snatch any one of them, say a honking taxi cab or a siren from two miles away, I would know: yes, I am in San Francisco. But I still find that forgetting San Francisco momentarily, digging beneath the language of sound, to really hear the sounds, the averaged sound—this permits a kind of instantaneous travel in time and space. Is this San Francisco or is it Fes, just in a new place at a new time.