Listening as a supporting condition for art – a personal essay re-calling Stavanger from Hong Kong
at 4:04pm on 23rd March 2020
All Photos: Yang Yeung
At dawn, in an inlet of the Tolo Harbor near where I live in Hong Kong, sunlight makes its way from behind the mountains. It touches my right upper arm as an intense, orange-brownish blush, which I notice when I side-stroke my way through the waves. It is a color I encountered in Stavanger. There and here I am, to keep telling this story of encounter.
Writing in and from Hong Kong
“Each cluster of words is not created anew but cast from words that were before, recalled from archival layers. I don’t want to explain them, but rearrange them and hand them over to you before they expire.” Daniela Cascella 
One dusk in the summer of 2017, we sat at a table by the sea, joyfully anticipating a long night. It had been almost a week we were together as the small collective Sonic Commons – scholars and artists of mixed ancestries, but by nationality, from Finland, and I was the only one from Hong Kong. The six of us had been reflecting upon the idea of “commons”, listening to the contours of the city, reading, writing, and debating, as much as walking and laughing ...The last dinner was dedicated to that which we had cracked open for the future.
It might have been the day’s catch on our plates, our recent sonic memories of boats and pigeons dipping their wings in the fountains, or the fragmented tales we shared about eating fish as part of our lives, that brought out the phrase “legend for a people who eat fish”. In passing, each of the seven words felt small and humble. They were trying to name nothing and were not burdened to be the title of anything. We moved on to other things. But for me, this patch of words, became an invitation and an invocation. I have been wondering what kind of hinge it could become, what connections with people and the world it is calling my attention to, and what to make of it after returning to Hong Kong.
A well-circulated, arguably ideology-laden narrative about Hong Kong is a rags-to-riches one. From a small fishing village, so the colonial power told, we became a cosmopolitan city. As always, there are more histories and legends than power can totalize. In Driving Lantau: Whisper of an Island,  Lo Yin Shan and Anthony MacHugh dig deep into the 19th century and contemporary history of the island of Lantau, telling of pirates and armies, homegrown plants, homemade recipes, seven “auntie deities”, and our fellow endangered beings - fish, bird, buffalo. The island of Lantau is where the international airport and Disneyland are now. Or, to be precise, the Chek Lap Kok airport is on a reclaimed island, appropriating the history and legends of Lantau to make its name.
The book carries an interview Lo did with the architect of the airport Norman Foster in 1998. Twice he spoke of the “artificial sky”. “I think there is a certain quality about Hong Kong, a certain spontaneity and flexibility, and a sense of adaptation, speed and opportunity; and therefore, under this roof, this almost artificial sky, it is imaginable that there will be an eruption of variety, colour and style and so on.”  Eruption. The image of a mountain on the cover of the book pops into my mind. Forster further says, “The other spirit of the city – a space that enables change and a multiplicity to exist – we can see the imprint taking place here and now, under this artificial sky.”  Is he not referring to the same thing in different words, except for that idea of the “other”. What is it? Where is it? If it is a spirit that is “otherworldly”, can it be touched in the whirl and mundaneness of everyday life?
I made my way to the artificial sky in Hong Kong in May. In thirteen hours, I was under another artificial sky. It draped light on the wall above the luggage conveyer belt: Stavanger’s airport welcomed me like a living room. Ingold proposes that to understand the phenomenon of sound, we should “turn our attention skywards to the realm of the birds.”  I wonder what he might say to this artificial sky.
Weathered – outside
“sound flows, as wind blows, along irregular, winding paths, and the places it describes
are like eddies, formed by a circulate movement around rather than a fixed location within.” Tim Ingold 
A walk a little before or after sunrise, depending on the weather. It’s my routine for discovering a new place and for habituating the body into a new sense of space.
