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Listening Through Art

The third episode of The PARK podcast, “Listening Through Art,” features Ernesto Pujol, a site-specific performance artist and social choreographer based in Puerto Rico. And Carol Muller, Professor of Music (ethnomusicology) at Penn who has published widely on South African music both at home and in exile. The conversation delves into how art can help us better understand listening. Ernesto Pujol talks about his work choreographing The Listening Project, durational performance art pieces that put listening at the center of the practice. And Carol Muller shares her perspective, as both an ethnomusicologist and dual US/South African citizen, on how music can be a way to learn about and empower cultures that are underrepresented and marginalized. Join us as we learn about how art can catalyze wellness, connection, citizenship and dialogue by focusing in on listening and stillness.

Photo Credit: Listen Carefully by Justin Lynham
Photo Credit: Listen Carefully by Justin Lynham

Excerpts from edited transcript:

Lia Howard: Both of my guests were featured in a conversation at the event Other Ways of Knowing, the Listening Project, co-sponsored by Jackie Tileston, Associate Professor in Fine Arts, Stuart Weitzman School of Design and the SNF Paideia Program. Today we want to continue that earlier conversation with a discussion around how art can help us better understand listening. As you know, at the SNF Paideia Program, we believe that individual and community wellness are connected and in the importance of listening across difference.

Ernesto, could you tell us more about your work on The Listening Project? In the event with Dr. Tileston, you framed your work saying, quote, traditionally art speaks. It conveys a message and the public listens. But what if the artist was a public listener and offered listening as a cultural service? What if the work of art was a vessel? Can you explain some of the specific projects you’ve developed and how they’re able to teach the public by being vessels of listening?

Ernesto Pujol: My projects have always had a strong listening component, starting with the research with the many conversations I have with people in place, as well as the nature and place. My performances are mostly in silence which is the ground of listening. My performers walk inside a historic building or throughout a city in silence. So the audience is not listening to the artist, to the performers, speak but to the city or nature landscape speaking to them.

Three recent projects that embody this are 9:00 to 5:00 which we did in 2015, where performers sat for three days from 9:00 to 5:00 literally seeing and listening to pedestrians in downtown New York coming and going by the thousands and writing what they witness in journals as public scribes of human flow. Excerpts were later published online by our commissioning hosts, More Art.

That project was followed by two versions of the listeners in Germany and then in New York. In Germany, the performer sat in the town hall of the city of Osnabruck from sunrise to late evening and listened in silence to any citizen from that city who wished to come in and speak to them for as long as they wished. So many people walk around feeling unheard.

In New York, the performer spent three days talking with pedestrians about listening, doing performative research, wearing blue uniforms and an ID label that said Listener on their shirts. And this culminated in a formal listening event, as in Germany, where the performer sat inside the Federal Hall National Memorial and listened to whoever wished to come in and speak during one evening.

I think that when you role model listening humbly, when people see someone walking slowly or being still while listening, they themselves slow down, often becoming silent with us, with themselves in place, beginning to listen to the city or the landscape around them.

Lia Howard: What first drew you to listening and stillness? Did your background as a monk and as a social worker influence your ideas or your practices here?

Ernesto Pujol: I grew up in a family of old storytellers. And it made me a listener long before I became a storyteller myself. But my monastic training formalized that by giving it an ancient route. For hundreds of years, pilgrims traveled to monasteries to speak with monks. Later, doing social work among the homeless and people with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s, sharpened those skills within the context of society.

Lia Howard: Carol, music sometimes provides a window into cultures, allowing us to learn about them through deep listening. How does your research around music and culture relate to the work Ernesto’s doing? Can listening to music be a way to learn about and empower cultures that are underrepresented and marginalized?

Carol Muller: Let’s start with Ernesto’s idea of listening as art, of the work of art as a vessel, or what we might call the art of listening, which actually used to be the title of a class that helped students understand European art music repertory in my department. Listening as an art should be the work of my field, ethnomusicology or anthropology of music. Though we are often more concerned with the culture in which music happens than in listening to the music itself.

