For Holger Schulze, immersive listening is his soundtrack to everyday life - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

For Holger Schulze, immersive listening is his soundtrack to everyday life


For a sound anthropologist, the art of listening is just as much a part of daily life as stimulating conversation and a healthy curiosity about the world around him.

“To be in the present as a listener is a revolutionary act. We absolutely need it, to be grounded in that way.” Hildegard Westerkamp

If listening is a revolutionary act, the approach is a rather relaxed one. It can start anywhere, at any time—at Il Buco, a restaurant in Copenhagen’s neighborhood of Islands Brygge, for example. It’s eight thirty in the morning, The Beatles’ song Come Together is playing faintly in the background.

The Art Of Listening is a collaboration between Freunde von Freunden and Danish speaker manufacturer Dynaudio. The series explores individual approaches to everyday listening with the scholar Holger Schulze, DJ Alexandra Dröner, and fashion designer Nicholas Daley.

Places we visit on a daily basis all have their individual sound features. At Il Buco, a cafe in the Islands Brygge neighborhood of Copenhagen, the inviting space is flanked by an open kitchen. The sounds generated there subtly filter into the seating area.

Holger Schulze is sitting at the window, lost in a book. While reading, he focuses on the sound environment and, looking up, says, “there are five loud sound sources here. The music, the woman who is currently Skyping, the man with the husky voice having a conversation, the kitchen clatter and people paying.” Pointing out that there are, in fact, two couples talking a bit more quietly and some are sitting wearing headphones, Schulze calls them “wellsprings of silence.”

Listening, he describes, is a process in which people intensely focus on their surroundings and other people within it: “For the women at the counter, the experience here is completely different. She listens to the music and the sounds in this environment every day.” Focusing on the sounds around you sharpens your awareness about how other people perceive the world. It’s a location of self within the present. It’s a counter model against day to day sensory self-encapsulations—gazing at smartphones in the subway, people who dive into their own zones at cafes wearing headphones, looking at their laptops. And yet, sensory withdrawal from the environment can be an impactful, necessary experience.

“Concentrated listening is something immersive, it helps us to shut down. It is also like meditation in everyday life,” explains Schulze. “Part of my job has to do with recreation and enjoyment and that’s great.” The private listener Schulze can hardly be separated from the academic who researches sounds. True to the title of one of his recent books, he is a Sonic Persona.

“From six in the evening until late into the night we sat around the table and the intellectual but playful exchange definitely left its mark on me.”

Schulze is a Professor of Musicology at Copenhagen University. There are many names for what he does: sound anthropologist, sound researcher, cultural scientist. The father of three wasn’t born in Denmark, however, but Baden-Baden in southwest Germany. Schulze’s mother escaped from a bomb-riddled Dresden after the Second World War. The French military had their headquarters in Baden-Baden and his mother worked there as a secretary. A French musician of the military orchestra caught her eye and Schulze was the outcome after a long affair. He fondly recalls long dinners with French family friends: “From six in the evening until late into the night we sat around the table and the intellectual but playful exchange definitely left its mark on me.”

In Baden-Baden, a young Schulze found access to sound, in the form of music: “As a student, I could attend free concerts, of Neue Musik, for example. The regional broadcasting center made that possible,” he recalls. As a teenager in the early 1980s, he became fascinated by music that utilized samples. In 1984, it was the theme music of the Los Angeles Olympic Games that stuck with him: People are People by Depeche Mode. From Baden-Baden, Schulze moved to Erlangen to study comparative literature, theater, and media studies as well as philosophy. His PhD focused on aleatoricism, the incorporation of chance into the artistic process, working with sound samples of William S. Burroughs and the sound art of John Cage.

“Concentrated listening has something immersive, it helps to shut down.”

As a post-doctorate at Berlin University of Arts (UdK), Schulze founded the Sound Studies degree program in 2006 with a group of designers, artists, and musicians. The program incorporates sound design, sound art, theory, and conception. Two research projects led Schulze to Humboldt-University in Berlin after working at UdK. One of them, entitled Functional Sounds will be wrapping up with the publication of his book Sound Works: A Cultural Theory of Sound Design. The drive to start things is a common thread in Schulze’s career. At Humboldt-University, he found Sound Studies Lab, a platform where researchers come together to push the discourse in their respective fields. Via Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Schulze found his way to a tenure track in Copenhagen.

