A Pedagogy of Listening

Composing with/in Media Texts

Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

Supplement: Dinner Conversation at Milena's

Dinner Conversation at Milena's
Recorded by David Murphy

Participants: Milena Droumeva, David Murphy, and Hildegard Westerkamp
(Thumbnail Source: thefuturistics, 2007)

David Murphy: Well, thank you, Milena, for inviting us to dinner. This is so wonderful to have us all here, and such lovely food.

Hildegard Westerkamp: Yes, thank you, it's really nice. [all: laughter] Should we just start?

Everyone: Yes!

HW: Cheers, guys, thanks for including me in this. I am so delighted by the fact that you guys have been going through that education.

Milena Droumeva: I did a soundwalk at one of the education conferences, which was an earlier version of what we just went to, and they loved it! I mean, a few people invited me afterwards to give additional soundwalks in their classrooms, specifically with the aim to learn how to do it themselves and also in classrooms of student–teachers. So there's definitely an appetite; they just lack the training, so there's that one last step that's stopping them.

HW: Also reminds me a little bit of how I used to feel a bit of discomfort with doing soundwalks, and I couldn't find out why, and I think it has to do with the fact that it's a very strange activity—going on a soundwalk, and leading it. Because it's not really an event, and it's not really an exercise.

MD: It's an experience.

HW: It's an experience. And I never realized how complex it actually is to set it up and to—you know the leader has to feel connected, the followers have to be connected. And I wonder if it's the same for the teachers, they need to understand the depth of it.

MD: Once we did it, and I really debated with myself whether to take up the whole time of their class or whether to shorten it, and my feeling was, you don't shorten a soundwalk because there are certain processes that have to unfold. So we talked about that afterwards, how really the first 20 minutes and even more are overcoming your internal murmur and your internal thoughts about things you have to do in your day, and once you kind of go over that and you're still in this experience, then you really settle into it and start paying attention, and that's when the discovery starts. And they couldn't wait to talk about it, and that's to me really a good mark.

HW: You have to have that time afterwards, you really do. Twenty minutes, half an hour, isn't it? That's when you feel the shift in the group, right?

DM: So the exercise has to be at least 45 minutes and also a time afterwards.

HW: Definitely a time afterward.

MD: I'm thinking of this article by Ursula Franklin (1994), "Silence and the Notion of the Commons," how sound and listening open the possibility for what she calls "unprogrammed events" because so much of our life is programmed and recorded, and you get to play it. But actually, going out and trying to do something and opening yourself up to listening—you don't know what's going to happen! And it's scary, but so necessary.

HW: Maybe that's also where the discomfort comes in.

MD: Yeah.

DM: I think that's an interesting phenomenon, and I wanted to ask, these 45 students are all first-year students, so they're like 18 to 20 years old. So how do you begin to initiate them, how do you introduce the idea to them of a soundwalk?

HW: So, I was introduced as someone who has done this stuff for a while and who is a composer. And I basically just did a very short introduction, just trying to describe what a soundwalk is, and that we'll have this opportunity to spend this time doing things we normally don't do, like listening intensely and not speaking. And that this sort of, the social group that is quiet moving through the environment is an extraordinary thing, and that with younger people I often like to point out that we're doing something that we know, but our environment won't. And so we get funny reactions. So as long as we know what we're doing you know, we can hold that together, and be a little bit like a guerrilla action. That usually appeals. [all: laughter]

DM: Do you usually talk to them about their devices?

HW: So this time for the first time, because when I rode up in the elevator there was me and three other people and they all were on some headphones. So I said that when I came in, "how many of you have devices with you?" and there was like three who didn't. [laughter] So I said I've never done this, but in this soundwalk I'd like you to use that device consciously, so I would like you to experiment with what happens to the soundscape around you and your listening when you put your earbuds in your ear. I want you to listen to that. And then I want you to listen to what you're hearing in your music and what you're hearing outside while the music is on, and how much do you hear. I don't want you to do it longer than three minutes, and then just do the same thing—take them out consciously, and listen to what happens to your listening, what happens acoustically to the whole thing. And I was really interested afterwards in the discussion. Not that many did it actually—that was the interesting part. There were about four or five who really experimented with it and had all sorts of comments that were fascinating. Because one of them decided not to put music on but just put them in like a kind of ear protection, like an ear plug. To me, I guess it becomes more and more important that we do integrate those tools that are out there.

DM: To, to recognize your device as part of the soundscape too.

HW: You know, in sonic mediation, you could say, I know you're on your devices. I'd like you to observe when that becomes conscious in your mind, and you want to use it, and why.

MD: I feel like this is really at the heart of what we're teaching actually. If we think of listening as a metaphor, we're teaching them the skills of how to direct consciousness. And this is what I think it really is about, whatever it is—listening to your music, or I've been sending out students to record, collect sounds, like auditory treasure hunts, bring them back, listen to them together, but record them on your phone. It really is about designing moments of conscious attention.

