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Podcast Episode 080: A life or death opportunity

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Garth Paine is a composer, scholar and acoustic ecologist.  He crosses art-science boundaries with his community embedded work on environmental listening and creative place-making in addition to his environmental musical works and performances.  His research drives toward new approaches to acoustic ecology and the exploration of sound as our lived context including the application of virtual reality health.

Garth‘s current research centers around the Listen(n) Project, on acoustic ecology project that focuses on field recording and community building. He co-directs the Acoustic Ecology Labat Arizona State University.  

He will explain passive listening, active listening, and directed listening. 

AND 

How Deep Listening nearly cost him, his life.

Transcript

Podcast Episode 080 – A life or death opportunity

 

Garth Paine:

I run a lot of listening workshops in national parks over the last few years regularly in Joshua Tree National Park and these involve like about a half a day in which I teach passive listening, active listening, and directed listening. One of the things that I always find really remarkable is that at the end of those workshops, people say to me things like, “Wow, you’re just completely transformed the way that I perceive the world.” I always find that super interesting and I always say to them, “Well, that’s really fantastic, but you also need to recognise that you already had those skills, and all we’ve really done is give you a term so that you can label them and now you can practise them.

Oscar Trimboli:

Deep listening impact beyond words. Good day, Oscar Trimboli and this is the Apple award-winning podcast, Deep Listening, designed to move you from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful leader. Did you know you spend 55% of your day listening, yet only 2% of people have ever been taught how? In each episode, we explore the five levels of listening. Communication is 50% speaking and 50% listening, yet as a leader, you’re taught only the importance of communication from the perspective of how to speak. It’s critical you start to build some muscles for the next phase in how to listen. The cost of not listening, it’s confusion, it’s conflict, it’s projects, running over schedule, it’s lost customers, it’s great employees that leave before they want to.

Oscar Trimboli:

When you implement the strategies, the tips and tactics that you’ll hear, you’ll get four hours of weight back in your schedule. I wonder what you could do with an extra four hours awake. Garth Paine is a component scholar and an acoustic ecologist. He crosses art and science boundaries with his community embedded work on environmental listening and creative placemaking, as well as his environmental music and performance works. His research drives towards a different approach to acoustic ecology and the exploration of sound as a lived context, including the application of sound in virtual reality health. Garth’s current research centres around the listen project, a lab that focuses on field recordings and community building.

Oscar Trimboli:

He co-directs the Acoustic Ecology Lab at Arizona State University. Today, he’ll explain passive, active, and directed listening. Finally, he’ll talk about how deep listening nearly cost him his life. Let’s listen to Garth.

Garth Paine:

I run the Acoustic Ecology Lab at Arizona State University, and we do what I call acoustic ecology 2.0, which is that we actually do a lot of workshops in the community and train people in the community to record for us, and they record it at the same locations every month for us and send us the files so through that, they actually build a sense of stewardship and agency over the places they’re recording, and that helps them address their own concerns about climate impact and climate change, but it also gives us this big dataset, which has now been growing for five years.

Garth Paine:

In the last year, we started developing a computer model that looks at the psychoacoustic parameters of those recordings five times a second, and links it to weather data from that site. We’re actually building a model that shows correlation between changes in psychoacoustic parameters and weather variables. What we’ve started to do, the intention of this is not only to show that these things change and that actually generally in my view, in measuring the wrong things in the environment, we should be looking at psychoacoustic variables and parameters, which are the things that are measures of how we perceive the sound in the world, rather than say sound pressure level, which is a measure of how far the molecules are isolated in the air, essentially, how much energy is there.

Garth Paine:

One of the things that we’re really trying to do now is to develop some tools that really look at psychoacoustic parameters as measures of environmental health, and to develop this model that will allow us to predict climate impact on an environment from the analysis of a body of recordings from that environment and that computer models, we’re still building it out, but it’s already, when we predict say a month in advance for when we actually do have data, and then compare it to the data. We’re finding that it’s remarkably accurate over a 24-hour period. I’m actually hopeful that we can help encourage scientists to think much more broadly about sound and listening, and to realise that sound in all its forms and in this case, in terms of environmental sound, is an incredibly rich data source.

