C Magazine


Issue 131

by Candice Hopkins

I have to admit that I don’t much like the word “pedagogy.” It can sound like a way to make something that is simple unnecessarily complex. Instead of the theory of teaching, I am more often drawn to the practice of learning. At the core of my learning lately is opening my ears to hear what is sounding at the margins. Some of these resonances are collected here.

The echo of history

Richard Rath notes in his forthcoming book on the history of hearing that the term used to describe the beginning of the universe some 13 billion years ago is a misnomer. The “big bang” was not a bang at all, but completely silent: “Sound requires the disturbance of a medium, and in this case, everything […] was expanding away from everything else at the same rate, so no disturbances formed that could make up anything like sound waves.” His observation is a useful analogy for how much our reliance on visual perception—or in this case, our imaginings of what this moment looked like—often results in a blindness towards the other senses. In this case, what this moment truly sounded like. The big bang is perhaps more aptly described as a silent hyperinflation.

When I finally met Rath in person, we started talking about archaeoacoustics— the study of sonic frequencies at archaeological sites. I first encountered this practice two years ago at Chaco Canyon during a tour led by Taft Blackhorse and John Stein. There, in the rock amphitheatre between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, they sounded a conch shell. A small mound located some 400 feet behind us, positioned directly across from the centre of the amphitheatre, amplified the sound of the conch, sending it back to us. It had another effect as well. Blackhorse and Stein explained that if we were to gather near the mound, we would hear speech or song from the amphitheatre as though it were right beside us. Useful sound engineering if you consider that most people at Chaco didn’t live in the large pueblos that have made the site famous, but rather in more modest dwellings built behind the mound.

The deliberate creation of specialized sonic effects is found in many ancient architectural sites across the Americas. Among the most compelling are the “chirps” emitted at the temple on the Yucatan Peninsula built to honor the Mayan god Kulkulkan– the plumed serpent who is adorned with feathers from the Quetzal bird. Rath explains that:

bq. Clapping before the temple produces a sharp descending chirp instead of the expected echo. The chirp is actually many echoes, one from each step, that blend together. […] Because the steps are so close together, the listener perceives the echoes connected to each other rather than separately, much like we perceive the individual sample points on a compact disc as music rather than individual blips. […] In effect, the Mayas built a giant digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of the Quetzal.1

The teaching of the blue whale

In mid-June, I was on a ship in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of the Svalbard archipelago as part of a gathering of scientists, artists and writers called “Thinking at the Edge of the World.” There, we witnessed the changing Arctic firsthand. By 2040, the permanent sea ice will be gone. With this, the Arctic will no longer be the Arctic.

The scientists were not the only ones we learned from on that boat. Mid-way through our journey we were joined by two others, also teachers with a great deal at stake if we will only pay attention. A scientist spotted them first – off the ship’s bow emerged the massive, slick back of a blue whale, the largest mammal on the planet. Soon joined by another, each time the whales breached, they blew a huge arc of water into the air. They continued this way– swimming, blowing, diving– for the better part of 45 minutes. Near the end of our encounter, one rolled onto its side, revealing its left flipper. Whales have no reason to trust humans: we have proved particularly murderous towards their kind. Hunted to near extinction for their blubber – their rendered oil being one of the most precious commodities in the pre-and early-industrial world – a ban was placed on hunting blue whales in the 1960s. Despite the ban, their population growth is incredibly slow. A blue whale was last seen near Svalbard in 2009.

Part of the reason blue whales survived at all is because of how deep they dive to communicate with one another. Hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface, they call out along a highly resonant sound channel. This channel is highly effective, enabling the few that survive to find each other by sounding into the void, a call that was answered on the other side of the Atlantic. Our futures are contingent. The chorus of minor voices is not only human, but also animal and insect, particularly those who sing a different tune.

Sami pedagogies

“Pedagogy” stems from the Greek, paidagōgos, which denotes “a slave who accompanied a child to school.” Perhaps paidagōgos implies learning from the dispossessed (although clearly those doing the teaching had little choice in the matter). Dominant society rarely turns an ear to the voices speaking on the peripheries – that is, unless they begin to talk back.

In 1982, a Sami man, Niillas (Nils) Somby sought refuge with First Nations communities — including the Nuxalk, Chilcotin, Haisla, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and the Kainai. His self-exile was infamous in his home and in his newfound territory in Native America. Niillas had escaped prison in Norway and temporarily assumed a new identity after being charged with the attempted bombing of a bridge in 1979 during mass protests against the building of a massive hydro-electric dam near Alta, which is on Sápmi (Sami traditional territory). This charge would have had him spend much of his life behind bars. The protests sparked a collective consciousness raising in Norwegian society. The government temporarily halted construction while they considered the concerns, and later proceeded anyway. This moment had other consequences as well. In Norway, it marked the first time that Sami perspectives were given serious coverage in mainstream media. The Sami Rights Commission — a first — was initiated in 1980. Sami Parliament, a parallel governance system, later formed out of this collective dissent.

