DC Listening Lounge: A Collective that Lives Loud and Clear
If I were asked to talk about sounds that I enjoy, I would probably identify the same tired, gauzy tropes that everyone pays lip service to. Great music, loved one’s voices, crackling campfires, and the snap and sizzle of cooking bacon jump to mind. But simply by virtue of not living under a rock, I hear a lot more Carly Rae Jepson right now than I do Vivaldi, and I’m likely to listen for the snap, crackle and pop of Rice Krispies long before hearing any meal sputter over an open flame. Like taste and color, I experience interesting sounds as part of my every day life that are far more nuanced than the seldom campfire or loved one's phone call. So why can’t I recall any? I’ve heard them, but I haven’t been listening.
Unlike other sensory experiences, being able to selectively block out sound is a neurological coping mechanism. For those of us living in a cacophonous urban environment like downtown DC, it’s a necessary skill to have. If we absorbed every squealing tire and heel click of our fellow urban dwellers, we’d be jumpy, exhausted, and channeling our inner grandmothers, forever yelling at each other to TURN IT DOWN. But the flipside of our subconscious noise filter is that we lose out on opportunities to take pleasure in the beauty of everyday sounds around us. With only five senses at our disposal, listening less than actively means dramatically reducing the ways in which we perceive our environment. It means fewer opportunities to enrich our lives.
The members of the collective DC Listening Lounge want us to reexamine our relationship with sound, to realize there’s more to the act of listening than liking music and disliking everything else. A self-described “rag tag group of audio enthusiasts,” they meet up once a month at members’ homes to share food, conversation, and most significantly, interesting sound art. The meetings are free to the public and provide a chance for sound artists and enthusiasts to come together, listen actively, and bond over a shared appreciation of all things audio.
I was first introduced to the DC Listening Lounge at their exhibit at the Goethe Institute in early June. They were hosting the one-night-only Sound Scene, an annual event meant to promote the collective, showcase members’ work, and give the public a chance to explore audio art in all its myraid forms. This year’s exhibit, themed Cycles, Circuits and Revolutions, featured a wide range of works: Sean Phillip’s “Play” synced musical score, sound collage and strategic silence with video to create an anxiously dramatic mood while Danny Meltzer featured the slow winding down of an early 20th century sewing machine in the surprisingly moving “The Long Way Out”. Although all works were engaging, it was Alex van Oss’ “An Other On” that encapsulated the thrust of the entire Sound Scene exhibit. What was at first a simple looped recording of a man’s slow-moving speech, unfolded to be a universe of sounds within the throaty timber of the man’s voice, his sticky mouth movements, the white noise negative space around his words, and teeth knocking together as he spoke. Remaining patient, sitting still, and focusing on what I was hearing, the Zen-like pleasures of mindful listening opened with each new sound that I discovered.
This feeling only intensified during my second encounter with the DC Listening Lounge at one of their regularly scheduled potluck meetings in Brookland. Although the collective boasts an impressive 300-person email listserv, the meetings, according to collective member Jocelyn Frank, tend to self-select into about 15 – 20 participants a session. Keeping it small, she explained, allows each gathering to be social, but still intimate enough for everyone to have an involved, in-depth discussion about sound. At every meeting the floor is open, and anyone that has a short piece (6 minutes or less) is encouraged to share if they feel inclined. Our host Seth began our session by playing a piece by James Tenney called “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion,” that featured a single gong played steadily louder then slowly soft again over the course of the track. We turned off the lights and sat in reverent silence as the gong’s layered sound washed over us like a metallic wave. The ring was at various times dark, rolling, and organic - as ominous as a thundercloud - and at other times industrial, urgent, mechanistic, and choppy like a helicopter passing by overhead. Having never given much thought to the sound of a gong, I was awed by the beauty and complexity of the noise radiating around the room. Just like in the displays at Sound Scene, when I singularly focused on what I was hearing, I was able to discover new sound realms to appreciate. The pleasure of listening was palpable.
Many interesting works were shared that night. Sound artists played pieces in development, taking the opportunity to talk through project ideas and gain feedback on their artistic direction. Others shared more famous works, and one Moscow-based attendee did a show-and-tell with his collection of Russian-issued mid-century LP’s. Throughout the meeting, the benefits of actively listening were made clear, and afterwards the audience’s reactions to each recording were equally enlightening. By the end of the night, the ultimate power of sound was unmistakable as a unifying force and social bonding agent. The shy silence that had accompanied the beginning of the meeting had given way to friendly chatter and shared perspectives. We had come together and listened intensely, and had in the process become a small community built entirely around celebrating an interest. In a city that so often keeps one cultural eye on the bigger political picture, experiencing the sheer joy of personal enrichment felt refreshing and intensely rewarding.
When the meeting was over, the chimes of chatter and clinking utensils took the place of recorded pieces as people moved around the room to catch up and clean. But above the din of noise and conversation, the meeting’s tone continued to resonate, and the lesson to live more fully echoed throughout the room.
Photo credit: Lindsay Brown, Amy Morse
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