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Transformation is the Goal: 
Deep Listening in Audio Documentary

This essay was commissioned by Sound Fields for their first edition in February 2024. Ariana Martinez edited it. Read it on Sound Fields, or below.

I hear water falling—a steady 70-90 bpm from the gutter to my left. All in front of me and all around, there are occasional little drops. Water describes the surfaces it touches as it touches them: reflective or absorbent, near or far. I’m practicing global listening, trying to hear all sounds at once through diffuse attention. Sounds move around me like weather systems pushing and pulling on my body. It’s focal listening that grounds me, the complement to global listening. I hone in on the infinite pinpricks of rain that articulate the space around me. 

I’m practicing a deep listening exercise from Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening handbook. In 1999, Pauline described deep listening as a practice that explores “the relationships among any and all sounds whether natural or technological, intended or unintended, real, remembered or imaginary. Thought is included.” Deep listening is often practiced in the context of acoustic ecology, the study of sounds in relationship to life and society (1). 

Acoustic ecology visionaries like Pauline Oliveros and Annea Lockwood both share listening practices that are rooted in their experiences of reality. Because of that, I also think of them as documentary audio ancestors. My work lives between the disciplines of acoustic ecology and documentary audio. I ground my documentary audio work in acoustic ecology’s lineage and practice, as my work shares a common goal with that lineage: transformation. I have experienced transformation through deep listening, and that is the experience I want to offer my documentary listeners. 

Transformation can happen when people are directed and changed through listening. Transformation could be emotional or social growth that comes from reassessing a scenario or dynamic. It doesn’t have to be growth, though. Transformation through deep listening can happen when listeners recognize themselves as part of the sonic field. Here’s how Pauline describes it:

“The field of sound can be felt as potential force. There is active participation by the listener and co-creation of this form between the listener and sounds. The field assumes meaning (potential force) and is transformed by the listener. The listener is also transformed by the field.” (2)

This kind of transformation can also happen when audiences hear how they are implicated in a story, culturally, socially or emotionally. Understanding that complicity is a kind of co-creation. As a practice, deep listening encourages listening without the illusion of separation from sound sources. Abandoning the illusion of separation from sound sources which may include other people and my own thoughts helps me create audio works that offer that transformation.

Often, deep listening practice intends to connect one or many listeners with their spatial environment; but, the practice is not limited to environmental meditations. Deep listening also translates to headphone listening, a mode through which many people experience audio documentaries. Pauline specifically references headphone listening in her Deep Listening handbook, where she says it tends “to focus attention on sounds that ordinarily are not in your awareness.” I can’t think of a better description of the goal of audio documentary than this: to focus listeners’ attention specifically on sounds that they had not thought to listen for. Sounds of people they will never meet, and soundscapes they will never visit; sounds of joy and suffering that they themselves could never encounter, except through this necessary mediation. The call I feel to make audio documentary is to present these sounds with the diligence that deep listening practice offers: listening to silences that come before and after sounds; listening to how stories people tell connect to their specific space and time; imagining how my presence impacts the soundscape I report on as a whole.  


It can feel daunting to listen to all of the space-time continuum, including my own presence in it, during an interview or while collecting scene tape. It helps to have a more precise directive. Legendary acoustic ecologist Annea Lockwood offers some guidance. This is from her poem/score “Listening With,” published as part of “A little guidebook for home listening” (2020)


“Listening with an awareness that all around you are other life-forms simultaneously listening and sensing with you – plant roots, owls, centipedes, cicadas – mutually intertwined within the web of vibrations which animate and surround our planet.”

My read of Annea’s prompt is a directive for me to participate in the soundscape I’m documenting with compassion (3). To me, this means relating to the environment in a way that supports gifting, sharing and exchange of information. In my own work making audio documentaries, this looks like immersing myself in communities affected by environmental injustice. 

For example, while producing Wading Between Two Titans (WBTT) in 2022, it was important for me to develop trust-based relationships with people I interviewed. For this audio documentary about sea-level rise, housing and race, I traveled to Norfolk, VA from Charlottesville just to have lunch with people for the opportunity to listen deeply to their stories. Listening deeply meant listening both externally to the story being told to me, as well as internally. Internal listening is a critical part of Pauline’s deep listening. For WBTT, I listened for how my experiences, biases and psychology filtered my perception of the information shared with me. 

I also listened for the impact that my presence had on my protagonists’ lives. I was an outsider, asking them questions about problems that were not central to their daily lives. How did this affect their perception of those problems? Who did they know me to be, and how did that affect their answers? In journalistic and documentary practice, there are competing ideas about appropriate boundaries to maintain in relationship with sources. I chose to approach my protagonists as people whose lives I was affecting with my reporting. My goal was to participate in this soundscape in a life-affirming way for my protagonists, by listening deeply. 

Producing WBTT, I also listened with my protagonists to greater social and environmental narratives imparted systemically. These greater narratives, constructed through layers of intergenerational experience, state intervention and/or neglect, media stories and more, create rhythms of silence and sound that become part of a social soundscape. They affect how people tell their own stories, or their ability to do so. For this work about sea-level rise, I listened to people’s silences around things they were afraid of knowing or not knowing – things like, would their home still be there in 20, 30, 50 years as sea levels rise? Those silences are impacted by systemic sound and silence that deep listening, and listening with, can detect. 

Both acoustic ecologists and audio documentarians make people listen. Listening isn’t the same as hearing. Hearing is a physical process. Listening involves past experiences and associations, and requires categorization and interpretation (4). In order to make a documentary worth listening to, I have to listen throughout the process. That means making myself available to receive what might be gifted or shared with me by my protagonists and environments. Deep listening has taught me how to attune to these gifts, how to perceive my own filters and associations, and the value of silence. In turn, my hope is that making work through my deep listening practice inspires a deeper listening practice in my audience.






  1. R Murray Schafer defines acoustic ecology in his seminal 1977 book “The Tuning of the World.” (Knopf)

  2. Oliveros, Pauline. Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (to Practice Practice), 2022. (p. 15)

  3. “Compassionate participation,” as opposed to a position that might be regarded as outside the represented soundscape. When it comes to this kind of “outsideness,” I draw reference from Hal Foster’s 1996 essay, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” in which Foster responds to Walter Benjamin’s 1929 essay “The Author as Producer.” Both Foster and Benjamin root their critique in a value that aims to stop alienation: “reductive, idealistic or otherwise misbegotten representation” (Foster 174). The problem, Foster says, is that kind of alienation leads to a projected alterity, where we see the subject being represented as fundamentally other to ourselves – and therefore, the site of cultural or artistic transformation as over there, across an ideologically un-bridgeable distance, in the realm of the othered subject. 

  4. Pauline makes an important distinction between hearing and listening in her handbook. “To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.”

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