conscient podcast

e75 radical listening as climate action

Episode Summary

My presentation and Q&A period at the FKL’s Unheard Landscapes Symposium on October 29, 2021 about ‘music as acoustic ecology’ and ‘radicality’ in the context of listening and the climate emergency, with excerpts from e54 mahtani, é55 trépanier and e22 westerkamp 

Episode Notes

Claude Schryer, FKL’s Unheard Landscapes Symposium, October 29, 2021 

e75 radical listening as climate action is my presentation and Q&A period at the FKL’s Unheard Landscapes Symposiumon October 29, 2021 about ‘music as acoustic ecology’ and ‘radicality’ in the context of listening and the climate emergency, with excerpts from e54 mahtani, é55 trépanier and e22 westerkamp 


Note: audio on podcast is slightly different due to improvised elements during the presentation. The question-and-answer period below was transcribed using TEMI and slightly edited for concision.

Good morning, Bonjour 

Welcome to radical listening as climate action.

It’s 7.35am here in Vancouver on Friday, October 29th, 2021. The sun is just rising here on the west coast of Turtle Island. I know you’ve already had a long day of presentations and deliberations where you all are in Blois, France so I’ll try and be brief in my presentation and get to questions as soon as possible. Je vais parler en anglais mais il me fera plaisir de répondre à vos questions en français aussi. 

But before I start my presentation, I want to let you know that I’m recording this talk as episode 75 of my conscient podcast, which is a podcast, sometimes in English, des fois en français, that explores art and the ecological crisis. The third season of this podcast is on the theme of radical listening, so I thought it would make sense to include this presentation as an episode. Please let me know if you do not want to be recorded when we get to the question period, ok? I understand that the Symposium is also doing a podcast of this presentation, which is great so there will be 2 versions, I’ll be publishing this recording later today. 

Let me begin by saying that I’m speaking to you from the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. I would like to acknowledge these nations as the traditional keepers of these lands and reiterate my commitment to indigenous people as an ally. 

Some of you might know that I’m a composer by training and worked in acoustic ecology for most of the 1990s, with the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and other similar organizations - before joining the Canada Council for the Arts for 21 years. I retired from the Council in 2020 in order to focus my work on art and the climate emergency through my podcast and a new organization in Canada called SCALE, the Sectoral Climate Arts Leadership for the Emergency: which is an example of a collective action that the Symposium has suggested we undertake. I can talk about that more later if you wish. 

I was very pleased to see that the Unheard Landscapes Symposium is exploring climate emergency issues, such as changing soundscape of our endangered planet today and, importantly, future soundscapes and thefuture of listeningitself as the climate emergency deepens. And the crisis will unfortunately get much worse as emissions are currently actually rising worldwide in spite of efforts at COP26, which starts in a few days just north of you in Scotland. 

So big thanks and Graci to Stefano Zorzanello and the FKL Symposium on Soundscapes team for this timely event and for having me here today. I also want to thank you in the audience for taking the time to be here today – I wish I was there with you - and for sharing your thoughts today, and online afterwards if you wish. 

I’d want to start my presentation with a short story. Now I’m not a storyteller but I like the format as a way to bring information to life. 

I once upon a time, a composer gave a workshop called Reality, Extinction, Grief and Art at a festivalsomewhere in Europe. The audience was most professors, composers and music students from around the world. The theme of the festival was soundscapes during a pandemic. The composer talked about the issues that kept him up at night, including the deepening climate crisis, the real possibility of civilization collapse, the lack of understanding about ecological grieving and the role of arts and culture in all of this. Now the question-and-answer period was quite intense: one participant asked how to deal with the rise of fascism and war as the climate crisis worsened and resources become scarcer. This person had seen conflict before in her home country.  Another asked how can we address the debilitating sense of sadness that comes from environmental loss? Someone else kindly suggested that we should stop using printed programs for our concerts, which was recognized as a good idea but not nearly enough of a change. Finally, one participant proposed that from now that all music should be considered as acoustic ecology…the workshop leader said ‘now there’s a radical idea’: all music as acoustic ecology.

Now, this is, of course, a true story, though I did dramatize bits here and there for effect. It took place on April 23 of this year at the BEASTFeAST2021: Recalibration festival under the direction of Dr. Annie Mahtani at the University of Birmingham. I gave this workshop because I wanted to raise these issues in my peer community of electroacoustic and soundscape composers and am happy for this opportunity to continue the conversation today and at any time in the future. 

