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Listen(n) Symposium promotes sustainability through sound

Poster for the Listen(n) Symposium, featuring a pristine desert lanscape
October 15, 2014

The sound of a bird calling in the distance or the breeze blowing through the brush might seem inconsequential; for many, these auditory cues can go completely unnoticed.

Arizona State University's Listen(n) Symposium – a series of panel discussions, musical performances and art installations – aims to open our eyes to the issues of sustainability by opening our ears to the sonic environment.

The symposium, which takes place Oct. 16-17, hopes to forge cross-disciplinary approaches to address environmental issues in new and innovative ways. It is an extension of a project by the same name, originated by Garth Paine, associate professor of digital sound and media in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering and of composition in the School of Music.

“With the Listen(n) project, we set out to document the Southwestern deserts of the United States with the idea that listening to the environment gives us information about its health and the changes taking place,” Paine explained.

Paine is joined by Daniel Gilfillan, an associate professor of German studies and information literacy in the School of International Letters and Cultures; Sabine Feisst, a professor of musicology in the School of Music; and Leah Barclay, a visiting professor of music composition from Griffith University in Australia.

Paine and his associates started out by making a series of ambisonic recordings, which use a full-sphere microphone to capture complete surround sound, in six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves (many of which are also National Parks). Because community engagement is a key element of Listen(n), the audio is already available online at

“We’re able to offer people the embodied experience of being present in the land,” Paine said

He said they hope to take this idea even further, encouraging community members to make recordings of their own over time and contribute to the sonic definition of their own space.

The Listen(n) Symposium will offer that opportunity at its inaugural event, "49 Waltzes," being held at 3 p.m., Oct. 16, at the ASU Art Museum on the Tempe campus. The event is modeled after John Cage’s “49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs of New York.” Students from Feisst’s class will assist attendees in creating recordings at various points around campus. These recordings will form the building blocks of an audio-visual installation at the ASU Art Museum that will be on view for the duration of the symposium.

“Students in the School of Music and Arts, Media + Engineering have worked very hard on a captivating collaborative audio-visual installation featuring the acoustic ecology of the ASU Tempe campus in a realization of American experimental composer John Cage’s ‘49 Waltzes,’” said Feisst.

The second day of the symposium will also feature a vocal performance and blessing by Kieg Mek Ne’edham kc Kehindam, a group from the Gu Achi District, Tohono O’odham Nation, led by traditional singer, curer and cowboy Simon Lopez, and a panel discussing the sound ecologies in Tohono O’odham cosmology.

“The Listen(n) Symposium brings indigenous, international and ASU-based artists, literary, media and music scholars, and scientists together to artistically explore and critically assess the acoustic ecologies of American Southwest deserts,” said Feisst.

The symposium will also feature speeches from esteemed figures in the world of acoustics. Sabine Breitsameter, a professor of sound and media culture at the Hesseische Film-Und-Medienakademie in Dramstadt, Germany, is giving the keynote speech at 6 p.m., Oct. 16, and Eric Leonardson, the chair of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, is speaking the following afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

The two-day event closes with a concert of musical pieces derived from the field recordings Paine created for Listen(n).

“At its base, the symposium is about the ways we engage the environment through the mode of listening, and whether we can attune our listening practices to a degree that allows us to think about these environmental issues in a way that moves beyond, say, studying statistical analyses,” said Gilfillan. “(This approach) brings the individual into the realm of the environmental space. It encourages students to think about how composition, how sound, how art as a medium, allows us to engage with these more critical issues in a way that is both creative and forward thinking.”

Listen(n) events are hosted by the ASU Art Museum and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute for Sustainability. Learn more at To view the full list of events and to RSVP, visit

The symposium has been made possible by seed funding from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Institute for Humanities Research, a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with additional support provided by the ASU Synthesis Center.