Resonant ecologies … towards listening

Jessica Foley is a writer and artist currently working as Assistant Lecturer in Visual Art Education at MIC, Limerick.

Jessica Foley


…anything but going into ourselves.

Siobhán McDonald

 Linda O’Keeffe: image relating to The Ecstasy of St Theresa; courtesy the artist
Linda O’Keeffe: image relating to The Ecstasy of St Theresa; courtesy the artist

Stuff to occupy the mind – to fold between the membranes of the day’s events. The apparent stillness of the classroom moments after the final participants pass out the door – the strange alteration in time’s duration – lingering static hanging upon an atmosphere laced with ghosted words and exclamations. Seemingly there is no such a thing as Silence. Sounds, it turns out, do not evaporate, they do not ‘disappear’, so to speak, but they gradually dissipate their wavelengths, unravelling into the minutiae of the cosmos, undulating exponentially towards a fractal universe altogether unfathomable. Absorbing into matter.
Dirt behind the fingernails – more specifically clay – now mounted high, compacted, layer after layer – a small ecology listed there, imagined to be excavated by some tiny archaeologist, peeling away at the layers of preceding hours spent teaching… teaching – concerns list themselves off the length of the arm. Most adamantly pricking at the brain though, the one that won’t whisht, the one that won’t be quieted, the one that wants to think…all the demands of that damned concern spell revolution regardless of the inconvenience. The archaeologists dig away, discovering ruptures – “Here there was some rupture in the status-quo,” they cry, “some discrete shift that changed the manner of following events.” Excited, they carry on.
A gradual focus comes back to the room – eyes impact upon the paintsmatteredtables, the paintings of action and carelessness, those unintentional masterpieces performing functions well beyond the call of duty, vague reminders of reinforced chicken coops. The space becomes cavernous; the high oak ceilings of a long-ago library form reassuring patterns of line. Every now and then they creak a little, caused maybe by the inaudible echoing of the thousand voices battering against them as if waves on the bough. What voice echoes longest? A quote enters the mind:

Whenever Goethe spoke, his voice produced vibrations as harmonious as, for example, the soft voice of your wife, dear Reader. These vibrations encounter obstacles and are reflected, resulting in a to and fro which becomes weaker and weaker in the passage of time but which does not actually cease. So the vibrations produced by Goethe are still in existence, and to bring forth Goethe’s voice you only need the proper receiver to record them and a microphone to amplify their effects, by now diminished.1

Remembered and excerpted from a strange tale about a professor who goes to great and extraordinary lengths to amplify the resonating remains of Goethe’s voice, in order that he may seduce a young female student by exploiting her infatuation with the great writer. Her infatuation is based upon an idea of the man and lies in her suspicions that his voice would sonorously penetrate her to the core, reverberating through her; she would feel his effect, regardless of the matter of the words spoken.
Surprising the thoughts that come as the dust settles – brought on by a phasing out of the eye, something in behind attunes – the skin becomes more receptive, and the air inside the tip of the nostrils becomes suddenly familiar. Sunlight is vaguely observed chasing through the softly circulating air – the contagion of earthy particles therein suggesting a rivalry between the elements.
What is this state? As if the whole surrounding space were complicit in atrickery to pull away the curtains on themind – the eye reduced and the ear enhanced, and yet not a deliberate listening, but a casual hearing, the kind brought on by fatigue, reticence, surrender. The mind at the mercy of the ear and the unpredictable connotations brought forth from the acoustics of the environment – the ecology of sounds and the invisible sediments left wasting in the air.
Though this is no music room, the diamond tiles of the corridor outside, inlaid with symptoms of fleur-de-lis, throw out their percussive qualities when pressed. The windows and doors can scarcely prevent it. That separation of sound from itself; the lilt of pianos in practice manages still to creep down these aisles and pathways, around the tables and under the arches. A man called R M Shafer believed, “…it would be possible to write the entire history of European Music in terms of walls” – chambers of ‘silence’ overthrowing the medieval fantasia of sounds – the sonic experience. He wrote: “With indoor living, two things developed antonymously: the high art of music and noise pollution – for noises were the sounds
that were kept outside. After art music had moved indoors, street music became the object of particular scorn.” The separation incurred through the development of a sand-based technology: glass. This separation between the outdoor living spaces and interior architectures evolved the western conception of music: “It is always the contexts of culture which generate the shapes of its artifacts, and the thick walls of European architecture have been a shaping force behind the development of European music from Gregorian chant to serialism.”2
What chants have graced these surrounding walls? The footstep fall of the long-robed and solemn, rigorously paced by the pealing bell, the arm pulling the fraying rope.
The Ecstasy of St Theresa 3

