Unitary listening

— Reductive Journal ONE, 2013. Versión en español en Revista Oro Molido nº35, 2013

When listening to sounds, or when, in a broader sense, we are experiencing something, we are incapable of avoiding confluence, that is, we cannot help connecting those new elements to past experiences and our past consciousness. This is basically our intellect urging us to establish differences and similarities. The reason for this (reaction) is that our consciousness feels far more comfortable within a certain structure or pattern than it is when confronting nothingness, so to speak. The apparent labels of space and time acquire a fundamental role, in this case.

My interest here is to bring up the notion of unitary listening. This refers to an attitude that, in my point of view, stands out amongst the real phenomena involved in the processes going on as we are listening or being an active part of something. They take place both in the realm of reality and inside us.

In the course of listening, several levels appear that form our consciousness’ structure according to the different phenomena involved in perception1. Starting with the most latent level, mentioned in the beginning of this text, it is then shaped by what we could call the second listening. This is based on the numerous thoughts, distinctions and judgments going on in the relational and dialectic dimension of our conscience after we have experienced the sound itself. Due to the significant amount of evidence, regarding these aspects, to which we are exposed in our daily life2, I find it unnecessary to explore this level.

Significantly different is the next level3, that of the unitary listening. It refers to a kind of listening that does not separate the subject that is listening from the object that is being listened. This level of listening comes first and allows a second charge of intellect and will. It is even prior to what we commonly refer to as aesthetic judgment – a judgment that so often has very little relation with the perception of Art4. In this level we are listening, whilst during the second listening we are talking. This ultimate, primordial level is the irrefutable evidence of the presence of a unitary conscience to which, due of its revealing nature, I have given the name of listening.

Throughout history, the role played by Silence in the process of true comprehension is widely known and established by tradition. This comprehension comes from the identification or transformation into that which we know5. This primordial Silence plays a very important part in our behavior. It is only obvious that if we are talking, we are not apprehending, we are not listening, we are not assimilating and we are not transforming. Hence the intrinsic relationship between Silence and the act of listening which in this case is unitary.

But this Silence is not the absence of sound. We are dealing here with the primordial, pure Silence that is prior to the word and that, along with words, helped creating the world and mankind. A Silence that is fruitful by its greatness, and which we cannot describe but only perform.

Unitary listening is real, self-sufficient listening with no artifice that should blur it or unnecessarily wrap it, hence its being self-sufficient. It is prior to the differentiating, objectifying, dissecting thought. Unitary listening is the inexplicable6 listening, that which is fully involved with the object of listening. It means to remain alert to what has been revealed and to that which is yet to be revealed.

When we intend to listen very carefully, we are fully open. Our ears and – why not say it – our heart plunge into an ecstatic responsive state in which we are never standing still but we are behaving like a whole part of the world around us, a world that is involved with us and that is being actualized at the same time that we are. Where we are being emptied while we are listening through something more than just our sense of hearing: it is an ekkenotic listening. We are being transformed because of what we are listening, we turn into that. It is “here” that the boundaries between the subject and the object turn completely vague, and that makes both the principle of inference and the three laws of thought impossible altogether. I firmly believe that this is the true shape of reality as it is. Where we can only participate within it and through it. Going further on what we could call the nature of the act of listening, I would like to formulate a vision that I think helps clarifying what we are discussing here: listening is establishing a relationship, purely.

Let us think of a musician and their instrument. The relationship between those is what we call music. So far so good, but is that really so? As we have shown so far, this only implies a very superficial level of reality. From my point of view, this is completely different: without the music, there ‘is’ no musician or instrument. Or, better yet, when music is actually present, there is no musician or instrument. It is precisely this unsubstantialist relational unity that is a part of every being.

When we are capable of seeing the non-existence of these two elements if it is not within this pure, un-objectified relationship, we can extrapolate our system to all degrees of the real. This interdependence invigorates all elements while it does not substantialize them. It is obvious that the lack of substantiality is contrary to our intellect and reason. We can only ‘think’ about this relationship by turning it into an object. This is the very core of my point. This relationship gives life starting with the death of the substantiality of elements. And this invigoration is recognized as the revealing aspect of the unitary listening. Truly, nothing exists by itself, but only within this relational dimension. The soul of this trinitarian relationship is listening.

Over the last few years, I have been listening to experimental7 music. This has been vital for me in order to reach these conclusions – hardly theoretical conclusions and rather practical ones. Their function is merely to make me live life more intensely. This does not mean I intend to proclaim my experiences exclusively postmodern or up-todate. I am sure that a composition by Bach could trigger the same conclusions, but it simply hasn’t been my case.

I would therefore like to present a series of concepts that I believe are very much present in some contemporary types of music. They can more clearly illustrate the level we have been discussing. One term could be antinarrativity. This point I have a closer relationship with, and it has been vital for my understanding of composition and my admiration for the work of people who work in sound. In just a few words, I refer to composition viewed as a bringing forward, and not as a process or construction.

Approaching a composition is viewed as a natural state by most artists, as opposed to the general public, who consider them to at least have ‘more skills than ordinary people’, and thus be awe inspiring. Nowadays this technique8 is clearly unnecessary, since there is no longer such a clear-cut distinction between the genuine composer and the skilled interpreter. The sound artists are the ones who listen with all their soul, and are only able to convey those feelings through sounds – not the sounds that come from their mouth, but the sounds that come from their actions.

