On Listening – edited by Angus Carlyle & Cathy Lane
Review by Cheryl Tipp.
Following on from the sell-out success of In the Field: the art of field recording, CRiSAP Directors Angus Carlyle and Cathy Lane have brought to the publishing table another fine anthology. ‘On Listening’ is a compilation of forty essays penned by a fascinating array of individuals that engage with sound in various ways. The line-up is certainly impressive; David Hendy, Peter Cusack, David Toop, Salomé Voegelin, Daniela Cascella, Rupert Cox, Moushumi Bhowmik and Michael Chanan to name but a few. All are respected figures in their individual fields that bring with them a wealth of knowledge, experience, musings and questions surrounding the subject of listening.
As the editors rightly express in their introduction, listening is becoming an increasingly popular area of study and discussion. Last year alone was a big one: the role of sound and listening in human culture was explored in the acclaimed 30 part BBC Radio 4 series ‘Noise: a Human History’ and collective listening events, organised by bodies such as In the Dark, Kinokophone, CRiSAP and The British Library, took place across the UK (and beyond). A sound portal was erected in the grounds of the Chelsea College of Art and Design and there was even an international conference on the art and craft of field recording. All these activities build on foundations laid by musicians, composers and writers such as John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Pierre Schaeffer, Jean-Luc Nancy and R. Murray Schafer who through their work have tried to foster a greater awareness of the importance of listening.
The anthology itself is divided into four curated sections – Listening Perspectives, Listening Spaces, Listening Devices and Listening to Self and Other. Thus each segment offers the reader a well-balanced selection of texts based around a defined theme; very handy if you’re interested in a particular subject or don’t want to tackle the book in the traditional cover to cover way. Saying that, you could literally dive into the collection at any point and not be disappointed.
Each essay has its roots in a certain discipline, whether that be field recording, ethnomusicology, anthropology, sociology or the sonic arts. As we turn the pages we encounter various subjects; the power of sonic journalism, the role of radio in human society, balloon popping around the Barbican, the onomatopoeic nature of bird names, the power of recordings to preserve time, improvising with Humpback Whales, the relationship of music to cinematic performance and the healing power of listening in post-genocide Rwanda. This scattergun approach has resulted in an anthology that succeeds on all fronts: the content is informative, engaging, moving and, most importantly, inclusive. Too many publications that fall under the “sound studies” banner become wrapped up in a language that is inaccessible and, quick frankly, a chore to read. Thankfully you don’t need to be an academic to appreciate and enjoy these essays. Anybody with an interest in sound can immediately access the content and the broad nature of the publication means that there is something for everyone. Lane and Carlyle write in the preface:
“Given the fundamental importance of listening not just in an artistic context but throughout lived experience, we also recognise that there is yet to be a publication that takes a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary perspective on listening as an applied practice. This publication aims to begin that process.”
Mission well and truly accomplished.
Cheryl Tipp is the curator of the wildlife sound archive at the British Library. Click here to explore the collection.