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How do we listen? What influences and shapes such a seemingly elementary act? Without understanding this basic principle, we cannot even begin to tackle the complex universe of sound and all the understanding it might offer about reality and from where things come.

I think about the ear as having multiple channels. One is tuned toward information, whether it be an ambulance siren clearing a path or the theme song of an approaching shark or the lyrics of some song you can’t escape. Another is tuned to the sensual, each ear with its own palate, savoring particular textures, timbres, cadences: a sharp, high pitch that cuts through the air, throbbing bass that shakes the glass on the table.

Listening begins outside of the ear, with the many systems that eventually install themselves into our thoughts and emotions. It could be someone who first “turned you on” to a musical artist or some self-help book or click-bait article telling you to “never not say no.” These systems of influence can be affirming, families and communities built around acts of exchange, sending and receiving, thinking and feeling. They can also be what I would call real noise, reactionary walls swaying us to close our ears off to the sounds and stories of others.

But to listen, to really listen, we must take a seat, let down our respective walls, and immerse ourselves in the sounds and stories of others. Sometimes the voices telling us to react and respond to the noise before we even have the chance to experience or understand are themselves the noise clogging our ears. The key to where we come from, our origins, the past, is to create anew, to engage in new listening, new dialogue, new thought. The answer lies in our own voices and experiences.

About the Contributor

C. Spencer Yeh is recognized for his interdisciplinary activities and collaborations as an artist, composer, and improviser as well as for his music project Burning Star Core. Yeh has toured and performed at venues ranging from the 2014 Liverpool, Whitney Museum, and Museum of Arts and Design Biennials to the Pérez Art Museum (Miami) to the Kunsthalle Stavanger (Norway) among many others. Recent recorded works include Ambient, Transitions, and Wake Up Awesome.