Episode 1: On Listening

Sounds come to us as songs, noise, or voices. It is played, uttered, and made to surround us. We live in an ocularcentric culture where, before all else, art is often seen first. Within that context, how can we facilitate deep listening experiences?

This episode unravels the thought process behind the November 2020 issue on Object Lessons Space. What is sound or sound-based art, and how are these encounters now being mediated through machines and technology?
Originally Aired: 10 November 2020


Object Lessons Space
Sounds come to us as songs, noise, or voices. It is played, uttered, and made to surround us. We live in an ocularcentric culture where, before all else, art is often seen first. Within that context, how can we facilitate deep listening experiences? This episode unravels the thought process behind the newest issue on Object Lessons Space. What is sound or sound-based art, and how are these encounters now being mediated through machines and technology?
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
Object Lessons Space
Hello and welcome to the first episode of Mushroomed, a podcast hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space. Object Lessons Space is an art historical archive and platform that documents conversations with artists, writers, and curators.

Most of the time, artists don’t work in cocoons. They are embedded into networks of care, professional relationships and informal friendships. They draw from a variety of sources and reference a lot of different things. When you begin to unpick all of this, that’s when you begin to really have a better — and more intimate — understanding of why someone has made work in the way they do.

My name is Joella — I’m the Founding Editor of the platform and your host for this podcast. Mushroomed takes the form of conversations around art making, artistic networks and ecosystems. With this podcast, we take a slower, and hopefully more considered, approach to thinking and talking about art making today; so sit back, grab a drink, and let’s get into it.

In our debut episode, we’ve decided to begin with an introduction of sorts to our newest issue on Object Lessons Space. We publish new articles on our platform once every two months, and we thought it’d be nice to give you the low-down as to the thought processes behind each issue and how everything comes together.

Our latest issue on Object Lessons Space is titled On Listening. On Listening features a total of six artists who work with or think through sound or sound-based mediums, and you can read the full issue online at www.objectlessons.space.

In this episode, we’ll discuss what sound or sound-based art is. You’ll hear from myself, and from the artists we interviewed for this issue.

Sound or sound-based art can take a variety of forms, and it would be remiss of me to categorically or definitively state what sound or sound-based art is. For example, works that centre the utilisation or performance of sonic elements can be considered sound or sound-based art. At the same time, artworks that are about sound itself can also be considered sound or sound-based art. Sound or sound-based art is often temporal, ephemeral and intangible. The experience of encountering sound is an aural one — it’s about tuning in.
Zul Mahmod
I think the idea of like, listening, for me, I think is important because living in a city, it is abundance of sound, but some of us just block it off. But quite interestingly, when you put this song in a museum or gallery context, they pay attention to it, but not, you know, in your daily lives going about, you know, like traffic light sounds. These are, I think, for me, it’s quite beautiful. It has its own rhythm and melody to it.
Object Lessons Space
That was the voice of Zulkiflee Mahmod. Zul is synonymous with the development of sound art in Singapore. He was first trained as a sculptor, and that background has informed the way in which he now approaches and handles sonic materials. Zul is also one of the artists we’ve interviewed for our latest issue, On Listening.Zul has a great point. We can be rather reliant on our eyes, and this is something that is encapsulated by the catch-all term we often use to describe art in the first place — the “visual arts”.

Yet we are surrounded by soundscapes —both discernible and indiscernible. Sounds come to us as songs, noise, or voices. They can take the form of a car’s screeching brakes, a bird chirping ahead, a mother’s soft lullaby, your next door neighbour watching and cheering on a football match on TV, or an ambulance siren piercing through the night. At the same time, these sounds are notoriously hard to pin down. Chances are, the moment you hear a sound, it’s gone the next. It resists capture.

Given that context, how can we facilitate deep listening experiences? Deep listening is a term that was pioneered and popularised by the composer, artist and thinker, Pauline Oliveros. In a TED talk that’s readily available online, Oliveros talks about the moment where the idea of deep listening first came to her. She talks about climbing down into a cistern with her fellow bandmates to play music and make sounds. The echoes and reverberations produced in that place fascinated her.

I quote: —
“We simply improvised, played, and learned that the cistern was playing with us. We had to respect the sound that was coming back to us from the cistern walls, and include it in our musical sensibility. All of this was unspoken and simply experienced.” 
End quote.

Initially, the term “deep listening” came out of a pun — from the fact that Oliveros and her bandmates had been making this music underground.