Garth Paine:

When we’re out there, we’re actually picking up all kinds of layers of information about reverberation time, the closeness, the sizeness of trees, the distance of the horizon, the temperature of the air. I mean, so many things that we’re just automatically understanding from the sound world.

Oscar Trimboli:

What frustrates you when people aren’t listening to you?

Garth Paine:

A lot of my work in listening is related to environmental listening and to understanding the world around us through sound and of course, we are a very oculocentric culture, especially in the West. It always really surprises me that when I’m speaking to environmental scientists and life scientists and biologists and sustainability scientists and so on that they seemed really surprised that I’m talking about sound. Often they say to me, “Oh, I never really thought about that.” They haven’t really considered the fact that sound is a descriptor of the health of the environment or of course even the kind of environment that we’re in, if we’re in a canyon or we’re on a big open grass plane.

Garth Paine:

They sound of course completely different, but furthermore that they hadn’t actually thought about the fact that those things would change with impact of climate. If species come and go or plant life decreases or increases, then the properties of sound in that environment are going to change. Often when we’re talking about that for a while, they’ll say, “Oh yeah. It’s like when I go skiing and I close the car door, and it’s like a really dull thud, and I really liked that because I know I’ve arrived.” Then it taps into the fact that there are moments when sound is a really strong signifier to them, and that’s an important moment for them, but they don’t transfer that often into these broader considerations in this case of the health of the environment and thinking about the way that sound describes an entire ecosystem.

Garth Paine:

The other thing that frustrates me a lot is urban design in cities. I’m in Phoenix in Arizona and there’s has been a great many areas in the city that have been designed over the last well, probably 10 years, intentionally designed to be places to congregate, to get more people into the city, so they come and hang out there and so on and so forth. If you go to these places, they’re often built concrete, they’re quite hard surfaces, they’re quite open to surrounding sound traffic, et cetera, and so their general sound quality is quite harsh. They’re quite reverberant, they’re really noisy. If we think about the kind of psychoacoustic parameters of spaces that we actually like, then they’re much more intimate. They tend to be quieter.

Garth Paine:

We can hear each other really well. They have a enveloping and supportive sonic property, and I’m really frustrated to see how much resource, money, time is put into designing places where we want people to be in cities that just don’t think about the sound at all. I wish people would just stop and listen and think about the quality of sound in these places and the way in which sound actually describes everything about the world around us all the time and of course, it’s one of our principle sensors. We’re trained to listen for change in the environment to identify the cracking twig behind the tree over there and see the lion before the lion gets to us.

Garth Paine:

We still work that way, but we’re doing that at such an unconscious level that it just means that the sonic properties of our environments are really ill considered most of the time.

Oscar Trimboli:

When it comes to listening, what do you struggle with?

Garth Paine:

I like to do an activity with people, which is usually to put people in pairs and then one person will put on a blindfold, and the other person is there to make sure that the blindfolded person is safe and to take notes about what the blindfolded person reports. The person in the blindfolder’s asked to tell the other person what they hear, but the one caveat is that they’re not allowed to name the source. They can’t say, “Oh, I hear a bus going past.” They have to describe the sound directly. They might start saying, “Oh, I hear a rattling, low, repeating sound that’s passing behind me from right to left,” or if it’s a bird, they might have to think about, “I hear a fragile, high pitch, melodic sound that’s above me to my right, or something.”

Garth Paine:

They have to start thinking about how they describe the sound directly and then of course, we all find that we don’t actually have much language for doing that. I’m still really not very good at that, and I am constantly shocked that even after years of listening and working in sound, I still struggled to be precise about the qualities of the sound and to not use other words like I just used the word rattly and of course, that’s like a higher order descriptor, rather than actually talking about the sound directly. I really struggle with that.

Oscar Trimboli:

What do you think the cost of not listening is?