So, let’s dig a bit deeper into this idea of music as acoustic ecology. I realise that it is a provocative proposal. What did this person mean? 

I’ll remind you that acoustic ecology is defined as the ‘relationship, mediated through sound, between all living beings and their environment.’ The concept was developed right here in Vancouver at the World Soundscape Project by a composer, R. Murray Schafer and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University. One of their goals was to point out that the world was out of balance and that we needed to listen much more carefully to our environment and to respond to issues through deep listening and heightened environmental awareness. 

Music, on the other hand, is defined as the ‘art of arranging sounds in time through melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre’. No mention of the environment here though it might be implied with the idea of timbre. 

So, in other words, acoustic ecology is about our relationship to our environment, through sound, whereas music is about organizing sound to make art. 

What’s the connection between these two? How can we consider music as acoustic ecology and why should we?

Here’s a theory.

What I think that person was saying is that music, in the context of the ecological crisis, needs to take place in relation with all living beings and their environments. In other words, music should not be separated from its context. It never should have. For example, if the world is on fire, music and all other art forms for that matter, need to emerge from, and engage with that reality in ways that we have not yet imagined (a form of unheard landscape).

I won’t get into stories about fiddling while Rome burns… but that’s another story.  

I’m curious to know what you think about this when we get to the questions period in a few minutes. 

Let me share my screen now. This is the conscient podcast website. 

I’d like to play you three excerpts from conversations I had in the second season of the conscient podcast, which was about reality and ecological grief. The first is with Dr. Annie Mahtani from episode 52 :

If we can find ways to encourage people to listen, that can help them to build a connection, even if it's to a small plot of land near them. By helping them to have a new relationship with that, which will then expand and help hopefully savour a deeper and more meaningful relationship with our natural world, and small steps like that, even if it's only a couple of people at a time, that could spread. I think that nobody, no one person, is going to be able to change the world, but that doesn't mean we should give up.

Annie’s point here is that everything is local and that listening, with our ears and hearts, is how we need to move forward, even if the future looks bleak. Annie reminds us that we should never give up on leaving a livable world for our children and their children. 

One of the questions raised by the organizers of this Symposium is about collective actions. What kind of collective actions can the soundscape community undertake about something as massive and amorphous - some might say invisible or unheard - as the climate crisis? For example, we could focus on mitigation – which is about raising awareness about imminent threats, many soundscape compositions try to do this – or maybe we put more energy into adaptation – about learning to live our damaged planet and how to listen even more carefully - or maybe we could priorise regeneration – which is about rebuilding and providing a vision for a sustainable future? These are admittedly complex and uncomfortable issues, in part because people do not feel empowered to address them, so most of us live in denial and with deep, repressed sadness, right? 

Let me tell you another short story. This one is also true.

During the fall of 2019, I was at a meeting about how the arts and cultural sector, and in particular the indigenous traditional knowledge community, could play a much larger role in the fight against climate change. We were sitting around a table – remember that this was pre-pandemic times - with each person sharing knowledge and stories. I spoke about how we need to walk our talk in order to be credible with environmental issues. Then, a representative from an indigenous cultural organization said that it would ‘likely take as long to resolve the ecological crisis as it did to create it’. I repeated what he said in my head: ‘take as long to resolve the ecological crisis as it did to create. How is this possible, I asked myself, so I said: ‘but, but we do not have that kind of time’. We all looked at each other in silence. 

(moment of silence) 

This is what I mean by ‘radical listening’. 

To me, radical listening is about stepping out of our comfort zone when we listen. Radical listening about thinking beyond what we think we know when we listen. Radical listening is about recognizing our biases, both conscious and unconscious. It’s about listening actively and sincerely. Ultimately, it’s about getting to the truth and facing reality.

(moment of silence) 

(Share screen) 

I’ll give you another example from season 2 of the conscient podcast. This is Indigenous artist France Trepanier who is a visual artist, curator and researcher of Kanien’kéha:ka and French ancestry. This is from episode 55 and it’s in French.

