How We Listen | Varyer

How We Listen

A group discussion on our myriad interactions with sound

Transcendent Waves: How Listening Shapes Our Creative Lives is a compendium of strategies for developing our skills as listeners. Its aim is to inspire creativity in a variety of disciplines—not just those typically associated with sound, such as music or composing. It offers insight into listening as its own creative practice, providing a framework for those who may have never really considered the effects of sound in an artistic sense.

The book itself is very approachable. Sound practice or deep listening can sometimes feel rote academic or excessively spiritual, both with the potential to alienate people. Transcendent Waves is designed to do just the opposite. Readers are invited to take what they want from it. Though it flows naturally from start to finish, the book is interspersed with prompts and interjections that create a staccato, non-linear format perfect for revisiting dog-eared sections.

We sat down for a talk with Lavender Suarez, and Glenna Fitch. Lavender is the author of Transcendent Waves and works with sound in many facets as a sound healer practitioner, artist, educator, and musician who records & performs as C. Lavender. Glenna, oft-known by their DJ moniker sold, is a prolific purveyor of music curation with a distinct undercurrent of inward expansion and exploration. This conversation serves as a mélange of various perspectives on the topic of deep listening; with Lavender as our expert and guide, Glenna as a perfect middle ground, a self-proclaimed “dabbler” with a unique, practical approach, and us as complete and utter novices.

These two mixes are recommended listening while you enjoy this interview, and long after for moments of contemplation.

Varyer As simple as it may seem, listening and hearing are clearly two separate things. What are some specific differences between the two?

Lavender Suarez The traditional approach to hearing versus listening is that hearing is a passive activity, it's a biological activity, whereas listening is an active practice and it lives more in our mental space. Hearing is something that the majority of us are essentially born with, whereas listening is a lifetime practice that's always shifting and growing and changing as we develop.

V How did you come to listening as a practice?

Glenna Fitch There are basically two different experiences, for me. It’s in two parts, and one of the main ones is drugs. Really even just smoking weed, which I didn't even start until I was twenty-four. If you have trouble doing meditation it kind of forces you to because it puts your body into a passive state and your mind into an active state. It just puts you somewhere else and it makes you listen. Arthur Russell has a great quote about it, he says that marijuana opens the ears, and that really resonates with me. So that was my first shift.

Eris Drew is a prolific vinyl DJ and producer. She is the High Priestess of the Motherbeat and an iconic, mind-expanding figure in underground dance music today.

Pauline Oliveros (1932—2016) was an American composer, performer, and humanitarian and founder of Deep Listening; which she described as "a way of listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing".

Éliane Radigue is a French purveyor of minimal and drone music. Her compositions are uniquely minimal and layered, drawing influence directly from the practice of meditation.

The other major factor was Eris Drew. She introduced me to Pauline Oliveros, who I had never heard of before. Being put on to Pauline Oliveros prompted my own research and I found out about Éliane Radigue. Once I discovered Éliane Radigue, that pretty much tipped the scales entirely. My first experience of listening to her is burned into my mind. It's something I can never forget because it changed my life.

Eris Drew is a prolific vinyl DJ and producer. She is the High Priestess of the Motherbeat and an iconic, mind-expanding figure in underground dance music today.

Pauline Oliveros (1932—2016) was an American composer, performer, and humanitarian and founder of Deep Listening; which she described as "a way of listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing".

Éliane Radigue is a French purveyor of minimal and drone music. Her compositions are uniquely minimal and layered, drawing influence directly from the practice of meditation.

LS I try to reflect back on my earliest listening memories and one that I always come back to is when I was in third grade; I was taking saxophone lessons and I used to walk around my neighborhood playing it, which I'm sure my neighbors didn't love. I had this idea of not wanting to just hear the instrument in the context of my lessons, and wanting to hear how it sounded out in the street. I would try and honk back at birds and respond to the things that were around me. I created this little saxophone parade.

I was using music, but I was connecting it to the outside world. Every day, we're all a certain type of improviser. We're always making creative decisions, right? Particularly now, people's improvisational skills as human beings have been pushed to the max, and that creates a certain mental connection that absolutely taps into listening. That's a framework that we sometimes don't think about. We're all improvisers. We're all sort of riffing with the world around us all the time, completely.

V Do you remember ever being taught about how to listen in school?

