My Ears Were Ready To Hear That Thing

This interview has been edited.

What is “listening” in Lakota philosophy? In recent interviews with my grandfather, Mahˇpíya Nážiƞ, and in lengthy discussions with my cousin and collaborator, Corey Stover, I have come to understand that Lakota listening practices require listening beyond the ears, listening through the spirit.1 This type of listening is not metaphorical; it is embodied, practiced, and lived. To my ears, Lakota listening practices understand the physical body as a transitive, transformative, and resonant instrument, but for frequencies not necessarily audible.2 As a composer and instrumentalist, the sensation of channeling sonic information has been a frequent experience. Anishinaabe artist Scott Benesiinaabandan’s audio installation, Animiikikaa 10-97, creates a space for listening in this way.3 The installation is comprised of three floor-to-ceiling wall panels with acoustic foam arranged in the geometry of the Thunderbird. Installed in the walls are two speakers, one at ear height for an average height, with the third wall acting as a subwoofer, “and so the whole wall becomes a resonance chamber,” Benesiinaabandan says. In the following interview, we discuss aspects of this installation.

SB All my work is like a branch from a tree that was from another piece. It begins with one generative thing, and ideas that start on one piece usually don’t end there. They skip generations, and all of a sudden they show up in other pieces down the branch. This piece, just the materiality of the piece or the process-driven part of the piece is that it came from the VR piece that I did, Blueberry Pie Under a Martian Sky. I had those narratives translated into Anishinaabemowin and then spoken, and that was supposed to be sort of radio transmissions that are coming back through the wormhole from which we descended from the spider woman, from the old Anishanaabe world to this world. 

They’re supposed to hear these little glimpses of really old Anishinaabemowin. We [Benesiinaabandan and colleagues] made new words, and thought about new landscapes, and new relationships with different things, and these little snippets of, I was thinking of a future Anishinaa-bemowin.

During that process, I got the words translated . . . I heard her [the woman whose voice is in the piece] voice and something switched in me, because I was doing all these readings about sound and voice, and the embodiment of these things just clicked within me in terms of what the language really means in terms of hearing it and echoing that back. 

I realized that the most important thing I was doing at that moment was to listen to what that voice was saying to me, even though I know language, but more on an academic level. My ears don’t recognize it in a very familiar sense. But when I listened to her, I felt like I understood what she was saying. And in a way I did, because I made the transcripts. When I listened to her the very first time, I realized the language is a lot more than say what English teaches us in terms of structure, grammatical rules, and all these things.

It just feels like it’s embracing you. It has a warmth. It has a depth, a density, and it has visuals. Your head is exploding with powerful visuals. The internal world is really awakened by the sound and the way that it’s being presented. And that’s really what I wanted, because when I first heard her voice, that’s what I felt. I didn’t need a video, and I didn’t need images to reinforce what was going on inside in the mind or the internal world.

The other part of [Animiikikaa 10-97] is that the words that she’s speaking are taken from two sources. One of them is from a collection, an Anishinaabe ethnographer, William Jones, because he spoke the language, Anishinaabemowin, he went out and collected the stories from his community. His community is around my community, around Thunder Bay in Northern Ontario.

And that book was published in 1910. The premise of the commission pieces was looking at time and transmission. Where Winnipeg Art Gallery is, I went to university across the street [1997]. I was thinking about time, and the precarity of time, and how that interplays and thinking about all these things. I thought, “Well, these languages are these time capsules, and if you can listen to those things, you are literally transported. Time is reaching out and touching you in a wormhole-ish way.”

They’re not dead things on paper. They’re living . . . They’re living parts of ontologies that are still there whether you read them or not. If you get lucky enough to read these things at a certain time, it touches you from way back, and these things are still living. I thought, “Yeah, there is this idea of how sound travels or is a portal from one time to another time.” The words that young woman is saying, when you listen, is taken from one of those stories about thunderbirds and Thunder Bay in Fort William. The other part was from my dream I had when I was at the [University of Winnipeg]. That dream and that story were interrelated because they’re both about thunderbirds and very powerful, moving moments in my life separated by decades.

There is 1910, 1997, and then I do make work in 2016, 2017 . . . they all came together, a temporal superimposition that was just as alive now than as it was. It wasn’t activating an archive. That archive or that memory is continuously alive through that sound that it makes. That was the under­pinning of what I felt when I listened to that language, for the first time. I’ve heard a lot of languages, but I wasn’t ready to hear it in a certain way. And this is the first time I heard this in this living, embodied way. My ears weren’t ready, I suppose.

SK One of the things that I’m thinking about is, not specifically wormholes, but the way our ontologies can manipulate spatial, temporal existence. One of the things I’m researching is the way that Lakota ceremonies create vortexes (which looks a lot like the light cones of Minkowski).4 They look a lot like the vortexes that a ceremony, or even erecting a teepee, or a lodge, can reflect in another dimension, or the sky world, or the spirit world.5

In the old texts, they say there are three languages in Lakota: the spirit language, the language of the shamans, and then Lakhótayapi.6 Language can be sonic, and it can make more holes through space and time to move knowledge. What do you think is being transported through your wormhole?

SB One of the things that is an issue in quantum mechanics is (Karen Barad says this, and I think she got that from Niels Bohr) is that the nature of nature is however you measure it. That really resonates with me a lot, because typically you think nature as sciences dissecting it and coming to an absolute agreement on the chemical properties of this molecule, that molecule, how those molecules build another absolute reality. But quantum mechanics kind of dispels that. I think how we measure it is—when we talk on a human scale or the human factor—how you read a story, what place you are in the world, what place you are in your lifetime, the place, the things, the stories that you’ve already heard, the landscape that you bring to the table, your ears bring to the table, is your measuring at
that moment.

