Ján Solčáni – Listening to “In-Between” – Notes from Terrain or Trash Methodology [Spolka, 2019]

Original photo by Marek K. Misztal

PCC Note: Ján Solčáni is the founder of Skupina, a Czech-Slovak collective that engages in a multitude of projects concerning listening, sound, event, and object. Ján’s work as curator and incubator can be experienced by visiting Skupina’s website or bandcamp. Recent projects include Unseen, an incredible online platform and web archive that presents new approaches to listening; like the text below, their work is inspired by Pauline Oliveros’ practice of Deep Listening. This text is originally from Mapping the in-between: Interdisciplinary methods for envisioning other futures, published in 2019 by Spolka. Full attribution and links to the original text and publisher can be found at the bottom of this page. With many thanks to Ján for generously giving permission for this text to be republished here.

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The following text will introduce a few simple tools and methods of tuning into ‘in-between’ space through one’s own hearing and body as a tool of a better understanding. These one-person listening exercises are based on my field notes written during Never-never school 2019, in the ‘empty spaces’ of Košice country around the river Hornád. They are loosely inspired by ways and methods of deep listening practice (1) of the composer Pauline Oliveros (2005). For the purpose of the universality of the text and its better understanding, the technical language has been changed into functional style. Thus, the following guidelines and procedures should be more understandable to the readers, who are not familiar with the listening procedures and their forms of realisation.

The exercises are divided into two parts. The first part is soundwalk. It focuses on tuning into the sound landscape and ways of walking through the space in order to understand it through its sonic qualities. Before I start to practically apply each method, it is important to define the physical space in which the listening will be done. The ideal environment is the vague terrain (2) and mass of the city that bounds it. This terrain is understood as ‘place between places’. The place that is a part of the city, but presents itself as created unexpectedly in the inside, outside of the organisation process of the city and its official structures. It can be, for example, the place between urban development, the railway and the river Hornád. A strip of unorganised green landscape and abandoned objects that are gradually taken over back by nature. A place that looks like functional structure only at the moment of the risk of its loss, for example, when it is transformed into a shopping centre, a building site of apartment buildings and other substances of the capitalistic organisation. I choose my starting position at the outer boundary of this place. My goal is to be able to tune into the sound spectrum of the city that will be slowly, during my walk, replaced by the ‘in-between’ area. From this collision and the following change of state I will form the logic of the following exercises.

In the second part I focus on my own immediate analysis of heard. I am keeping a record of my experience and feelings from the listening process in my notebook. The way, in which my experience and understanding of the sound is formedreflects my cultural background, knowledge, memory and experiences. In this way, the record can be an ideal bearer of my personal memory with the ability of analysing the past ones.

Soundwalk (3)

I find a starting point located in the dynamic urban environment, such as a café, square, or a bench in a busy street. It should be a place and location that is a part of my everyday social reality and in which I feel comfortable, safe, and natural. With three full deep breaths I try to calm my body and my thoughts. These breaths are calm, characterised by the inhalation into the abdominal cavity, then through the expansion of the ribs into the rib cage, and up to the throat and clavicles. Such breathing calms my nervous system. I remember that stress and restlessness is often caused by the lack of oxygen in the body. A calm body and mind are the ideal state for the listening practice. Firstly, I try to listen to the sounds of my body, focus on my breath, my heartbeat, and gradually turn to the sounds near me through my hearing. I remain this way. I move through my hearing to the sounds further away from me. I analyse them and recognise them. I am trying to define the space I am in through my own listening experience. I find the sound that is the closest and the one that is the furthest away from me. I do not necessarily try to give meaning or find their physical source, I can listen to the sound itself. I try to tune into the dynamics and structure of the sound that I hear and to find its tone and depth. If I get lost in the process, I am not afraid of going back to my breathing. I am not in a hurry, I devote enough time and space to this exercise. The point of reference is a complete tuning to the sound landscape around me. From passive hearing, I move to listening, where I process and recognize the meaning and context (Sterne, 2003, 2012). Learning this method will guide me through the rest of the exercises. 

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Now I am fully prepared to set on a journey out, into the ‘in-between’ space, where organised human structures are slowly being replaced by the logic of nature. Slowly, I leave my starting point. During this process, I make sure that I leave as little traces as possible, whether audio or visual. I try to be invisible. I walk slowly, calm and at my own rhythm. Again, I move slowly from the sounds near me to those further away. I listen to my own steps and how the environment reacts to them. How does the surrounding interact with my walk? Where does it stop, or which sound is absorbed by the echo of my footsteps?

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My phone is turned off or put in the flight mode. The same is done with all the other devices that can distract me or limit me. The only guideline for me is the sound and space that defines it. I do not let my duties, or anything and anyone else, to distract me.