The following term would be that of listening beyond the sound phenomenon. Sometimes, we feel inclined to judge a piece by its sound ‘quality’ rather than as a whole. This is due to the high fidelity phenomenon and I took the liberty of naming it the sound technician syndrome. Any composition is considered worthless unless it meets certain levels of sound ‘quality’.

This is a mere reference, but I would like to extensively quote the words of someone whom I consider a great artist. He does not mention sound specifically, but he does illustrate the concept of quality as far as Art is concerned:

‘Wherever you see or hear the Word “quality” in connection with art, understad that the Word “commodity” is meant, i.e., the economic work of galleries and museums is the creation and preservation of a commodity market in art.”

Carl Andre, A Juror’s Statement

Second Part

Last but not least are the technical advances in the field of composition, especially as far as the timbre9 of the sound is concerned. Not so many years ago, the timbre capacity available for a composer was limited to the possibilities of a sole instrument and the timbre fusion of two or more instruments (the dynamic variations are multiple). Right now, and thanks to computers, the evolution in this field is spectacular, since computers are able to calculate data fast enough to deceive our ears and present thus infinity of different timbres using a unique source of sound: the loudspeaker.

All this means endless colors in our sound palette, and it can bring us even closer to a real, closer experience10.
Before going back to unitary listening, I would like to point out that I am aware of the fact that the three terms I have mentioned before refer to the same issue, and with the same purpose, but nevertheless they are not in any case identical. This is the origin of this sort of differentiated exegesis despite the fact there are no divergences.

Many of us regard common language as a poor way of truly communicating. I find it not necessary to cite Wittgenstein, Heidegger or Eckhart, among others. We cannot deny the communicative nature of sound, not only through language, but also through manifestation, through sound event, through the word-sound.

It occurs to me, as I am writing, that all those philosophers who so lucidly mentioned the limitation of language did not refer to the impossibility of conveying that ‘everlasting, obscure mystery’ through Words (understanding Word in its broadest sense). Rather, they referred to a specific impossibility of language in itself, and never even mentioned the conveying power of sound as such. Because, in this sense, the power of embodiment that the sound has on us is undeniable11. In other words, the real transmission being manifested can ‘become mute’ through language, but it is vivified through sound12.

Some believe being is thinking, others believe being is acting; I believe being is listening, resounding in what we listen, or, better yet, in what we are listening, without ‘room’ for the being.

I am aware of the fact I am merely outlining the depth of this matter in this text. About listening, much has been ‘listened’. I sincerely hope that the eagerness for this listening has been made clear, not limited to the sound and music field alone. Actually, by wanting to show the unitary listening (let us call it A) as opposed to the second listening (B) and its endless manifestations we do not wish to exhaust with our words the nature of listening in itself. Not always between A and B there is a mutually exclusive relationship. This tendency is a legacy of logical thinking, but in the case of important matters this is not exactly true.

Here we have indicated A leaving B aside, but A is not the ‘real’ one in the modern sense of the word. Listening as such is not worn out through A – nor is it through B, and is not ever worn out completely through both A and B together. Understanding this thoroughly gives a slight hint in order to go on – always a step behind listening.

I would like to conclude with a series of propositions for this listening; propositions which do not solve the nucleus but that I believe do indicate it:

The Silence is sound.
The Silence is not sound.
The Silence is and is not sound.
The Silence is neither sound nor non-sound.

When we have overcome, without denying – nor affirming – each and every one of these propositions, we can do nothing but listen.


  1. Within the phenomena of perception, I also include the phenomena of the mind: emotions, sensations, judgment, etc. 
  2. For example, when reading – listening – this very article. 
  3. In using a temporal sequence for these levels of listening, we are not in any case implying that there is such an order; it is merely a convention necessary in writing. On the contrary, if we had to choose an order and from a quality point a view, it would be the opposite one. 
  4. This reminds me of something the painter Barnett Newman once said, in one of his lectures on aesthetics: ‘Aesthetics is to art what ornithology is to birds’. Nevertheless, the affirmation is not contemptuous but serves to make a distinction. Apart from the fact the lecture was being held among theoreticians in the field, Newman himself gave up painting for some time in order to study ornithology. 
  5. I find it very illustrative to analyze the etymology of the English word for understand: to be or to stand under. This is strongly related to the silent attitude.
  6. From the Latin in-ex-pliare: that cannot be unfolded.
  7. Widely accepted term, which in this case could very well be replaced by experiencial music. 
  8. Let us retrieve the notion of technique that originates in the Greek word tekné. Heidegger brilliantly remarks the notion refers to both the art of artists and that of artisans; more specifically, to the act of making or producing something. Originally, this production was not considered as a mere human production, but as poiesis, revelation or apparition into the Open (das Offene) of something. The technician – in this case primitive – does not lay, but unveils; does not do, but allows something being done. Thus for the Greek producing was being in harmony with the dynamics of the physis, acting inside and from it and never imposing anything from beyond it. 
  9. Cf. Jean-Claude Risset, “Songes/Passages/ Computer Suite from “Little Boy”: CD Catalogue, WER 2013-50. 
  10. I am definitely not saying that it is mandatory, for the purpose of the unitary listening, to have this technical development, but it is only obvious that it can help. 
  11. As read in the passionate article by Z. Karkowski: ‘The method is science, the aim is religion’. I did not manage to find a paper version, but here is the online version: http://www.desk.nl/~northam/oro/zk2.htm 
  12. I also suggest that at the base of the obvious primordial interrelationship of all the senses – listen with one’s eyes, see with one’s ears, etc. – essentially lays the faceless activity of unitary listening.