Listening in Leeuwarden, or, How Meaning Makes Silence

By Chris Tonelli

Last Saturday in Leeuwarden the bromming of occasional bromfietsen punctuated the densely layered but relatively quiet urban soundscape in the Wilhelminaplein area. I went to Leeuwarden to listen, to wander urban space for a few hours with sustained attention to sound. I went to listen to whatever sounds appeared, motorized or otherwise. But listening is hard work. In order to make my listening more satisfying I had to listen foremost to my listening.

Luckily, I had help. I wasn’t alone. I was there to listen with several musicians that work together in a group called the Genetic Choir as well as with other individuals interested in spending a few hours shifting the sonic environment to the foreground of their attention. We talked about how listening is hard work, how we’ve been trained to search for meaning and how our attention to sound often stops when we’ve identified the sound, when we attend to the name our culture has given to the objects or phenomenon producing the sound. We talked about how it takes work to ensure our listening doesn’t stop there, to continue past the point of identification and come to know the microworlds of sonic events that exist within and between sounds. We recognized that we regularly and quite thoroughly ignore sounds once we’ve acknowledged their source. So thoroughly, in fact, that they essentially disappear as elements of our environment. We also recognized that once we’ve started consciously devoting sustained attention to the sounds around us we experience space and environment in pleasurable new ways.

Dutch words like bromfiets help remind us that we’ve been conditioned to ignore sounds once they’ve revealed their “meanings.” Bromfiets is one of those great words that displays the onomatopoeic tendencies of the Dutch language. “Brom” nicely captures the sound of moped engines and can help to remind us that these are sounds we can savour and sounds that are different each time we encounter them.

Not all bromming is the same, of course. Some has a little more bbbb and some a little more mmmmm. Different engines activate different parts of the sonic spectrum. On that rainy day in Leewarden we got to enjoy the sounds of the bromfiets whirring across damp cobblestones and blending with wet shoes squeaking and the gorgeous echo of the Wilhelminaplein that is caused, in part, by the long overhanging roof of the Fries Museum. Besides our team of devoted sound walkers, the only others in the square that seemed clearly aware of the echoes were the children, who played with their new-found sonic friend as they passed through her, shouting “echo” (the word is the same in Dutch and English) and taking pleasure in the square’s resonance.

Listening to our listening that day was aided by a process that the Genetic Choir put into motion. Once we found a sound that we found compelling in the streets and alleys of the city, we allowed the sound not just to enter our bodies but also to exit them. We fired up the choir members’ handheld recorders and attempted to vocalize the urban sounds for digital capture and reuse in a concert that would occur that evening. The choir members had also spent much of the previous day with other walkers who also let the sounds of the city come into their bodies and shape their voices.

The concert took place at Neushoorn as part of the Freeze Festival and the Friesland Media Art Festival and the audience had the opportunity to hear the choir members allowing the vocal sounds of the walkers (who were allowing the sounds of the city to shape their voices) to shape their voices. Ultimately, the concert and the processes that led up to it were aimed at battling the hold that meaning has over our attention. As Harris Berger points out in his book Stance: Ideas About Emotion, Style, and Meaning for Expressive Culture: “We do have partial control over how we shape our attention, but culture also has a profound effect on what we attend to and how we attend to it” (xi). That always present “partial” control can become greater when we encounter reminders about what kinds of control we do have and what elements of our enculturation render our control partial. As we listened to the choir envoice our vocal envoicing of sounds we found that day we listened to our listening and reminded ourselves that being mindful of the sounds around us is a free source of pleasure and well-being available to all of us if we can just get out of the habit of letting meaning silence those sounds.

The concert was an extraordinary reminder. Now that I’ve written (and you’ve read) this article, the bromming of each bromfiets we encounter (for a while, at least) might remind us to set meaning aside for a while and experience our world through the always present and complex layers of its sounds. This power to transform space can, in turn, transform us.

Chris Tonelli is Assistant Professor of Popular Music at the University of Groningen.

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