You might not hear anything. Depending on where you were at, you might have bigger things than to listen carefully to a sonic event. You might be just at the right time to hear all the things. And I think that what we hear is not an absolute. What I hear when I hear that young woman’s voice was a perfect moment in time where my ears were ready to hear that thing. My body was ready to accept whatever that thing was that was happening for me. And this is where I think that there’s no separation between the art and the life. It was a sacred moment for me, but it was an art moment too. This is what I hope all moments like that should be kind of. I don’t think there’s a separation between what an art event is, or what a meaningful event is, or a sacred moment is. All these things happen.

If you’re listing at the other end of the wormhole, depending on how you are, you might see it; you might hear it; you might taste it. That’s unique to your measuring equipment at the time. Those measurements are what you’re ready to hear, what you have heard, all these things, that matrix that you said, or the vortex. You are that vortex a little bit. When we talk about UFOs, and belief, the problems and the dissonance happened when we all assume that we all are the same measuring equipment, or we all be equipped with the same measurement tools, which is ridiculous.7 We’re not equipped with the same measurement capabilities. And that’s flattened. It doesn’t mean that one has more, therefore that I can see more; I can hear more. It doesn’t matter about that. It’s just a matter of what you’re attuned to at that particular moment. 

SK Yeah, I think that’s one of the things we’ve talked about before too, is that the ontology, and epistemologies, and ceremony (and things that are sort of ceremony, sort of not) they’re all, to me, tools to be able to hear. It’s interesting being a sound artist and coming at other forms of artwork. How do you see sound art in your practice now, now that you’ve started to do work that has sound?

SB I’ve always incorporated sound, and it’s mostly in the visual work. If you look at my earlier work, it all incorporates that. I think that the biggest leap was divorcing the visual from the sound and understanding sound is its own thing. That was the biggest jump forward for me. It was always there, like unSacred, that work had the same qualities as Animiikikaa in terms of that low frequency, embodied rumble. I think that the key moment, myself, is understanding that the absolute divorcement of, or the silo-ing of our sensory capabilities, our visual, and our smell, and our taste, and our memory, and our ears, we’re all synesthetes to a certain degree.

We’ve been trained out of that to think, “Oh, your eyes tell your brain something different than your ears do. Your nose and your mouth have different things going on, and they’re all siloed.” 

SK This made me think about sonic hallucinations, being really young and daydreaming, and how very loud your brain can get, and how that is not “audio.” When you’re having an auditory hallucination, there’s no sound in the room. There’s no air being pushed in waves. This idea of listening beyond, or listening to the non­human, or words popping into your mind when you’re composing. As I’m composing, I’m experiencing the composition as I’m writing it, or I’m feeling the embodiment of that composition while I’m writing it. 

SB Questions of, “Do you hear sound in dreams? Do you smell in dreams? Do you see color in dreams?” and for me, it’s yes to all of those things. But what is the quality of sound when I’m trying to recall a sound? 

But I’m very curious about the quality of that voice, because if we were talking right now, that’s a certain kind of density of voice. But then if I listen to your recording, it’s a removal . . . It’s a removal from that. Your recording of your voice is one step removed from the presence of your voice, the immediacy of the voice. And then if I recall what you said, I can hear your voice, but that quality is really a shift, like looking away from it, but it’s still a sonic hallucination in a way. There’re all sorts of aspects of the sonic that are interesting just mental or thought experiments to
understand that. 

SK Yeah. There are multiple ways I can recall the memory of a sound. If it’s an instrument, because I’ve played instruments, I feel myself playing. I can feel my muscles trying to play the instrument when it comes to that kind of sonic stuff. If I’m thinking of an orchestra passage, I can feel the phrase. Or if I’m thinking about a family member’s voice, that’s also kind of physical. I can almost feel it in my eardrums. But if I think about someone saying something to me in a dream, I don’t know, it’s not in the ears anymore. It’s in the . . . 

SB It’s the back of your head, or . . .

SK . . . the head somewhere where it’s moved. 

SB But it’s a real place that it occurs, which is the wonderful thing, if you can locate it. I spent a lot of time since then trying to locate when I hear something. Where is it resonating inside in the brain space or whatever that is?

There’s no translation [for this installation], partly because it doesn’t need a translation, and partly because our brains, sort of like the Ganzfeld effect, when there’s not an identifiable image or shapes that our brains can latch onto it, it struggles, and it panics, and it tries to make its own. Maybe there’s a cultural hallucination that happens when you hear this beautiful voice and the language, and your brain or your ears can’t really grasp it all, but it comes up with its own comfort level there. 

SK Thanks, Scott.

1 Suzanne Kite and Mahˇpíya Nážiƞ, “It’s Not Done Through Our Mind, It’s Done Through Our Spirit,” South as a State of Mind 11, no. Fall/Winter 2019 (2019): 12–21.

2 Don Hill, “Listening to Stones-Learning in Leroy Little Bear’s Laboratory: Dialogue in the World Outside.,” Alberta Views - The Magazine for Engaged Citizens (blog), September 1, 2008, https://albertaviews.ca/listening-to-stones/.

3 Goodman, Ronald, Lakota Star Knowledge (Mission, South Dakota: Sinte
Gleska University, 1992).

4 James R. Walker, Lakota Belief and Ritual, ed. Elaine A. Jahner and Raymond J. DeMallie, Revised ed. edition (Lincoln : Denver, Colo.: Bison Books, 1991).

5 Anishinaabe are the Lakota’s geographically northern neighbors.

6 https://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/teaching/HPS_0410/chapters/spacetime/index.html

7 Scott and I have a podcast we are working on about the intersections of the Indian and the paranormal.

My Ears Were Ready To Hear That Thing