I had a teacher once who laughed, saying she thought that, in fact, most ethnomusicologists didn’t like the music they studied. And how often have I sat at conferences when ethnomusicologists have apologized, “there just wasn’t time to play the music.” Talking is more important than listening.

Today. I will talk briefly about three different ways in which deep listening has been a useful art. Two are South African research projects I’ve been engaged with, one with the followers of Shembe. And the second concerns the formation of the field of South African jazz. The third is in the way I teach the introduction to world music and cultures, focused on listening to Indigenous people.

So, to Shembe. Isaiah Shembe was a Zulu prophet who emerged in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in the late 19th century in response to the ravages of colonial control of these people, the pressure to engage in labor migration, and the destruction of the traditional homestead economy. Shembe felt called to his mission through a dream he had on a holy mountain. In that dream, he heard the voices of men in traditional skins, warriors, singing in a style of religious song that was not from the christian mission but formed out of the complex vocal improvisation, deep rhythms, and words that spoke to contemporary Zulu experiences intertwined with old and new testament place names and narratives of cosmological intervention.

He formed his religious community through his healing powers and the creation of a repertory of sacred song that continues to be sung for dance festivals and congregational worship. But the singing isn’t easy to understand. When I was doing my research and I sat amongst the women and girls, I struggled to pick out the melody. I remember panicking until I stopped and allowed myself to be washed over by the voices, to listen into the layers and layers of individual rhythmic articulation, women playing with syllables and collectively contributing to the overall sound. These were izihlabelelo kwakwaShembe: the hymns of the place of Shembe.  I will talk more about this community a little later.

To South African jazz, there’s no doubt that without the listening ear and sound recordings that traveled from the US to South Africa that there would be no category of South African jazz without them. Listening closely, copying, transcribing, arranging, repeating was how South Africans came to American jazz. There’s a lovely description, in fact, from a Black journalist Gideon Jay of his listening practices in the 1950s that I’m going to quote:

“Is there anything so wonderful as the gramophone record, that hard flat circular piece of inert material that comes to life when you spin it and put the point of the needle in the groove. It comes to life and plays on your emotions, bringing joy or sorrow. You tap your feet or you shed a tear. How do you listen to your records? In my case, I sit alone and spin the disks, usually in the small hours of the morning. I get the feeling that the artists come to me through the loudspeaker of my radiogram. They step out to take a bow and sing or play, and then step back through the speaker and the curtain comes down as the automatic switch kicks the turntable to a standstill. And I’m left alone with a cold disk.”

This is out of a publication called Zonk! from 1952. When I was an undergraduate music student in South Africa in the mid 1980s, there was very little written about South African jazz. I took an undergraduate seminar on the subject and it was an experience of reading bits and pieces of South African jazz journalism. But even more so, it was about listening to the music. Our teacher had gathered old 78 RPM recordings and deposited them on cassette. We could listen. But most of the musicians we heard had gone into exile and were banned in the country at the time. So listening was an act of defiance, an act that required recording every track with music so the government would know what we had heard.

We’re in a very different place now in South African jazz. The living cultures of jazz performance of the mid-20th century have joined university jazz programs. And now there are literally hundreds of musicians experimenting, collaborating, creating the field of South African jazz. Only now are they listening closely to sounds of local languages, traditions, memories of past performances skillfully grafted into the international sounds of jazz loaned to universities and redefined by the richness of local listening.

Now to Penn and Intro to World Music and Culture class. This class fulfills both a cross-cultural analysis, and more recently arts and letters requirement. I teach it differently than most because it is focused on the voices of Indigenous peoples. In the 1990s, I found a three-CD package called “Voices of Indigenous Peoples” at the Tower Records bargain basement in New York City. The compilation was issued to honor the United Nations decade of Indigenous peoples. And I was totally drawn into the many ways in which I heard Indigenous voices exposed. I expanded the collection into a class that contextualizes Indigenous voices through an understanding of colonial history, traditional ideas about the relationship between voice sung, land, belief, ritual, and ceremony, and of the ways in which these voices have been inserted into Western popular culture. So we cover groups like Aboriginal people in Australia, the Kalahari, quote, bushmen– all the terminologies are complicated. We can call them the Khoisan, too, Central Asian Tuvan throat singers, Central African, quote, pygmies, and so forth.

