Vivienne Griffin
Transcript of final appraisal of the Active Listening Workshop via Zoom remotely on 16 August 2023.
 Matt Williams (M.W) in converstion with Vivienne Griffin (V.G)

How and why did listening workshops become a staple part of your practice?

Hmm, good question. Listening workshops came became a staple part of my practice out of the desire to learn about sound but not from a music perspective, and not starting with music theory. So I wanted to approach it from a different angle. And then I found Pauline Oliver's work, and then that inspired doing some practical workshops with sonic meditations. And then I devised another aspect to it that is, bringing it a little bit more into my own work.

Was it coming from a desire or want to engage with sound rather than musical notations, etc. Focusing on environmental sounds and noise.

A lot of people grow up getting music lessons go, you know, have instruments around the house, some people just have that because their parents play music or something like that. But in some cases, it is kind of elitist, and it is to do with whether you can or can’t afford music lessons? I don't know who said this before, but they were talking about pianos and said, “can you afford a piano? Can you afford the space or the instrument?” And in my case, we couldn't afford music lessons, so I didn't have that education. 
So, I wanted access. I wanted a point of entry, and I didn't want to have to go back to like a sort of a 5-year-old learning piano phase. I wanted to engage in a different way that didn't require that knowledge. And, anyway, loads of musicians will always say as well that when they kind of engage with experimental sound that they wish they could unlearn what they learned, which is funny. They're like, I've spent years on unlearning that theory so I could just be free.

That's a really interesting point you raise there just about the financial and spatial concerns when learning music and positioning it as elitist pursuit. 
It connects, not in a direct way the curatorial premises that sound is a universal, accessible medium and that every environment has its own distinctive sounds and characteristics, etc. And can you please tell me more about Pauline Oliveros as a primary, referential figure.

Yes, of course. Basically, I've been aware of the movements of practitioners in New York in the 1970s around that time. And I was looking into people like Pandit Pran Nath, who was La Monte Young's teacher. I don't know if Laurie Anderson would have been a bit later. But, yeah, I was looking at minimalist composers. 
And from exploring that genre Pauline Oliveros just stood out to me. First, she's a lesbian. She had a beautiful perspective on sound exploration and a sense of humour. I'm still learning about her work and I’m doing a deep listening course now, and she was also funny. Someone on the deep listening course mentioned that by the end of the sonic meditation retreats I think in New Mexico participants were basically remaining silent from 10 pm until 1 pm the next day. I love the kind of the trajectory of the listening practice ends up with half the retreat in silence. Her work really stood out to me. This prompted me to get a copy of Sonic Meditations and read them, and decided I wanted to try and get a group together to start doing them. 

When you received the brief, which scores did you select? How did you incorporate the works into the workshops? And what is your process for crafting your own scores?

Well, through practicing them, I realised that there are a couple of branches of deep listening practice that are closely linked to meditation practices, and they're very formal. I'm not sure of the exact word to describe it, but there's a certain aesthetic attached to them that I associate with contemporary classical music and extended vocal technique. On the other hand, there's another aspect of Pauline's work, which involved experiments with software, early computers, and her accordion. These are separate from her deep listening practices. Plus, her sense of 
humour was something I deeply connected with when I discovered her practice. I believe the humorous aspect can be disarming for participants, especially non-singers, as it makes the process more light-hearted.

How did this workshop stand out from others you've delivered? And what specific considerations did you consider to align it with the project's context?

Firstly, a key element was the Ring Road. It was something I had been contemplating. How do you engage with sound, such as noise, especially when considering the ideas of John Cage. There's an intriguing interview with him discussing the sound of traffic in Manhattan at the time, which he adored. So I viewed it not merely as noise pollution, but also as a form and a starting point for using drone. Much of the workshop revolves around this because the scores I'm drawn to are these drone scores, which were prominent in Pauline's work. Additionally, 
I considered the data collection aspects and working with the frequencies of the Ring Road. I've been looking to integrate the Max software more, which I hadn't used in workshops before. 
Previously, I utilised effects pedals, but I wanted to start using Max due to its versatility.

The workshop had a very positive element. It felt both collective and 

Yes, the interactive element certainly fosters a sense of interest and deeper engagement with the participants.

How is the sequencing of the workshop essential to your practice? Specifically, why do you start with spatial clapping exercises, followed by rhythmic clapping and the foot stamping exercise?

When I conduct workshops, I assume there might be some musicians in the mix, but I aim to cater to everyone and use language that's accessible to all. This time around, there was a tad more theory involved than I usually incorporate, mainly because of the emphasis on 'critical' or 'active' listening. I wanted to explore what does listening really entail? And what's the essence of listening critically? These questions nudged me to frame a more contextual setting. 