Deep listening is often a full bodied experience. When speaking about sound or sound-based art, a piece that often comes up is John Cage’s 4”33’. The composition 4”33’ is flexible in that any number of musicians or musical instruments can be included in the performance. The performance is then marked by four minutes and thirty-three seconds of quote-unquote silence, where the musicians sit on stage with their instruments, but do not play. Instead of a musical performance in the traditional sense of the term, what audiences hear are the sounds of the surrounding environment. The rustle of the leaves, an impatient listener tapping their feet on the floor, or the dull hum of the air conditioning unit. 

One of the many things that John Cage’s 4”33’ does is to envelop the listening audience into the creation of the performance itself. How did people react to what they heard, or did not hear? Were they bristling with discomfort, taking deep breaths in order to listen meditatively, or did they walk out altogether? Sounds, and even the perceived lack thereof, can clearly elicit an incredibly visceral reaction from our bodies.

Beyond the physical, sounds have the ability to trigger certain memories or evoke nostalgia in its listener. On a personal level, hearing the refrain of certain Taiwanese television soundtracks can bring me back to a specific time in my teenage years — and I don’t think I’m alone in this experience.

Bani Haykal is another artist we’ve interviewed for our latest issue, On Listening. Bani’s work deals with speculative fictions and speculative futures, and his practice sits at the interface between text and sound.
Bani Haykal
I've also been quite deliberately writing more in Malay as well. On the one hand, I am interested to sort of like explore the poetics of the language. But at the same time there was something interesting in the way that — yes the poetics of the language — but also the way that folks who both understand and do not understand Malay get a different quality about the way the language is utilised in this exercise of wanting to use language as sound, language as musical material. It's interesting to sort of play between these two, between English and Malay. There's something, at least for me I feel like whilst my command of Malay is not very good, I do feel like there is a certain naivety but also curiosity in the way that I can start formulating my own position on the language as well, and the way I utilise it — how hard, how soft it sounds and feels — was very exciting for me when writing in Malay.
Object Lessons Space
Bani’s recent explorations around the musicality of languages examine the intimate workings that determine what it means to communicate with and relate to one another. When it comes to sounds or languages that we find familiar, we can think of them as sonic memories. In this context, sound can function as a memory bank and autobiographical tool.

Sound also goes beyond the musical, melodic or polyphonic. The human voice is an important source of sound. Within our immediate archipelagic context of the Malay Peninsula and our wider regional context of Southeast Asia, oral traditions play a significant role across diverse communities. Stories and folk songs are passed down from generation to generation. These include tellings and retellings of mythologies, legendary heroes, and moral teachings.

Kamini Ramachandran is a master storyteller, and we had the great pleasure of interviewing her for our latest issue. Our conversation with Kamini covered a range of topics, but most importantly, we spent some time dwelling on the importance of stories and how the voice animates and brings these stories to life:
Kamini Ramachandran
We are not obligated to a scripted, fixed pattern of words — which is text. We are retelling an emotion of feeling, an adventure, all based on the energy of a set of characters, the energy of this land, and space, and landscape, the energy of the feeling of all of these animals, people, whoever they are, whatever they are — and we're trying to transfer that energy to the listener.
Object Lessons Space
Kamini’s practice is premised on ideas of relationality and reciprocity — between generations, between the story and the tradition, between text and sound, between our different senses, and between the storyteller and the listener.
Kamini Ramachandran
My brain works differently when I see "t-e-x-t". To me, that is books: imprinted, or inscribed, or published, or printed somewhere. Whereas words in storytelling are very much memory based. You had to have heard it from somebody at some point.
Object Lessons Space
We refer to the physical context within which we encounter sound as a soundscape. The term “soundscape” is reminiscent of terms that are associated with space, such as “landscape”. For me, it creates a mental image that is incredibly apt and immediately brings to mind the notion of an acoustic environment.

This brings to mind something that I quoted Oliveros as saying earlier on in this podcast episode. In talking about her experience of discovering deep listening, Oliveros said,

and I quote,
“We simply improvised, played, and learned that the cistern was playing with us.”
End quote.

Sounds respond to the spaces they are felt within. They can bounce off surfaces, for example. Think of two spaces. One, an echo-ey cave. The other, an open field. How different will the same song sound when played in these two different spaces?

This brings to mind the writing of sound designer, writer and artist Marinna Guzy. In a thought-provoking essay, Guzy writes,
“Soundscapes define communities—their boundaries, their actors, their geographic intricacies, and industries. They arise through the interactions between external and internal forces within a community.”
End quote.