These are stories of the colonial and modernizing projects of the capture of pygmies and bushmen to put them on display in cages in zoos in the Bronx, for example. For the Tuvans, the story is less about the colonizing project and nationalization than the force of the former Soviet Union in removing ritual and belief from Indigenous practices so as to scientifically analyze specimens of song.

All the stories are complicated but it is the sound that is the real challenge. For most students, the music is really hard to listen to, to make sense of, to understand. And that is the real challenge of the class, how to learn to listen. In other words, how do we help students digest the differences, to transform what at first seems unintelligible into some kind of understanding, perhaps even a compassionate consumption.

About a decade ago, I taught this material as a Latin seminar with a focus on close and repeated listening. It was possible because this was when digital archives were becoming available and we could require students to listen closely and repeatedly on their computers. I asked the students to listen to a recording three times and to free writing each time as a means to making sense of what they heard.

This is hard stuff. Even if music is universally present in all places, it is not easily consumed across listening communities. And I came to see that the students listened closely and had to write something, they began to make sense of the sound. From free writing that they needed the bathroom or someone was knocking on the door or calling on the telephone, with each new listening and free writing, more order and understanding emerged.

Eventually, students discovered repetition and structure. They were coming to know another through listening more attentively. And then they connected the archive with sound they created by close listening to the academic Latin that had already developed a narrative to understand.

Listening, like Ernesto’s idea about walking, is done by everyone. The questions become, how do we learn to listen with ears that are open to difference, to repetition, to ritual in languages we don’t understand. How does the seeming lack of an order to us gradually emerge as something intelligible to our ears? How do we consume musical difference with understanding, compassion, and perhaps even empathy?

Lia Howard: Ernesto, art is often thought of as a visual medium using our eyes. And listening is often thought of as auditory using our ears. How are your more embodied participatory projects, like the Listening Project, helping us to think about listening through what we see?

Ernesto Pujol: Well, hearing is a sense, part of having a body and being alive, moving through the world. But listening is a choice. And it is not an isolated choice within what we call the mind. We listen with our whole body. We listen with the hand. We listen with the foot. We listen with the knee. And of course, the eye informs the listening. Communication happens through the sum total of the senses. Perception, what we are talking about indeed is perception. We perceive through all of it as one.

Lia Howard: Listening also has implications for economics and politics. You said in the event with Dr. Jackie Tileston, quote, “Listening is not an abstraction. Listening, to me, is the foundation of democracy.” End quote. You also shared that listening is subversive to a capitalistic society as it stands in contradistinction to capitalistic values of activity and speed. Being still and listening threatens our productivity. Can you say more about how listening well has the potential to change US society?

Ernesto Pujol: Well, in order to transform any society, certainly our society, we must have listened to it deeply. The listener always listens to more than we bargained for, to what is said, and to what is left unsaid. So listening can then be prophetic, listening ahead of social change. The question, however for me, is how does the listener deliver the message of social change. How does the listener deliver the message of what needs to change? In my case, as an artist, I do it through public performativity, potentially acting out performing the change I want to see, poetically gesturing metaphors of cathartic healing and peaceful relationships. We are not politicians signing things into law. We change society one project at a time.

Lia Howard: Carol, you, too, think about the influence of art and listening on politics. Can you tell us more about your involvement in truth and reconciliation work in South Africa? Also, what do you think we need now in the US? How would it be similar to and different from the healing work around speaking and listening that happened in South Africa? And is there a role for music in the process of healing from political trauma?

Carol Muller: My thinking of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not in any official capacity but rather as a South African citizen intellectual. The TRC, as we’ll call it, focused on storytelling as a mechanism for truth telling, reconciling past experiences of gross human rights violations often inflicted by the apartheid regime on mostly Black South Africans. The South African regime had denied this and so it was important that these stories came out as a mechanism for healing and building a new nation.

Women were the primary narrators of these stories. As author Antjie Krog remarked, through the TRC, truth had become women. I was interested in the TRC accounts in light of the work I’d done earlier on Shembe women’s storytelling about miraculous interventions caused by the founder Shembe, Isaiah Shembe.

