The Art of Listening

This morning I gave a talk at Pacific University’s MFA program on the art of listening and I ended my remarks  by playing an opera aria  recorded 100 years ago by the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. My remarks at the end of the talk were extemporaneous and I shall try to recapture them at the bottom of this talk and there you will also find a link to the aria.




I shal paraphrase from Stravinsky:

“Hearing has no merit. A duck hears also.”

We are creative writers: we know about prosody. Know the classical forms of rhetoric

and how to employ same.

If I mention Freytag’s pyramid you’ll likely be able to picture it.

Some of us can speak multiple languages.

Hence we understand the musicality of language.

But this doesn’t necessarily make us good listeners.


Now you are either mad at me for suggesting you are a subpar listener or you are doing the thing that writers do best: you are right now employing the shield of irony.

I love the shield of irony.


And as my Finnish grandmother would say:

“Tuonne takes metsamann…

Go there, beyond the woods…

In the meantime, while you are distancing yourselves from me, here’s a quiz:

What advantage does the cochlea give to human beings?

Theme music while you are pondering question as if we’re on Jeopardy:

Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Duke Ellington playing “Switch Blade”.


We can hear big sounds. The cochlea allows us to appreciate the cast iron construction of a gran piano.

Trade off: we cannot hear sounds from great distances.

In turn your dog can’t hear your Steinway. Not the way you do.

When you play that low note piano arpeggio your dog just hears sand on the beach.


Do we have any additional advantages over dogs and ducks when it comes to listening?

Yes. The pars tensa, the first receiver of the ear can actually distribute vibrating air molecules across the cochlea’s sensory grid and in turn each of the cochlea’s miniscule hairs transmits to the brain a precise neurological estimate of duration and rhythm.

This is why human beings can enjoy the vibra phones and the duck cannot.

To the duck, Lionel Hampton sounds like a long howl of wind across barbed wire.

To the duck the notes have no beginning and no end. So Stravinsky was wrong.

We may not be sophisticated listeners but we’re never as badly off as the duck.

A quick personal opinion: The reason I hate the bagpipes is that they sound to me

the way Lionel Hampton sounds to a duck.


Blindness has transformed my listening. I can hear the wind currents signaling that I’ve arrived within a few meters of a cross street in New York City. This knowledge is important because the cross street may be Eighth Street: a fast and dangerous sluice of traffic that I must cross as I head south on Fifth Avenue.

The wind, which always blows from the Hudson, gives me my first sign. My dog stops at the curb. I listen. It’s not enough to know from the presence of the wind that I am where I want to be: even a duck can do this.

Now I must listen through the masking wind and hear what the traffic is doing.


But the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street is an anomaly:

wind pours across the intersection from west to east and as it moves

through the gaps between buildings it produces a form of white noise:

the kind of steady whisper that audio engineers aim to reproduce

when they build noise reduction headphones. The sound of traffic vanishes as if by magic.

The first time I noticed this I was in fact walking and listening like a duck.

I was working my way south on Fifth and eavesdropping. Two students from N Y U

both women, were ahead of me on the sidewalk and talking about jazz.

They had gone to the Blue Note to hear the famed Oscar Peterson.

They had grown up on Madonna but now they were grooving and stretching in New York

and I was happy to be hearing about it. And then the dog stopped short. We were at the curb.


We stood in the strange white noise of the west-going-to-east Hudson River wind.

I was standing on the lip of the curb and thinking about Oscar Peterson

and how he used to accompany Ella Fitzgerald and I was thinking of Ella

singing “Angel Eyes” and because I was a duck I told the dog to go forward.

This was my job as one half of the dog-man tandem. I was supposed to listen

at the curb. It was the dog’s job to watch the traffic.


What happened next was clear-cut: the dog pulled me backwards

and I felt a rush of air across my face.

Then I heard the roar of a cross-town bus.

My guide dog had saved my life.

The dog is trained in a form of observation known as “intelligent disobedience”:

she knows that my commands must be evaluated and on occasion even disobeyed.

I am alive because of this.


What if I approached the intersection with active ears? Would the situation be the same?

After my adrenaline was sufficiently lowered I walked around the block

and re-approach the corner.


The wind was astonishing both in its force and in its absolute efficiency

at blocking the sounds of cars and delivery trucks.

I stood for a few minutes on the east side of Fifth Avenue

on the north side of Eight Street and listened with what I can only call reverence.