Typically, we start with some breathing exercises. And then the next part is to like get people relaxed physically in the space. Achieving this is relatively straightforward, but if you don't do it, it's interesting to see how people have difficulty vocalising and get relaxed in the space. It's pivotal for me to guide them through a set of exercises centred on breathing and warming of their voice. Followed by the clapping and foot stomping exercise to encourage them to think about timing and musical rhythm.

This neatly segues into my next question, which is how did these exercises influence the participants' perception of time? Perception of time can be influenced by various factors, including age, culture, and environment. For example, the 'proportional theory' posits that as we grow older, a year feels shorter in comparison to our total lifespan. Additionally, an urban or rural setting can impact time perception, given the different life paces and stimuli. Physical activities and stress levels can also alter our sense of time.

Yeah, when you consider tempo in music, like beats per minute, there's a shift that happens when you move towards the sonic and away from the temporal. I've noticed this in listening practices too. For instance, meditation can be challenging for me, but I still give it a shot. When I do, it alters how I perceive time. 
At times, it seems to speed up, or it pulls me out of my conscious mind, making me feel like everything is slowing down. However, if you don't approach it from a musical standpoint, without associations to different time signatures, you can experience a lot more fluidity in perception.

And did the workshop conditions influence their perception of time?

Yeah, those exercises are really designed to disarm people, to stop them from overthinking the fact that they're going to sing. Many people are terrified of singing. The exercises help participants get out of their heads, which is why the workshop was initially called How to Get Out of Your Head.

Building on that, you encourage participants to think about inaudible sounds. What's the rationale behind this?

In Pauline Oliveros' work, there's an emphasis on hearing sounds, making sounds, and imagining sounds. Oliveros, along with her partner Ione, also delved into the function of dreams and how sound operates in a conscious and non-conscious space. It's about recognising that our experience isn't limited to just what we audibly hear. There's so much more happening in the acoustic environment around us.

Your explanation recalls Murray R. Schaefer's viewpoint, in which he employed visual metaphors to depict sound. However, critics like Tim Ingold believe that Schaefer tends to oversimplify by categorising things into binaries such as human/non-human or nature/culture. Additionally, Paul Purgas raised similar issues with Schaefer’s terminology, prompting the use of the term 'acoustic environment' instead. 

Moving forward, how crucial was the awareness of sound frequencies and vibrations in this workshop?

It's crucial. The portion of the workshop you're referencing focuses on listening to ourselves. Participants become aware of their own heartbeats and how sound resonates within their bodies. Additionally, we address the difference between how we perceive our voices internally compared to externally.

An exploration of psychoacoustics?

Exactly, it's about psychoacoustics. Previously we discussed Maryanne Amacher, who worked with psychoacoustics. Through studying her work, I learned that she talked about a phenomenon where, during the translation of signals from the ear to the brain as electrical impulses, sometimes additional auditory signals are introduced.[186]

It's fascinating work. I've been trying to devise a score for a project in Leipzig. When vocalising alongside a sine wave set at a specific frequency, if you glide your continuous note close to it (just above or below), you experience this beating phenomenon in your throat. I've been singing for years, but I never experienced that until I reduced everything down to one basic frequency. Interestingly, it also happens when you sing in choirs or groups.

When working with the beating of two sine waves, close together, it's only a few frequencies apart. But in this specific case, it was between 180 and 202 Hz. With those two frequencies, it creates a sensation, whereby phasing sections of the sine from my voice feels like tremolo. It might be subtle, but with amplification in a live setting, is really intriguing.

There has been work done in that territory, and it's nice to introduce it to people if they're unfamiliar. However, for those who are aware, that's also great. Recently, I've realised there's an overlap between older conceptual sound art and non-Western sources. I was particularly interested in the story of Pandit Pran Nath, an Indian classical singer who moved to New York, I believe, around the 1970s. He was the teacher of La Monte Young, a fact I discovered while delving into La Monte Young's work and reading a biography titled Draw a Straight Line and Follow by Jeremy Grimshaw. La Monte Young believed the biography was deeply flawed as it failed to recognise the influence of Pandit Pran Nath on his own work.[187]

But, when you delve into the history of Buddhism arriving in the States, you start connecting it to pranayama breathwork. [188] I'm not sure if you're familiar with it. It's a yoga practice. These things are all interconnected. You’re drawing from a deep well and has a lineage. It's essential to recognise where that lineage originates, especially with the ongoing discussions about decolonisation, which is a term I have mixed feelings about, but that’s for another time. For example as an Irish person who doesn’t speak the Irish language what decolonial work can be done around the loss of language, or traditions and cultures that have been erased?