As I’ve already indicated, I’d done dissertation research on ibandla lamaNazaretha this largely Zulu-speaking religious community who used the Zulu translation of the mission bible but also created their own books, a catechism, and a hymnal. I’ll talk about the songs in a minute. But important to say that the leader Isaiah Shembe emerged as a prophet in the late 19th century, as I’ve already said, in response to British colonization of the region and Afrikaner movement across South Africa, so it’s as Europeans move deeper into what we now call the Republic of South Africa. At the core of Sabatha and other religious meetings are the sermons preached by members.

Now these sermons are stories about the miraculous intervention of Shembe the prophet in the lives of individuals. They are the proof of the power of a Zulu prophet who could perform miracles of healing and resurrection of the dead, just as they read about in the new testament that Jesus had done.

So listening to the miraculous stories had helped to consolidate the power of the religious community in the early 20th century, just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was intending truth telling stories to help South Africans move on from a violent past and to build a new South African nation. And these stories of Shembe were truly amazing. Women told of being healed from infertility, of securing employment, housing, or being protected from death in a train and in many bus taxi accidents, of being healed from rape, and of instructions to leave abusive husbands or partners to follow Shembe.

In other words, the stories resulted more than just from having pride in being touched by Shembe. They were tangible material outcomes from the storytelling. And this is what really matters. This is where the problem is with the TRC.

This is where listening to Shembe sermons differs markedly from the 1990 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the TRC, the privilege of telling was given to women whose stories had to be verified and then only qualified if they demonstrated gross human rights violations. In other words, structural violence and daily racism wasn’t sufficient for a woman to be able to publicly tell her story. For a woman, and as I’ve said, it was largely women who bore witness, to tell the story there had to have been an experience of deep trauma attached to the death, violence, and abuse inflicted by the state. One might have the satisfaction of confronting the perpetrator of the violence, but there was no material compensation.

In other words, as important as South Africa’s TRC was at the time for moving towards a neoliberal Black majority Democratic government, insufficient attention was paid to the issues that would have helped most South Africans– economic opportunity for ordinary people, the problem of land dispossession and land return, the cruel system of migrant labor, unfair taxation, the lack of access to good education, and so forth. The focus was too much on getting the truth and less about reconciling past injustices to benefit communities as they move forward.

There’s no doubt that a similar kind of reconciling the cost of hearing the stories of slavery, racism, racial violence, and so forth in the United States has to happen if a new kind of racially and ethnically diverse 21st century American nation is to come about. We all need to become skilled in the art of listening to the stories of fellow citizens. As to thinking through the experience and injustice that was slavery, in some sense the phone camera has already begun the work of setting the record straight in the present.

The problem for me is that the phone evidence is channeled through the legal system with human juries. And as we have seen over and over, just one juror’s doubt can change the course of what seems to be a clear case of injustice. The criminal justice system has become too much of a game about winning than it is about reckoning with social justice. We need, I think as Americans, to imagine more humane modes of public hearing and healing, perhaps along the lines of thousands of small listening schools in every town and city across the US, as Ernesto suggests.

But it is not only about listening to people’s account. What we see in South Africa three decades after the TRC is real anger, even with Mandela who retrospectively seems to have been too willing to reconcile with the apartheid regime. He didn’t adequately take care of his people for the future.

In contrast to the TRC, what we recognize now with the Shembe community is that the stories or sermons members preach about Shembe’s intervention cover all aspects of their lives– employment, housing, medical issues, land restitution, infertility, and so forth. And he provided, also– and this is also important, I think, as a music person – he provided for the collective wellbeing of his followers: what drew many to his “prayer meetings” were the forms of ritual practice and celebration, and of sacred song.  The prophet experienced his calling by listening to the voices in dreams in which Zulu men in traditional dance skins, who were singing in a style where every single voice sounded out its own rhythms and words.  These sacred songs accompany large dance festivals, Sabbath worship, and all kinds of smaller gatherings of followers in daily and weekly meetings.  The prophet recognizes the power of collective ritual action and social performance as a mechanism of collective wellbeing.  It is less about the individual and more about the community: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: a person is a person by virtue of other people.  When a Zulu person meets another, the greeting hello is sawubona, I see you.  I acknowledge your person standing in front of me. And it is, perhaps, the deeply human response of Shembe and the wider Zulu-speaking community that we can learn from. Because it is not just about telling the story. It is making society right for the people who have been wounded.

