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Observations on the 2011 WFAE International Conference
"Crossing Listening Paths"
By Eric Leonardson
Corfu, the Place:
Getting lost for an hour in the labyrinthine streets of Kerkyra was a good way to get acquainted with a wonderful town of Roman and 17th century Venetian architecture. The walk from my hotel (Bella Venezia) to the conference should have taken only 10 minutes but the winding way felt like hallways through a large home, too intimate in size to be called "streets" by Chicago standards. Their narrowness prevents a buildup of heavy bus and car traffic, and reduces the acoustic smog of noise. Late at night, they are much more quiet than Chicago’s. I soon came to realize how this small charming town is where "home-life" and "street-life" go together in a 'business casual" way.
Among the distinctive sounds were the swallows in the evening that nest on building tops. Sometimes they would gather close by while we dined on the street. They would chatter quite rapidly and loudly in comparison to the swallows in Chicago. Other sounds were the big ocean ships passing by and the planes landing/taking off from the nearby airport that made for an occasional intrusion. Weather conditions were warm and sunny for nearly the entire week, allowing us to enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner outdoors, even some swimming between presentations.
A student strike obligated the organizers to make a last-minute change of venue from the main location of the Ionian University to "Faliraki." This alternate site seemed even better than the original. It was well staffed by young volunteers, with a café next door, on the edge of the sea with a breathtaking view of the Old Fortress and across the channel, Vidos Island. Located within five minutes walking distance from the Square, were many lovely restaurants that happily offered WFAE conference attendees a 20% discount off otherwise high tourist prices. This, and the cordiality of the local residents, made us feel welcome and safe in Corfu.
Faliraki was also short walk away from the Music Building of the Ionian University and the Art Café Garden. Here we enjoyed an outdoor "Welcome Reception" after the first concert evening, in which I performed a new "hybrid lecture-performance" entitled Conversation, Improvisation and Locality, with my good friends Sabine Breitsameter and Jay Needham. We hoped it would serve as way to kick off the conference; both as a model of listening and conversation as an art form, while embodying the conference theme of "Crossing Listening Paths." Specifically, it was a presentation of collaboration, conversation, improvisation, and locality that used these methods and condition as its own operational basis.
Soundwalk: Katerina Tzedaki from Crete asked if I would lead a soundwalk. It wasn’t on my agenda, but I accepted. What better way to get to know Kerkyra? Rather than risk getting lost again, I scouted out a path for my group instead of attending an afternoon paper sessions. We went from the Faliraki Complex to Mandraki Harbour at the Old Fortress, concluding at the Art Garden Café. The most interesting places were at the Old Fortress where music played out of tune from the open windows of the Music Academy. A short distance away the tall stone walls and a grassy open space of the fortress served as sound absorbent materials where the acoustic horizon expanded outward. As we closed our eyes to listen deeply, a dog that decided to accompany, us made his scratching the dominant sound. We all smiled.
Opening Keynote: Day one of the conference began Monday morning with the keynote presentation by Hildegard Westerkamp, "Exploring Balance and Focus in Acoustic Ecology." She asks, "Can we develop a school of listening practices specifically for acoustic ecologists?" This question, and the desire to identify and explore various listening practices in a systematic way, had been circling around my own mind with urgency since the founding of the World Listening Project in 2008. Quoting Murray Schafer, Hildegard said, "Before ear training we first we must engage in ear cleaning…like a surgeon’s hands…our ears also perform delicate operations. Ear cleaning has been an important starting point…we’re at a crossroads now, ear training and sound making…both require a process of inner study and reflection to understand what kind of listener one is."
The irony of being there in "full schizophonic presence" was not lost on Hildi. She used this fact to explore how the term schizophonia, meaning a split between a sound and its source, has become one of increased attention and a source of controversy. In the cultural context of 1960s the term implied both an "unhealthy split" and a slightly amusing phenomenon. Citing her case study that formed the basis of her PhD. thesis in the late-80s, Hildegard poses that Muzak (music as the environment) represents a silencing of the individual’s awareness, substituting in effect a pre-packaged, corporate product with proven addictive power. Whoever has researched the 80-year history of the Muzak Corporation will find that its successful business model is also useful for conditioning and controlling a large part of the world’s people. The Muzak marketing slogan began in the 1960s with "Music not to be listened to." In 2008 it pitched "Music is our soul…we are about the emotion behind the music …we transform music from something heard to something felt." Today, in 2011 the Muzak website says "Music and more for any business. Drive your brand. Drive customer loyalty. Drive sales. At Muzak, we’re passionate about the experiences we create and how they impact your business. Your customer experience is a business opportunity. Muzak can partner with you in strategic and creative ways to maximize this opportunity and ensure that every aspect of the customer experience works for you." Now individual headphone listening is a daily, normal activity, and schizophonia is the new normal.
