Imagine an open-mike night . . . without the mike. Imagine a record club . . . without the records. That starts to prepare you for the experience of the DC Listening Lounge, a show-and-tell, listen-and-discuss group devoted to recorded sound.
The group’s focus casts a pretty wide net, and that’s the point. If you can hear it, record it and play it for others, it’s fair game.
At one of the Listening Lounge’s monthly meetings this winter, about 25 curious listeners packed into the living room of a Columbia Heights rowhouse and heard everything from the sounds of a Mexican street corner to self-produced electronic music creations. It’s informal, informative and just a bit kooky.
First, there’s a mini-potluck — one of those rare instances when vegans have more to choose from than non-vegans — and a quick introduction/icebreaker (“What’s the most random sound you’ve heard in the past week?,” for example).
This isn’t a place where audiophiles come to geek out about the latest advances in recording technology. Here, someone breaks out his laptop to play an original ambient soundscape that soundtracks a home video, which is projected on the ceiling. There’s an interview with a zydeco band telling the story of its worst gig. Regular attendee Ellen Rolfes shares a recording of her sisters talking about the rules of childhood games they invented with each other. It’s a sort of audio postcard from the recent past.
There are no right or wrong recordings to present to the group. After each one, there’s a bit of discussion: Sometimes the sharers are looking for feedback, and sometimes it’s just a freewheeling conversation about what the recording evokes in the listeners. The commentary from the group is equal parts earnest, encouraging and enlightening. Even the recording of the sisters talking about their childhood gets serious treatment. Why was it recorded? What does it represent? There’s roughly one sharer for every two listeners, and the motivations vary.
“I think some people attend to get feedback on a project [on which] they feel like they’re at a holding point, and they want to have an audience of all different people,” says Jocelyn Frank, a longtime member who helps facilitate the meetings. “And some people attend because they think they’re going to be exposed to something they might not ordinarily hear or notice or take in about D.C.”
For Ben Pagac, the meetings make him “feel like a sound prospector,” he says. “Listening Lounge energizes me to explore and capture new sounds as well as ferret out interesting stories and then try to figure out how to share them in the most compelling way.”
Some of the most intriguing sounds at a recent meeting were more traditional field recordings. Danny Meltzer shared a portion of his recording from a street corner in Mexico City. It featured distant mariachi horns mingling with the rumble of passing cars. The trumpet sounded like a wounded animal. It was easy to visualize the pickup trucks spewing exhaust as they drove by. A recording set up in the forest captured birds chirping at each other with no humans in the vicinity. In both of these instances, closing your eyes could transport you.
The Listening Lounge purposefully stays small to keep the meetings conducive to discussion, but each year, the group presents an interactive audio installation called Sound Scene. With live music, interactive exhibitions and listening stations, it’s not the same as the monthly meetings, but it offers a window into what the group is all about. This year’s event takes place June 2 at the Goethe-Institut.
At its heart, Listening Lounge is a cozy gathering for inquisitive folks. You don’t even need a recording device to participate — just an open mind.
“This is not a lecture to attend, it’s not a scheduled thing like that,” Frank says. “It’s hanging out.”
How to try it: DC Listening Lounge meets next on April 24 at 7:30 p.m. To attend, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.