By Hildegard Westerkamp
This text was excerpted from: “Exploring Balance and Focus in Acoustic Ecology”, by Hildegard Westerkamp,
Keynote Presentation at Crossing Listening Paths, International Conference on Acoustic Ecology, Corfu, Greece,
October 3 – 7, 2011.
To be published in Soundscape – The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2011.
For a moment lets examine the type of listening balance that American composer Pauline Oliveros proposes. She illustrates it visually with a simple, drawn image: a circle with a dot in the middle. She says:
While one’s attention is focused to a point on something specific, it is possible to remain aware of one’s surroundings, one’s body, movement of all kinds, and one’s mental activity (in other words remain aware of inner and outer reality simultaneously. Attention is narrow, pointed and selective– that’s the dot in the middle. Awareness is broad, diffuse and inclusive) – that’s the circle. Both have a tunable range: attention can be honed to a finer and finer point. Awareness can be expanded until it seems all-inclusive. Attention can intensify awareness. Awareness can support attention. There is attention to awareness; there is awareness of attention.
Let me tell you of a recent experience where this concept of balance in listening was challenged hugely but ultimately elevated to a higher level of balance and equilibrium, precisely because of the challenge.
I had signed up for a five-day yoga intensive in town. A construction site was in full action right next door during the entire workshop. We all knew that the class could not be moved and the noise was going to stay. We all wanted to be there, work hard and stay positive. But really the instructor’s stance was key here. Her voice stayed calm and clear throughout. She made sure we could hear her. Her words and instructions emphasized and encouraged intense engagement with our physical bodies and a positive spirit, and deeply focused our attention to the task at hand.
Her wacky sense of humour also helped. In one instance when we had returned from lunch and were asked to relax in a restorative pose that would help with digestion, she suggested, “just pretend that it is your digestive system, those sounds out there."
Pauline Oliveros “On Sonic Meditation” in Software for People, 1984, Smith Publications, p. 139
Sound Example: Construction noise near yoga studio, Vancouver, 2011 (continues under text for a while)
This was one of the very few times when the noise was even spoken about. The intense intrusiveness of the noise could have become a huge and negative issue during those five days. Instead we had a positive, enriching experience and felt truly rejuvenated by the end of it. How was this possible? When external pressures are present and we cannot escape them for whatever reason, our focus has to turn inside and with extra strength and determination. Inner focus and inner expansion become a necessity for survival in such instances.
I said earlier that Oliveros’ concept of balance in listening attention and awareness was ultimately elevated to a higher level in this instance. Let me explain. Awareness of the noise was inevitable as it was right in our face. And intense inner focus was a necessity as a result if we wanted to get anything out of this experience. Visually the circle and dot image would be drawn in bold for this occasion.
We could have used all our psychological effort to block out the noise, to fight it in some way, to numb ourselves to it. This would have meant, that we had closed our receptive listening door not only to the outside but also to our inner world. Instead the atmosphere in the room suggested that we accept the presence of the noise and use our energy to find the inner focus for the yoga tasks at hand. I found that it created a kind of highlighted equilibrium between inner and outer sound worlds, leaving enough room for experiencing both, even moments of receptive listening to the construction sounds.
I had experienced this kind of listening stance consciously for the first time in India: for example in a meditation room while outside loud car motors and trucks were struggling up a mountain road, or people worshipping in deep inner focus at a temple while crowds and noises, hustle and bustle happen around them. Strangely there was a feeling of balance in these situations as well: a strong sense of inner calm and silence in the face of unpredictable noise mayhem from outside. In this culture, the inner world is a source of sacredness that empowers daily life. It is that which seems to give such situations what I called earlier, an elevated sense of focus and balance.
None of this is to say that we should buckle down and accept unbearable soundscapes in our lives, of course. It simply points out the many complexities we face in the acoustic environment and in the relationship we have to it. Each soundscape situation has its very own characteristics, each culture, each listener reacts uniquely. And it is precisely this complexity that challenges us … to keep opening our listening, to keep up the practice, to keep on learning at all stages of our work and action.