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Global/Focal Listening
by William Osborne

Fri, 23 Apr 1999

I've been thinking more about global and focal listening.  It seems global listening has many forms and functions.  The most common form could be described as "global-standby": a continual subconscious monitoring of our environment which triggers into focal listening when sound appears that stimulates reaction.  Yesterday, for example, I was taking a walk, lost in my thoughts, when the neighbor's huge St. Bernard decided to suddenly start barking at me--something he usually doesn't do.  Without the least conscious effort on my part, my body said, "Large four legged long toothed meat eater, PANIC." Then discernment set into motion, and I noticed the wagging tail and springtime blustering. The standby global listening, which became all-or-nothing-get-your-ass-out-of-here focal listening, used some discernment and returned to global-standby.

Through discernment we formulate gradations and structures of globality in what we hear. An orchestra musician, for example, will not only try to globally listen to about a hundred people, she further structures the orchestral globe into collectives of instruments, and those collectives are focused upon according to how they are interacting with her. The globality of listening constantly transforms and adapts according to the dictates of artistic discernment. The gradations and structures of global listening are determined by aesthetic and cultural conditions.

In the form of global listening referred to by Pauline Oliveros and Anne Bourne, we try to listen to all the sounds reaching us without consciously assigning them priorities. In effect, we listen to listening. We hear how listening is a form of conditioned discernment with profound cultural and existential implications.  We gain an awareness of the spherical nature of unconditioned -hearing-, and how the form of discernment we refer to as listening shapes our being. We also see why the global nature of listening causes us to associate it with the metaphysical. All other forms of sensation are essentially directional, even smell; but listening is innately spherical. We thus associate listening with the all-encompassing, the universal, the transcendent.

It is only through listening that we give hearing direction. Mothers (and some fathers) with infants are very interesting in this regard. I have noticed that they can be in a room full of a lot of loud noise coming from every direction, but if their baby across the way makes even the slightest little gurgle they focus in on it without the least conscious effort, as if it were the only sound in the world. The standby globality of listening, which allows both focus and a wide range of potential awareness, insures our survival.  After working with all of the limitations of noise reduction software, I sometimes think it is our extraordinary ability to filter sounds that is the greatest miracle of listening.  How is it that we can talk to someone in a din of noise, and perceive virtually only their voice?  The -creation- of silence is one of the greatest miracles of listening.

Norman Lowrey has made global and focal listening an important aspect of his work. He has produced a three CD set of compositions dealing with river environments in which he has tried to compose the sonic equivalent of deprioritized global listening.  He has taken numberless "everyday" sounds and formed them into a three dimensional tapestry that allows us to -hear- them in a uniquely simultaneous and deprioritized way. The effect is very striking, something like the sonic equivalent of a Rousseau painting, a hyper-vivid unification of our teeming-with-life environment that gives it an almost animistic quality.

Ironically, a non-prioritizing global focus on the outer world calms the inner world, thus allowing us to hear the most quiet voices of both worlds. The challenge thus arises of globally focusing on both the inner and outer worlds simultaneously. This is also explored in Norman's works.  Very often a speaking voice emerges over the global background, adding to it the representation of an inner world. The two worlds are experienced simultaneously. We sense how the inner and outer worlds shape each other and the dream-like rendering of reality their interplay produces.

Norman's work thus helps us to understand that our existence is made of two globes, the inner and outer worlds, which exist like twin galaxies. How does one bring this twin galaxy to a unified whole, a harmonious universe of completeness?

One approach might be to understand that focal listening is also global listening, since there is an infinitude of detail in every sound. Through endless detail, everything finite is in reality a manifestation of the infinite.  One of the greatest mysteries of nature and human perception is that the infinitude of the microcosmic comes full circle and weds itself as a mirror of the macrocosmic. Why do the structures of the atomic world bear a resemblance to the galactic world? Why do the formations of ice crystals bear literal structural relationships to the erosion of coast lines?  Why do the swirls in the little creek outside have the same form as this galaxy? How does an infinitesimal helix of DNA contain the entirety of human evolution? I think of the words of Lewis F. Richardson:

"Big whorls have little whorls
Which feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
And so on to viscosity."

It is this unity in multiplicity that raises human folly above our finite and conditioned existence. Mind and Nature reach for each other. It is this infinite in the infinitesimal, the global in the focal, the unity in multiplicity, that allows our finite religious beliefs and art works to touch the unfathomable. When we move our little finger, the universe moves with it. Listen to the infinite details of one sound while listening to the infinite world of sound surrounding you. A mysterious form of unity begins to exist.  We call it beauty.

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