Lia Howard: Ernesto, can you tell us more about your listening schools? What happens in them and what can current undergraduates learn about them? You called universities prophetic. Could you tell us more?

Ernesto Pujol: My training workshops for any given performance are a set of ephemeral listening schools in the field. We talk about listening. We draft our histories of listening and the specific listening that a particular place may require. We study that. We research that because we always listen within a site-specific context. Universities are not de facto prophetic. But they are theoretically, intellectually, and physically safe spaces where educated listeners could voice what they have learned and thus be socially prophetic. So universities offer us a safe space for listeners to speak.

Lia Howard: Excellent. And can I just press you with one more piece of that question? What could young people in college learn from you? I mean, I can think of many things they are learning from you, from everything you’ve said. But what do you think specifically younger people could take from these projects?

Ernesto Pujol: Teaching is always an invitation. It is not an imposition. And so there is training and listening to make you ready for listening. I think that what I normally offer young people is not so much the lessons of what I have learned while listening to society, but I invite them to participate in a series of listening exercises. Because I believe in experience. I believe in teaching through experience, which is a more, you might say, Asian, an Eastern way of teaching. And so I cannot say that there’s a list of specific things that young people, undergraduates or graduates, may learn, will learn from me. But there is a specific list of tools, of exercises that I share with them. And that is how I relate to them.

Lia Howard: Carol, you’ve already told us some fascinating ways in which you integrate listening and wellness into some of your music courses at Penn. Could you tell us a bit more? How do students respond to these courses? At the event with Jackie Tileston, you mentioned that music can also be a way of self medicating. And you gave an interesting example of people commuting to work and having specific soundtracks that they use to gear themselves up for the workday. What do you think students need right now that maybe listening and stillness can provide?

Carol Muller: This is my third year as a faculty fellow in the Ware College House in the quad at Penn. And so all my students are first years. Last year, I formed a residential program called Arts and Well-being. It was a small community of students living on my floor, several were also my first year advisees. They took my freshman seminar on arts and well-being. And we did arts and being community events in the city.

As part of the seminar and open to all students in Ware, we all brought in arts and well-being community leaders from the city of Philadelphia. At the end of the fall semester, the Arts and Well-being seminar collaborated on a mural which will go up in Ware next year. Several students became such good friends they’re living together this year in West Philly. It was a very awesome community, all sort of structured around the idea of arts and well-being.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to focus my first year seminar in the fall of 2020 specifically on the musical. It just seemed that the social isolation we were experiencing was requiring the presence of sound in our lives. So the first year seminar was titled Music and Well-being.

Each seminar, done through Zoom, started with a daily call. So this is just taken off YouTube, just freely available. And often there was sound in the background– rain, waves, animals. We made the practice of class requirements so students wouldn’t stress that they didn’t have the time outside of class to do a Daily Calms. Across the board, students loved this part of the class though they didn’t always like the soundtrack to some of the Daily Calms we listened to. And we had a really wonderful conversation about whether you liked the fall of rain or the crashing of waves or the sound of wind. What were the things that kind of unnerved you? And what were the things that brought a certain kind of peacefulness? This is all a way of kind of coming to an understanding of your daily well-being, your emotional state.

Each student was required to create a soundwalk projects—some simply recorded walking the sidewalk; others turned the project into a story about home, or social isolation, as it pertained to the sound around them.  I did the same project with graduate students in the fall: they were quite wonderful.  One student was living in Hong Kong and her research was on protests against anti-democracy rule in HongKong.  She did two contrasting soundwalks: one in the midst of the protests, and one a year later after the silencing of all protest by the Chinese government.  Powerful in both sound and silence.  The other student did a soundwalk by following underground water pathways in the city of Toronto: she recorded the sound of running water at transit stops and elsewhere.  Extraordinary what we learn from our innovative and multi-sited student communities.