His exile in Canada was also a consciousness-raising. Niillas’ adoption into seven First Nations communities was initiated by the late Grand Chief George Manuel of the Secwepemc Nation (one of the initiators of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples). For the Nuxalk, hosting Niillas reinforced their sovereignty: the right to determine who is a citizen of their community and who is not, and the right to communicate with the federal government on a nation to nation basis. When Niillas was detained, along with his wife and daughters by RCMP in Alberta, the Nuxalk chief responded with a strongly worded declaration:

It is the position of the Nuxalk Nation’s Traditional Chief that Nils Somby was arrested and is being detained illegally. The Nuxalk Nation maintains it’s right to self-determination and to it’s own laws on matters concerning citizenship. […] Outstanding issues now under negotiation include self-government and Indian Government jurisdiction over membership […] The application of Canadian colonial laws in this case demonstrates the lack of good faith on the part of the Government of Canada in its negotiations with the Indian Nations.2

Niillas has been back in Sápmi since 1984. During his absence, his charges were reduced, but this didn’t stop him from holding the government and his own people accountable. Niillas’ is one of many voices that continues to speak back, even at the risk of not being heard. Revolutions are often imperfect. He relayed that even in Sami Parliament, which emerged out of an exceptional moment of Sami resistance and agency, complicity seeps in. In the fissures that this creates, deals have been made with resource extraction companies, and agreements are struck that undermine Sami rights to their traditional territories and practices.

I recently came across Niillas’ YouTube channel. His most recent video, Soagis Sallenii, is centred on a series of teachings, where his colleagues share knowledge regarding fishing, wood carving, instrument making, weather patterns, seasonal changes and spirituality. The video is interspersed with yoiking—a practice banned during the “Norwegianization” (read: forced assimilation) of Sami. A particular pedagogy is mobilized in these videos, one that is equal parts theory and practice. It is a way to resist acculturation, to decolonize and pass this knowledge onto future generations.
View Soagis Sallenii at:


Glacier harmonics

While on the ship off Svalbard, I witnessed another otherworldly sound. With the boat moored at the base of a massive glacier wall, we were asked to listen. Once everyone was silent, other sounds took hold: the water was filled with soft popping, the pops coming in quick succession, as though millions of tiny bubbles were surfacing at the same time.

The pops, we learned, are the sound of air compressed in 400-year old ice as it is released when chunks of the glacier fall off and melt in the warming Arctic waters. This is one of the tracks on the record that is global warming.

Room tunings

Zachary Watkins and Marshall Trammell perform as the duo Black Spirituals. Their practice is extra-musical: through improvisation, they sound difficult histories and activate sites of struggle and liberation. The best description of what they do is written by another musician, composer Raven Chacon, who on behalf of the collective Postcommodity, invited them to play in 2015 in a former church now run by the Guelph Black Heritage Society. There, with a multitude of players, they “tuned” their voices to the resonant frequencies of the interior of the building by collectively reciting a poem by Sun Ra. Their voices were recorded, and played back on repeat until the right frequency was found. The building is a former stop along the Underground Railroad, built by fugitive slaves so that others like them could have safe haven in the transit to freedom. Chacon describes the duo’s live performance as a kind of witnessing:

Seeing a Black Spirituals performance is witnessing a unique and powerful music being made in real-time. The two musicians blast tones and beats at each other but those sounds find their way into the spaces between, encompassing the full range of human hearing […]. Listeners become conscious of the resonance of the space as it becomes another instrument for the duo to amplify, filter, spatialize, and tune [and] relay the story of the buildings of the invaluable Underground Railroad stations that exist across North America. Their music retells history via the physical science that results from vibration of strings and the contact of wood to membrane, reminding you of all that is hidden in plain view.3

Deep Listening

The phrase “sounding the margins” comes from a book of the same name by composer Pauline Oliveros.4 “Deep listening,” for Oliveros and her collaborators, is a means of tuning our ears to listen to the sounds of our environment and feel its vibrations with our bodies.

This score is also a listening aid; it expands the capacity of our ears so we can better understand where “music” resides:

Dissolving your ear plugs: For classically trained musicians and anyone else interested.

1. Take some time – no matter where you are – sit down and close your eyes for a while and just listen – When you open your eyes consider what you heard as the “music”. Later try to remember what you heard and express it with your instrument or voice.

Do this practice often until you begin to hear the world as music.

2. Another time – sit down with your instrument and just listen with your eyes closed. As you realize that whatever you are hearing IS “music” allow your instrument or voice to enter this musical stream. Stop when the music is over. This is supported improvisation.

3. Listen to a favorite machine and play or sing along with it.

4. Listen to a favorite natural soundscape and play or sing along with it.

Pauline Oliveros © Copyright Deep Listening Publications 2006