Garth Paine:

Yeah, the cost of not listening I think is probably vast. I mean, as we’re talking about, I’m often somewhat shocked by how many scientists who are working in the environment and not really thinking about the sound of that environment. The cost of not listening is that we don’t consider sound as a key signifier of the health of our environment, or as a key factor in what makes our environments places of positive experience for us. They tend to happen by accident more often than not in private spaces, where we have an atmosphere and a house, for instance, that we enjoy or a particular place, or maybe in a botanic garden or somewhere that we like to go and sit, and it’s quiet and we have a particular reference to that.

Garth Paine:

One of the things that I’ve started to realise is that if we start taking sound into account when we’re looking at how environments change, it’s quite possible that species will move their habitat, not because there’s no food there or no shelter there, but because they can’t hear each other anymore. If the reverberation time of the environment increases a bit like us going into a cathedral, then the intelligibility of any communication is reduced, and then it could be that animals start to have trouble communicating to each other in breeding season so populations would reduce. It could be that predators can no longer clearly here where the prey are and/or prior unable to hear predators in advance.

Garth Paine:

One of the biggest costs of not listening is that we’re living in an environment that is often has sonic properties that are not supportive of wellbeing, and I think that we could be much better off if we took those things into account. If we added listening as a key factor in urban design, in scientific environmental research, I think that would make a very big difference. The approach that I take I’ve called acoustic ecology 2.0, which is the notion really that we’re taking acoustic ecology as a research area. In Joshua Tree National Park over the last four years, we’ve run consecutive workshops about well varied between every three and six months. There are generally a series of three workshops.

Garth Paine:

The first workshop is on listening skills, the second on field recording, and the third on creative production that is like composing music from field recordings that people would have made in those locations. The listening workshop, they involve about a half a day in which I’ll teach three listening modes, and these are passive listening where one tries to sit quietly and hear the entire soundscape, the entire sound field that’s around you as a singularity. You’re not directing your attention to anything. You’re just trying to hear the entire gestalt of the place that you are present in. This seems like a very simple thing to do, but in fact, it’s extremely difficult because our biology teaches us to listen for change.

Garth Paine:

We are constantly directing our attention to little sounds to check that they’re okay, or where is that bird, where did that animal, where’s that other person walking? It’s really, really hard actually to turn all of that off and just to hear the entire soundscape as a singularity. It’s really useful because it really focuses you on being present, and it focuses you on understanding that you are immersed in an environment and part of that, and in fact, inseparable from that environment. You become a few like a kind of sensor of the place that you are as part of that environment. Then we would go on to directed listening, and directed listening is something that we do naturally a lot, but in this case, we really focus our attention on it.

Garth Paine:

We might hear a bird call, and then we try to put our listening out with the bird, and we try to think about it as a microscope where we really listen in for finer and finer detail in that sound. It’s incredible how we can just keep going deeper and deeper and deeper into listening to the small nuance of the quality of the sound. This is called directed listening, where you direct your attention and really focus it. Then the third method or motive listening is called active listening, where you start to listen to the relationships. If we’re in Joshua Tree National Park, where there are a lot of very large rocks, a bird call over on my right might reflect and be reverberated off the rock over on my left or in front of me or behind me, and then absorbed by trees in some places and not others.

Garth Paine:

You might start to really hear where the environment is more intimate or more enclosed, and where it’s more open and the kind of relationship of the sounding source to the environmental qualities that are around you, and then another bird that calls back. You start to hear all of these relationships in the environment. These three listening modes are what I think are the key basic listening set, and what I find really interesting is that at the end of those workshops, people will often say to me things like, “Oh, wow, you just completely transformed my perception of the world” and of course, that’s completely wonderful and extraordinarily flattering, but I also like to point out to them that actually, all I did was to give them a term to attach to a method or a motive listening that they already practised.

Garth Paine:

What’s so powerful about the workshop is not really that I taught them how to listen, but that I gave them a terminology that they could apply to ways of directing their attention in their listening, and by gestalt, I mean the sense of the condition of the entire state as a singularity.

Oscar Trimboli:

Deep listening could cost you your life?