The expanse of sky in Stavanger’s morning is overwhelming. Some days, it seems reachable as a watery blue, as if one’s arm could simply reach up and reach through. On other days, it is a blanket of marshmallow. In Hong Kong, especially in the middle of commercial and financial districts, the sky is experienced as cut-up fragments because of the skyscrapers of varying heights.
This relation to the sky has affected my listening. One day, I was walking on the bridge next to my apartment at around seven in the evening. Facing north, I was nudged by the wind. When it became gusty, there was nothing to hear but its squeeze and slap on my leggings and windbreaker. On the way back, I pushed my way through it. All of a sudden, clouds gathered in the distance and a golden bolt of lightning struck – albeit just once, enough to inspire awe and fear. So that fear would give way to awe, I began mentally mapping a walk for listening.
I followed a sign that signaled a trail. Concrete turned into mud and grass, soaked from a recent rain shower. I followed a vaguely trodden path into the woods. The bridge and traffic were left behind. A fallen tree came into view. Its roots were exposed and caked with mud. It looked like a sundial. The carpet of undergrowth might have absorbed the tremors of its fall. Later, I found out from Stavanger-based artist Tove Kommedal that this was the site of her installation “Ballast” . The installation consisted of icicles hanging from a wooden rack, slowly cracking, melting, and dripping into the soil. Ballast in ships used to be made from soil; now, it is replaced by seeds, Tove said. Thus began a journey – thinking of how the travels of wood could be imagined as sound and in sound.
I went back up to the bridge to watch the sea. There, a lone diver was snorkeling. What colors he/ she must be seeing! The lush marine plants and corals deeper down. What gurgling he/ she must be hearing beneath that dry suit. Did he/ she go down in a splash from the diving platform, or was it a slow walk and dip? How I wish I too could make that splash. Another listening stop, a spot to share memories and imagination about fear and love of the sea, the open water.
Around this inlet of water is a piece of grassland in the shape of a horseshoe. Someone had been visionary enough to put a pair of swings there. I kept imagining the creaky sounds they make, and the thrill of feeling as if being thrown out into the sea when one swings high enough. From there, one who opted for the land could go through a short passageway that led back up to the main road. We could throw stones or shells here, like Hong Kong artist Samson Cheung did to the vehicular tunnel vacated during the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014, to experience its hollowness. I think also of Edwin Jonathan Lo’s walk in the pedestrian tunnels in Hong Kong, drawing the way sound moves in them. 
June 5 – one week into my residency. I had an appointment with Benjamin Hickethier at his shared studio, Consulatet. Walking slightly downslope from the bus-stop, I found myself caught in the feeling of déjà vu. The route, its shape and proportions, was very similar to the walk towards the industrial area of the island of Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong, where some artists’ studios are located. They were similar in that they were both along the coast and the roads were partly walled. Wind from the sea would blow persistently, quite fiercely at times. The sky was equally big and open.
I passed wired fences three feet taller than I was, behind which were trees and a factory building. In the gusts of wind, leaves rustled and the layers of barbed wire screamed. It was still early for the appointment, so I detoured into a pier. A boat was docked but couldn’t stop swaying in the crashing waves. The ropes squeaked. A flag on a pole wrestled its way out of a tangle. I recalled Mike Cooper’s island and river projects that involve recordings of sonic activities and textures around and along the sea and rivers. 
Benjamin Hickethier had been waiting. He showed me around and we began a long conversation about urban development, citizens’ rights, the policies and politics of housing, and much more. At one point, we drifted onto the topic of weather – how unpredictable the weather could be in Stavanger every day at this time of year. I don’t know if what I said sounded strange, even irresponsible, to Benjamin, “Being in a place where weather can change very quickly could make one relax. One has to accept that it affects you, but it doesn’t have to defeat you.” I didn’t ask him. In hindsight, I recall speaking with Japanese artist Shimabuku on a very hot summer day (July 28) during the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale in 2018. We were on our way with other volunteers to plant flowers in a field for his installation. We also made a stop at an installation he had already completed: a pulley system mounted on old wooden towers on both sides, which transported baskets of cucumber and rice above rice fields. ''Why here?'' I asked. ''Here, no one has time to get fat. They are always working the fields. I''m curious why people chose to live here. They are different from city people.'' ''Perhaps spiritual, perhaps to be close to nature,'' I said. ''Yes, but nature is also very harsh. Maybe, to hide...,'' he was thinking out loud. The region had the
heaviest snowfall in Japan – at a train station, words on a seven meter long pole announce that snow could cover it all the way to the top. I would like to come back to Stavanger to see her snow one day.
