On Listening around the North Atlantic
A random conversation with an elder stranger on a rural Scottish bus ride conjures different modes of listening. In the flow of conversation, he asks about my accent. “Confused,” I reply, but offer also a North American upbringing and Icelandic home base.
“Oh, Iceland! I was stationed up near Keflavík for many years. I was a Listener. Listened to the Russians. Copied their codes.”
“Oh, you were a Codebreaker?”
“No, just a Listener.”
For the following five meditations, I consider how I listen in non-standardised ways. How do we listen to listeners? How do we listen to how we listen? When do we listen, to what or whom, and why?
The Listening Voice
Stone, shell, sand, sediment, shoreline, water-bodies, human-bodies. Any collaborative partner has a constrained “vocabulary” or “palette” for their potential actions. As a collaborator, a responder, I have a sense of that vocabulary, but I cannot anticipate exactly how this might unfold or what choice or impulse any collaborator might enact. A partner is governed by the constraints of her corporeal components; before I can formulate reaction or response, I first must embody and consider my listening.
In 2016, French-born interdisciplinary artist Laureen Burlat joins me in Scotland to explore performance as research. As one intervention, we make a list of letters (from English and French) represented by consonants, select a phoneme for each, and divide this into continuous versus staccato or percussive sounds. Continuous implies it is possible to produce the sound, without interruption, for the entirety of one breath. Staccato indicates the sound is produced briefly. We include J and X in both lists. The vowels are automatically assumed as continuous.
F, H, J, L, M, N, R, S, V, W, X, Z
A, E, I, O, U, Y
B, C, D, G, J, K, P, Q, T, X
We discuss the emotional colour of uttered phonemes, working first with M to see what affect the utterance can produce. We use M to produce sounds of agreement, understanding, disagreement, negation, consideration, interrogation, cuisine enjoyment, strain, anger, frustration, exasperation, and questioning. With so many ways to impact the reception of M based on what emotion is used to colour its sound production, we shift thought to the “personalities” of the letters.
To ascertain what personalities might be ascribed to letters, we devise a vocalising and listening exercise that gives us a chance to consider the emotive, behavioural, and physiological impact of producing specific phonemes. Working as partners, Laureen produces the first sound in repetition while I listen. Then, I produce the same sound repeatedly while Laureen listens. We then compare how we would describe the response we each had to making the sound (the embodied response) and the response we had when hearing the sound (the listening response).
Embodied response: almost tickles the tongue, high breath sound though low anchored voice.
Listening response: vacuum cleaning and sshhh, more volume.
Embodied response: percussive back of throat, almost choking. Diaghragm, pumped.
Listening response: soft, insistent. Slap.
Embodied response: aggressive, explosive. Temples (light-headedness). Connected to active, pumping diaphragm.
Listening response: striking a match
Through this exercise, we estrange our typical affiliations with the letters as word-material.
Earlier and later, Laureen and I adapt In Memory: Jökull (Broken Dimanche Press, 2015) for two voices. The sound-poetry performance hinges on two voices hocketing the words jökull and jökla between them. Jökull means glacier in Icelandic. Glaciologists predict all glaciers in Iceland will disappear within two hundred years. Tourists enter Iceland either via flight, landing in proximity to the former Keflavík US military base, or via ferry, on Iceland’s east coast north of a still-classified naval listening centre. Tourists seek out interaction with these glaciers. All will soon disappear. Who listens, and how?
Laureen and I hocket jökull and jökla between us, exploring the materiality of phonemic amalgam. We learn the letters we’d played with our French and English training through pronunciative difference, deference. In Icelandic, the j sounds as y, k a crisp percussive cut mid-vowel, and the double ll becomes an unvoiced tl—matches struck. We listen to ourselves, these words passed between foreign tongues. We listen to ourselves as we respond. Our collective utterance recalls melt-drip as we colour each phoneme with kaleidoscopic affect.
The Vocal Breast
Sometimes I focus on different parts of the body to sound through them. The practice is similar to a modern dance exercise, where you allow one body part (such as the elbow) to lead the rest of the body in movement through space. In my variation, I invite one body part to lead my voice through space. The gesture attempts to uncore trauma through pre- or proto-semantic utterance.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, I wondered what my afflicted breast would voice. Before surgery, I found the exercise too difficult manifest, to pair breast with voice. I found it impossible to be with my breast, full stop—hard to be with a site of trauma.
After surgery, during the punishing rounds of chemotherapy, I returned again to the exercise. Canadian singer and actor Ciara Adams and I travelled to Iceland’s east coast, northeast of that rumoured US military listening centre. On a black-sand beach with a stalwart rock towering over us, I stated blankly, bluntly, that I wanted to enter the now-excised breast. Ciara lead me through breath; we entered together.
My own voice was unfamiliar to me; cessation of mucous production caused dry throat and challenged my ability for prolonged sound. I stopped sounding and listened to Ciara’s exercise. Her voice behaved in ways I’d never heard before. It flipped, with ease, into an unexpected, much higher octave than she typically sings. Clear as glass or blue. Clear as blue. Vocal discovery. She was so open, so grounded; her voice had gained its own will. How did she do that?
After some time, Ciara moved behind me with her hands under my shoulder blades. Then Ciara was no longer Ciara—not in her voice. I listened as she channeled. The voice came from overseas. Ritual. She became new to me, and we walked into that newness together. I didn’t feel so frightened anymore, having entered the breast and sounded.
The Listening Dream
During chemotherapy treatment in Iceland, I was unable to recall night-dreams. Within weeks of the last round, my dreams returned—vivid and sense-dominated. One of the first dreams conjured listening.
Whenever entering a cavernous space, I test the acoustics by hooting my voice into it. My dream hinged on this wakeful exercise. Had I ever listened within a dream? I couldn’t be sure.