LS I think it's really interesting that when we're children, we're told to listen as a command. It's often something that we hear from parents and teachers, and it instills a negative context around listening in childhood. As adults, we have to unwind to realize that it's much more than that. It's a crucial part of interpersonal communication and how we relate in the world. There is a certain level of “unschooling” that has to happen with listening for many people.

V When you’re providing your respective sound experiences for people, what does that look like?

LS What I find so wonderful is that in sound healing experiences, people typically lie down and close their eyes. It creates a complete listening experience. I like to joke that it's my favorite audience! As a musician performing in public, in a bar or something, people are clinking glasses, they're talking, they are there for a sense of entertainment. But when I'm a sound healing practitioner, it's my job to create something for people that are really listening. I can take myself out of it, and I often go into my own trance-like state where I think, great, don’t watch me. Just listen.

GF For me as a DJ, there's an analogy for hearing vs. listening in club spaces where people aren’t always totally paying attention to the music. That’s why it’s so important that events like the Motherbeat parties [thrown by Eris Drew] exist. They’re deliberate. Even though it’s dance music, Eris pays a lot of attention to the curation of the sound and the environments to the best of her ability. If people don’t seem like they’re there to appreciate, or it feels like they’re just at the party to be a drunken asshole, they can be ejected. That’s another major part of her party; she refuses to sell alcohol. She feels that it gets in the way, it dulls the senses of actually listening.

After the rave portion of the party is over, my partner and I [performing as Farplane] lead the deep listening section of the event. We play, for lack of a better term, ambient music. It’s often drone; music that is meant to make people feel held by the sound for hours on end. Like Lavender said, those are always the best times because everyone is just there with each other. You have everyone syncing up with intention and that feels almost as palpable as the sound itself.

V Are there any simple tools for people who are just starting out with a listening practice?

LS I never like to encourage people to feel like they have to buy anything or acquire anything to start any kind of meditative or personal practice. Our voice is an instrument that we all have. We use it all the time. Tapping into your voice in exploratory ways as a part of a sound practice can be incredibly powerful, and if it can be done with other people, even more so. Even something like humming a little bit while you're working, I know it sounds very Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs “whistle while you work” but even little things like that can really elevate how you're feeling and move things around.

V It feels like a lot of what listening is, is a celebration of process and not just end results. While we sadly live in the throes of capitalism and many of us are paid for creativity, how does sound practice live in the “in-between”?

GF That's a tough one because listening does seem to fly in the face of capitalism. It’s about shaping listening into its own creative output, but not being pressured. Letting yourself be in those moments that encourage more creativity and shut out distraction. It’s about getting into that state of mind.

I call myself a listener because I don't make music. I don't ever produce and I don't know that I ever will. As a DJ working in music for almost 15 years that’s been hard on me. There is always that pressure to produce. That's the proof that capitalism has seeped into every area of our lives, that really the only value you have is that you’re producing something; that you're productive.

LS A big part of the perspective in Transcendent Waves is based on my background degrees in Psychology and Art Therapy. Art Therapy is absolutely about making art outside of the production value of what you're making. It's about using art as a therapeutic process for you, and that through that process you can let go of the fear of capitalistic notions, fear of ego, the fear of perfectionism, all these sorts of things. The process is what matters and what happens in that moment, and no one needs to see that. No one needs to hear that.

V With social media, it’s easy to forget. We have aggrandized our small achievements, and many of us are addicted to the feedback that’s pinging back and forth forever. Just remembering to make the time to do things for yourself and then accepting that it doesn't have to be anything at all in the end.

Illustration by Jeremiah Shalo

LS Glenna—you’re a DJ and the process of creating a mix is clearly an important part of your work in thinking about how to guide your listeners through an experience. How do you think about flow when you're creating your mixes and the experience for the people who listen to it?

GF There are so many terms for that! The technical DJ term for it is programming. In a greater sense, it’s the flow between song to song. It’s the mood, the idea, or the thing you're communicating throughout a mix or a set. It is what dictates when I make mixes, and is often why making them is hard for me. I’m really fixated on, “What am I communicating? What kind of sound environment am I providing for everyone as they listen to this?”. It’s the thing I usually focus on the most. If I don’t, I tend to not be happy with my mixing—if I focus only on the selection or the technical part of it, it feels like there's like a soul that's lacking.

V Do you often think about the concept of the mix you’re making before you do it? Or do you feel it is something that is revealing itself as you're working?

