Hearing in situation

(english translation of an article by Holger Schulze: Hören in Situation. Zur Anthropologie der relationalen Klangwahrnehmung, in: Nadin Deventer & Thomas Oberender (eds.), Now This Means War. Magazin zum Jazzfest Berlin 1.-4. November 2018, Berliner Festspiele Berlin, S. 28-30)

Hören in Situation

Hearing is not absolute. It is a sensory function that always unfolds within a particular, materially concrete situation – and is accordingly informed and shaped by the existing, past or anticipated conditions. Hearing is relational. As I am writing these lines, I am sitting in my office in Copenhagen. The morning is pervaded by August’s residual warmth; there was a little rain yesterday and the usual smell of petrichor is still rising from the asphalt. My skin, particularly on my lower arms and legs, is still simmering from the heat of the past weeks, I am still carrying this warmth inside me, as well as an easier, much less tense, softer body awareness from the heat-soaked nights and days. I am hearing now, from this situation that I find myself in. This specific situation, the material physicality and the individual self-concept as a hearer, these constitute the three formants of hearing: They predetermine, condition, inspire, modify and transform how you and I are willing or able to hear within a given situation.

The specific situation

The hearing situation is infinitely specific. It realises itself in myriad details: Do I hear a musical performance in my own or someone else’s living room, maybe at a gallery, a church or a hair salon? Are you getting settled into seat 16 of row 12 of the local festival venue’s great hall or are you hearing a performance beneath the stage, at a jazz club that has been open for a quarter of a century or more than nine decades; or in a bar that is only seeing its second or third autumn? The manners of hearing differ, at times radically, depending on all the materials, temporalities and usages of making and listening to music that are embedded in the locality. The specific hearing situation is informed on the one hand by the arrangement of the location’s technical apparatus (speakers, reflectors, musical and non-musical sound sources, fixed positions of sitting or standing, bar service, tables, seating rows etc. etc.), on the other by our own practised habits of usage, of movement, previous experiences, memories, by our digressions. The so-called technical dispositifs predetermine the framework and the limits within which you and I test, unfold, develop and play out our personal, often idiosyncratic, intimate and at times whimsical hearing practises. This situation co-determines whether I experience a sound, a performance or a constellation of noises as harmonious, unlocking, maybe even inspiring – or rather as disconcerting, excluding or off-putting. Listeners are much less than they would like to think completely independent and objective hearing entities who decide on the quality and pleasure, approval or rejection of a sound composition regardless of their own personal situation. It requires a trained and sophisticated capacity for abstraction to not judge an aural impression mainly and entirely according to the situational conditions, the material physicality and the individual self-concept. Not uncommonly, the idiosyncratic is then posited as objectivistic. More than anything, I hear my own origins, my mood, my remanence and ambition, thus: the relational determinations made by this situation here and now, my fatigue or alertness, my personal well-being or discomfort, consumption of drugs or narcotics, my heatedness in new social constellations or unfamiliar smells, materials or social graces. Conversely, I may have heard this contrabass-solo many times – but it is only during the performance at this concert venue, at this time, on this particular day of the year, with a particular readiness to hear on my part primed by previous conversations, previous activities and my personal mood, through the material constellations at this specific location as well as the specific virtuosity and performance energy of the musicians: All these forces render it possible for me to all at once appreciate and enjoy this musical sequence and finally truly grasp its qualities, its effect. I understand this piece. Perhaps I understand the piece better now if I’ve previously heard it many times on concert stages and grand halls – and now I hear it in a living room with quite a different auditive arrangement, in a sacred space or a venue for dance? A drink in hand, wandering around, chatting, flirting and negotiating – or while having erstwhile entered into meditative contemplation, stuck in my seat at the concert hall, in the masochistic relish of this physical immovability, combined with sensory-perceptive ecstasy? Such changes of location are changes of perception: Changes of body and sound.

Continue reading: Hearing in Situation: On the anthropology of relational sound perception