In the Music and Wellbeing seminar, we also did a group ABCS project: to address issues around Philly gun violence epidemic.  We listened to the stories of human experience that are hard to comprehend, that are painful, and difficult to ask about. Using ZOOM software, zoom microphones, students who had never met each other in person planned three sets of interviews with four people they had never met in person.  They reflected on how uncomfortable they felt having to prepare for the interviews: how do we talk to a survivor of gun violence without seeming like we are just intruding and privileged to not suffer in this way?  They listened closely and compassionately, and in the end we have a beautifully told three part podcast on one person’s experience of surviving random shooting early one Saturday morning in North Philadelphia.

As part of these seminars we also think about the contemporary practices related to Personal Music Listening.  How many of us walk around with buds in our ears streaming music right into our brains and emotions.  We think about the work of emotional regulation through these practices.  We talk about Pandora radio, a site established to create categories of listening based on particular emotional resonance.  In this sense, personal Music listening is like a Prozac by listening, but without the side effects.  You can pick songs that have certain emotional qualities, they will find more that are similar for you.  The only challenges is to figure out at what point there should be a shift to a new emotional register.  In this practice, music is more than just the soundtrack to one’s  life, the background or acoustical wallpaper i.e. I remember that this is what I was listening to when this happened.  It is also about making life bearable, feeling connected through hearing sound resonating inside the body, marking particular moments in the day as emotionally and acoustically regulated.

Finally, there is the creation of what I call scholarly playlists.  When I teach the Music of Contemporary Africa, this semester I am teaching Penn undergrads, and the Teachers Institute of Philadelphia, students create playlists to tell a story about people, places, styles from Africa, past or present.  This is a story shaped by the contours of deep listening, contextual reading and viewing, and new understandings that emerge about a people and continent that so often remains silenced in the American academy.  Once again, the pervasive presence of music from all over the world, gives us the opportunity to listen closely, and by listening to understand, so much history, culture, geography, and stories of the world’s peoples, if only we can make the time to open our ears and to listen.

Lia Howard: Ernesto, could you read your listening manifesto for us please?

Ernesto Pujol: Thank you. Yes. I was requested to submit a text to an event in Europe since there is so much interest in listening right now. And so I wrote a bilingual document in 14 points. And I’ll read them in English and Spanish as we go.

A Listening Manifesto:

  1. Listening is site-specific. We listen within a specific natural or social context.
  2. Listening is not sentimental. Listening is the foundation of democracy.
  3. Hearing is the basic sense. Listening is a conscious choice.
  4. Listening is genderless and ageless. It is a core psychic skill for human evolution.
  5. We listen through our brain and body. The brain listens to the verbal while the body listens to the non-verbal. Full listening reclaims our animal body.
  6. We must decolonize listening from appropriating stories. We must ethicize listening to help heal wounded societies.
  7. Listening is not selective. Listening is the patient and generous commitment to listen to everyone and everything with empathy, particularly the aggressive.
  8. Before being entrusted with the task of listening to a collective, we must listen to the voice of our deepest self or we will be in the way.
  9. We must re-learn the skill of inhabiting silence and stillness. Silence and stillness are not punishments. They are the ground of listening.
  10. The listener listens equally to what is said and to what remains unsaid.
  11. The deep listener listens to more than what we bargained for, to more that what we want to confront about ourselves.
  12. The ethics of listening requires that what we listen to remain confidential. What can be shared consists in what we learn about listening while listening to society.
  13. We need to reinvent education as a listening school.
  14. Listening cultivates wisdom and potentializes the prophetic.

Thank you

Lia Howard: Thank you to our listeners for joining us for the first series of the PARK podcast on listening. Over the course of three episodes, we’ve learned about listening through nature, listening through science, and listening through art. Our guests have shared insights from the fields they are passionate about that have deepened our understanding of listening.

We hope we’ve underscored for you, the listener, both the importance of listening as a necessary part of civil dialogue as well as a skill that can be activated through many different modalities. The PARK is based on the metaphor of a public park, the commons, a public space where people of many different backgrounds can come together on an equal basis.

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