Art Of Listening: Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe, Valgeir Sigurdsson Interviewed

Ahead of incoming arts festival Birds Of Paradise...

Listening is constant. It is something almost all of us are able to do, and we do so 24 hours a day. When we are asleep we are listening, when we are driving we are listening and when we are reading a Clash article; we are listening. 

Much has been written over the years on the Art of Listening, an art form many commentators claim has been lost in our age of constant news cycles, social media and any number of distractions vying for our attention.

Music is still the refuge of the active listener. Indeed, in this humble commentator’s opinion those who enjoy listening with focus have never had it better. And a new festival in Utrecht called Birds of Paradise is taking this to its logical conclusion with a show specifically designed to engage and teach the audience the fundamentals of listening. 

Belgian theatre director Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe and Icelandic composer and producer Valgeir Sigurdsson have joined forces to present an hour long show where they aim to reclaim and revalue the art of listening. 

Ahead of their performance at Birds of Paradise, we caught up with Valgeir and Benjamin to ask them about all things audio.

Benjamin, in your work as a theatre director have you always considered the sonic implications of a performance?

Yes. Because I work a lot with music in the first place. For example A Revue starts with the fact that vibration survives in the world, aliens dig up the vibration of classical music. In Madrigals we also worked with ASMR in combination with Monteverdi. I believe the sonic combined with the visual is the strongest art form. 

In the same way that an experience can be interpreted differently by two people, do you think the same sound can be heard differently by two people?

V: I think that the same song can even be heard differently by the same person. 

B: I sometimes feel the urge have to audience to have a common experience. I strive to letting them feel or hear exactly what I mean. 

What practical steps can an individual take to train themselves to listen more attentively?

V: I think the best way to train to listen is to be in a group with other people and hearing everything in the room. Not just your own ideas or your own thoughts but listening to what other people might be experiencing without having to ask them. For example, if you are singing in a choir you have to hear everyone in the room so you can tune with them. In a collaborative environment like music or theatre listening is one of the most important things. I think it applies to almost everything, a classroom, a hospital, anywhere. Be aware of what’s going on around you.

B: It’s true. Or not. Non focus? I also believe in ayahuasca experience, people say that you really hear everything if you do it, because you are in a certain sleep modus. I do not know much about it. 

V: You mean that you get hyper sensitive? 

B: True, so it’s being more alert. 

How will your performance at Birds of Paradise encourage the audience to listen vigilantly?

V: We will play everything very loud, so loud that people can’t ignore us. 

B: It will be dramatic. 

V: We will go from the loudest to the quietest and everything in between. 

Do you think there is a value in passive listening?

V: Yes. I often listen to music when I go to sleep and I then I wake up in the middle of sleeping while I’ve been listening for maybe two hours, I think I have been listening the whole time. This is passive listening, but it’s informing my past two hours. So I’m not ware but I wake up and I know that a lot has happened. 

B: Today when Valgeir was playing these chords for an hour, I was listening and fell asleep, but I was learning at the same time. It was very passive, but still I was making the music with Valgeir. 

Some music is designed for passive listening. Could an attentive listener get something from it that may have been missed in its creation?

V: Yes, an attentive listener can listen to the humming of the fridge in their kitchen and get something from it. Pleasure or irritation. Sound doesn’t need to mesonic massage at all times..

B: I have a double feeling about this. For example if I listen to more abstract music, like Caterina Barbieri or Lyra Pramuk you have to give yourself to the music, to a sort of trance. This evokes the passiveness. When a listener or an audience is passive, he is open to receive mystery, the unknown, the unmixed feelings. An analytical listener takes more the out-view, he is reading the theatre or the music. Any listener is active listening, but longs to be passive. Like every good gay. 

How much does a setting affect the listening experience? 

V: So if you are in a bar, with a lot of people, trying to hear something, the setting affects your listening. 

If you are in nature, sitting by a lake and listening to the birds, the lake will probably help you hear the birds better. 

B: I believe the sonic combined with the visual is the strongest art form. 

Can all sounds be enjoyable, if not pleasurable?

V. Yes. 

B: No.

V: Some sounds might be really difficult to find in pleasure. But yes. 

Birds of Paradise takes place from March 16th – 19th in Utrecht (and March 17th – 18th in Antwerp). 

Words: Nicolas Graves

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