Sonic Epiphany

This is my epiphany story for 2023.

Deep Listening walk in the Pyrenees

It was in October last year. I was sitting alone in a dark, cold forest in the Pyrenees. As part of a Deep Listening course, we spread out in the woods to find a place where we could listen to red stag during the rut period and other animals. 

The idea was to listen to what is there, shift attention to sounds we usually overhear and enjoy the high-fidelity sonic soundscape of the forest in the dark. 

Before the 2-hour drive to that space, we got instructed via zoom by Chris Watson, one of the world’s leading sound recordists working closely with David Attenborough on Frozen Planet. He visited this place two weeks before, and we got the tip to place the recording equipment at least 10 metres away from ourselves. I found some traces of deer (yes, it’s shit), put my recorder and microphone near it and thought this might be a great place to sit and wait. 

In the beginning, I heard some aeroplanes passing by in the far distance. After a while, it was already pretty dark, I heard some rustling of dry leaves on my right side, coming bit by bit closer, and as a consequence, I also heard my heart pumping. I was a part of the soundscape in the dark now, including an owl or fogey calling out from different places, and activities from wild boar and other mammals in the distance. Then, all of a sudden, the roar of the red stag – actually more stags in different locations – were joining in. Beautiful earthy sounds echoing in the woods. 

There was even some deep barking noise I could not explain. Later I learned it was from a stag that came very close to one of us, and she stamped on the ground to mark the territory and prevent an unwanted encounter. 

After two and a half hours of sonically sound bathing in the dark, we assembled again at the edge of the forest to share all our varying experiences.

But the biggest surprise – my sonic epiphany – came when I listened back to my recording. It was so different from what I really heard in the wild. First, the level was really low, much lower than I had expected. But the loudest sound was the sound of different aeroplanes above us, much louder than I had experienced. 

My brain had obviously decided to put that level much lower. In some way, this was understandable because we did not come for the omnipresent aeroplanes that unconsciously make up a big part of our daily sonic life. But it was some surprise that my ‘objective’ recording differed so much from my ‘subjective’ experience.

Here is the learning for me: even if you – or, in my case, my brain – are filtering out some unwanted noise, it does not mean it is not there. Good to know! By the way, this counts for all our senses, and when I say listening, I mean: listening with your full body. 

A little sound ritual

You can try this by yourself; here is an example from Pauline Oliveros, Meditation No. 5: “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.” 

And it is a good habit for any endeavour, meeting or workshop to start with a ritual of deep listening to calibrate and synthesise all the listenings that are in the room. For example, a one-minute silence initiated by the sound of a bell or bowl will do. 

I wish you many sonic epiphanies in 2023!

Three books to provoke sonic epiphanies. 

Read them in a quiet place – if possible. 

  • Quantum Listening by Pauline Oliveros
  • The Music by Matthew Herbert
  • Sonic Wonderland by Trevor Cox
Wishing you essential epiphanies in 2023. Creative Companion Christof Zürn is doing this for 13 years.