Today is World Listening Day. Sponsored by the World Listening Project and celebrating the birthday (80 today) of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, one of the day’s purposes is “to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology” (from www.worldlisteningproject.org). Schafer is one of the founders of the Acoustic Ecology movement.
I like the idea of Acoustic Ecology. We live in a noisy world and seem to blithely accept all sorts of intrusive noise. Two bugbears of Mrs Mabbsonsea and I are electric hand dryers and leaf blowers. What’s wrong with a human-powered broom? What’s wrong with drying your hands on your trouser legs? The most environmentally-friendly ways of doing things are often also the quietest – with not even the rustle of a paper towel. Many people seem unable to cope without constant noise, with their personal stereos (or – much worse – playing music on their phone in public places) and the canned music playing everywhere. Brighton Pier is a good (bad?) example of this. It could be a great place to go and sit in a free deckchair and look back over the sea to the town and the hills, enjoying a few moments of peace listening to the sea and the gulls. But all along the length of the pier are little loudspeakers playing someone else’s choice of tinny music and the whole experience is made irritating.
This could all seem rather trivial – just the rantings of a grumpy middle-aged man. But I think there are important issues around Acoustic Ecology. One is that silence is good. It is good for our souls to learn to be comfortable with silence, with nothing-ness. I suspect that part of our need for constant manufactured sound is that it stops us from having to come face-to-face with our inner selves in silence. Nothing-ness is scary. Would I still exist if I had no speech, no possessions, no task to do? Just me in the silence. Just me and God in the silence is even more scary, perhaps. But if we never discover who we are in the silence, who are we?
So connecting with our true, inner self is one important aspect of acoustic ecology. Another is connecting with the world around us. I think that this is not simply about getting rid of noise, but about becoming aware of our soundscape. Stopping to listen increases awareness and thus connectedness. The wind in the trees, a squirrel walking along the fence top, birdsong, grass seed cracking in the sun, a bus braking to turn the corner, someone using a cold chisel, a child drumming in a shed, a dog barking – it’s all part of my world. Somewhere out there is the roar of fire in the stars and that’s part of my world too, although my hearing’s not all that good – too much rock music, perhaps. Becoming more aware of our soundscape may help us appreciate parts of our world that we hadn’t been aware of before. It may also help us be more deliberate about the noise we no longer wish to tolerate and so shape a kinder, more harmonious world.
I sat out in the garden with my early morning coffee and listened. It was a very pleasant experience. I think that, seeing as it’s World Listening Day, it’s my duty as a world citizen to do the same again.