Welcome to the new Auto-Musicologies series! Our first entry is "Learning to Listen: From the Car Stereo to the Soundscape" by Vincent Andrisani.
Every night after work, my colleagues and I used to hang out in one of our cars, taking turns spinning whatever we were listening to at the time. Work was Drummer’s Choice, a drum store in Brampton, Ontario, where I taught private lessons from 2006 to 2009. My colleagues were in fact not just colleagues, they were some of my closest friends with whom I endlessly talked about music and drums and drums and music.
I loved these post-work car hangs. They were leisure and intellectual exploration all rolled into one. Naturally, I was quite sad they came to an end (for me, anyhow) when I moved from Toronto to Vancouver in the summer of 2009, but I still carry these memories with me. In fact, as I think back on them years later, I realize that these shared moments were more than just a nightly routine: they played an integral role in shaping my career as a sound studies researcher.
During these listening sessions, I was introduced to music that has since become part of my desert island playlist. But just as important as what we listened to was how we listened to it. Through the ears of my friends, I learned to hear the subtleties of performance and production. I learned to listen to the elements that make a recording what it is. I quite literally learned to listen to music.
I remember one evening, I think it was in 2003, my friend Mike Taylor brought a new release by Josh Rouse, a singer/songwriter from Nebraska. He said “man, you gotta check this album out”. It was called “1972” and the CD cover was yellow, orange and brown. A fitting colour scheme, I thought. We began by listening to the first few tunes, which eventually became the entire album.
Mike and I are not old enough to have lived through the 1970s, but we both knew the album convincingly captured the era’s sound. Drawing inspiration from troubadours like James Taylor, Carole King, and Paul Simon, Josh Rouse narrates the life of a troubled, small-town adolescent in the 1970s. But just as important as its retro theme and its somewhat relatable plot is that “1972” is, above all, a collection of really thoughtful, well-crafted pop songs.
While listening to the title track, Mike said “check this shaker part out” as he pointed toward one of the speakers. It was low in the mix and panned to the right stereo channel; a barely audible, inconspicuous part of the second verse. But once I heard it, everything clicked. In this straightforward 16th note shaker part, I heard the depth and intelligence of the composition, which brought my experience of it to life. It was a moment I will never forget.
Turning my attention toward the subtlest parts of a composition was something I began to do often. Like a detective, I would “look” (pardon the visual metaphor) for the sounds that might otherwise escape my attention. And in so doing, I realized that the essence of a composition lives not in the foreground, but in the background—in the intangibles that lurk beneath the surface. But in order to hear them, I had to train my ears to live in the nooks and crannies of a recording.
I was inspired by the idea of locating particular musical voicings and relating them to the whole of a composition. So, I began to wonder, what would happen if I turned this approach to musical listening on everyday life? What sort of encounters could I create if I could isolate discrete environmental sounds and consider their relationship to the whole of the soundscape?
In an instant (though not quite an instant since it took years before I put it into practice and even more before I could put it into words), my soundscape methodology was born. Soundscape studies is a field of study that investigates the sounds of everyday life. It asks questions not only about the relationship between sound and space, but it also explores the act of listening and its role as an integral, though often overlooked cultural practice.
As a soundscape researcher, my methodology consists of note taking, conducting interviews, field recording, and of course, attentive listening. But what exactly is attentive listening and how do we qualify it as a methodological technique? Put simply, attentive listening is a reciprocal mode of inquiry that uses sound to ask questions, while at the same time asking questions about sound.
Composer, educator, and soundscape studies pioneer R. Murray Schafer (1993) famously argued that we should “treat the world as a macrocosmic musical composition” (p. 5). One would be hard pressed to find a more romantic idea. However, listening to the acoustic environment as we might listen to music is not only strategic, but I’d argue it’s also a necessary part of conducting critical soundscape research.
I put this form of listening to work in a project that I carried out in (and on) the city Havana, Cuba that I began in 2012. One of the more musical geographies in the Americas, Havana is a city in which I had the fortune of studying music as both a performer and as an anthropologist. But the sounds of the city are in no way limited to music alone. Havana’s neighbourhoods are animated by an extroverted street culture, making soundscape studies a fertile approach for conducting urban research.
While in Havana, I listened in ways that encouraged me to sift through discrete sounds, moving from one to the next. At one moment I found myself attending to the rhythms of the traffic outside my apartment. At another I would tune in to the excitable chatter of children playing in the streets. And at another still, I would find myself captivated by the melodic cry of a street vendor as it reverberated through the spaces of the neighbourhood.
Without knowing it at the time, I was enacting a form of musical listening. I focused intently on each sound and asked how it fits within the whole of the soundscape, much like I did for musical voicings in the broader context of a recording. This led me on a series of intellectual journeys that offered new, and as yet untold stories about Havana. I explored the history of ice cream vending in the city, the development and decay of the city’s water supply infrastructure, and the present-day tourist economy—all through the study of sound and listening.
As I continue to reflect on this project, I can confidently say that I could not have developed it without my musical curiosity. Hearing nuance, detail, and depth, and finding its place amidst the whole of the composition or soundscape has become part of my approach as both a musical listener and an everyday listener alike. And as I think back about how and where I first learned to approach sound in this way, I realize that it’s at least in part a result of the time I spent with my friends in the car on those evenings after work.
I’d like to thank all of my friends from Drummer’s Choice (1993-2015), a store that meant so much to everyone who walked through its doors. In particular, I want to thank Joe Iannuzzi for digging into his archive and allowing me to use these photos. At the time, we thought nothing of the media Joe captured. Today, there couldn’t be a more fitting way to remember the store.
Vincent Andrisani, PhD, is a term lecturer in Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication. Using the everyday sounds of the city, Vincent’s research explores alternative approaches to urban development through the themes of resilience, informality, and community.