Listening and Unentitled

Mark Enslin

This is just a little samba built upon a single note …

This essay takes the form of a few fragmentary, paratactically related notes and stories on listening to accompany Unentitled, a music-theater composition premiered in its originally intended solo version by Susan Parenti at the American Society for Cybernetics conference on listening in August 2011. Unentitled can be understood as the fragmentary portrayal of various listeners via voices speaking around a tacit figure sitting at a keyboard in several implied settings. Both the essay and the music-theater piece are intended to depict and embody–and to some extent analyze–the difficulties of listening, particularly in situations of social inequality.

Unentitled was written between 1996 and 2002 at the request of Rick Burkhardt, performed as a trio by him with Andy Gricevich and Sharon Hudson at Brün Fest 2003. A staged reading of the text was presented at an ASC conference in 2001. An audio recording of a house performance by Susan Parenti in September 2011 can be found HERE.

One rainy summer evening down in the Red Herring vegetarian restaurant on campus, I attended a lecture-demonstration by a visiting Cameroonian artist and anthropologist. Several of his paintings were on display in the restaurant, and he spoke about their relation to European colonialism in Africa. I liked the paintings, his interpretations of them, and his approach to being an artist. After the talk I went up and told him that a health care activist friend had recently asked my opinion of a proposal to join in a clinic-building project in Cameroon from an American large-scale biofuel developer. The artist replied, “If you don’t want to listen to what I have to say, just cut off my head.”

Listening was invented to address persistent problems with hearing and being heard: inability, unwillingness, ambiguity, displacement.

Nobody offers an opportunity for people who are not homeless to listen to homeless people. Once a year, the radio show host Nobody, aka Jeremy Weir Alderson, holds what he calls the Homelessness Marathon, a 14-hour radio program he broadcasts from outdoors in the cold weather via a hosting community radio station to satellite link. He has listener call-ins and guests from local anti-poverty organizations and shelters, and he welcomes those who have no apartment or house to be interviewed on the air. In addition to asking the houseless about their lives and housing situation, he also has a thematic current-events question to pose, such as What do you think about Elián Gonzalez?–a question about which the general public at the time will have had a variety of strong opinions. Nobody, the listener in the snow, creates a situation in which the listeners at home might hear what the others think. And perhaps question otherness.

Persistent problems with hearing and being heard include (1) Inability: crucial referents in common are missing; needed language is missing; the available language is misleading; stark and unacknowledged differences of interest, power, privilege and priorities are interfering; there may even be legal or economic constraints on hearing; (2) Unwillingness: a daunting amount of work might be required before hearing can happen; some loss of power, prestige, advantage, or vanity may be entailed, or too great a political compromise; (3) Ambiguity: Exactly who is being addressed? A mistaken assumption might turn hearing upside-down; words might be taken the wrong way; desires for follow-up might not match; (4) Displacement: hearing can be thwarted by happening in the wrong place and time, starting too late, ending too early.

“Excuse me, hey, guy, you’ve parked double-oblique off of a jut out to a tow zone. You have a license to taxi a wood key jeep baroque fugue gizmo?” (Unentitled, Cop)

Reader’s Block, a novel by David Markson, is a pseudo-autobiography told in paratactic fragments, including names from the history of the arts, unattributed quotations, ironic anecdotes, quirky, impressive, or morbid biographical notes, cumulative speculations on a yet-to-be-written narrative–and throughout a recurring pattern of stark attributions of bigotry and self-destruction regarding a surprising array of historical figures. The statement of writer X’s bigotry exists. The statement of writer Y’s self-destruction exists. How can I, how can Reader, bring ourselves to read X and Y? –is how I understand the title: the depiction of a state of mind that, like writer’s block, wants to read and cannot. There must be an analogous dynamic with hearing and listening.

Listening explicitly occurs in the context of conversation.

The civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, author of the recent book The New Jim Crow, described in an interview on the NPR radio program Fresh Air a crucial and complex moment of listening in her work:

“There was one case in particular I’ll never forget involving a young African American man, probably no older than 19, who walked into my office one day. I was interviewing young black men that day who had claims of racial profiling against the police. … He had taken detailed notes of his encounters with the police over a nine month period of time, I mean he had names, dates, witnesses in some cases, badge numbers, just an extraordinary amount of documentation. … I thought, here’s our dream plaintiff … we had been looking to file lawsuits against the Oakland police department and a number of others … I began asking more questions, and then he said something that made me pause, and I said, ‘Did you just say you’re a drug felon?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m a drug felon, I am, but listen–’ and I interrupted him and said ‘I’m sorry we’re not going to be able to represent you.’ … we believed we couldn’t represent someone who had been convicted of a felony or really had any criminal record at all, because we knew that law enforcement would argue that of course we should be following, stopping, and searching people like that … and he said ‘But listen, listen! I was innocent. I was framed. The police planted drugs on me and they beat up me and my friend.’ And I kept apologizing, and finally he becomes enraged and tells me ‘You’re no better than the police! You’re just like them! The minute I tell you I’m a felon, you stop listening! You just can’t even hear what I have to say! What’s to become of me? What’s to become of me? It’s like I can’t even get a job now that I have this felony and I can’t even get housing, I’m living in my grandmother’s basement right now because nowhere else will take me in! I can’t even get food stamps–how am I supposed to feed myself? How am I supposed to take care of myself as a man?’ He says, ‘Good luck finding one young black man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet, they’ve gotten to all of us already!’ and he snatches up all those papers and detailed notes and just starts ripping them up and he’s yelling at me as he walks out, ‘You’re no better than the police! You’re just like them! I can’t believe I trusted you!’” (Alexander, 32:07-35:55)

Other notes are going to enter, but based on that one note.

“Months later I opened a newspaper and what was on the front page? Well, the Oakland Riders police scandal had broken. It turned out a gang of police officers, otherwise known as a drug task force known as the Oakland Riders, had been planting drugs on suspects in his neighborhood and beating folks up … one of the main officers accused of having planted drugs on suspects and beating folks up was the officer he had identified to me as having planted drugs on him and had beat up him and his friend … and it was really at that moment the light finally went on for me and I realized he’s right about me. The minute he told me he was a felon I stopped listening, I couldn’t even hear what he had to say … and that was really the beginning of my journey of asking myself: How am I, the civil rights lawyer, actually helping to replicate the very forms of discrimination and exclusion I’m supposedly fighting against?” (Alexander, 35:55-37:36)

The starting point for listening is attention to what is not heard. Suppressed, hidden, distant, ignored, and missing voices, sounds, events, and connections are produced by listening. Listener as producer. There’s no non active listening.

Listening uses auditory metaphor to point at cybernetics’s unification of perception and cognition, which has tended to take distinction as fundamental and not for granted. The neurophysiological strand of argumentation in cybernetics posits excitatory and inhibitory neighborhoods of nerve cells in the closed loops of the nervous system as a mechanism of edge detection and generator of distinction. (Von Foerster, “On Constructing a Reality”, 9-12)

This new note is the consequence of what I was speaking to …

“As I see it, memory for biological systems cannot be dead storage of isolated data but must be a dynamic process that involves the whole system in computing what is going on at the moment and what may happen in the future. The mind does not have a particular section for memory, another for counting, and another for language. The whole system has memory, can count, can add, can write papers, and so forth.” (Von Foerster, preface to Understanding Understanding, viii) In cybernetics terms, perception/cognition is circular, recursive, and thus not localizable. It’s not a thermostat that regulates temperature, it’s the whole heating system of which the thermostat is a part. It’s not eviction that makes someone homeless, it’s the whole economic-housing-family-legal system of which eviction is one episode.

Just as I will be the inevitable consequence of you.

Experimental composition invites experiments in listening and thus necessarily takes part in conversation as well.

The cognitive mapping of ‘I’ in relation to ‘social’, expressed in audible terms which emphasize speech, is assembled in listening. To listen, to heed–implies that I trace a distinction you intended to draw, and allow it to affect my actions. If significance results from choosing among distinct alternatives, listening gives the social to significance.

Cognitive Mapping is the name Fredric Jameson gave to a not-yet-existing aesthetic he proposed in 1983 which would concern “… how you map your relation as an individual subject to the social and economic organization of global capitalism …” addressing in art “… the real problem … that it is increasingly hard for people to put that together with their own experience as individual psychological subjects, in daily life.”

If listening is considered not just as a component of therapy or of any other embodied endeavor, but also an art form, then one can reflect on the poetics, aesthetics, history and sociology of an act or practice of listening.

