Episode 018 Transcript
Listening Room with Jonathan Hiam (New Year 2019)
SARAH MURPHY: Hi, this is Sarah Murphy, school librarian and teacher of English and theatre. You are listening to the Point of Learning podcast with my pal and fellow library lover, Peter Horn.
PETER HORN [voiceover]: On today’s show, the practice of listening.
JONATHAN HIAM: You have a moment where you hear something and you know you now hear it because you’ve learned how to listen for it.
[VO]: The practice of listening to music, in this case recorded music, can open us up to all kinds of things.
JONATHAN: It’s permitting yourself to be vulnerable, which is I think, a foundational component to sympathy and I think it’s a foundational component to allowing your mind to be changed. When we’re really dealing with real problems and we’re really dealing with real human experience, we need to be open to transformation at any level.
[VO]: For seven weeks at the end of 2018, the Library for the Performing Arts in New York City, a magical branch of the New York Public Library on the plaza at Lincoln Center, right next to the Metropolitan Opera House, undertook a wonderful experiment in public art. The Astor Gallery transformed into a great listening room arrayed with comfortable seating, inviting everyone, free of charge, to come in, take a load off, and listen to selected recordings culled from their immense sound archives. In honor of that experiment, this episode of Point of Learning will blaze an experimental trail of our own. We’ve got a guest, Jonathan Hiam, who will come back to do a standard interview for another episode sometime in the future. Today, however, Dr. Hiam, the Curator of Music and Recorded Sound at the library, will be our tour guide for a taste of the experience he and his team spearheaded in the exhibit they called Listening @ The Library. Imagine a large room, clean and white, but very inviting. If you’ve ever entered the Library for the Performing Arts from 10th Avenue, you may know it as the Astor Gallery, but you may never have seen it quite like this: 9 immense beanbag chairs in various colors are arrayed like the squares of a tic-tac toe board on a large area rug with thick gray shag. The lighting from cans on the ceiling alternates cool and warm, with red, blue, green, and amber gels filtering the mood. Panels of gray acoustical tile six feet high snake along two sides of the wall to maximize the acoustical experience for listeners. The room is cozy and clean, public but set up for individual comfort as well as shared enjoyment. On three squat columns toward the front of the room sit two speakers and a record player that is not actually being used for playback but helps to unify the feel of the space. You may not notice at first how carefully designed the floor plan is, such that visitors who use wheelchairs can also enjoy fully what it has to offer. That’s thanks to the skill of designer Caitlin Whittington, who made sure that the room would be comfortable for everybody who visited, which was important to the curators.
JONATHAN: Most people feel comfortable going into a space that they can feel safe and relaxed, and therefore be open to whatever experience …
[VO]: This experience, you will notice, is not one of easy listening. While there are plenty of popular tracks in the library’s collection of 700,000 recordings, the offerings showcased in Listening @ The Library were full of surprises and unusual challenges for the ear and brain. The week I visited featured work by late 20th century genius composer-performer Arthur Russell. I want to note now my thanks to Steve Knutson of Audika Records and Tom Lee of the estate of Arthur Russell for allowing Point of Learning to use excerpts from these rare tracks. This one, called “See Through,” begins with the composer singing and playing cello—but he keeps you on your toes! Arthur Russell happens to be an artist I have learned something about and fallen in love with since Jonathan introduced me to his work last year. But the point of this library exhibit isn’t to educate through biographical facts or written words of any kind. There is a playlist posted identifying the tracks, but the focus is aural, auditory. Now Jonathan is somebody with advanced degrees in music, so he is hardly intimidated by new sounds. I asked him how he would advise the average listener to begin to get into music fairly different from what they’re used to.
JONATHAN: Whatever it is that stands out to you that catches your attention, that you notice, is the place to start to learn how to listen, because you can ask why did that stand out to you? What about that caught my attention? That’s it. You don’t need to—
PETER: Like when a particular instrument comes in, or there’s a sound pattern or just something unexpected?
JONATHAN: Anything! If you notice something—something just catches your ear, your whatever—you may have no idea how to describe it, so that’s the first step: How can I describe using my own terms and my own language so to understand what is it that I’m hearing, that I’m noticing? And you can take that further: Why is it of interest to me? You can just start to notice and observe the world [of the music] as you’re learning to know it. It makes a case for hope, for example, because it is a real experience you can have where things are, should be sort of ancient about it sort of revealed to you. You have a moment where you hear something and you know you now hear it because you've learned how to listen for it and that's different. And so that's like, um, what would you call it? Like a transferable skill, right? It's something you can take to all aspects of all arenas in which you're listening.