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For orientation in space I do not use exclusively paths defined by urban space structure, such as pavement or road. Urban infrastructure is only one of the possible ways of movement. I try to leave the usual while walking, and get off the sidewalks and roads. I leave the visual and determine my direction by listening. In the space, I follow the sounds that attract me, I try to get to them as close as possible. I am fully focused on listening. I am not afraid to stop and look for the sound that calls to me from the wide spectrum of sounds. In the process of choosing, I do not focus solely on loudness and intensity, but I try to perceive the offered sound structures as a whole and I divide them after this. I do not create hierarchies. In this way I move forward – I find the sound source – I get closer to it and I explore it by hearing – I find a new sound source.. How did the sound change as I approached it and recognised its origin? Did I feel and hear the same thing? How did I work with my own focus and tuning to this sound? 

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I change my tempo from time to time. I stop and stay that way. I go back to the first part and tune in the breathing for a moment. I start listening from the start.

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If I get to an intense source of sound while walking, the one that replaces the entire sound landscape with its noise, I am not afraid to face it. Such a source can be, for example, a busy road for motorists, a railway, or a crossing, or even a nearby factory. I let the mass noise take over me and I remain in this state. I try to find structures in this great cacophony and slowly move between them by listening. This experience provides an important reference point to my further activities.

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As soon as I leave the sonic landscape of urban structures and head to explore the sounds of the ‘in-between’ place, I focus on the differences between industrialized part and the place that is not affected by the human activity, or is abandoned by people. I follow all small sonic details that surround me and those over the horizon. I walk of the road and I follow the sound. I let myself to be absorbed by the sound landscape hidden in the tall grass and untreated surfaces. I listen to the structures of communication between crickets and other insects living in these places. The ʽin-betweenʼ places usually offer a wide biodiversity that only shows itself gradually. I find a place, where I stay for at least twenty minutes. I limit my movement and sounds of my body to the minimum. The land in my immediate proximity has to get used to me, calmness and patience will help. At the beginning, this place was defined as empty and un-structuralised – it only appears that way from one point of view, that of the organisation defined by human activity. If I stop to see this perspective as the only possible, different organic and inorganic structures appear right in front of me.

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In the process of listening, I leave the position of a human being and I try to tune into the site through its inanimate actors. I try different positions – I lie down on the grass and perceive the sound that surrounds me from its perspective, I climb up the tree and I listen to the landscape from the position of the birds. I am not afraid to play with the place without the need of organising it. I silence the inner criticizing voice. No one is evaluating me; no moral judgements are formed and neither is anybody looking. The well-known and established gestures are just one of the possible ways of understanding the world. I put away the social structures, expectations and narratives and I replace them by my own or simulated structures of non-human actors. I swap the theory for action. I am not afraid to be naive. I experiment. I focus on the process as such, without the need to expect any results. I am open to everything that I can listen to. Instead of the position of the designer of the situation I choose the fusion with the surrounding sonic landscape.

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I try not to think about the time spent by listening during my exercises. Time is not an important factor in listening and the attention I give to it can only pointlessly lead me away from what is important – the sound. What is important, is to listen and not to be afraid of getting lost in this process.

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If it is possible, I try to walk the same way in the different times of day; early in the morning, or late in the evening. Or I repeat the same route in different seasons, and I observe how the sound landscape and my associations change.

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These exercises can be also done in a larger group of people, but I must insist that the listeners should keep a certain distance between them. The process of getting lost within the sound of landscape shall not be interrupted by the presence of other elements.

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Notebook

I write my personal experience and findings into my notebook. Also, I record my feelings from the terrain. I try to avoid the classical linearity of notes. It is not important to record the experience in detail, but to give a large space to your own imagination and associations. I leave the typical forms and I create an imaginary map, graph, fragment, haiku, doodle drawing. I take a small object from the ‘in-between’ place and I draw it in, I create my own herbarium. I am the one, who defines my own methodology and ways. It is not necessary for the notes to reflect the truth. I add my own meanings to the sounds. Not knowing is welcome. I give space to my imagination and I am not afraid to dive into it. I create my own stories and I add more than expected. I am not afraid to be silly at writing, or to ask myself stupid questions in the notes. I want to be naive!

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In my memory, I go back to the starting point, where I began with my breathing exercise. In my mind, I slowly move from this point through all the sound moments that I experienced during my walk, or to those that are stuck in my memory. I record the moments in my notes, and I mark them on my map. I work with my own logic in organizing these moments on the map, correct placing is not necessary. Geographical view is only one of the options. I draw a map based on different principles, such as the intensity of the sound, its harmony and dynamics, or associations evoked in me. I create a few maps like this and compare them. The fascinating feature of sound is its ability to take me back to the place and situation, where I experienced it. My sound memory is very strong and it can completely recreate the experienced situation. The sound experience is, unlike the visual experience, linear and lasts over time. 

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The way I experience sound is constantly shaped under the influence of my experience and knowledge. After a while, I go back to my notes. How did my memory of the sound change or update? 