In my dream, I entered a room where a previous owner collected geodes. Before inspecting them, I hooted into the space. The acoustics of the office room were odd—damp and resonant. Some parts of the room produced harmonics, signaling in my dream-logic that the room was poorly constructed. A second or third note would vibrate between the plywood slats if I sat at just the right spot and hooted.
I called G- into the room and told him I wanted to share with him two things— the acoustics and the geodes. I asked him to make sound to test the acoustics; he made a sudden, hard, elongated nasal eeee with his eyes squinted tight. I almost told him it was the wrong way to do it—as if there is a wrong way to produce sound!!—but instead I waited to see what would happen for him. He continued to do this as he intoned and listened, scooting on his bottom around the room.
I started my own hooting again and found a spot with harmonics. My eyes were closed so I reached out my hand towards G-, grabbed his shirt to tug him to my spot so he could hear or test these harmonics, too. He grabbed my hand to navigate, and scooted backwards to sit in front of me, the exact space where the harmonics were produced. We continued our hoots and eeees, and he moved into the sound space between us so that our lips touched briefly in the transfer.
Then I woke up. We never inspected the geodes.
The Invisible Heard
To what, in my sensorium, do I have access? What local markers provide access to temporalities and safety?
Through the latter half of the 20th century, the US military in concert with neighbouring countries established the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), a network of hydrophones embedded in the North Atlantic. Secret listening centres were situated on surrounding islands and lands, in rural locations. Centres in the middle of nowhere. Centres of nowhere with international implication, listening for human action in ocean depth.
On a late morning in November 2015, a quiet bass drone emanated from the wide, open-air cavern of Loch Long, Scotland. Deeper than wind through the autumn trees and more monotonous than the ebb of wave crash on the shoreline, the drone shifted via Doppler effect over five minutes. Its source was a Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, freshly deployed from the nuclear-warhead storage and loading facility at RNAD Coulport.
A submarine, situated within the romanticized, pastoral landscape of rural Scotland, takes on a similar sighting mechanism to wildlife. One may sense the presence of roe deer, porpoise, eagles, submarine. Heard: brush-scruff, splash, leaf displacement, drone.
Escorted by several military and coast-guard boats, a submarine dwarfs the loch as it slides towards submersion and open ocean. A submarine deployed with nuclear missiles symbolizes an instant obliteration of human life as well as a strategy to extend a status-quo human existence given theoretical human-produced threats. The drone obliterates time and extends it.
In operation, a submarine seeks invisible knowledge—not through sight, but through listening. Those directing the submarine are not responsible for its destination or its ultimate activity; these are governed by personnel at great distance from the submarine. These people use their submarine to listen.
Scotland boasts a “right to roam,” more aligned with Nordic policy than with English or Welsh policy in private property and the commons. In Iceland, for example, “roaming” is confined to walking within the law, as off-road driving is forbidden. This is for the benefit of fragile bioregions that take the marks of tire tracks years or centuries to assimilate.
In Scotland, I walk all roads within a two-mile radius of where I live. I walk some overgrown driveways. I notice one right-to-roam sign as I explore the region. I walk through farmland fields, scale stacked-stone fences, push through tightly-grown temperate rainforest flora. I collect contact mics and a hydrophone, intent to extend my right to roam to the realm of foreshore and underwater listening.
I do this proximal to the UK’s largest Ministry of Defense base. To listen in proximity of the base throws surveillance and military presence into perspective. I see submarines in the loch, and police stop me occasionally to inquire what business I have walking in the region. I am within a five-mile radius of the Ministry of Defense base, and within that radius my right to roam is occasionally questioned. I question the safety of my intention to listen while my listening bristles with anxiety with each unidentified motor or drone that echoes through the rural loch. I never lower my hydrophone into the ocean.
The Island Listening
The Icelandic word kuðungur signifies both a spiral-shaped shell (formed by snails or whelks) and the cochlea (spiral-shaped component of the inner ear). Linguistic observation of this Icelandic sign invites metaphor: Univalves are cochlea. How are univalves not cochlea? How are univalves cochlea?
We hear the ocean inside of a seashell. Here, we link ear and shell. The Icelandic word for island (ey) dwells within ear (eyra). This coincident word construction invites a meditation: How might an island hear?
An island forms through volcanic eruption, grows via layered eruptions. An ocean heaves ground shells and stones onto an island’s shoreline, and the island expands. An ocean drags shells and stones from the island to its bed-depths—erosion. The images used to explain this invoke a listening-memory—shells, sand, waves, eruption, or wind sound in the mind of the reader.
In Icelandic, we signify seasons in verb form, through their becoming—að vetra, to become winter. “It winters” or “it becomes winter” might be ways to translate “það vetrar.” Here is a cyclic state that simultaneously progresses its cycle. The season becomes the winter that had, in a previous state, been becoming winter.
The submarine cycles to become war. It wars. Shells become sand through tide and time. They sand. Ears hear an ocean that sands, that implies sand in its sound. Within our vocal experiments, we listen. Our voices become the sensorial room for listening. We become voice.
We listen to, listen through—sifting sound as ephemeral sedimentation. Biosemiotic codes might be unearthed denoting human-selves and more-than-human-selves, landsoundscapes and submarinescapes. We embrace our urges to hear what we cannot or should not—deep ocean and its inhabits, be they more-than-human or human-spawned. Kuðungur an ear-shell, unseen sound-impacted geodes. We become urge, dredge sono-etymologies, voice a physiological proto-semantic. We listen to surveilled sites—be they body, land, room, shell—that suffer or propose invisible trauma. Our bodies island to other bodies, a network of -phones extended between, a chance to hear and be heard.