HW: And the phone, there is an enthusiasm that we all feel with a new tool. And I remember how excited I felt with a microphone when I first recorded—I mean, what an ear opener! And now that I have an iPhone, I can't believe how excited I am about its photographic or video abilities.

DM: Now, you can do a recording—this will be a comparison that we can see between a really how really expensive stereo microphone and my utility app, Voice Memo. [The following was recorded on an iPhone, and the sound is less rich.] This is now recording us. Whatever they've done with with this little microphone, this tiny little thing, somehow can pick up┬ájust about everything in this room.

MD: [Back to original recording] The dynamic range is not as rich but…

HW: I guess one of the things I like to be quite detailed about in talks with people is to say, we have all these devices and all this passion about making videos and photos and recordings and all that, and yet it's still our ears that are doing the listening. It's because of its difference, right? It shows us another ear, another way of listening, and that's inspiring.

MD: It is actually a reciprocal, constantly iterating relationship, and it's ok as a teacher to have undetermined outcomes and to experience something—I think it's such a valuable thing to model to your students to put yourself in a vulnerable position where you don't know the outcome.

HW: Well, it's a little bit how in the technology world people are being trained. They have to learn on the job, so there is a much more experimental approach to developing your skills nowadays. And maybe this has to happen in schools because of ever-changing technology.

DM: The mindful focus is so important these days in order to navigate through distractions.

MD: Soundwalking and listening offer that as well, stopping and being in the moment.

HW: And I think that's why we're always getting young people to come to the soundwalks.

DM: Part of what this soundwriting does is open up this concept of trans-disciplinarity. It's not just English, you need to work through these as individual learning, and whether you call it English or Fine Arts or Design or whatever, is not nearly as important as the individual's ability to create something that responds to their lived experience.

HW: Basically goes against everything that's happened in academia. When you look at the proliferation of conferences these days where everybody has to present in a certain way, I mean academia itself seems to want to keep tradition.

MD: Oh absolutely, and it comes back to evaluation and assessment, and even academics are evaluated in these very traditional forms—the presentation, the paper.

DM: How do you judge these? How do you mark these? I think that that question is probably not as important as we all try to make it—

HD: The marking question?

DM: I know that it's the one that keeps coming up, but I think your job as a teacher becomes about judging how far did this person come, how much did they learn, how much effort did they put in, and you still have to make that judgment. The soundscape perspective has this 45-year history that is really completely unique in that the soundwalks, the sonic journals, the podcasts that we create come from a different tradition. And not that these can't all work together and should work together because we can all learn from each other with this. What we like is that we're already in this practice of creating sonic representations of lived experiences. And how can we infuse those with even more ideas coming from English and from other disciplines—science too.

MD: Comes back to exploration—of lived world and of the surrounding environment.

HW: Coming back to English and writing—I mean, writing is also a form of listening, right? We are listening to an inner voice, a thought. If that is becoming conscious, your writing is also more intentional perhaps because you're listening more consciously to something that's going on inside you. The students already come engaged on some level into the classes, because the technology is already engaging them. They're already very occupied, so suddenly the teacher at that point has to hook into that engagement. They are already used to going on the Internet and finding their knowledge. There's an entitlement there that they already have. And that changes the relationship to education right there and then. It's that lived exchange in the educational environment that is still the absolutely most important to process whatever is happening.

MD: That's really what it's about. It's not even about the technologies for me, but just to not exclude it. To actually draw in whatever it is that they're using. Dave had this concept of tuning that we put in the paper, as a metaphor—where as a teacher you kind of attune your methods.

DM: I think of it as vocal harmony. What we love about vocal harmony and what we miss when we auto-tune is that in a harmony it's not about hitting the note, it's about two people negotiating where the note is and how to stay there together. And if you think about that in the metaphor of teaching, it's not about them reaching your pitch, it's about you and them working together to create this thing.

HW: It's about a relationship. And interesting, tuning is always a negotiation. The issue is what is the best possible relationship between all the notes.

DM: Which is uncomfortable.

MD: But it's about cultivating an exploratory spirit and a listening ear and an ability to problem solve and to learn new things and to have your own internal system.

[sound of crunching]

HW: It's so fragile.

DM: It's a lovely sound!

HW: Isn't it incredible? It's not like chips. They're called kale chips [crunching] and to me they're particularly delicious because they come from my garden. [home ambience, more clinking and soundmaking]

HW: This is quite a nice place.

MD: You like it?

HW: oh yeah.

DM: These are cool.

MD: These are Chinese medicine balls. The idea is to twirl them around without them touching each other. [melodic clinking]

HW: So I brought something that has internal sounds—I think you call it stardust. [melodic sprinkles of sound] You can't really hear it unless you're moving it.

MD: Ok, this is a little bit loud. [high pitched birdsong-like sound] I'm not doing anything, just blowing. It's because of the water.

HW: Luke and Sonya brought these back from New Zealand. [percussive clicking sounds]

DM: It actually sounds like a frog.

HW: Here, you try that one. [differently pitched clicking sounds; all: laughter]