How to listen to a table


“Sound places us in the real universe” – David Toop

When I was still in the elementary school, occasionally, I would press my ears to the table to catch a train that was passing by.

The train was still at a distance, but the rhythmical roars were already heard.

There were a number of people in the station. And they were murmuring; happy chatters.

Standing close to the edge of the platform, in my head I saw a couple standing next to each other, at a really close distance, just staring to the empty railway. The low murmurs hides the emptiness.

The murmurs echo across the station, forming a cocoon of vibrations that protect the stealth and steady low-frequency tones from escaping away. And I was just looking at everything from the above, catching the trails of the sounds that were being processed by the high-ceiling, heavy-steel architecture.

The train arrived and made its call with the roaring honk to the passengers. People’s feet shuffle in. The murmurs still follow…

The wheels start to turn, scratching the stones and pebbles underneath and the moving machine roars back alive, while leaving the station in its majesty.

That’s what’s happening inside a desk at my elementary school.

I enjoyed it so much that whenever the lecture gets stale, I would put my ears closely to the table and the train will make a stop in my head.

In my innocent mind, I honestly thought that inside the table, there’s a tiny tiny world set in the 1800s of the West. I heard a woman. I knew I heard a woman speaking: a voice that elicits confidence and elegance. And a smoky, rusty male voice. Chatting to each other.

The table top was made out of a dense wood palette And the legs were made out of hollow light steel tubes that are really rusty inside.

The sounds I heard was probably sounds of children downstairs traveling to their ceiling up unto my floor, caught by the legs of my table in which, altogether, being bounced back and forth within the hollow legs. And when it reaches the table top, it is being muted and dampened by the solid piece of wood. It’s science.

However prosaic it sounds at the end, the saddening part is that the act of listening and fantasizing slowly dissipates. (You know, the eventful task of growing up and being a mature adult human being).  And I stopped pressing my ears to anything; and nothing ever visit anymore.

Lately, thank goodness, the fantasizing came back. Although it came back with a severe listening loss as it’s being kept in the basement of my head, unable to listen to the outside, normal world.

Ladies and gents, we all need to listen; to tune in to the auditory world, because everything vibrates and produces sound and they are there to mark their existence. As David Toop nostalgized on Oceans of Sounds:

sound places us in the real universe.

The act of listening is the act of being present in the moment. It is acknowledging and studying the depth of our space and the beings and non-beings that are in it. And listening deeply and oftenly has a meditative force that create serenity in your head.

Try this. Try to listen. lllustration by Pascal Campion.

Javanese gamelan music inspired ambient music, which Brian Eno famously said “music good for background, music for creativity”. For its ethereal character, gamelan used to be played for hours, even days straight; keeping the brain waves at a somewhat ‘trance’ state, without inhibiting our productivity and consciousness.

And it’s true. Author and composer Elliott Schwartz argues that our perceptive listening has been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out.” The visual rage of ads is one to blame. And unfortunately, for some reason we have labeled ourselves as primarily a visual being, despite the fact that for thousands of years, we used our hearing sense a lot for survival and understanding the health of our environmental surrounding. To reflect upon this simply, none of our senses are more important than the other. In fact, perhaps we were the ones that turn the reality around.

So in short I’d like to propose for all of us to practice listening in our daily life.

The hum of the fridge, the water gushing through the pipes on your ceiling, wet footsteps on tiled floor, the ding of the microwave. Notice how the rattles of the coconut trees sound different than the ones by bamboo trees. The sound of traffics in a metropolitan city is also a tremendously fun anthropological expose to listen to.

Take (immense) pleasure in how indescribable these sounds are.

Schwartz further suggested:

to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.

There’s a lot of creativity and imagination involved in listening as we try to decipher each sounds without necessarily ascribing the real objects upon it. And although it doesn’t promise to answer your problems of life, listening interrupts your heavily-jammed mind of negative thinking.

Try this. Illustration by Unknown
Versus this. Illustration by Guy Billout

Technically, it’s hard to listen deeply if we are thinking and it’s hard to think if we are listening deeply. That’s why we turn off our GPS when we finally ‘got it’. Sounds distract.

But do it at the right time and it’ll be therapeutical.

In the end my hope is that if everyone listens more attentively, the souls and minds will be more at peace. And the creative and imaginative soul is well-nourished through the act of listening. No matter what, I believe, as we tune in more to our surroundings through sound and tune out the distractions in our head, we’re giving our souls some rest and our minds some play.

Now let’s begin the sonic voyage.

For further sonic learning, check out this interview of Kelli Anderson at Design Matters on how she created ‘analogue’ speakers with paper. She’s a paper master.

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