Boing – dull boing – feeling out and repeating, slowing into a rhythm more in line with the steady heart. Beat. A chant soothes and slips in amongst the pulling and plucking of the guitar. Swirls and ruffles, hisses and whispers of other things – the mega-phoned voice speaking of the ‘Book of Life’ – “this is a second death,” the voice repeats through the ear canal from left to right – and the television kicks in with an earnest voice speaking about attacks – sticks snap – and traffic – and rumbles – a little girl’s voice meanders through some kind of a rhyme – clearer and beyond the television noise – the strings boing – the voices chant back again, through them a peppy pseudo gospel song about your soldiers dying for you – arguments that are irrefutable, the voices say – irrefutable. Click like a mouse – something equivalent to bike spokes turning – the rustle of air on a receiver – all the vowel shapes a mouth would make – that is the sound, deep and echoing and vowelshaped and swirling and suddenly interjected by traffic and TV, street criers and professors upon a foundation of the resonances of men’s voices rising within the walls of some grand cathedral – the deep reverberations strapped into layers of thin sound, backwards talk, boing, boing, boing. Incessant sighs – tinkling and light, subsumed by deep lower registers. The beat bounces on off the strings and a voice speaks in tongues and a crackle like vinyl gets in the way of silence – the guitar tunes up, the needle comes out of its groove…and ever, and ever, and ever – reverberation time less than a second.

…Recollections of a conversation with Linda O’Keefe – and subsequently of her sound works. The Ecstasy of St Theresa, a piece developed by O’Keefe while journeying in the United States in 2008 – combinations of samples recorded from the street, of street criers and religious advocates, incantations from biblical passages, samples taken from the media – TV, radio, internet – and distilled through considered musical compositions and arrangements. R M Shafer uses Hogarth’s The Enraged musician to illustrate that separation between music (indoors) and other sounds (outdoors) which succeeded the advent of glazed windows; the figure in the etching comes to his music-room window in obvious distress, hands clasped to the head to protect the ears, the boisterous scene below graphically alluding to the diverse projections of sound: street criers, drummers, traders and common folk amidst the business of the day. “The street,” Shafer writes, “had now become the home of non-music, where it mixed with other kinds of sound swill and sewage.”4 The rubbish of sound – the wasted wavelengths, collected up and parcelled into digital packages – pulled into multifarious forms by the avid acoustic ecologist. Developing a profile and practice of Acoustic Ecology seems something of a mission for O’Keefe, the documenting of events and sounds no casual enterprise but an obsession – an acute awareness of a certain density in the air, the soundscape – myriad stories to be told, to be gathered, yet to unfold. Again Shafer comes to mind: “There is always a relationship between the social aspirations of a society and the art it produces and when music moves into new contexts and takes on new forms, something is profoundly astir.”5 What is it that stirs here? The curiosity of the atheist aroused by the fervor of the professor and the believer? A keenness to draw attention to the levels rising – to the surplus of sounds building themselves into indistinguishable forms and constellations? “Wherever we are,” John Cage writes, “what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”6 Oîkos – house, dwelling place, habitation in Greek logia – the study of. Ökologie in its initial, German form – transmuted to ecology – the relationship between things as they co-exist, and the patterns and tones of that relationship. Ideas of acoustic ecology draw out the poison from the apple – that there is choice, that “in the external soundscape the ear is always wavering between choices. It soaks up information from all directions”;7 and that there is an important distinction to be made between hearing and listening, and indeed that there is a myth to be dispelled surrounding the ‘separation’ of the senses.
The bell’s pealing ceases – the air vibrates, and once again the oak-lined ceiling re-establishes its presence. That concern for thinking recurs – in constricted time how can thinking happen? Amidst the apparent violence of the soundscape (as Shafer refers to it), how can the choice to listen be made when focus moves towards a defence of sanity through vaguely conscious hearing? Wavelengths manifested through light and sound pulse out from every street corner, from train carriages or shop stereos, those truly disinterested voices and audio trends fashion the aural terrain for the average individual. Can anyone bear to listen to that? A philosopher said: “A will to deny or damage ourselves intellectually could be seen also as a desperate maneuver to cope with our inability to listen in depth.”8 Perhaps this listening is difficult – as difficult perhaps as thinking in depth. Wittgenstein’s theory was that “One keeps forgetting to go right down to the foundations. One doesn’t put the question marks deep down enough.”9 Who has the time, or energy, or inclination for such planting?
Felix Guattari begs the question:

Do we have to invoke History yetagain? There is at least a risk that there will be no more human history unless humanity undertakes a radical reconsideration of itself. We must ward off, by every means possible, the entropic rise of dominant subjectivity. Rather than remaining subject, in perpetuity, to the seductive efficiency of economic competition, we must reappropriate Universes of value, so that processes of singularization can rediscover their consistency. We need new social and aesthetic practices, new practices of the Self in relation to the other, to the foreign, the strange – a whole programme that seems far removed from current concerns.10
Siobhan McDonald: work in progress; courtesy the artist
Siobhan McDonald: work in progress; courtesy the artist