How did the participants react to the sonic meditations in the session?

The response was positive. With groups, the pace can vary. Some are quicker to engage in vocalising and breathwork. This group displayed a lot of enthusiasm. I believe that because it was held in the Delia Derbyshire building, it attracted individuals who were open to experimental sound practices, and one person was familiar with the sonic meditations scores.

I observed one participant, a woman from a drama background, who was 
familiar with the breathing techniques. Her engagement and confidence seemed to put others at ease.

Yes, her presence made a difference in the group dynamic.

The group's engagement was increased, I believe, by a series of trust exercises. These exercises were crucial, especially considering the diverse disciplines and interests of the participants. This encouraged them to connect with the sensory impact of the setting and to interpret and listen to the environment. Which brings me to my next question: concerning the scores you chose and whether there any elements of the workshop you would modify in the future?

We touched on this earlier. But it's all about how you set the stage, right? I'm thinking about how I present the workshop and the terminology employed, ensuring participants clearly understand what they are getting into, which is a double-edged sword, but ensuring clarity is key.

How do you frame this then, what attracts or repels potential participants. Which places an emphasis on language and terminology.

Yeah, I thought about that as well, like how could I maybe do an intensive workshop with people where you just throw people into a bit. It’s difficult to gauge.

Absolutely, at the beginning of the PhD I curated an event called White Noise Ballrooms and I used quite obtuse language to describe the themes of the event, which featured Chop’n’screw music, artists moving image works, a Grindcore performance, followed by a Gabba Opera.[189] And I remember a 
member of the audience asking me why I used elaborate language and not just say what it was. On reflection, I think I wanted to use intellectual language and force a context on an event, which was confusing to potential audiences. That said, the event still sold out, and participants responded positively to the content, though it could have easily gone the other way. Since that feedback I intentionally try to use inclusive language and avoid mirroring an institutional voice.

It's like turning off all the lights during an intense noise performance, making the audience feel somewhat trapped because they can't leave. But we also need to trust the audience. 
Just because they might not fully grasp the context of the work that doesn't mean they can't form their own opinions about it. This is the challenge of working within specialised disciplines where there's an expectation for everyone to possess a certain type of knowledge, which, up until recently, has been predominantly Western white patriarchal. You also want to extend it to wider audiences, who might be fresh to the experience and can offer a fresh perspective.

On that note, do you think there was a need for more in depth, curatorial guidance, or a better grasp of the context prior to the event.

No, I genuinely felt that the curatorial guidance was both comprehensive and well-executed. Every detail was meticulously planned, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the context. 
The clarity about the location, coupled with an in-depth understanding of the various elements involved, showcased the professionalism with which the workshop was managed. This environment enabled me to deliver the workshop without any distractions. Moreover, I was keenly aware of the toolkit's properties, especially those components that directly related to my contribution to the research project. Overall, the experience was thorough, insightful, and positive.

[186] Amacher, M. (1977). [Online]. Psychoacoustic Phenomena in Musical Composition: Some Features of a Perceptual Geography. Available at:

[187] Grimshaw, J. (2012). Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

[188] Pranayama, derived from Sanskrit ‘prana’ (life force) and ‘ayama’ (to extend), represents the yogic discipline of breath control. Various techniques, such as Anulom Vilom (alternate nostril breathing) and Ujjayi (victorious or ocean breath), serve distinct purposes like balancing the brain’s hemispheres or calming the mind. Practitioners assert that pranayama enhances respiratory health, concentration, and energy while mitigating stress. 

[189] INTERMISSION, White Noise Ballrooms. (2020). Available at:

White Noise Ballrooms took place on 11 January 2020, 16:00-21.00 in a disused gallery space on Cork Street, London as part of the Camden Art Centre Public Programme. Informed by Stephen Barber’s book White Noise Ballrooms, which conjures the political and social parallels between the winter of 1979–80 (the first of Margaret Thatcher’s reign) and 2019–20; as well as inner-city spaces in transmutation–between late ‘70s abandoned punk-rock spaces to their 2020s’ contemporary emptied-out high-end counterparts. For the inaugural episode of INTERMISSION, White Noise Ballrooms will act as an umbrella for a series of commissioned performances encompassing experimental sonic explorations, spoken word, and moving image works. These will be presented alongside rare historical footage, within a site-specific installation. Featuring Stephen Barber, Bonnie Camplin, Beth Collar, Racheal Crowther, MOBBS and KHA [0].