GF I think it’s both. I’m a collager and have been since I was a small little person. So I always view my djing as a large collage piece. I tend to do a lot of preparation, and with variables like other people, technical difficulties, things going wrong, you always have room for improvisation. I tend to be more in the zone in my planned areas, but when I let myself off that tether and I feel comfortable, it is a completely different state. You accomplish different things when you allow yourself to get to that point.

LS I think it’s fun to connect. Glenna and I did a back-to-back ambient set a couple of years ago. I hadn't done a lot of collaborating with another DJ at the same time. That was a lot of us cluing into what the other person was doing, cluing into the environment. We both brought huge catalogs of things; records, audio files, CDs. It was like a collaborative collage, in a way. It was such a fun experience to try and not only tap into Glenna’s flow, but tap into the flow of the audience. We were just working together to make it happen.

In my sound healing practice, a lot of times I'm working with groups and I'm providing live meditative music for group experiences. That's very much about creating a flow and a pacing and sensing where the audience is.

When I let myself off that tether and I feel comfortable, it is a completely different state. You accomplish different things when you allow yourself to get to that point.

Glenna Fitch

V Reflecting back on the Motherbeat parties that Glenna mentioned; they sound like sonic sanctuaries that were intentionally created to foster deeper listening experiences. What are other sonic sanctuaries you have?

LS For a very long time I totally loved being in my car, the sensation of moving through space and the different things that you hear and blasting music and everything. About a year and a half ago I moved to New York City where having one isn’t practical, and I realized I had lost one of my sonic sanctuaries and I was really flustered by it in a certain way!

During this time I realized I needed to get a bike. A big thing for me is riding through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. It’s a huge sonic sanctuary for me. I love the sensation of moving through all these different listening environments. It's a little bit of nature and a little bit of city. Particularly during the pandemic, it's become this giant meeting place for people. While I'm moving through there’s a children's karate class, someone's birthday party, a bunch of people with a boombox, people walking six kinds of dogs that are all making their little yappy sounds. It really gets my brain going in this awesome way, hearing these snippets. Also, the wind rushing past me creates a certain filter for all of it, in the way that I hear it.

GF I always call the car the only space that you can have the most intentional listening because you can’t do anything else besides driving!

I think about the places where I'm appreciative of what's happening around me the most, and the number one thing that just kept popping into my head was Steelworker's Park on the south side of Chicago. It's great because of what it is; it was a steelyard, a docking port. There are a lot of old steel things that are still in the water and they create great noises. I love to go down there and just field record them. There is a big steel plank, just clanking and sloshing in the water. There’s this other strange round kinda thing, I’m not sure what it is. I like to hop on to it and sit, and there’s a metal piece in the water that’s dangling there just going “errk, errk” and clanking into the thing I’m sitting on.

Photographs by Glenna Fitch

It's very windy because there are these giant cement barriers on either side, it’s a long thing a ship would pull in to. The wind creates like a little tunnel through there. And of course, it’s a park too so there are people, but not too many because it’s not particularly attractive, it’s a lot of Rust Belt detritus that I’m comfortable in because I’m from Youngstown, Ohio. I think it's my favorite place in Chicago, honestly.

V You mention field recordings, do you use them for anything?

GF They’re mostly just for personal use. I've been recording stuff for a while. I’ve tried creating a few collages. The last time I went down to Steelworker's Park, I recorded just on my phone and I got really great audio, but I think it’d be good to do it with a better recorder, with nicer audio quality.

LS I've taught a couple of classes about field recording. I love it as a way to experience a space through listening. You have these like supersonic ears because you're in headphones and then you have the field recording device, which is essentially just a microphone and recording device in one. You can turn the gain up really high and hear these little subtle things that you otherwise might not necessarily notice. And then on top of it, you can capture it so you can listen back to it later and sort of reflect on it and think oh yeah, I never noticed this one little squeaky sound at the park because I was too busy listening to the water or something. You can use it in the same way that someone would comb a beach with a metal detector. You're just searching around for sounds and experiencing and capturing them.

V Hearing about your sonic sanctuaries brings up an opposing thought. What are some sonic environments that make us feel bad? How can we accept and move through these spaces without much damage to us?

LS I think one of the strongest points that I really wanted to make in the book is a reminder of the importance of utilizing earplugs. It was a little bit like “okay, here’s some info from grandma over here” but you know, that was just one of the biggest things where I was really like, “please do this” because we forget so often.