‘Dominant subjectivity’: a universal occidental people, whose perceptions are delivered into thought predominantly through the optical function. All other sensory experiences remain as secondary, scaffolding senses. Perhaps. Though within the visual the aural is present, and vice versa. Shafer believes, “One of the significant characteristics of all sense perceptions is focusing.”11 Surely focusing can be triggered – spontaneously – by the listening mind. The mind that listens is inclusive of its body, and of whatever sense faculties are available to it…
A draught from an open window touches the surface of the skin – hairs stand on end. The meeting in the teahouse elicited a similar effect – a wind penetrating through the narrow channel of the space between the open front door and the entrance to the stonewalled garden. A rain-soaked summer afternoon, the mildness drenched out of the air. “…Anything but going into ourselves…” Her voice expelled the words with that sincerity that comes when thoughts are uncertain. There was a profound sense of presence – that the tables and chairs were actually holding weight – that the tea was indeed steaming into the airstream. A particular coolness in the space that prevented the mind from becoming soft – all senses were tugged into action that day. Her car had been flooded with the rains the night before, a window left open. This was a first encounter that skimmed around the immediate and slipped straight into the cosmos – the universe of unknown and undetermined things all carried around more or less within the body and mind of the artist as she brushes away at the surfaces of the world. She travels a great deal and Siobhan McDonald: work in progress;courtesy the artist collects on her ways the textures of her experiences – feeling through them, and consequently transposing them into a visual expression.
Siobhán McDonald is a painter. A most recent adventure brought her to Montserrat in the West Indies – to Mount Chance, where she worked in an observatory with the scientists. There they record ground movements using seismometers – stations dotted around the base of the volcano, powered by batteries and energy from the sun – their outputs graphed onto lengths of paper for the scientists to decode. “I began to see it as a form of mapping,” she said, “The layers of line and latitude create a visual score, which maps the vibration of the earth’s signals.”12 A traveller conscious of new terrain through vibrations and senses – the practice of her making embedded in a deep listening… The visual remains of the paintings are powerfully suggestive reminders that the mind forgets the movements and experiences and encounters that give rise to the score – becoming layered articulations over time – the beginning indistinguishable from the end – right at the centre of an entropy that is not destructive, not futile, but simply is – “…there is no mystery. Purity, simplicity, truthfulness and the absence of pretence or pretention are the marks of sound art, and such art is universally understood, as are simple folk tales and moral stories. Ordinary people know instinctively that art becomes degraded unless it is kept simple.”13 Falling silence – 1,000 cm2 square canvas – stratified oils and sumi ink – a paling horizon disguising the shadows underneath, the coarser ground hulking through the centre, resting on the still depths of blood red below. And all in between like some labyrinth of pathways, crusted walls rising up around, the walls of the world – an imagining of a landscape suited to the most courageous archaeologist, the most intrepid ecologist – navigating through without a destination in mind, without a summit to attain, without opposition, but with a determined ear – a listening consciousness.
 Siobhan McDonald: Falling softly, 2009, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm; courtesy the artist
Siobhan McDonald: Falling softly, 2009, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm; courtesy the artist

The surface of the paint-splattered table once again demands attention – the relief of it pushing softly into the palm – a reminder of someone else’s thoughts; “The ability to listen, which allows us to hold firm and remain vigilant at the borders of obscurity, might be the condition that makes it possible for us to remain open to further linguistic and theoretical fields of concern. We are thus released from those causalistic ‘explanations’ for which we have developed a kind of addictive tolerance: basically, unrecognized shifts in the meaning of ‘because’ or, motives are not causes.”14 – a cultivation of listening might be a way towards a cultivation of thinking… The openness of the acoustic ecologist – the acknowledgement of choice – the open-ended travels of the painter facilitating a sensory focusing – both recording and compiling; but without that imaginary climax limiting the importance of the process, or hindering the presentation of formalized output.
That concern for thinking reestablishes itself; perhaps it should be voiced louder here under these grand oak panels, allowed to reverberate through this ‘teaching’ space – perhaps with one or another it might resonate at some point in time…
1 Friedrich A Kittler, Gramophone, film, typewriter, Stanford University Press, 1999, pp 59 – 68

2 R M Shafer, ‘Music, non-music and the soundscape’, Companion to contemporary musical thought: Volume 1, ed John Paynter, Tim Howell, Richard Orton and Peter Seymour, Routledge, 1992

3 www.lindaokeefe.com

4 R M Shafer, op cit

5 Ibid

6 John Cage, Silence: lectures and writings, Wesleyan University Press, 1961. pp 3 – 5

7 R M Shafer, op cit

8 Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other side of language: a philosophy of listening, Routledge, 1990, pp 83 – 94

9 Ibid

10 Felix Guattari, The Three ecologies, The Athlone Press, 2000, p 68

11 R M Shafer, op cit

12 Notes from a conversation with the artist Siobhán McDonald, and from the artist’s writing; see www.siobhanmcdonald. com

13 Irish Murdoch, The Fire and the sun: why Plato banished the artists, Oxford University Press, 1977, p 17

14 Gemma Corradi Fiumara, op cit