The starting point of Spencer-Brown’s calculus of indications is distinction: perfect continence, enclosure, intention, inside and outside, difference of value. Once the distinction is drawn, he says, one can point to it. (Spencer-Brown, p. 1) Is that the sequence in listening? Perhaps the pointing, the indication, the intention to draw a distinction, precedes the distinction drawn, precedes the distinction’s pointing at what it is not, the now unmarked state.

Unentitled is an attempt to invite a kind of self-referential turn in having the piano player speak, while playing, a bunch of sentences that might come to generate characters, who might interact to form scenes, which might eventually create the sense that the person at the keyboard is playing a non-speaking role: a listener.

Listening to someone else’s listening.

Listening to my listening.


This is just a little samba built upon a single note.

Other notes are going to enter, but the base is just one note.

This new note is the consequence of what I was speaking to,

Just as I will be the inevitable consequence of you.


d d d d d d d d d d d d d d

d d d d d d d d d d d d d d

g g g g g g g g g g g g g g g

d d d d d d d d d d d d d d d g

(Jobim and Mendonça, 1963)

Tom Jobim’s “One-Note Samba” self-referentially narrates its single-note melody, but doesn’t tell what’s happening with the chords, that is, with the context of the melody: many chords, many changes–which have the effect of changing the harmonic meaning of that stable melody note. Not just d d d d … but third of iii minor, third of flat III major, 11th of ii minor, the augmented sixth of … It’s a pointed example of a phenomenon in tonal music called enharmonic change: An element in one harmony, while staying the same pitch, is given a different function by a change of harmony (sometimes the stable pitch even gets another name). The enharmonic effect–sort of a harmonic lever–abounds in classical, popular, and folk tonal music: “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Superman” (Laurie Anderson), “O Mensch” (Mahler’s 3rd Symphony), the “Raindrop” Prelude (Chopin op. 28 nr. 15), almost every blues song.

What is there to hear in listening to this technique?

–a moment in which a changed environment changes the seemingly stable element; how the same is not the same, identity is not identity. That a component of the current system, with the functions and properties given it by the current system, might continue to be a component in a different system, but with different functions and properties given it by the new system.

The enharmonic change effect in music has historically depended on hierarchical, home-tone-oriented, i.e. tonal harmony. The main note of the “One-Note Samba” eventually comes to be understood tonally as the fifth–the dominant–needing to resolve to the home tone. I was curious whether it would be possible to realize something like the enharmonic effect with atonal, non-hierarchical, not-home-tone-oriented, non-tonic-and-dominant harmony … and further, I was curious whether it would be possible to make enharmonic changes in which the common elements–the recontextualized tones–actually outnumber the context-shifting ones. Beginning with an 84-key pangram on the piano, Unentitled’s entry in the genre (alas not as concise as Jobim’s!) proceeds through all possible neighborhoods of 21distinct twelve-pitch harmonies, linked by 0 to 9 common tones, acting as gestural backdrop to the interwoven voice parts.

And theatrically, the keyboardist–demonstrating an antique instrument in the sci-fi museum exhibit, sitting in the street with evicted belongings, playing the wedding reception, tuning a homeowner’s piano, getting distracted by news radio in the practice studio, typing a company press release about downsizing in the steno pool–undergoes enharmonic change of scenic context implied by the surrounding voices. The identity of the sitter at the keyboard becomes reinterpreted by the spoken texts. The voices specified in the score of Unentitled are, in order of first appearance: museum guide, Max Weber, mover, voiceover, cop, hubbub, stenographer, expletive news, grammar news, punctuated news, metanews, News from Nowhere, piano owner.

Is the main character mute or mum? Missing necessary language? Missing … listeners? Wanting to be heard means anticipating that the consequence of listening will be a changed state affairs. The linguistic, economic, social environment deflates the hope of being heard.

