Inspired by the work and play of Olia, I am sitting down to a blank page, and attempting to freeform on the page—
To start it’s white, empty, and glossy like a skating rink after the last stroke of a zamboni.
I’ve got Gecko Turner in my ear. For the first time in too long, I’m listening to music as an activity. When I lived alone, I’d lie on the floor in front of my stereo and be content to spend an evening listening to all my favorite music.
There have been two major influencers (many more minor influences) that have shaped my listening experience from the inside out: The Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu, and a class at NYU called The Art of Listening.
The book is written for musicians, but praise on the back cover is true: It’s an “owner’s manual for anybody who has ears.”
“When you close your eyes your brain opens to your ears; sound rushes in to fill the sphere of the skull. Your mother’s lullaby just before you drop off to sleep. Earphones on, lying on the couch, Beethoven’s Seventh, your arm over your eyes. …Open your eyes: now the brain is crowded, and the bright screen of sound grows dim.”
The book has exercises to help you improve your hearing. It’s amazing. I have been practicing listening exercises the way some people practice yoga—as a discipline that eventually became habit, and now is integrated into my way of being in the world (as regards my sense of hearing). In brief, one exercise has you choose a short piece of instrumental music, and listen to it twice in a row, every day for about five days. There were so many benefits I got from this. For example, in Nicaragua, my primitive laptop only had one piece of pre-recorded music on it, which happened to be Debussy’s Claire de Lune.
I listened to it so many times, to feel at home while away, immersed in Latino music and nothing else. Eventually, I could be lying on the ground, looking up at the stars, far from any signal, and completely recreate this song in my head, note for note.
More exercises include picking one instrument to listen to, in a piece of symphonic music. It’d of course work with any piece you enjoy, to analyze it with your ears.
The best exercise actually can increase the range of your hearing ability. Sit and listen in concentric circles around you, for the sounds that originate there and characterize your auditory environment. First listen to a three-foot radius around you; then six; then ten; then twenty; then three-hundred, and so forth. I also recommend interpreting the context: Are they organic or synthetic sounds? Coming from nature or man-made objects? Is there an echo? Are the sounds pleasant? Are they percussive or other?
Since we do not have a way to close our ears, the way we have eyelids to protect our eyes from sudden unpleasant stimuli, our ears are vulnerable—not only to sound damaging because it’s loud, but sound damaging because it contains a negative message, a feeling of anguish, an act of aggression, or an unwanted solicitation. Like commercials. (I strive to enjoy most audiovisual entertainment strictly without commercials—normally I’ll mute them if they interrupt my TV or radio programs.)
My ears may be naturally sensitive, but I’ve also done sensitivity training with them. It’s a blessing and a curse. My whole world changed living in Manhattan when I got noise-isolating ear buds. My quality of life improved, because my commute to work improved drastically. Also, the book encourages you to protect your hearing, because hearing loss is difficult to repair or reverse, and it’s so valuable. Lovers of music and other sounds might value their hearing more than others; I marvel at people who don’t take pains to protect their hearing. Have you ever seen a worker using a leaf blower without ear protection? Or a jackhammer? That makes most people cringe, right? It’s not just me.
My husband knows how sensitive my ears are; guitar feedback in music we listen to in the car, or crowd noise streaming during a sports game on TV are like kryptonite to me.
Now I am listening to Yann Tiersen, the composer who wrote the score to the film Amelie.
This is “filling the sphere of my skull” right now (Rated MA for lyrics):