On Listening provides a broad cross-disciplinary map of the sound world, through forty short essays, each a brief introduction to an aspect of listening. The essay on underwater sound introduces the field of marine bioacoustics and describes elements of physics that determine the conduct of sound waves through water. An essay on the sonic booms of military aircraft over the Mojave Desert succinctly explains the acoustics involved in breaking the sound barrier.
An essay on urban soundscape suggests that we listen for the textures and sounds of the spoken word from the perspective of the senses, translating the experience of such listening from meaning to musicality. When we listen to radio in the dark, we are perhaps reassured that we are not alone: through the shared experience of other anonymous listeners we perceive a collective sensibility in the void of night. A discussion of soundscape as eventscape outlines an experience in a cemetery in Rome, where classic poets are remembered through the filter of more recent poetry by Pier Paulo Pasolini.
An essay on identifying birds through their calls introduces the possibility of naming other species according to what they do, recognizing their actions as verbs in order to better reflect their activity and make it harder for us to habitually think of them as objects. Another essay points out that the grammar of the verb “listen” in English creates a distance between speaker and listener, because we cannot listen directly, but must instead insert a descriptive phrase following the preposition to. The concluding proposal is that we learn to listen people, rather than listening to them. Two concluding essays discuss the importance of listening both for victims and for perpetrators in the post-genocide reconciliation taking place in Rwanda.
Together this collection of essays forms a comprehensive sequence of outlines, each writer addressing a specific perspective on sound. The book will be particularly useful as an introduction to the medium, as it provides experiential and practical background for readers who may want to include sound in multimedia, installation, and performance. Readers will be eager to explore further.