We are busy people, and we often shuttle through public spaces without much thought as to our environments. But this space doesn’t just consist of humans. We are relational beings, and we share our urban space with other living and non-living critters as well. One of the ways we can begin to think about this sort of dynamic is through conscious and engaged listening. In a way, sound shares certain similarities to these relationships. They’re both invisible, and they’re both things that we don't always pay attention to. However, sound has this deep capacity to expand our horizons and artists have been tapping on its affective qualities.

During my interview with the artist Tini Aliman, we spent some time talking about the way in which sound relates to physical space and natural environments, and how this sound can clarify, reveal and reverberate. Tini is a sound designer, field recordist and foley artist whose research interests include forest networks, aural architecture and plant consciousness.
Tini Aliman
But how as a sound technician, can I use technology to measure the galvanic conductance in plants, a form of bioelectricity, and transform that data into sound? While some artists record wind and tides, water and whales, metal, bridges and monuments, I record water movements in leaves, in the stems, and even in the soil. That has a lot to do with my appreciation for silence, and the silenced, and through this practice, I learn more about microphone techniques and keeping the plants in my front yard alive.
Object Lessons Space
What then happens when that space can no longer be physical? I think it’s safe to say that our experience of sound has not remained unyielding in the face of the changes demanded by our current pandemic-altered reality. In order to slow down or halt the spread of COVID-19, countries all around the world were placed under varying degrees of a lockdown. We stopped travelling, started spending a lot more time at home, working from home, and doing everything online.

This pivot towards the digital has largely defined the way we now pass our time, and it’s no surprise that how we interact with the Internet would’ve come up in my conversations with the artists we spoke to. One of the artists we interviewed, Yeyoon Avis Ann, works comfortably across the virtual and the material. 
Yeyoon Avis Ann
When I work with music, and I sometimes make music myself as well, I usually make music first, and then the visual comes afterwards, because music is a bit more abstract. I can always divert the conceptual part to later on or later on in the process. And usually I try to understand, or I try to deeply locate myself in what this music is about.
Object Lessons Space
The lexicon relating to musical performance, sound making and composition is incredibly extensive and elaborate. In our interview with Avis, she told us about how her familiarity with music or musical terminology has been helpful when working with digital mediums. In thinking through the language of music, Avis has arrived at a rather poetic metaphor for video making or video editing:
Yeyoon Avis Ann
Video as a medium, and video-editing, is incredibly musical, as needing a composer for the whole orchestra. So it's calculated, it's highly calculated, but poetic. And you can't really a hundred percent let the things take their own will, but I think the beauty of this is that the juxtaposition happens because I'm using multiple elements. But at the same time I can be calculative about this, and I can orchestrate the flow of this.
Object Lessons Space
Thinking about sound or music also goes beyond merely incorporating sonic elements within one’s work.

Artist Song-Ming Ang’s practice doesn’t sit comfortably within the usual categories we use to describe art. He has been described as a sound artist, a musician, a performance artist, a conceptual artist and more. His practice occupies a liminal space between all of that, and is focused on music as a subject matter. In ruminating on his dedication to a single subject matter within our interview with him, Song-Ming said:
Song-Ming Ang
The reason why I don’t make music per se is because in my twenties, when I started out, I really started out as an experimental musician and I did it for a couple of years. I won’t say I got bored of it, but I began to see that these so-called experimental musicians were not experimenting. So many of us were just reproducing sub-genres that had already been established from decades back. But the thing is that people don’t know how to place you. If you make drones, or you make noise, or you make minimal music, then people can place you. But to really be an experimental musician, one has to go further than that. The reason why I found myself in the art world was because I wanted to go further than that. I wanted to make music, but at the same time be brave enough to have some distance from it.
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Object Lessons Space
There are so many facets to sounds, sound making and listening to sounds — and this particular issue we’ve put together barely scratches the surface of it, but unfortunately that’s all the time we have for today’s episode.  We hope that this episode has given you a quick primer as to the different ways we can approach thinking about and thinking through sound. If you enjoyed this deep-dive into our latest issue, the full articles have been published on our website at www.objectlessons.space.

We also have a presence on all the usual social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If you like our work, we do have a Patreon page that you can check out as well.

For our upcoming episodes, you can expect more of what we’ve done today alongside intimate interviews with artists and cultural practitioners. We have a lot of exciting things planned for this series, so definitely stay tuned.

Mushroomed is a podcast series hosted by Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with the wonderful people at Singapore Community Radio. Thankyou so much for spending time with us today.

Mushroomed is a series of conversations around art making, artistic networks and ecosystems. Sit in on conversations with artists and cultural practitioners. This podcast is hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with Singapore Community Radio.


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