The journey of return was entirely different. Some twenty children, perhaps in their early teens, were cycling down the road. They giggled a little, and chatted in an ordinary voice and tone. It was calm. They demonstrated another way of inhabiting this space. inhabitation
Weathered – inside
“I want to connect with listening in the broadest sense; not only listening to sound and vibrations but understanding that we are vibrations. We’re made of it. It’s working back to a spiritual development. Sound is the leading energy in that development.”
Pauline Oliveros cited by David Toop 
Is there such a thing as a cold or warm sound?
I met Nils Henrik Asheim at the Stavanger Concert Hall. He took me on a tour of the organ. Nils was called to the organ when he was a teenager, playing at a church, and given the key to it. So he got “hooked”. He was utterly patient with my ignorance. "The pipes are organized in symmetrical sections, but in the façade they are also coming down like a waterfall," said Nils. 4,554 pipes altogether. The pipes are made of tin and lead, with copper for the support of some, and the wood in the pipes and mechanical parts is a mix of spruce, cedar, birch, and oak. The very low frequencies make me think of the depths of the ocean. The very high ones, like the flute, are like blooming flowers all over the streets of the city. “It takes hours before a concert for tuning specific parts, but two days once in a while to tune the whole thing,” said Nils.
The building: The winning design of the Opera House building from six years ago might not have met the expectations of the public for grand spectacle such as the Sydney Opera House, Nils recalled, but it turned out to be great for sound: 2.5 seconds of reverberation, and with all the rooms isolated, there could be a pop concert in one hall and a concerto in the other without interference, says Nils. The concert hall also presents a mezzanine floor where Nils once made an installation with recorded bird calls.
I asked him how challenging it is to pass on the art of the organ these days, with perhaps not too many organists around. He said there were organists, but if it was always only about the good old days three hundred years ago, playing the same composer the same way, it would be a little disappointing in terms of what we could do today.
All the while we were conversing right next to the keyboard, it felt as if the organ and the hall were eavesdropping, that our thoughts would become their grain, as a secret. This intimate experience reminded me of artist Ann Hamilton. It was a year before, on July 31, 2018, that I experienced Hamilton’s “Air for Everyone” at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field in the town of Echigo-Tanaka. It was an installation of multiple accordions, some whole but many set apart, hanging on walls and suspended from the ceiling in an old wooden house. Wind coming through the open windows and sliding doors made the house breathe. Of the many conditions of life that the artist gave expression, I was most impressed by the way air was simultaneously a bagful (at rest), drawn through bellows (as music), conveyed and connected by open windows (as wind), trailed from wall to wall (as imaginary & broken music), sculpted into a single long chime (as instrument)....all of which came together to awaken a dwelling. Modes of embodiment kept gently shifting. In the middle of the house, one could pull a string hanging from the ceiling to make a bellow swell; at the gesture of release the bellow would let out an elongated sigh. I imagined how this might come close to being inside the trunk of an ancient tree: from the outside it inspires awe, from the inside it imparts safety, warmth, and an understated marvel. When I was leaving, a silver-haired man came up with a photograph with him and Hamilton in it. The docent on-duty translated for us. I learnt from him that he was attending the house for Hamilton in the beginning, when the work was first made in 2012. He was very proud showing me the photograph.
