58950 fifteen years
Fifteen Years a Non-listener
For about fifteen years of my life, sometime during the late 1980s and 1990s, I "stopped listening to music" and became a non-listener. For me this does not mean that I stopped hearing music, but rather that I stopped listening to it: that is, hearing it with intent. Of course, it is impossible to avoid hearing music for all this time; I will insist only that I did not deliberately seek it out. Even though I had been an avid record collector before, I did not buy any new records, I went to few musical events (and when I did, it was mainly to be with friends). I listened to the radio, but only for the news and some interview programs. But as an active chooser of what music to listen to and when, I ceased to participate, and only came back gradually when my environment changed.
Why? The question seems misplaced to me. It just happened. I lost interest in music as a passtime, as something to do in the intervening hours between more purposeful activities. I did not want to discount or negate the importance of music, nor undertake some strange monastic discipline, nor to make any kind of statement. It was not even a conscious decision. It happenened only because my relationship with recorded music changed, fundamentally and irrevocably. It happened slowly at first, but then eventually with conviction and finality. I set music listening aside gently, with no righteous feeling, with neither remorse nor a feeling of triumph.
I began making sound art in the late 1980s, and it meant that I started to hear nearly everything, including music, in an entirely different way. Searching for source material, finding inspiration in odd places, combinations of sound that caught the ear, humorous or dramatic effects that simply developed out of the randomness of the timestream I was in. Some unusual or emphatic phrasing or combination of words in a news program or an advertisement might trigger the feeling that a latent meaning might be developed from it through its use in one of my own compositions, compositions which I was not then willing to describe as “music”. I was treating the reality of sound as I lived it as source material, physicalized through recordings, and manipulated on my workbench. Sound for me was tape, and tape was “time material” that I could cut, alter, and otherwise re-form to suit my taste. I did not need for it to be “music” in order to enjoy the gifts that music bestows.
My listening interests changed. My listening needs changed. It can be said that it was during this time that I learned how to listen. That means I was hearing new things in familiar settings, because, before this, I was not listening in the same way. I learned to bring sound to the center of my attention and examine it as closely as my perceptions permitted. The epiphany for me (I am certainly not alone in this) was that I was no longer a passive consumer of sound, but instead an active maker of new sounds. I tried to develop a seriousness about it, and I tried to understand its effects on me and on others.
Then, as I said, my environment changed. I found myself living in a new city and so I developed new tastes and new habits. I met new people and came across their interesting projects. I became interested in field recording and sound art and that is still where I am today. I began to listen to music again, to pore over playlists, to read reviews. To participate in the local scene (in my own limited way). It had become necessary once again.
A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 26th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“