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A Durham man identifies public spaces for deep listening

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Two strangers met beneath the Interstate 85 overpass at Club Boulevard and Washington Street. One of them brought a backpack filled with leaflets, a jar containing flour and water, and a gun that shoots staples.

"I know this is a weird place to meet," Chris Gollmar told me. "But it has a really unique soundscape."

For someone who loves sound, Gollmar speaks very softly. Above us, the traffic, steel and concrete created a symphony of low frequencies and harmonies, as if we were crouched inside a timpani or trapped in the gut of a whale.

Gollmar is the mastermind behind the Listening Project, which designates at least 20 spots around Durham as listening points. The purpose of the project, an extension of work by listening pioneers such as John Cage and Pauline Oliveros, is to encourage people to listen to—and then, reflect on—the sound environments that surround them.

Several weeks ago, I discovered the project at the corner of Ninth and Perry streets, where Gollmar had posted a flyer on a pole establishing that spot as Listening Point No. 642. "Pause. Listen. Respond," the flyer directed. "Stay here a few moments. Silence your phone. Silence yourself. Close your eyes and take in your surroundings."

I heard birds, footsteps and voices and called the number listed to leave a voice mail, explaining what I'd heard. The I-85 experience was different.

"With this traffic, it's completely devoid of natural sound," Gollmar said. "The really low frequencies make it otherworldly. This is one of the places that really caught my attention."

Gollmar, who is from Milwaukee, studied music composition at the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College. He moved to Durham from Wisconsin, where he worked in the software industry. He now coordinates the Words & Pictures program for kids at the Nasher Museum of Art and teaches an after-school program at Duke School. He leaves for graduate school in New York later this month, but he hopes other people will start their own listening projects, make their own signs and generate their own maps of sound experiences.

As Gollmar staked out more listening points in the Northgate Park neighborhood, we entered a playground to the sound of children laughing. He staples a flyer for Listening Point 039 on a lamp post.

INDY: How do you choose the listening points?

CHRIS GOLLMAR: I tried to get a really good cross section of sounds and listening experiences. I posed different questions on the posters as a gentle way of framing listening experiences. I tend to think of this as an aesthetic experience, but someone else might think of them as anthropological or scientific experiences.

Do kids listen differently?

I think kids are more inquisitive; an adult is likely not to give much thought to what they hear particularly now where we can shut ourselves off with headphones. If we really want to get into deep listening, that has to be learned, and it takes practice. Deep listening describes a very specific process, a sound creation that's very spiritual.

This is a very active space for sound. What contrasts this space from the overpass is that you can hear a much farther distance. That was a strangely enclosed space.

Do you have an earliest memory of sound?

I don't think I do.

The role sound plays in your memory isn't as strong as smell—maybe if it were a violent sound like a car crash.

That's a good point. I was sitting at home as a kid, and something sounded like plastic garbage cans being dumped over. My dad said, "That's a car crash." It's a little insignificant memory, but it's those isolated unique sounds that you don't hear every day.

This is the total opposite. I'm interested in people listening to insignificant things they never remember or pay attention to on a day-to-day basis. Listening takes practice—for me to be able to remember this moment, and listening to this park on this day, and what you need to learn to store that kind of memory. It's not something we're in the habit of doing.

How do you do it? An intentionality?

I think so. That's why I want people to go beyond listing what they hear. I want them to reflect on it.

[We enter the dog park, but sadly, there are no dogs, just music from a house and a low rumble of distant traffic. A plane flies overhead. There is the percussive sound of four shots from a staple gun, as Gollmar establishes Listening Point 341.]

At some point, I'd like to focus on this from a research perspective. How do I take a more analytical look at it? What people have said, what kinds of questions people are asking, what kind of places people are listening to?

Do you want to know where people put signs of their own, if they do?

I want to leave room for communities where sound is a sensitive issue, and they don't want it to travel outside of their community. I want people to be able to print out a sign and post it without it being open to a wider public. But for other people, I want to encourage them to add them to a map and make it something more active in inviting other people to listen and discover and explore.

What about silence? The lack of sound is troubling. That says something is wrong.

I studied abroad in Buenos Aires; I have this memory of silence. On this random afternoon, I was crossing the street and all of a sudden, there were no city sounds. There was this really brief moment of silence; for some reason the sounds of the city just parted and left me. After eight months of constant noise, it was totally refreshing but surreal, too.

Silence is different than the absence of sound. Silence is a living experience of whatever you heard most recently and whatever you hear inside your head.

Read Gollmar's blog to learn more about his thoughts on sound.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pedestrian music."

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