[VO]: Let’s hang out a minute in the listening room, shall we? When you enter on the second Monday in December, the space has just one visitor, a woman in her early 20s selecting the optimal Instagram filter for her self-portrait. You take a seat on one of the upholstered benches in the back. One hour later, a dance student from Juilliard across the street drops his backpack and nonchalantly flips himself onto one of the giant beanbag chairs. The young woman leaves as two 6th-grade girls charge wide-eyed into the center of the room, amazed that their trip with Mom to the library has taken this unexpected turn. You can’t imagine this is the music they normally hear, but they seem totally into it. Soon they settle into homework while Mom checks her phone. After about 10 minutes, Mom sets down the phone, leans back into her beanbag and, assessing that you over here with your clipboard and notepad are not much of a threat, closes her eyes. We’re used to hearing live music with strangers, of course. Not so much recorded music. We attend performances of recorded film together at the movie theater, but we’re divided by rigid rows, and increasingly encouraged by sumptuous La-Z-Boys with gargantuan cupholders to consider ourselves lone consumers, each on our own island. Listening @ The Library aims to disrupt this feeling. This is designed as a public space dedicated to the practice of listening.
[VO]: Featuring recordings from the New York Public Library’s Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, among the largest and most diverse sound archives in the world, these playlists are drawn from .7 million recordings of spoken word, radio broadcasts, field recordings, live performance, and music found in the Archives. According to the mission statement posted where you enter, Listening @ the Library argues for the “reinvigoration of a communal listening experience, one which encourages the safe and free exchange of ideas through sounds and embraces the simultaneity of diverse worldview brought to the room by any given listener at any given time.”
JONATHAN: I think the premise of that is simply to make space for people to listen in groups simultaneously, and listen to recorded sound because it’s a different experience than live performance. Bringing people together, having a physical space to experience the things that we take care of at the Library in particular, and to have these kinds of open dialogue, subjectless dialogues, unproblematized sound. An open free space just gives people a place to have a communal experience with strangers in a way that’s different than a communal experience with strangers online, for example. Think of the most basic example is how we put it in this context, how we consume commercial music. Okay, so in 1975, you’re still pretty likely to be listening with your friends in your room on a stereo system. You would listen in an open room to music with other people as an activity. People still do this, of course, but it’s more likely that people are consuming music through their headphones or—this isn’t meant to be a snobby thing—or they’re listening through speakers off of their phone or their laptop that so distort what the audio really can do. It’s been reduced to a very singular experience in a way that doesn’t necessarily interact with larger groups of people. So the notion of the hi-fi culture that existed: that experience was about open rooms with big speakers, creating the highest quality playback sound that was meant to be enjoyed in the open with others. Or by yourself, but you know, that was just because those guys are in their basement a lot.
[VO]: We’ve been hearing some of Russell’s piece “In the Corn Belt,” a 25-minute vamp featuring vocalist Julius Eastman. For this last segment, I want to go back to “City Park,” the ensemble performance we started with, recorded from a live broadcast on WKCR in December of 1973. This is an early piece by Arthur Russell, which his composition teacher Charles Wuorinen described as “the most unattractive thing” he’d ever heard. I mention this comment, because it points to one real benefit of hanging out and listening to something that at first we don’t think we like. It is absolutely, as Jonathan said, “a transferable skill,” one very helpful when we’re talking politics or other areas of shared concern.
JONATHAN: It’s permitting yourself to be vulnerable, which is, I think, a foundational component to sympathy, and I think it’s a foundational component to allowing your mind to be changed. I think that that is a risk that we don’t take very often, for all kinds of normal sorts of reasons, you know, but I think when we’re really dealing with real problems and when we’re really dealing with real human experience, we need to be open to transformation at any level.
[VO]: I asked Jonathan to compare the skills involved in really listening to music vs. really listening to people.
JONATHAN: I think listening to people is more advanced. I think to truly listen to somebody, they have to feel as if you’ve really listened to them and that’s— I don’t know how else to describe that, but I think many people probably have had that experience. You know when someone’s listening to you.
[VO]: We’re gonna be just a couple more minutes here, after which I’ll provide fuller gratitude, but let me take a moment now to thank you for joining us on this quick trip Listening @ The Library. Whether or not you choose to set up a listening room of your own for a day or a week at your office or school or next conference, I wish you many new sounds and good ideas worth your careful attention in the new year.
[Phil Kline performs credits for WKCR radio broadcast of Arthur Russell’s “City Park” in ensemble performance, December 1973]
JONATHAN: That’s what we came up with. Something simple, something inviting, something that people could come in and no matter what was playing, they could— It didn't matter! They can sit there and listen, because it’s meant to just let people sit there and be themselves and listen to this. And sometimes they interact, sometimes they don’t, but everybody’s able to sit there, and nobody beats anybody up or screams or turns their back on them. So, there’s something to that.
[VO]: That’s it for today’s show. My great thanks to Dr. Jonathan Hiam, and all the leadership and staff at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Props to designer Caitlin Whittington and the building staff, security guards, and everyone else who made this possible. Special thanks again to Steve Knutson of Audika Records and Tom Lee of the estate of Arthur Russell for allowing Point of Learning to use clips from these rare tracks. To hear more Arthur Russell, check the links on the show page. Thanks as always to our resident composer-performer Shayfer James, who lets us use instrumental versions of “Weight of the World” and “Villainous Thing” for intro and outro, and thanks to you for listening, sharing, subscribing to, and rating Point of Learning. Please tell one friend curious about what and how and why we learn just what we’re up to round here. Back soon with my interview with Epic Theatre Ensemble co-founder and co-artistic director Melissa Friedman. You’re gonna love it!