Garth Paine:

I am recording one night on the edge of the Rio Verde River, and I’ve been recording through sunset and the crickets coming out and all kinds of incredibly rich tapestry of sound. I hear this sniffly sound, which is quite well-defined and I’m like, “Oh, that’s really cool sound.” It goes on, starts and stops, and I’m really enjoying… It has a really beautifully defined edge, and it’s soft and wet sound at the same time. Over time, over probably half an hour or so, I hear another one and because I’m using a spatial audio approach to recording, a bit later, I hear one that seems to be on the other side of me, and maybe then another one.

Garth Paine:

I get to the point where I’m thinking, “Hmm, should I open my eyes? If I open my eyes, I’m going to need to look. That means I have to turn over, that means it’s going to destroy the recording.” I decided at one point, “Okay, I think there’s a number of these things and they appear to be around me from my listening.” I thought, “Okay, I’ll turn over and see what happens.” I turned over and all hell broke loose and basically, I was surrounded by a bunch of coyotes who were all happily licking their lips, which is basically what I thought was such a great sound and going, “Oh, wow, check this out. It’s still warm.” Called the rest of the family, “We’re in for a big feast.”

Garth Paine:

As soon as I moved, they all bolted and went like crazy into the river and through the reeds and all over the place, but yeah, I swore a lot and then laughed at myself for feeling so secure when I’m just lying on the ground in amongst all of the animals of the world in just enjoying my listening above my own security.

Oscar Trimboli:

Garth, do you have a tip to leave with us?

Garth Paine:

I think if there was a takeaway, what I would like to encourage people to think about is how practising passive, directed, and active listening can completely transform the way you perceive the world around you, and how spending a little time each week, even if it’s just five minutes, a couple of times a week, practising environmental listening opens up your sensibility to the world in a really important way. We often take students with us into the field, and we’re camping in the national parks, running workshops and so on.

Garth Paine:

We’re sitting there at night, eating dinner, and a first year undergrad student had come with us and he said, “Wow, it’s just incredible how silent it is. There’s like no sound out here at all,” and then I said to him, “Well, except for the plane in the distance behind you and the coyote call over here and the bird over there and the rabbit that’s just going across there,” and all of these sounds that were actually happening around him. He was just like, “Oh my God. I was like I didn’t hear any of those things at all.”

Garth Paine:

I think that’s partly a process of practise and the more you practise, the more aware and more sensitive you are to find our levels of sound around you, but I think it’s also an important reflection on the way in which we are listening is psychoacoustic, which means that when the waves come to our ears, what we’re actually hearing is constructed in our brain from lots of references we’ve built up across our life. We can think, for instance, that we’re out in the wilderness somewhere and therefore, it’s silent, and we construct that experience for ourselves.

Garth Paine:

Whereas the reality of having more finely tuned listening skills is that even when I’m out on a hot day in the middle of the desert, there are tiny little insects moving around and really dry little wings flying past and all kinds of micro detail that you don’t hear, unless you’ve attuned your listening and unless you stop for a few minutes and just listen, and then all of this world unfolds and becomes available to you, and it’s just rich and fabulous.

Oscar Trimboli:

Listening is the willingness to have your mind changed and today, my mind was changed in the way that Garth explained the connection between various levels of sound and how that can create data that can be analysed across time, across seasons, and its impacts. I wonder what the application of this is, not only in our natural environments and our urban environments, but how else could you think about the layers of listening as it relates to your own health? When is it too loud, and then when is it not loud enough? I’m really grateful for the opportunity to listen to Garth today because he changed my perspective on what it means around the three distinct areas of listening that he described, directed listening, passive listening, and active listening as well.

Oscar Trimboli:

There’s a lot of similarities in the way he talks about the human mind is coded for listening for differences when it comes to sound, and yet when it comes to listening for words, sentences, and stories, we listen for similarities. I wonder if you listen for differences or similarities. Send me an email podcast@oscartrimboli.com, that’s podcast@oscartrimboli.com, and let me know what you took away from this episode today, and what you’ll apply when it comes to your listening. Thanks for listening.

 

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