The Listening Body

I spent yesterday at a conference on ‘The Listening Body’, at Site Gallery and the Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery. I went along for a couple of reasons; firstly because I really enjoyed and strongly recommend the Listening exhibition currently at both of these sites (a touring exhibition, next stop Norwich). But also because I’m becoming more and more interested in the impact of my immediate environment on my songwriting.

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I think I’ve touched on this before (and I’m pretty sure I talked about it for the songwriting course – roll up roll up) but not in detail. I can remember where I was when writing every single one of my songs – the room I was in, which way I was facing, whether it was day or night etc, which tells me that those rooms were perhaps as important in shaping those songs as the original inspiration itself, and I was conscious of how this element affected the songwriting for my Neighbour of the Year album. Whereas songs like Not Now, Horse were written whilst looking out at a vast sky and over treetops, I’ve Been Shot was written in a darkened room with the curtains closed, and I think – I hope – that you the listener can hear that difference. Then there’s DOG of course, in which I tried whilst in the studio to inject as much of the outside as I could, putting the original inspiration directly into the music, as described previously here.

So I’m really aware of this, and yet – I continue to write indoors, in my house, in the same rooms, developing songs in the studio, also indoors. I find inspiration outside but write inside. And it has occurred to me that I’m cutting off one of my own songwriting limbs here. So, whilst I continue to work on some new songs indoors (at the minute every time I pick up my guitar to practice something new comes out, it’s just one of those times) when it comes to writing a whole new set of songs for an album, I’m planning to approach it differently next time. Like George Michael said, though with different activities in mind, Let’s Go Outside.

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I’m not starting this process yet, but I’m doing a lot of thinking about it. And that’s why I went to the conference yesterday, to hear more about the role of listening in contemporary art, about the differences between hearing and listening, about how we can listen with our whole bodies and translate what we discover.

The exhibition curator, Sam Belinfante, talked about how, though we rely most heavily on the visual, it’s our hearing that comes first; our ears develop in the womb and we are born already listening. And it’s our hearing that gives us information first, in a fraction of a second, before our eyes confirm what our ears have already told us. I learned a bit more about binaural recording which is something I’d quite like to investigate (if you go to the Listening exhibition, see Cabin Fever). I loved hearing from Ed McKeon about Pauline Oliveros’ ‘tuning meditation’: in a group, the participants sing any note to begin with – all making different notes – but on the next one, they tune to someone else’s note in the group; a kind of “listening out loud”, said Oliveros. There’s an example of this on youtube here. We also heard a rowing song, sung by the subjects of Mikhail Karikis’ Soundwomen – a song where the vocals reflected the motion of the waves, with different groups overlapping each other.

We thought about the difference between an audience watching a musical performance or looking at visual art – how a musical audience is still, almost trapped in the moment, whereas viewers of visual art are more free to roam. There was much, much more, but I won’t go on, suffice to say the exhibition and conference were certainly timely and relevant for me, given my current train of thought. I’m still thinking.

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