Perhaps this is what Stravinsky meant by “effort”: one listens beyond the narrow coil of easy expectations. One is listening because in a very real sense life may depend on it.


What I discovered in that instance and in that place is that the wind

often has three distinct auditory characteristics.

First: The big wind kills traffic noise.

The whole world sounds like flags in a hurricane.

The wind rips through the openings between the brownstones

and the wind is surely a god as the Greeks well knew.

Under the big wind is a funny effect: I call it the durational absent-mindedness of air:

for whole moments the wind doesn’t exactly stop, but it changes direction,

and when it does you can hear everything in the city with absolute clarity.

In addition to the trucks you can hear the bicycle delivery men:

you can hear the chains of their bikes and the gritty noise of gears.

You can hear the clatter of a loose manhole cover as a bus strikes it.

You hear a woman laughing on the far side of Fifth Avenue: she is a mezzo-soprano,

loud and high and laughing to beat the band. And then she’s gone.

The world of things in motion has once again been swallowed by the wind.


The last trick of the wind is the most clever of all. Wind can transmit sounds or echoes if it wants to. Between the white noise and the awareness of my own pulse

I can hear electric lines and something metallic clattering

and something that sounds like an oboe and of course I’ll never know what this is.

Nevertheless the wind carries fragments of noise from far places

like an absent minded uncle who doesn’t remember what’s in his old suitcase.


So I’ve learned that the business of listening has acoustic sub-categories

that are easy to miss. And I know that I am alive despite the fact that I was duck walking

and duck listening one morning in New York.

Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.”

He was of course referring to his own discovery of leverage.

In my own case a place to stand allows me the opportunity to hear

with better apprehension and this is in turn a kind of leverage.

. Leverage means influence.Listening can be the art of influence.


Not very long ago I heard a boy jumping on discarded bedsprings on a Chicago sidewalk. He was making a stripped down music from solitude and trash. It was the song of a woodcutter’s axe in the empty woods. He saw me listening. He noticed my guide dog. He sensed an audience. He threw everything he had into making r
are music with ruined steel
coils and shoes. He was releasing invisible spirits into the morning air of Wabash. Avenue. The music grew out of his blood. I’m guessing that if you’re a sighted person you’d have driven right on by. Or maybe you’d have crossed to the other side of the street if you had been walking there. But I heard the maddened dancing for five full minutes before moving on.


At first I thought the effect was obscene. He was simply calling out the furtive and metallic protests of forgotten trysts. I thought of a bordello in the wild west. I laughed at the salty bravado of the performance. Then I saw flashes of light. The coils were rising and compressing in timed measures. My blind eyes could just make out the glint of his instruments. In turn I began to listen to what this dancer was really doing.

The broken springs flashed like the undersides of leaves.

I was like a sailor on a distant ship. I could see the maritime flash of his lantern.

In turn I saw that his bed springs were tuned in harmony with the sky and the local trees.

The dancer was saying all kinds of things.

His feet were rattling and whistling.

I’d never heard anything like this before.

The dancer was offering his ragged memories to the damp air of the street.

I saw the sparks and heard the 16th notes;the 8th notes; the sparks of his dance dropped like stones from a bridge…


I was feeling lucky just then, alone with my guide dog, the two of us having been on an ordinary walk.

A gold leaf was spinning down. A red maple leaf was floating on water. Flashes of sun ran across the June river.

The dancer’s shoulders and hips dipped and high notes leapt all around him.

He was dancing at the epicenter of the early light—that overcast sun that always hangs in the mornings above Lake Michigan.

Then he was in an island of trees. Low notes came suddenly, the notes were signifying a bent path. The way forward was harder for some reason. The dance had taken a darker turn. I could tell this was now a steep narrative. Somehow he’d figured out how to make the springs sound like a tuba. Then he made the metal groan like a cello.

And then hammers were flying. Again there were sparks of light from the bed. The high notes came like whale songs from some migratory coast.

For a moment I thought about Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance man of letters who remarked that “beauty is just shapes and sounds”. Hearing the Chicago dancer move across the secret world of a homemade dance—a “found” dance—I thought that Ficino left out the weird and lovely human and animal volition that lives behind the shapes and sounds. I also realized again much as I did when I was a boy that when you stand still you can hear the unexpected music and light that comes from living and walking in shadows.