“If a stroke of undeserved luck has kept the mental composition of some individuals not quite adjusted to the prevailing norms–a stroke of luck they have often enough to pay for in their relations with their environment–it is up to these individuals to make the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom they say it cannot see or, to do justice to reality, will not allow themselves to see. Direct communicability to everyone is not a criterion of truth. We must resist the all but universal compulsion to confuse the communication of knowledge with knowledge itself, and to rate it higher, if possible–whereas at present each communicative step is falsifying truth and selling out.” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics p. 41)

There’s a cognitive mapping to be done in relation to the condition called “homelessness” (or, as some prefer, “houselessness”) as a problem (note the pronouns): How do I get my needs met right now in my current precarious position? How do I get out of the status of “homelessness”? How do I address my guilty feelings about the homeless, or about homelessness? How do I express solidarity with those who are or have been homeless? What do you call someone who is not homeless? How do we keep the homeless from interfering with commerce? How do we ensure that they at least have shelter? How do we reassure ourselves that they at least have shelter? How do we ensure that we all, beyond having shelter, have a home? How do we dismantle structures of power wherein some with power see it as in their interest to maintain the threat of homelessness? Can we imagine a society in which what we now know as the need for home is fulfilled in other ways, and remove potential denial of home as a control mechanism?

Likewise the Puerto Rico story: the source for the variations in the Unentitled script (Punctuated News, Grammar news, Expletive News, Metanews, News from Nowhere) was a 1995 Chicago Tribune editing of an Association Press story (“Puerto Rico Guard Evicts Squatters,” Seattle Times Oct 21, 1995. I hadn’t seen the AP version at the time of composing). The Tribune version edited out this quotation: “‘They treat us like animals. Where do they expect us to go?’ asked Maria Reyes, a mother of three children from the Dominican Republic.”

What is Puerto Rico, anyway? A system or a sub-system, existing under the constraints of a state or a commonwealth or a nation or a colony or a business opportunity or a lost opportunity or a testing ground or a launching pad or a locus of historical longing: your answer affects how you hear any statement in which it is mentioned.

Even if listening doesn’t require that you be Nobody, conducting interviews with an elaborate set-up, even if listening requires only that you show up–as in community courtwatch, for instance–still, listening has the dynamics of auditory pointing–listen!–which entails drawing distinctions. And in the social world, drawing distinctions doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Social space appears already carved into distinctions which constitute the difficulties of hearing. Can distinctions be undrawn? I return to the thought that the only way to solve distinctions is to draw distinctions.

“… I realized that my crime wasn’t so much that I had refused to represent an innocent man, someone who had been telling me the truth, but that I had been blind to all those who were guilty, and that their stories weren’t being told, the millions of folks who have been labeled criminals and guilty that even civil rights lawyers like me, people who claim to care, and have dedicated themselves to working for racial justice, we were turning a blind eye to the millions who had been labeled guilty and weren’t allowing their stories to be told …” (Alexander, 36:4737:23)

“If you were / not yet to understand / the meaning that was conveyed / to these events of sound / it would be understandable / for it is believable / that you do not yet believe / in hearing the sound of events / as they call on you / to create the suitable language / that would let you say to yourself / that which is said to you / just once and never again / for the first and the last time / there is no second time / for a language gained is a language lost / and even to try to tell you this / seems a sheer waste of time / for it is language / and thus lost” (Herbert Brün, Futility 1964).

“So, save rue our rondeaux, pacify qualm by bazouki, what to jog? ….. Amend, coax, wake up, pique, jab Bill of Rights, viz.: ….. Know we requisite food, guzzle, love, home, mix, job, pace; ….. shaping of equalized job mix; ….. voice at work” (Unentitled, Voice Over)

The starting point for listening is an awareness of need.

Listening isn’t for understanding, it’s for transformation.

At the Red Herring, that wasn’t the end of the conversation


Alexander, Michelle. Interviewed by Dave Davies on Fresh Air program on WHYY-FM Philadelphia, transcribed by the author., 32:0737:36, accessed on January 21, 2012.

Adorno, Theodor. (1983) Negative Dialectics, E. B. Ashton, trans., The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, NY.

Brün, Herbert. (2004) “Futility 1964” p. 308, in When Music Resists Meaning, Arun Chandra, ed., Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT.

Jameson, Fredric (1988) “Cognitive Mapping” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Board of Trustees of the Univeristy of Illinois, University of Illinois Press, Champaign IL, pp 34760

Jobim, Antonio Carlos and Newton Mendonça, “Samba de Uma Nota Só,” Antonio Carlos Jobim, trans. (with revised trans. by the author), on the album Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, Verve Records, 1962.

Markson, David. (1996) Reader’s Block, Dalkey Archive, Urbana, IL

Spenser Brown, G. (1963) Laws of Form. George Allen and Unwin, Ltd.

Von Foerster, Heinz. (2003) “Preface” and “On Constructing a Reality” in Understanding Understanding, Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. pp viii, 21127