“It’s the best practice or meditation to actually or figuratively close your eyes and focus on the soundtrack of the environment,” he says, literally closing his eyes whilst sat at Il Buco. “That’s how I center myself, find out what’s going on, and find out how pleasant or unpleasant it really is.” For Schulze, listening is an all-encompassing kinesthetic and multi-modal process: “We’ll remember the sounds in this place, the taste of the coffee, the pictures on the wall, the mood,” he says, wandering through the restaurant, looking for further sound traces.

Schulze trained his hearing in order to grasp the subtleties of sounds. The method of “ear-cleaning”, developed by the Canadian sound researcher R. Murray Schaefer is a tool he applies. “When you focus on the sounds of the surrounding area, it deepens, you can hear into the distance and train your way of listening,” he explains. The human hearing spectrum reaches up to 20,000 hertz. Schulze recently had a hearing test done and his results were about 18,000, unusually good for a 48-year-old. Thanks to the “ear-cleaning” his hearing remains agile.

The open atrium of the Danish Royal Library stretches several floors up. An escalator runs through it, leading to a passage in the old part of the building. From bridges and galleries you can look down into the whole room. Steps are heard, conversations from the canteen spill into the scenery, blending with the hum of the escalator. “Listening is a lever to other senses and sound is a way to talk about culture,” says Schulze, explaining how he always focuses on technology first in such spaces, as contradictory symbols of our culture today.

“Lifts, poorly covered cables, computer screens, air conditioners. It could be an elevator. Often the shells of the equipment are sources of noise, in the case of the escalator it is the paneling,” describes Schulze. The sounds in the atrium seem insulated, soothing “because there are different surfaces, where the sound can break. You almost feel secure,” he analyzes. Edges, niches, projections, the architecture varies and prevents the sound from bouncing off the smooth surfaces of concrete and glass.

“This swimming pool works like a parabolic antenna, like an amplifier. You smell the water and the wood, you’re close to the elements in an almost enclosed space on the open water.”

In the atrium at Royal Danish Library, sounds generated by humans and electrical appliances dominate the scenery. The escalator hums constantly but all noise is being dampened in a way that people can feel comfortable and are not disturbed.

It’s not just buildings steeped in technology, where sound researchers like Schulze find their subjects. They can be picked up in the streets, pretty much. During so-called soundwalks, researchers and other interested participants look for new impressions. They delve into the environment, sonically. Hildegard Westerkamp, a colleague of R. Murray Schaefer’s came up with the concept of soundwalks and Schulze often comes back to this method for his research. One way of soundwalking is that a group will walk a determined route, nobody talks and everybody focuses on the sounds around them. Once in a while, the group would stop and reflect upon what has been heard.

In front of the library, bicycles rattle past and Schulze starts walking, absorbing the surroundings. Bridges vibrate under the weight of trains and cars, the streets are wet and the sounds of traffic, “masking the entire environment,” notes Schulze. He stops at an intersection and tries to locate the high-pitch tones of the beeping traffic lights. Once located, the tone appears to come from the other side of the street. “The sources of these sounds are really hard to find,” says Schulze, standing under a traffic light, listening. The sounds of everyday life are not trivial, especially, when one listens to them carefully, looks into them and tries to figure out where they come from. They determine a huge portion of human sensory experiences and can be poetic at times: “The sound of a song, bouncing off a room onto the balcony, even at a poor quality can be something very beautiful,” he ponders.

At Öresund, the stretch of water between Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmö, the waves roll calmly to the beach. A wooden deck leads out to a open, shell-like structure in the water, made of wood, called Kastrup Søbad. The water sloshes beneath the dock and on the beach people are running from the sauna into the sea. The water carries their voices and the wood throws them back inside the shell.

Schulze picked this public swimming pool once for a lecture, because of its tonal peculiarities. “This swimming pool works like a parabolic antenna, like an amplifier,” explains Schulze and continues: “You smell the water and the wood, you’re close to the elements in an almost enclosed space on the open water, that’s unusual for a lecture.” The wind turbines spin in the background, cars drive on the bridge and planes take off and land at the airport. Listening, as Holger Schulze knows, is a holistic experience. Anyone who gets involved in it enters into intense sensory contact with their environment and always discovers something new.

The Art of Listening is a collaboration between Freunde von Freunden and the Danish speaker manufacturer Dynaudio. Both combine the passion for sound, music, and genuine pleasure. The series also features Berlin-based techno pioneer Alexandra Dröner and fashion designer Nicholas Daley. Find out more about Holger Schulze’s books and the Sound Studies Lab.

Text: Fabian Ebeling for FvF Productions
Photography: Robert Rieger for FvF Productions