Je pense que ce cycle du colonialisme, et de ce que ça a apporté, on est en train d'arriver à la fin de ce cycle là aussi, et avec le recul, on va s'apercevoir que cela a été un tout petit instant dans un espace beaucoup plus vaste, et qu’on est en train de retourner à des connaissances très profondes. Qu'est-ce que ça veut dire de vivre ici sur cette planète? Ce que ça implique comme possibilité, mais comme responsabilité aussi de maintenir les relations harmonieuses? Moi, je dis que la solution à la crise climatique c'est cardiaque. Ça va passer par le cœur. On parle d'amour avec la planète. C'est ça, le travail.

What Trépanier is saying here is that she thinks that the 500 plus year cycle of colonialism on Turtle Island is coming to an end and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to maintain harmonious relationships in their respective communities. She is also saying that we need to fall back in love with our planet in order to save humanityShe said that this is the work that is ahead of us: c’est ca, le travail and I agree.

So, let’s think about this. How do we maintain harmonious relationships with all living beings as a soundscape community?

I’d like to conclude my presentation with a proposal. It’s from soundscape composer Hildegard Westerkamp, who lives here in Vancouver and is a living legend in the soundscape community. This is from conscient podcast episode 22, which was recorded in April of 2020 here in Vancouver. 

We need toallow for time to pass without any action, without any solutions and to just experience it. I think that a slowdown is an absolute… If there is any chance to survive, that kind of slowing down through listening and meditation and through not doing so much. I think there's some hope in that.

This, to me, is also an example of ‘radical listening as climate action’. 

I now invite comments or questions. I’ll remind you that I’m recording this presentation as episode 75 of the conscient podcast. 

Merci Stefano et chers collègues. Questions, comments? En anglais ou en français. 

Question and Answers

Stefano Zorzanello  

It's quite interesting to think about listening as an action. When we think about listening, we tend to think about a passive kind of action, which is receiving and not really changing anything. It's getting something from the world out there, but we know also from an ecological point of view that listening is an act of selection of messages that is active and not passive. It’s a way of taking away something away from too crowded world, which is full of things: full of noise, full of information, full of life. The act of taking something away and making room for other things or maybe nothing at all is in itself a kind of ecological action. I think we should be more careful about this. What do you think? 

Claude Schryer

I'll respond briefly because I'm interested in other thoughts or at least initial reactions, but Stefano, I agree that a lot of what we need to do is to stop the destruction and to take away things that are inhibiting natural processes. And the most obvious is ecological systems. For example, with trees, if we stopped cutting them and polluting their environment, they will flourish and they will bring back life: air and sounds. And so that's something that we don't think of as progress, right? We think of progress as building and new and better and bigger. And we have to find a positive way to get into a subtractive space so that we think of less as more and think of quiet, as an example, in the sound world, but there are so many ways that we could do things less and better for all life forms. 

That's why I played the example from France Trépanier (é55), who's a senior indigenous artist here in Canada who has a lot to say about indigenous non-indigenous relations and how difficult they have been from the very beginning in Canada because of what the Europeans essentially brought as an ideology. So, there's a conflict of ideology that needs to be resolved here and yet we have so little time to resolve it. That's why I told the story about that indigenous knowledge keeper who said that it's going to take a long time... So, we're facing unthinkable situations and we, as soundscape artists, one of the things we can do, is talk about our profession, because we're professional listeners, we're professional recorders, we're professional analysts of sound and that's why I liked so much the questions that you ask you and your colleagues ask in Unheard Landscapes. You're looking at unknown issues, things that we don't know about yet. I think those are the right questions to ask. 

Personally, I try to reduce my carbon footprint. I do what I can, but I'm producing podcasts and using energy. I'm aware that everything we do has a footprint at, but to be aware of it is already to start to change. So, listening to me, radical listening, is about listening with the intent of changing, not just the intent of saying, well, that was nice, but it's not going to affect me at all, or that was sort of fun. It's not entertainment. When you receive information, you take it seriously and it challenges your worldview. Then you not only think about it, but you receive it in your body and then you start changing your behavior. And even that's why I put the Annie Mahtani example. Even the smallest things like going into a garden and talking with somebody and planting a seed, those seeds will grow. And if we all do that, and I don't mean to lecture anybody here, I know people are aware about the seriousness of the environmental issues we face, but I do think that we need, as a community, to be much more in climate emergency mode. 

There's a group here in Canada called the Climate Emergency Unit. I think everybody on the planet in particular, those who have consumed more than their fair share, need to be in climate emergency mode and behave that way. And so, music as acoustic ecology, is an interesting idea, but really what we need is to be in climate emergency mode. Any other thoughts from people in the room? I'd be happy to hear.