"You pick things up from others you work with. Artists who work with space are more aware of the situation in space; art begins when one steps in; whereas for music, one waits for the music to begin," Nils, also co-founder of the cluster of artist studios of Tou Scene, described how much pleasure and inspiration he got from working with others. I asked him, “What is one thing you think is needed in Stavanger for the arts now, that''s urgent?” Nils said, "For artists to come back." Something melted as well as firmed up in my heart upon hearing that.
The Norwegian Institute of Recorded Sound was next to the music conservatory and the Stavanger Concert Hall at the shore. On that section of the road there are only trees and endless pavement. The sight of records and books on street level, the physical space where living cultural relics are felt on an everyday basis. – what contribution to public well-being!
Librarian Patricio Portell greeted me as I pushed open the door that rang a little hanging bell. We sat down, and I introduced to Patricio the question I have always had in my mind – the difference between an archive and a library, the former as records, the latter as a place where things could be picked up and returned more randomly. Patricio said the institute has also asked this question – what are we? It has settled into regarding itself as a research institute. What this means unfolded in our two-hour conversation.
He began by telling the story of how the institute came to be. It began with the founder Arne Dørumsgaard having a large personal collection of recorded music. His focus is of the performers, not the composers. Music, he says, is not like a picture. It cannot be played the same twice. One makes an interpretation according to the feelings of the moment, the taste, one’s teacher, etc. They all affect the approach. As the times change, musical tastes change, and the music has a different relation with what is around it. For instance, opera singers now are not like the divas they were in the 1930s or 40s.
For the librarian, this perspective is a big challenge because when someone comes in with the desire to find a musical work,, Portell has to ask if they know who plays it. It takes a lot of work. Of course, without a composer, there is no music, but the founder’s idea is unique. It takes a lot of knowledge to sustain it.
The Institute collects primarily classical music and Norwegian material (composers, performers, and international performers who interpreted Norwegian music). There is also some folk and popular music. The collection is primarily from Arne Dørumsgaard’s private collection as well as donations – by collectors, and also sometimes, like “my grandma has a vinyl collection”. Rarely do they have the money to seek acquisitions. Everything the Institute has is acoustic, so they are as natural as possible, meaning that the Institute does not collect digital sounds because in digital times, sounds are manipulated and a bad singer could be made good. The Institute makes digital copies of old records only, and the digitisation process has a long way to go.
Then we spoke more philosophically about the vision. Patricio showed me a small exhibition in the library of composers playing or conducting their own music. “Is the music more correct or authentic?” This is the question the exhibition aims to confront and invite others to ponder. I asked him how this is a controversial issue in music, knowing nothing much about it myself. He explains, “In music, there is no one original. You are always making interpretations. As a musician, do you play like the composer does, or put in something new? Where does this newness come from? Your taste? In music school you get some approximations, but one can’t write feelings down.” I thought the Van Gogh case could be controversial but didn’t follow further on that line of thinking. Instead, I asked him how often composers would play their own music. “Some do,” he said, “but some like to just hear.” He said Da Vinci once wrote some music, but he could not accept the fact that once it was played, it vanished, so he stopped. Another anecdote Patricio shared was that Edvard Grieg’s music was made into jazz by Duke Ellington in the 1950s. Patricio said Norway didn’t allow it to be played in public because it was regarded as vandalism. “Greig is the ‘national composer’! But now, looking back, it was a bit funny.”
I wondered what motivated him to come to Stavanger after having lived in Denmark for twenty years. “In the morning, people say good morning to me without knowing who I am. For me this is a big thing,” he said. And going to work at 8:30 am, and leaving at 3:30 pm, you have the whole evening in the sun at home or with friends. It’s good to not work too much. He also grew up with books and in the library – like me! He would not join other boys to play football but prefered to be with books. He mentioned some library that burned 300-year-old newspapers after digitization. He is very critical of that. He says people think digitization is a solution to everything, but some day, “perhaps the Earth’s magnetic field changes and we can’t read those things again! It’s possible!”