Workshops: Tuesday started off at the Art Garden Café with an "Acoustic Ecology in Education" workshop led by R. Murray Schafer. We observed him working with a large group of elementary school age children, through a series of exercises in listening and sound making. In the concluding portion we, the adult observers, were invited to participate in the exercises with the children. These experiential, multi-sensory, social, and game-like exercises required no special equipment, aside from chairs to sit. When more than our voices, hands and feet were needed, Murray made use of inexpensive and readily materials incuding a few newspapers and plastic bottles. As a teacher myself I enjoyed observing how he conducted the exercises, having attempted to employ them as described in his 1992 book, A Sound Education.
Keynotes: From the Art Café we headed to Faliraki where Katherine Norman gave her keynote entitled "Beating the Bounds For Ordinary Listening" which focused on field recording, cartography and sound mapping. Katherine’s term "Desire Lines" offered an intriguing way to think about how our relationship with the sound environment physically marks our landscapes with foot paths and listening paths: what conventional maps would do better to show, it seems. Allen S. Weiss’s keynote on Wednesday, "Zen Mountains, Zen Water" indulged us in the wondrous sound recordings of Suikinkitsu, and the reverie of natural phenomena found in Japanese gardens. The keynote by R. Murray Schafer on Friday on was a compendium of his ideas about sound.
Among one of the most fascinating keynotes was "The Singing Planet: Deep Blue Voices Drowning in a Sea of Noise" by Dr. Christopher W. Clark, a bioacoustician at Cornell University. Dr. Clark described his research into the incredible soundscape of our planet’s oceans, constantly monitored by the U.S. Navy with its vast underwater hydrophone array. Dr. Clark was allowed access to this global listening system to conduct research into the lives and soundscape of whales. His recordings of their enigmatic songs were complemented by graphics that convincingly demonstrated the wonder of whale vocalizations, and the negative impact of shipping upon their environment, where sounds travel for incredibly vast distances. He confessed that for even for him these sounds and the data still made his hair stand on end. Learning of the power, nuance, and range of whale vocalizations, Dr. Clark’s talk helped me realize the extent to which whales are far better adapted to using sound than we humans, and that we are not the only creatures on this planet to possess an aural culture.
Concerts and Installations: Four nights of concerts and installations were included as part of the conference. I will briefly describe one performance. David Monacchi is renowned for his field recording in remote natural habitats where a massive number of species are endangered and face extinction. His sounds are used for both research documentation and material for musical composition. His paper on Thursday, "Fragments of Extinction: Acoustic Biodiversity of the World’s Primary Equatorial Rainforests," described the tools and techniques used in documenting, archiving, and analyzing sound recorded in the rainforest biophony. His concert performance at the Municipal Theater was a moving sonic and visual event. Instead of an acousmatic performance, David used real time FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) spectral analysis to project on a massive scale his digital manipulation of concrete sound. His piece was an audible transformation of, and visual path drawn literally through a spectral display of clearly recognizable rainforest sounds.
Island Excursions. Two excursions took us out of Kerkyra. On a very warm, sunny Wednesday we took a 20-minute boat ride to Vidos Island and Friday we took a 20-minute bus ride across the island of Corfu to Pelakas village. On Vidos Island – which immediately surprised us by its abundance of pheasant and rabbit that roamed freely – we were treated to lunch outdoors, followed by traditional Greek music and dancing before two roundtable discussions were held in the woods. A few squeezed in time for a swim in the surprisingly clear, warm Ionian Sea. In Pelakas we concluded our visit at the Elementary School where earlier Hannes Heyne of KlangHütte had led one of two instrument making and performance workshops.
Conclusion: Having organized a small conference for the ASAE last year, I understand the immense amount of work required and the challenges faced in hosting a large event such as this one. Coordinating scientific and artistic submissions, local businesses, staff, and arranging for international participants is a major effort. So, changes in the conference program are sure to occur at the last minute such as thosed caused by Greek labor and student strikes. I thank the members of the Hellenic Society for Acoustic Ecology and their volunteers, the people of Corfu, and the forces of nature for making Crossing Listening Paths go as smoothly as it did.
The conference theme of "Crossing Listening Paths" was a good choice, and this was reflected in the diverse range of interests and approaches evident in the paper sessions, concerts, and workshops. With so many individuals pursuing their own cross-disciplinary paths of research, scholarship, or art-making, it remains exciting and even essential for us to connect with one another as our paths cross and link.
It was great to meet and get to know new people. I was surprised to meet some whose work I have been familiar with over the years, but had never an opportunity to meet before, and probably might not have ever met if it were not for this conference. It was wonderful to meet my new friends made last year in Koli, Finland. Of course it was good to see my old friends from back in 1993 when the WFAE was founded in Banff. I missed the ones who could not make it to Corfu this year. In spite of growing financial obstacles, social and political turmoil, I truly hope we all can come together again in Damstadt, where we will have a shorter but very well organized conference next year. In the words of Stephen Moore, "Here's to new friends, sunshine, beaches, and acoustic ecology!" I listen and look forward to the next time our paths cross and meet.
Remembering Corfu: Photos by Nigel Frayne and Eric Leonardson