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What is Deep Listening?

What is Deep Listening?

Deep listening is many things to many people and we all have the ability to listen deeply.

As a practitioner of deep listening I have studied the works of leaders in this area from Composers to fellow Artists to Philosophers and beyond. My practice includes listening exercises, working with sound, diaries, field recordings and more.... And I am still very much in the infancy of learning. And the very nature of it means I may never fully 'master' it.

So why bother? My sense is that we are in an age of data overload. Data is one dimensional and often driven to prove or disprove a point, a debate or a scientific theory. Data is the new deity to many and I think it is leading us down an unhealthy path. There are plenty of stats and data on this too…oh the irony. So I’ll share just two that resonate with me the most; we humans have created 90% of the data that exists in its entirety in the last 2 years, on average Google processes 40,000 searches every second. Every second. Is it any wonder that we are all just a little overwhelmed sometimes and stress is on the rise? Deep listening is a solid antidote to data overload and our quest to know everything.

Let’s look at data. First of all, it engages us with a rigid, almost God like view of what a situation or the world around us is. Data as the new deity is here. It is fixed and often leaves little room for variables – even though it is often a tiny granular point within a larger context. We often consume it at a rate that doesn't allow for absorption or contextualisation. Listening is the opposite in many ways to that. It is temporal in its very nature. A sound narrates and fills but it is always ephemeral and leaves room for doubt. Doubt and a lack of a perceived absolute knowing is, in my opinion, where creativity and a softer edge of ‘knowing’ exists.

Listening can also be a full body, somatic, experience. It is a sensory interaction that we engage with as an activity. It pulls on every fibre of our being to listen. We have none, or very few, of the visual certainties. We are very literally left in the dark to feel and explore our way around what we hear. The Philosopher Michel de Certeau touches on this in his piece “Walking Through The City’ where he proposes that the view of New York from a high building is driven by a desire for total knowledge but what lies beneath is where the text of the city is made, by the footsteps and the exploration of each individual and their own trajectories is where the city is blindly made and understood.

Using this example of a busy city, think about a busy street scene. Visualise it. Now think about it with sound. How much of the scene has been given a sense of aliveness through the sounds? How much more information is ascertained through sound? Car horns, people on phones, crossings, trains and voices all add to our sense of place and information that we gain. The scene itself may present itself as just people milling around. Listening is where subjectivity and objectivity meet. Sound invites the body into the experience of listening and helps make the object and subject come alive.

It is this richer view and subjectivity that allows a more creative and softer edge of knowing. I was really struck this week by somebody’s post that I follow on Instagram. It was of a bubbling cauldron of green sculpting wax. As with any boil it had various stages of bubbles all happening at once. Some small and some large. Now picture that a little more vividly if you can, let’s say at the largest the bubbles were 20 times that of the smallest. You start to get a picture, right? Some visual tenets of governance apply, the form is the same, circular, they will be on the same surface, of a similar shape, just bigger. And you’d probably be right. None of this happens when listening. In reality the little bubbles sounded like a flight of bees and the larger ones when popping and forming sounded bulbous and large but not as you may expect them to - there was no definitive pop for example. From a spatial context they seemed to follow very few rules of governance either. Every sound moved, none were static and each were temporal and both objective and subjective. But importantly they opened up new ways of perception and just like Certaue’s people show the complexity of any given object and subject.

So what is deep listening? The composer Pauline Oliveros describes it as: ‘Learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space / time continuum of sound – encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible. Simultaneously one ought to be able to target a sound or sequence of sounds as a focus within the space / time continuum and to perceive the detail or trajectory of the sound or sequence of sounds.’

For me deep listening opens up complexities and vastness and in doing so as a continual practice opens some imaginary doors to a greater level of consciousness. Sound carries intelligence and compassion. And understanding comes from listening. But it has no linear learning and very few absolute data points, it takes us to the edge of not knowing where creative possibilities lie. And this is exactly why I bother with a practice that I will possibly never be a master of. There is no gnostic view or short cut. It is simply living. In the moment. Through and as sound.

For a very gentle intro deep listening with a few basic and exploritory group excercises joing myself and Hannah Rzysko on Saturday 13thApril for an afternoon of deep listening, sound and movement. Full details are can be found here.

Jo x

07779 347937


Margate, UK