Water – outside
“Men have been attempting to measure the depths of the oceans for hundreds of years; the process of doing so, no matter the technology involved, is called sounding.” ~ Hali Felt 
What does a coastal city do to its people, or how do people respond to the coast as an everyday reality? In Hong Kong, I live near the waters in the Northeastern part of the city. On one side is a reservoir by the name of Plover Cove. On the other side is the sea, an inlet of the Tolo Harbor where I swim every day. This is the source of my naivety about sea water in Stavanger. 25 degrees celsius. Perfect for swimming. I mistook air for water.
The bright yellow diving board wrapped in thick linen rope was the draw. I walked through the grass and rocks to it. The tides crested in white foam. In the sun, they glistened, which I associated with warmth, which turned out to be terrible naivety on my part. It was pure luck that I had only my feet dipped in to try the water out. If I had jumped, I might not have made it back. It was the same numbness one gets when dipping fingers into a pail of ice. A Stavanger-based music producer later told me one must wait until July to swim at sea. At least a tiny part of my skin picked up salt from the North Sea. I spent the following hour sitting by the coastline, listening to the crashing waves and the wind, observing the sea plants floating up and down. I wondered what was in the seabed.
Every day, I returned to the small body of water next to the apartment. It trembled a little on the surface, occasionally taking in falling seeds, and trembling more. As a bigger body of water, a pond where seagulls and swans hang out, it follows what the fountain does. It’s harder to hear the water than one’s own step on the gravel around the pond.
The day after arriving at Stavanger (May 30, 2019), I went to another part of the coastline near Tou Scene and encountered Claudia Schmacke''s "phiole". A giant cylinder was filled with whirling water, which was not audible, but moved like the ocean’s twin sister. It was evocative of the tacit: the potential swirls of clouds and seas before and after instances of tranquillity. To hear water taking form in some invisible, underground, metallic hollow is to be sucked into the depth of the Earth. It leaves one in awe as to how ever-changing stretches of tidal waves could perceptually connect with a humanly-devised vortex in localised action.
Water – inside
“Air and sound are much the same: we breathe sound and listen to air. Can sound transmute into other forms, like fog or condensation?” – David Toop 
“Whistle while you work,” says an article in the SAS flight magazine. I don’t know how to whistle, but I imagine exhaling slowly under water to be like whistling: the song, being one with air, and the relaxation. At the Swim Hall (May 31, 2019) I felt at home.
As the pool floor dips from 1.9m to 4.3m, a smile formed spontaneously. Bodies of water never fail to do that to my swimming body; seawater even more. Five other bodies around me did breaststroke. I did sidestroke and all the while hearing my yoga teachers'' reminders of body alignment. Many images crossed my mind: artist Bill Viola''s video work “The Raft” and his finding paradise beneath the surface in a drowning experience when he was six years old, and the submerged marine plants I encountered near Tou Scene the other day. They hugged the shore as an aquatic carpet, cuddling the human bodies that would transit from land to sea. The stone steps there gave a sense of touch similar to the interior of the public pool.
On June 1, I went to experience Violet Dennison''s Tell Me How to Feel at Kunsthall Stavanger. It was a solo exhibition comprising thirteen works of sculptures, video, and sound installations. In one gallery sounds of a crystalline texture dance dainty steps. They are the “encrypted audio of a transcribed divination by Dainichi Lazuli” according to the exhibition notes, transmitted in and as several lines of iPhone loudspeakers mounted on the wall. A magnified Christmas-ornamental-ball-look-alike stands in the middle. It is woven with plastic and copper wires according to Ikebana principles. In another gallery, two more woven balls stand. They were in front of a wall dotted with what looked like seeds. The exhibition notes said, “copper casts of genetically modified corn seeds with radio frequency transponders arranged in response to the electromagnetic fields of the artist''s studio.” I thought, if it hadn''t been the texts, how well would the works have communicated? The physical experience, though, still conveyed contention between the habitual and innovative, the natural and the synthetic, consumption and destruction, among other conceptual formulations. One was left to confront with a here-now that compelled reflection on where we are now and where we are going in relation to ''nature'' and efficient artificial systems.