The music world respects and appreciates earplugs and ear protection. For the most part, there is awareness within that realm, but they're not just meant for music, they can be used in all kinds of spaces.

A lot of the idea of dealing with noise pollution in spaces is first having a keen awareness that you’re going to go into the space, it's going to be really loud or there’s potential for that. It’s an element of being prepared for that. Taking deep breaths so that you aren't suddenly clenching from all that uncomfortable volume or aggressive sound, making sure you're not holding it in your body because that's where the problem often starts with noise pollution.

If when you walk to work there's a certain block that always has construction on it, just try and walk a slightly different way. I know that sounds obvious but we get so set in our patterns and think oh it’s going to take me another two minutes. Sometimes we get so caught up with efficiency and we just push through it like we're tough. When you really step back, all those little compound experiences with noise pollution build-up. They're damaging your hearing over time. So even if it doesn't feel like a lot in the moment, it builds up and it can lead to tinnitus and hearing loss, and all these other hearing issues. things.

A lot of people listen to headphones with music to mask those outside sounds and that becomes a kind of a crutch. It can be addicting, and often you’re dialing the volume up even higher and even though the content that you're hearing is more appealing, you're still inflicting possible injury to yourself.

GF I’m a massive earplug advocate! At parties, I always have jars on the bar. I also carry a bag of them in my purse at all times. I don't actually like listening to music while I work though because it's distracting. I want to listen, I want to exist in that sound. I hate having to blare music to cut out the inane chatter going on around me. I think when I go back into public spaces I will get noise-canceling headphones, instead.

LS I love working with music on, but it can't have any lyrical content. I get super distracted by it, so that's why I find that I work really great when I listen to a ton of techno at home. I’m an at-home techno appreciator because it gets me into a moving headspace and it cuts out other distractions that I might be hearing.

V There are so many things in this world that distract us from doing our set intentions for creativity. What are some ways that sound can help us more purposefully create moments that we don't feel the itch to get out of?

LS I talk a little bit in the book about setting up your space for success to feel creative. Let’s say your desk is in your bedroom. If it’s too noisy in there during the day it’s important to remember to take a moment to move and set up a comfortable workspace somewhere else that’s more conducive to creation. In that same way you think about circumnavigating noise pollution outside of the home, you also need to reflect on how your sonic environment for being creative can be best for you. All these things come together into a big palette of mindfulness, essentially.

A listening practice is very similar to mindfulness practice. It’s about quieting your mind so that you can receive insights about yourself and the world around you so that you can tune in to what you need to be paying attention to.

Lavender Suarez

You can find Lavender's sound healing reading list right here.

V How did the idea for writing a sound practice book come about, Lavender?

LS Anthology Editions asked me to write a book about sound healing, but there are already some great books out there on that topic. I wanted to write something to better meet the community of people that I typically engage with in my meditation practice because I specialize in working with creative people and helping them move through blockages. I thought a book for creative people to learn more about listening and sound would actually be more helpful.

You can find Lavender's sound healing reading list right here.

V Sounds like the process was very collaborative, then?

LS I had so much fun designing the book with [Alex and Brian from] Anthology Editions. It really got my creative processes going in different ways because there was the visual art component, too. Alex did such a phenomenal job of illustrating these sometimes very abstract concepts. We had a big discussion about how to illustrate silence. How do we represent that? That took a couple of meetings and a few redesigns but it’s probably one of my favorite illustrations in the book. When I look at it, it’s like yes! That's silence, that's serenity! I want to fall into that page.

Transcendent Waves by Lavender Suarez, illustrated by Alex Tults, published by Anthology Editions

V Is it a how-to book, or self-help or that sort of thing?

LS I feel that it's very open-ended. It's not a recipe, so it's not a how-to. A big part of it is getting people excited about the exploratory nature of sound and figuring out how that can factor into their lives, particularly in the framework of creativity, but also into their daily lives—spiritual, daily, professional—in all different facets. So there's no ABC sort-of schedule, there's just lots of different information that people can dive into and focus on whatever aspects they find most appealing.

It was incredibly important to me that the book was approachable because one of the pitfalls of talking about sound is that the lexicon surrounding it is very abstract. We have so many words to describe things that we see visually, but the majority of words to describe sound are not words that people are using in their daily lives. I wanted the average person who's never thought about sound or listening to be able to pick it up and learn something. It’s guiding you through, it’s giving you options.

Begin your journey.