Olivier Gaudin

I'm one of the organizers. I work here at this school, and I teach a history of landscapes. So basically, I was wondering about the way you use the adjective radical. Could you make possible connections between radical and indigenous people and whether that makes sense to you, because in France, there is still a discussion about radicality. It's also the way you connected it with emergency that is interesting. I wonder how you manage this possible connection between radicality and indigenous. And I interested in that and why. 

Claude Schryer

Well, there's lots of connections. The word radical can be used in different ways, but it basically means cutting through certain conventions and going to the most basic essential element. In Canada we have about 15,000 years of knowledge in indigenous communities. Colonization was about 500 of those. That's why France Trépanier was saying that the colonization period is starting to end. We use the term reconciliation in Canada, not unlike what happened in South Africa. We had our own a truth and reconciliation process a few years ago, which had some positive outcomes, but we're struggling with the deep, deep issues of how we can share this land because we, the non-indigenous people, have exploited it so much and have lost the trust of indigenous people through treaties that weren't respected. 

So, there's lots of that kind of talk now talk and action and our government's making, I think, an effort at addressing these issues, but it's not enough. And now the population is rising and starting to demand that of not just governments, but all institutions. So, there's a positive dynamic, or at least a forward motion in Canada around thinking about things in a totally different way in our relations with each other, with the land and the people with a a lot more listening going on with indigenous people, not necessarily dialogue, sometimes it's dialogue, but it's mostly listening. There's are so many interesting initiatives right now, in Canada, I'm thinking of the indigenous climate action network and so many others that are doing great work. So it's really a question of listening.

Olivier Gaudin

Thank you for this answer I am interested if to some people to know this attitude that you share with us today is perceived as a counterproductive, meaning that in France, you, if you present yourself radically, you will be told that you lose the majority of the population, you know, too much excitement. Do you manage to frame it differently in Canada? I would be interested to know that. And maybe you can enlighten us a little bit about the differences between Western Canada and Québec. 

Claude Schryer

I can't really speak on behalf radicals in Canada. There are some very politically radical people. I'm not really one of them. I consider myself a progressive, but what I'm talking about is radical listening, which is a process and, and hopefully it leads to radical actions. I use the radical in the sense that the status quo is unlivable. We are living far, far beyond our means. And so, you can't sot of piece meal or go incrementally. If people are uncomfortable with the word radical, you can think of other words, but I'm not talking about only radical political action. I'm talking about radical lifestyle change and of radical rethinking through listening. That's my own personal point of view. 

Canada is an oil and gas producing country, so we have tremendous challenges with the climate emergency, because a lot of our economy is based on gas and oil. So, we're struggling with that too. We have a new minister of environment and climate change right now. So, there's, there's that that debate is going on. Your other question about Western and Eastern Canada, or in Quebec in particular. There are definitely regional different regional approaches in Canada right now. I'm in Vancouver where there's the David Suzuki Foundation and the World Soundscape Project legacy, and lots of going on on the environmental front, but in Quebec you also have very strong environmental sensitivity. You have it across Canada, but in Quebec, you have street movements, like when the Fridays for Future movement happened in 2019, there were, you 400,000 or 500,000 people in the streets. There is a sense of mobilization and action that we're seeing in Canada and Quebec is very good and strong at that. 

You're also seeing it also in the arts community. There are all kinds of organizations now that are rethinking how they work, in part because of the COVID crisis, but also because of the climate emergency. I can't get into it too much because I don't think there'll be time, but I mentioned this group, SCALE as an example of a national initiative to bring us all together in Canada to talk about the role of arts and culture in the climate emergency and we're working with Julie's Bicycle and Creative Carbon Scotland and others who are doing similar kinds of work. And I know that there's initiatives in Europe and in France as well. 

I think that's what we need to do is get out of our little silos of my art form and my interests and think broadly together and create coalitions so that we can identify the things that we want to do together and do them, as your symposium has suggested, as collective actions, because individual actions, while important for the person, are not as effective as collective actions. 

It's easy to find my email . I think it's an ongoing conversation. Thank you. I know you've had a long day, so I'm going to go have a shower and it's been a lot of fun. I think I appreciate your being there and let's keep in touch.

Unheard Landscapes group in Blois, France delivering 'radical listening as climate action' and me on October 29, 2021, Vancouver