The Art of Listening focuses on the care that goes into making a record, as explained by a variety of figures in the music industry. Everyone from Reggie Watts to Hans Zimmer and assorted engineers, producers, bands, and guitar makers pop up in the documentary to discuss their differing approaches to the art form. This drives home the point that music is mutative — each album a work of art that demands to be listened to with the same amount of care that the artist put into it. And thanks to the continuous evolution of hi-res audio equipment, this kind of patient, attentive, immersive listening is more possible than ever. But the experience also relies on the listener’s attitude. They have to be willing to sit down with a record and pay attention to it, to open their minds to all of the sonic details put forth by the musician and the production team.
So how does one convince an audience to do this? At Sony Electronics’ private screening of the film — held Wednesday night at Austin’s chic Hotel Van Zandt — the filmmakers relied as much on visual installations and live music as the movie itself. Beforehand, attendees gathered around circular tables housing listening stations and anchored by glossy acoustic guitars.
Then, following the premiere, musician Christopher Willits performed a set of cavernous yet alluring ambient music. Willits also composed the dreamlike compositions heard in the film, further reinforcing the nuance available to fans when they — pun very much intended — stop and hear the music.
As much as the live event was an immersive experience, the film — directed by Michael Coleman and Emmanuel Morán — also embraces the aesthetic of audiovisual decadence. In several sequences, the filmmakers magnify sound equipment to the point that the simple act of listening to a record becomes akin to space travel. When spinning in slow-motion and backed by Willits’ music, the grooves of an LP are a hypnotic lunar landscape. Elsewhere, a speaker is a black hole, emitting enhanced vibrations that alter the listener’s consciousness. A needle is a probe, a guitar jack a spacecraft docking into the port of the amplifier. These metaphors come easy when watching The Art of Listening in a hotel ballroom with high-end speakers and projection. But as Coleman, Morán, and everyone they talk to point out (however indirectly), music fans can create these worlds in their own homes, too.