Coast to coast
“Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.” Mary Oliver 
At the bar of Tou Scene, a cluster of artists’ studio resulting from the tireless work of many, a new friend shares how she sees ‘the good’, and the three directions (at least) one could respond: “When one is where the good is, one makes every effort to sustain it. One could also open the borders to those who could come in to share it. One would then reach out to bring this good to others.” There it is, full of anticipation, blessed by intimacy of human wisdom, mysticism of the universe. Feeling freer to drift on with more to imagine. This sentiment captures the general texture of my experience in Stavanger.
It was the last few hours of the residency. I was on my way to the apartment to pick up my luggage. Suddenly, a cellist in a blue shirt and a blue cello case was walking in front of me towards the cruise ship. I wondered what he would play, who he would play with, or whether he would play at all.
In the introduction to his book on the history of lines, Ingold speaks of his personal experience of playing the cello. Those who do play tend to understand his project more. Meanwhile, he objects to the idea of soundscape in understanding sound. For instance, if I were to say I was listening to Stavanger, it would be to take the sounds of Stavanger as objects outside of my perception. Ingold argues otherwise: we are in sound just as we are in light. Sound, he says, is “not the object but the medium of our perception.” 
On the flybuss to the airport, I thought I heard voices of dissent. It would be 8pm in Hong Kong. I wondered where everyone would be in the sit-in, how they chose where to sit, what action to take, which statements to chant. I wonder how ‘Be Water’ as the slogan of the movement would redefine urban alleyways. I longed to be in them.
There is no more beginning to be had. All is beginning.
Nov 12, 2019 Hong Kong. I am not near the confrontation between police and protestors on my university’s campus. Beginning five hours ago, there has been blocking of roads, firing of tear gas and rubber bullets. I hear nothing of that in actuality, but I can imagine the blasts. I heard though a restless silence and the vibrations of anger, fear, and relentlessness. As I see broken bricks, fallen metallic road signs and fences defiantly standing in the middle of a vehicular road in my neighborhood – 5 minutes by train from campus – I wondered how long we would last, until the universe, or better the ‘multi-verse’, ‘omni-verse’ would bring us back in line. I don’t know how to feel really. I don’t know if thinking of Richard Feynman’s idea that we are a universe of atoms and an atom of the universe is helpful for surviving in the tangle, but I would like to keep this close at hand, as always.
 Daniela Cascella, F.M.R.L.: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Winchester: Zero Books, 2015:118)
 Lo Yin Shan and Anthony MacHugh, Driving Lantau: Whisper of an Island, Hong Kong: MCCM Creations, 2011.
 Ibid., p. 23
 Ibid., p. 24
 Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Oxon: Routledge, 2011: 138-9.
 More on “Balast” here: https://tovekommedal.squarespace.com/gipfel/.
 Cheung’s recording of the event is collected in the album Day After [2014.9.29 o 12.12], (2015) published by soundpocket in Hong Kong.
 More on Lo’s drawing project “synesthesia: a visual imagination of sound” here: thelibrarybysoundpocket.org.hk.
 One of them is “Island”, made during Cooper’s residency in Lamma Island of Hong Kong in 2013. More information here: https://www.thelibrarybysoundpocket.org.hk/listen/island/.
 David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds, London: Serpent’s Tail. 1995:251.
 Hali Felt, Soundings The Story of the Remarkable Woman who Mapped the Ocean Floor, New York: Picador, 2012:44.
 David Toop, Sinister Resonances: The Mediumship of the Listener, New York: Continuum, 2010:211.
 Mary Oliver, cited by Maria Popova in brainpickings.org
 Ingold, Ibid., p.138
First published by Contemporary Art Stavanger, January 2020.