Field Work: Listening Like Whitman

Now I will do nothing but listen…
I hear all sounds running together,
combined, fused or following,
sounds of the city and sounds out of the city,
sounds of the day and night.

         Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

As easy as it is to read these words, it’s hard to take his example. In my effort to listen like Whitman, it was precisely an effort that held me back.

I assumed the initial hurdle would be an inclination to prioritize sight over sound. I chose to close my eyes more often. To my surprise, the sounds I heard did not suddenly unify and “run together” as Whitman suggested. Instead, I doggedly continued to categorize each moment. My imagination spooled out visual representations of the sounds I heard to play them on the back of my eyelids. The conscious effort I made to close my eyes led me straight back to the rigidly defined prioritization of sight I had set out to avoid.

With more practice, with more familiar peripheral focus, sounds began to follow one another, in one ear and out the other. I began to forget my goal to compose, to finish the project in 6.5 weeks. I stopped shaping the sounds as they flowed in and out. I found a way to listen to their constant gurggle. Yet, Whitman’s words “sounds of the city and sounds out of the city,” seemed suddenly disharmonious with what I experienced.

Vassar’s sounds seemed not to distinguish between “city and out”, but rather to fuse them in an odd mash up. The humm and whirl of heavy machinery, quintessential to city life, was artificially mixed with the sounds of the wind in the trees, birds chirping, and the quiet of voices. Much like a city, almost every aspect of our campus, from every hedge and bush to every slab of concrete or stone has been designed and thought about. Yet, the product of this architectural composition attempts to emulate natural beauty. It’s much of a frankenstein production—powerful, beautiful, but somehow eerily disjointed, the feeling can be summed up in the over-used phrase the “Vassar bubble”. But it’s true. Campus can’t really be listened to, or openly experienced, without a kind of Truman-Show-like anxiety bubbling up inside. Someone seems to always ask, “open your eyes, and confirm that this is real. Distinguish between this and that, reality and perception. Where are the cameras?”

*Today’s post was brought to you by Alan Hagins, a Vassar student participating in CAAD’s Summer Multi-Arts Collectives. His group, Sound Walk, is creating a sonic map of Vassar’s campus that engages questions of place, physical space, landscape, memory, and community.

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