The ears, mine, they are standing out like weeds at the end of dry autumn. Seasons can do this to me. I hear cherries falling. I swear. AT a friend’s farm in New Hampshire I hear cherries falling from the trees. There’s a light rain. There are shreds and tatters of fog and I sit in a low slung canvas chair and stay still because I can hear the blue heron tracking mice through pond grass. It is good just sitting here. My ears know the sky, the opaque and impossible sky. Purple martins catch mosquitoes even in a light rain. Twilight brings them on. My ears, dried golden rods stand out. Stand out there and listen to the hum of gnats. Somewhere above the fog clouds are rushing across the sky. And all I can hear are the local crickets and the thin call of a whippoorwill. And this is good enough. Dry ears and the prehistoric birds.


The pinna, the twin flowers of cartilage, dry, without much blood, they hang out there, twin transparent crescent moons. The purple martin drops from the barn’s roof quick as a flying mongoos,dropping fast as gravel in a well. And air, obedient, moves with him, molecules are pressured, invisible things are curdled, spilled. This air rushes into my dried flowers, my hanging twin mushrooms,the air rushes…the cartilage shakes, hot, curdled molecules of sound energies reach the brainstem faster than the purple martin can swallow the errant hornet. The pars tensa, the ear’s receiving membrane, is quicker than all the wrapped tissues of the brain. And now I am leaning far to the left in my hammock chair, pushing these skull flowers into the fast, mithraic air. And each ear leverages the pressured molecules, ratchets the force upwards through the long mystery of bones and canals, in effect slingshotting the molecular vibrations deep in the human head. Fast as the martin devours his insect the sound is faster still as it passes through the looped inner chambers of the ears, those little Franciscan rooms…and finally the racing molecules of pushed air—all caused by the martin’s slim and evanescent wings, reach the cochlea, where microscopic hairs lift and fall in a fabulous rhythmic dance—imagine a writhing hairy blanket, a blanket on the back of a shivering horse…and the root hairs send a sound, a sound like crystals falling together, or spoons dropped in mathematical precision, the wild, auditory language of the brain itself…I sway in my camp chair…now it’s getting dark and a thunderstorm is coming…the angleworms are making their slow way over my arms as I hold still. The storm is far off, booming with a call to the obdurate flesh. The electrolysis of the storm enters my ears. The root hairs of the cochlea sway and spark.


Greenwich Village

I sit for a long time in the chilly sunlight in Washington Square Park.

It’s late April. It’s not yet the season of hot Latin music and street fairs. This is when I like listening to New York. In the cold New York gives off noises of untellable loves.

The ambulance on its way to St. Vincent’s Hospital blows a raw high A with its siren. I think of someone’s father dying. Here in the midst of miles of asphalt I think of the family that will get the call. That telephone will ring in Canada and again in Southern California. I think of the interstices of blowing darkness. The high A of the ambulance receding. In a couple of weeks it will be the anniversary of my own father’s death. Now I hear a flock of birds walking with a kind of deliberation over frozen leaves, a weird little army fresh from the void. The birds make the noise of falling sleet.

Two men speaking German rush past, their voices low. All I hear is the word “gedichte” –“poems”—and I want to follow them.

I love the ecumenical provenance of words dropped in the cold.


Listening to Anita O Day

I didn’t know a woman’s voice could vanish beneath the sand. She just does it. She sinks as the night is coming. She drops under the earth and the snare drum is all that’s left. The snare sounds like tall grass.

I’m told that occasionally, looking into the faces of the elderly, one can see a spiritual blue in the small veins around the eyes. This is Anita’s blue. She is vanishing so perfectly.

I sit on the veranda of the lake house with only my dog for company and listen to these Impulse jazz sessions. The moon fills my cataracts and I see only the pale, unearthly mist of the sky. I lean back and let this odd jazz soprano voice wander inside me.

I get up and pour myself a scotch. Anita O Day calls from her solitary island. She sings with her whole body. She uses her every blue vein. It doesn’t matter what she sings. I’m always slow to get these things. It doesn’t matter what she sings.