These exercises helped me to understand the meaning of soundwalks. Through the empirical methods, I learnt the procedures of tuning into the sound landscape that surrounds me and its individual components. The methodology of listening allowed me to identify and understand one’s own experience with sound in acoustic urban environment, where the senses are primarily accustomed to work with the visual perceptions. I will try to introduce these methods into my everyday practice and make them into full-fledged elements of social reality at a time, when it is still possible to focus on the invisible that does not speak to me through the image, but through sound. The near future brings much more noise into our lives that emancipates from the human organisation of time and it becomes autonomous. Until the mechanisms of capitalism gain independence from manual human labour, they overcome temporality and never stop. The crickets in the ‘in-between’ space between the river Hornád [4] and urban matter will probably sound still the same way, but no one will be able to hear them anymore. Organic noise producers have to sleep, but their technological counterpart will never get tired and quiet and will keep me in the constant tension through the noise that will be very difficult to tune into.

Translated from Slovak original by Katarína Petrusová.

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(1) The term Deep Listening represents academic discourse defined by theoretic and composer Pauline Oliveros (2005: xxi) as a practice with its goal set on developing the scope and awareness of an individual in the terms of sound in time and space through the listening process. Oliveros deals with this practice, its positions and outcomes in the publications such as ​Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice.

(2) The concept of vague terrain is discussed in more detail by social anthropologist Radan Haluzík (2016). He defines it as an empty space in the system, as an invisible, excluded space outside space and time, which has at its disposal social, biological and other living form and is an unintended consequence of urban planning

(3) Soundwalk is an exercise focused on listening to the surrounding environment. Such a walk favours hearing over vision in order to rediscover and activate the natural sense of listening. It helps to realise the presence of the immediate sonic environment we are surrounded by. (Westerkamp, 1974)

[4] Hornád is a river in eastern Slovakia and north-eastern Hungary. Link.

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Original text from:

GREŠÁKOVÁ, Lýdia, Zuzana TABAČKOVÁ and SPOLKA, ed. (2019). Mapping the in-between: Interdisciplinary methods for envisioning other futures. Košice: Spolka. (Link to publisher)

Paperback, 144 pages
Language: English and Slovak
ISBN print: 978-80-973580-0-6
ISBN online: 978-80-973580-1-3

© This publication – with the exception of quotes – is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA). Published on postcapital.club with permission from the author.

Skupina (b. 2016) is a collective of actors with specific interest in cultural phenomena that are perceivable and expressible through sound. The collective considers events occurring in the audio dimension (or convertible to this dimension) as objects – working via listening, sound work, sociological imagination, recording, reinterpretation, oral and aural history and acoustic ecology. Through the process of materialization and dematerialization of the original statements, Skupina attempts to look for and deconstruct the borders of possible metamorphoses of the researched phenomena in our lived reality, both on the abstract as well as the material level. Their work oscillates between curatorship, publishing, education, installations, research and listening practice. http://skupinaaaaa.com/https://skupina.bandcamp.com/

Unseen (b. 2021) is an online platform and web archive that presents different approaches to listening and cultivating the relationship between our bodies, space and sound. It is loosely based on Pauline Oliveros’ practice of deep listening, which it updates through the perspectives of selected artists. Through a series of exercises, methods and video guides, we are invited to focus on sound as a tool for relieving feelings of separation and isolation, as a tool for imagining better futures. These tutorials vary in length and difficulty, are intended for bodily and non-bodily, individual and collective practice, and intend to activate different parts of our bodies and lived realities. They represent artistic practice as a tool for the everyday, as a set of mechanics and procedures operating outside the institutional frameworks of art. These are methods and manuals which we can activate in our own way and apply them to our everyday life. https://www.unseen.help/ 

Essai: A First Explanation

This new category, Essai, is an open-ended exploration into yet-unknown horizons. The idea is to present thoughts on theory, approaches, and writing related to art, aesthetics, politics, architecture, poetry, etc. that does not pertain to a particular sound release. This may be indulgent; it likely is; but in trying to make sense of the world, for me at least, there is no way to do so but by doing–and no better education than to try.

The title, Essai, is an attempt to capture something from the etymology of the ‘essay’. In the sense that the essay is an attempt (from old French, essayer, to attempt, hold to task), not a lecture. The work here (as well as in all PCC’s reviews) is intended to be experimental in its approach, and therefore, open to failure as much as success–but as is true of the experiment, to succeed by spinning out a hypothesis to an end; to attempt to explore some new ground, for the author if not the audience. So everything contained here is subject to change, to revision, to deletion (if the author so wishes), to pretention, to naiveté, and should be especially subject to criticism. Although a website is rarely a good forum for discussion, the hope is that these writings engage some broader conversation, and through the help of dialogue with others, to broaden horizons, chart new lines of flight, and ultimately escape the stagnant comfort of a solidified line of thinking.

Like all Post Capital Club posts as of late, expect this to be highly occasional and subject to the authors’ time; though I hope not too long a time passes before something is written.