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Ezekiel Honig on Listening to Make Music

From his 2014 book, Bumping into a Chair While Humming

Finished reading the book Bumping into a Chair While Humming: Sounds of the Everyday, Listening, and the Potential of the Personal, a slim yet rangy 2014 collection of thoughts by the musician Ezekiel Honig. Honig is based in New York City. I bought the book from someone in Boston, only to find that a friend here in San Francisco printed the letterpress cover. It’s a small world.

It’s also a world filled with sonic potential. The way that everyday sounds can become raw material for music is the subject of Honig’s book. The title uses the experience of knocking into something physical, such as a chair, for the happy accident of being struck by sound in a way that registers with you personally. The book is written with musicians in mind, but the concepts are more broadly applicable and accessible. Four things stuck with me on an initial read:

  1. How Honig characterizes an emphasis on the value of listening: “We become so concerned with what is in front of us that we forget about what is around us.” He’s referencing “the degree to which our hearing communicates the contours of our world.” That framing of listening’s geographic, spacial, and temporal qualities is a helpful reminder.

  2. My favorite chapter is the third, “Hidden Expressions of Objects.” In it Honig uses a specific example (sampling paper related to his father, a former professor) to show how the source material that provides audio brings with it contextual information, including personal feelings, anecdotal experience, and history, which is infused into the work, even if at a level of detail that isn’t conscious on the part of the musician or self-evident on the part of the listener.

  3. “It isn’t mimicking a space. It is one.” Tools such as reverb and delay can provide a sense of space, and yet have become so ubiquitous that the space is more conceptual than physical. Honig asserts that using the echoes and other qualities of actual physical spaces, such as hallways and rooms and the outdoors, shouldn’t be neglected.

  4. “To finish is to essentially abandon a relationship that you’ve built up with the work.” There’s a whole section toward the close of the book about, naturally, the difficulty in finishing something. This is a subject I don’t think about a lot in the context of music, in large part because my own music-making is purely exploratory, with no particular intention on my part to perform or record, and because the Disquiet Junto music community is expressly focused on starting things, and on finishing them only in the context of having a deadline, not in the context of the work in any way feeling completed.

Side note: I occasionally misplaced the book while reading it because it has no print on the spine. I realized I have several books with blank spines. I rounded up a few and I’ll start keeping them in one spot on my shelf. Right now this includes, along with Honig’s book, two exhibit catalogs: Bill Beckley: An Accidental Poet (1968) and Sound: An Exhibition of Sound Sculpture, Instrument Building, and Acoustically Tuned Space.

More on the book at ezekielhonig.com. The physical edition was limited to 300 (I got number 101), but helpfully there’s an ebook version, too.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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