PhD Diaries #1; First Explorations of Deep Listening

In an online Deep Listening workshop last week, we were asked to look around our rooms and think about an object and its sound potentials. There are bells that hang on my curtain rods, but they never ring, they are purely ornamental. I felt an overwhelming sadness that the bells weren’t doing what they were made to do, that I had silenced them. I took them down and experimented- dragging them across the table, throwing them into the palm of my hand, flicking them with the end of my fingernail. I was deeply absorbed, listening with all my attention to all the sonic possibilities of these bells.

The first performance of my PhD takes place in different spaces, some of which will be extremely hectic and noisy, and in preparation for that I am working my way through some of Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditation pieces. The performance will examine if and how I’m able to keep my focus on the music, despite all the distraction that’s happening around me. In the silence and stillness of my practice room I’m able to immerse myself in the piece, to go deep and slip easily into that flow state, but a shout from the neighbour or a ding from an incoming WhatsApp message can bring me entirely out, and leave me feeling like the ‘music’ is ruined. The aim then, is not to ignore the sounds around me, but to acknowledge them as part of the piece, to view them with curiosity and acceptance.

I’m working through some of the pieces with two friends who are also doing PhDs and have some experience of this type of composition. The first session was this Tuesday, and before it started I was extremely nervous. Who did I think I was leading this session when I am no expert?

The waiting around before is the worst, I have so many thoughts, doubts and fears running through my head. I can see my hand is shaking slightly because of how spidery my handwriting has got” Extract from journal entry.

I had booked a terrible room. The walls were clearly not soundproofed at all and the pianist rehearsing next door may as well have been playing on top of us. Every time she started up again, I beat myself up for booking this space. Why didn’t I think about who would be playing around us?

But as the session went on, I began to accept the sounds of the piano. They became part of the piece. Working our way through From Unknown Silence, listening carefully to the quality of the impossible silences and how each one was different, each one affected by the faceless pianist next door, they became part of the piece. Exploring our breath as the pianist drilled runs, I could hear the piano, but it didn’t stop me from being able to also listen to the sound of our breathing at different tempos, dynamics and sounds.  

These pieces are helping me to accept the sonic landscape I find myself a part of.

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