The day he died Paganini tuned a viola. He took it from its glass case on the wall and held it thoughtfully and the young music student who was present in the room held his breath—would the great man play the viola? There was Paganini with his rotten teeth and dreadful blemishes, his watery eyes…Paganini whose jaw was badly misshapen from primitive surgery. Paganini of the night sweats and tremors. Paganini who hated men. Whose double jointedness made possible a brand of violin
playing that no one had ever heard before and which, quite likely no one would ever hear again. A miraculous talent. Fingers bent everywhere at once like the backworking of bird wings—Paganini who entered the rotating circles of Bach and with the benefit of superhuman fingers danced in what seemed like a wider circle…This man was now holding an instrument after months of fevers and aching bones. He held the viola, a Stradivari, and looked at it with that private antebellum stare of great performers and military commanders. He stared a long time and then began to tune the viola. The student saw how Paganini tuned the thing without second guessing, every turn of the peg was final and therefore proof of the violinist’s perfect pitch. He plucked a string then turned the peg with a flick of his wrist that seemed abrupt and very rash. But then the string was tuned. It was the damndest thing. It looked as if a wooden puppet was turning the pegs.

When he was finished tuning he stared at the instrument with black shining eyes. Then abruptly he returned it to its glass case and waved to the student to leave him. He died shortly after tuning the viola. It was a good burial ritual…Paganini planned to arrive in the star temple with a tuned Strad…


This is a talk about listening. The presumption behind such a thing is neo-classical—like Rousseau we will arrive at the gates of Heaven clutching our own little books. Surely I will be a better man for attempting to love the world with something like discernment. What pressure! This has an air of morality about it! Like Rousseau I shall drink Bordeaux and nibble the Swiss cheese and listen to the humming insects in the twilight and conceive of the mind as a fit tribute to the world.


All good music resembles something. Good music stirs by its

mysterious resemblance to the objects and feelings which

motivated it.

Jean Cocteau

Yes, and even the aleotoric chance music of what is happening around us resembles something. We’re giving away too much invention if, as post-modern writers we fail to play at being Rousseau.


My first memory of hearing comes from the Baltic. I remember my father holding my hand as we walked to the end of a jetty in Helsinki, Finland. Although it was late in March Finland was still bitterly cold and the harbor was dotted with ice.

My form of blindness allowed me to see colors and torn geometries. Shards of ice drifted past us and my father told me they looked like continents. “There’s Australia,” he said. “There’s Hawaii.” But when I looked out I saw no distinction between sky and ice. I saw only endless plains of gray Baltic light. This didn’t bother me. It was the world I knew. It was a world of shadowy loves. If a person appeared before me he or she resembled nothing more than the black trunk of a tree.

We turned back and walked toward shore. A troupe of women emerged from the mist. They were indistinct, liquid, black and green. These were the old women from the neighborhood unfurling their carpets on the shore of the frozen sea.

Lordy! Then they sang!

The tree women sang and beat their carpets in the Baltic wind.

My father told me to listen.

“These are the old songs,” he said.

The women croaked, chanted, breathed and wept.

The women were forest people. They had survived starvation, civil war and then another war, the “Winter War” with the Russians.

Their carpets swayed on wooden racks that stood along the shore. They sang and beat dust from the rugs with sticks.

They sang over and over a song of night. The song unwound from a spool. I remember its terrible darkness. They were together singing a song that rose from a place deeper than dreams. Even a boy knows what this is.


Extemporaneous remarks:


One of the things that’s useful about listening hard is that it reminds us as writers of the evident “rightness” of Wallace Stevens’ assertion in his marvelous essay “The Effects of Analogy”(which you can find in his book “The Necessary Angel”)–namely that analogy or simile is more important to the writing of poetry than metaphor is. Metaphors are sexy but its the similes that hold and drive a poems energies. ONe thing is “like” another thing opens the field of reception. This is as true for listening as any other area of our mental lives. A thing sounds like something else. A boy in a tent in the rain thinks it sounds like grease in a frying pan.


The following aria was sung by Enrico Caruso in the era before the recording industry had perfected the electric microphone. He literally sang this aria from “Faust” into a paper horn and the force of his physical voice moved a needle over an acetate disc and this made the record. Many opera enthusiasts believe that this aria with its notable high C represents the greatest example of the high C ever recorded. Caruso “gets in” to the note at the end of the aria and rather than just “hitting it” and getting out of the note as many others have done, he widens the high c, makes it into something both joyous and yet tinged by strange sorrow–he makes art from the note and then he does an additional thing that many tenors can’t do–he “backs out” of the note and by doing so glides seamlessly into the final notes of the aria. I offer this not only as a great and wondrous piece of music but because its suggestive of similes. I hear Caruso in this aria and I remember Leadbelly’s line: “I see my coffin comin’ Lordy Lordy in my back door!” I also think one can say of this aria that its like the sounds of milk and iodine. Here’s the aria. Enjoy:

Salut Demeure Chaste et Pure

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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