Susan Sontag, in ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, wrote of art noisy with appeals for silence. While studying for a PGCE in Secondary Art and Design, I was asked to present a mock lesson introduction to fellow Institute of Education student teachers and our tutor. On reflection the content of my presentation may have been foolish. It began with an overhead projection comprising a video of a ‘teacherly’ attired bloke (me) asking, inaudibly, with various signs (including British Sign Language) for quiet and silence. The lamentable and unfunny silent movie, fraught with contradictions, ended with the fool hysterically gesticulating for the noise to stop. I was graciously thanked by a hitherto quietly appreciative class for my performance.
I have observed art and other subject teachers noisily, even violently, appealing for silence or quiet. The often flagrant disobedience towards the appeals shocked me initially. My student and supply teacher placements took me to some 'learning cultures' quite different to those of my schooling and some of my expectations as a beginning teacher had to change. Settling a class down to achieve a quiet deemed suitable for learning could, I observed, take some experienced and qualified teachers more than 5 minutes. That ten minute mock lesson intro’ back at ‘the Institute’ seemed remote and out of context.
The cacophony of some classrooms was not just due to youthful ebullience and loss/lack of control due to teachers’ poor classroom management. The very architecture and design of some schools conspires against the imperative of quietude or quiet behaviour for learning. Of course such a monastic rhetoric represents a didacticism which may not cultivate creative learning in some subjects. It was this issue, the relationship between noise and power in public institutions which I put to members of the In-Between Two Sounds discussion panel. In particular, I asked the panellists to share some of their awareness of how architects, designers, technologists and others create acoustically appropriate environments; buildings fit for their purpose. I wondered about the capacity of the meeting room for classroom like noise.
In-Between Two Sounds - Walthamstow Quaker Meeting House
In-Between Two Sounds - view from listening bench
In-Between Two Sounds was an installation and series of events which took place at Walthamstow Quaker Meeting House, as part of the E17 Art Trail 2011. The installation, curated by Rebecca Stapleford, immersed visitors in the serene setting of the upstairs meeting room. Sound artist, Alyssa Moxley offered visitors the experience of ‘Sounds Move Through You’, a soundscape composed for listening to via headphones, anchored to a bench within the space. An audience gathered in the same space to participate in the panel discussion. The panellists, David Toop, Salome Voeglin and Stuart Sim talked about silence, noise and listening. Their treatises (some with sound/musical effects) prompted further discussion and audience participation all characterised by a sense of sobriety. David Toop spoke softly about the speculative history and futurology of listening and why listening may need a radical rethink. Stuart Sim spoke about the divine nature of silence, specifically in the context and practices of a Quaker meeting house, and about the social problems of noise further afield. Salome Voeglin told of a distinction to be made between silence and quietude. Having set up the distinction, silence was explained as being generated in her auditory imagination from the smallest speck of sound; conjuring in me a metaphorical pearl. Around Voeglin’s “structured space of nothingness” there could be quietude enabling reflection and careful listening. The panel’s response to my request for comment on acoustic design included SV proposing listening as a learning activity; a discipline or practice to abate noise and thus enhance the creativity of ear drumming pupils and teachers alike. This response emphasized behaviour as a key to enhanced listening.
Listening is taught directly and indirectly in schools as one of the key skills implicit in competent communication and is one of the fundamental cognitive faculties in many subjects. The panel’s concern was more the overloading of our sense of hearing, the auditory canals. The overloading might be epitomised by consumerism and its unrelenting drive for novelty or newness by which listening can be impaired; the din of proverbial shopping trolleys blocking the fluid hearing ways. There is a lot of information available about many aspects of listening and how it is taught in schools.
What discipline and creativity in listening had I brought to In Between Two Sounds? Did I listen to and/or hear Alyssa Moxley’s, ‘Sounds Move Through You’? How can I, 3 weeks or more, after the experience, recall in it some expressive detail so as to convince you I did so skilfully and creatively? If not ‘I’, then who and how have they done so or will they do so? In installation art there is a ‘problem’ of the space between the creativity of the work itself and the creative responses it elicits.
I recall an intimate journey through an everyday and extraordinary ambience, domestic and urban, adrift in interior and exterior spaces, crossing enigmatic thresholds accompanied by glimpses of conversation fading and gently interplaying amidst a stream of hums, whispers, rubs, creaks, steps and breaths. It was difficult to tell what was where in the stereophonic layering of the surround experience as whole soundscape or encounter. There were sounds of my own body, pulsing for example; those of the playback and those of the meeting house and our Walthamstow situation. Were the subtleties and sophistication of the vibrations and waves lost in me; a hearing machine, an aspiring listener fettered by reason? What sensibility did the installation require ideally?
In the corner of the meeting room Jean Luc Nancy (or Venus, courtesy of Titian) reclined in bookish proxy, saying, ‘isn’t the philosopher someone who always hears (and who hears everything) but cannot listen, or who, more precisely neutralises listening within himself so that he can philosophize?’ The statement was just audible above the rest of my inner verbiage which was the din and knell of my hope of listening - diving for pearls; the specks of sound which might become silence. I could try and reassure myself (if not convince you) of my listening abilities, by recourse to Susan Sontag, who said, transcendence is without realization. What would be evidence?
Listening as a craft may have an orthopraxis which has a learned knowledge. According to Mary Carruthers, the knowledge ‘can only be learned by the painstaking practical imitation and complete familiarization of exemplary masters (sic) techniques and experiences’. Of course it would be foolish to say my lesson introduction involved painstaking practical imitation.
Can we read ‘and experiences’ as disciplined cognitive activity or “silence” - “silentium”, the term for it in monastic rhetoric. Carruthers’ “competens silentium” suggests ‘the competency of those adept in a craft or spirit or attitude of mind towards what one is doing, the fitness of the craftsman, craft or work’. In the panel discussion there was debate about the fitness of people’s ability to listen in a world so afflicted by noise. Craftspeople often cite the meditative qualities of their handiwork, and the various beneficial effects, including healing, which craft practice brings. Perhaps I needed to be knitting to genuinely appreciate In Between Two Sounds as a well listened piece and so personally demystify the religious myth of listening as a craft.