The Art of Listening: A Conversation with filmmakers Michael Coleman and Emmanuel Morán

We all listen to music, but how many of us fully experience it?


In the new documentary The Art of Listening, a wide range of figures in the music industry — from composer Hans Zimmer to comedian Reggie Watts and a slew of award-winning producers and engineers — explore the importance of hi-res audio. But that doesn’t just mean listening to a song on luxurious sound equipment. It’s also about the mindset a music fan gets into while listening, blocking out all outside noise and focusing solely on what they’re hearing .Prior to a private screening of the doc hosted by Sony Electronics and Consequence of Sound during South by Southwest, we chatted with directors Michael Coleman and Emmanuel Morán about the thesis of the film, how it changed their own approach to listening, and why music shouldn’t always be played while cleaning the house.

TAOL_KakiKingWould you guys say that the movie is recommending that people listen to music a certain way, or is it just exploring how the various people you interview — composers, comedians, engineers, musicians, etc. — listen to their music?

Michael Coleman (MC): We were trying to show listeners how much music has to offer as an art form. There are so many factors between the artist and the listener, and we want to show that, today, technology has gotten us to a place that that handoff is so close. You really can be close to what the artist intended when they wrote the songs and captured them in the studio. Sometimes that message can be lost in translation when people put forth what we’re calling the minimal effort — streaming it and listening to it on headphones. But there are so many other ways to reach the full potential of what the artist is trying tell you. Our jobs as listeners and fans is to seek out those experiences.

In the trailer, several of your interview subjects talk about how music just becomes background noise for so many people. Did that apply to you, too, before making the film? Do you have a hard time nowadays just putting on music while you’re cleaning?

MC: It can be something in the background, but I think, for us, once you understand all the care and attention artists have for music, you don’t want to ignore it. You want to unravel it, and you want to try and understand what you’re hearing and how that informs your own experience.

Emmanuel Morán (EM): Of course, if I’m cleaning the windows, I’ll still put on music in the background. But I also find there are moments where I turn it off because I just like the silence. Then, the next time I listen to it and sit down, I’m really going to feel something different — I’m going to hear. Put it in the background, and that’s okay. But that’s not the end-all, you know? You listen on the subway, and that’s okay, but that’s not the whole experience. That’s the point right there: Sometimes it’s just a matter of stopping. Now, I’m a big fan of digital and discovering new artists, but it’s a beautiful thing to discover new artists and then give yourself time to listen to what they made.

TAOL_ChristopherWillits2Can you each think of a moment since you turned to this new approach of listening to music — where you sat down and really listened to a song or record — and noticed something you had never noticed before? It could be a lyric, sonic quality, instrument, or something else that blew your mind.

EM: I’ve always listened to jazz, but never got too deep into it. Then, at the start of making this, I started getting more curious about it. One of the artists I started getting into was Miles Davis. Obviously, right? But when I started listening to these records, I started to hear mistakes. Well, not mistakes, but these very human breaths. Bitches Brew tripped me out because I started feeling this sense of time travel. Jazz now has become this thing that I try to not listen to unless I can sit down. A lot of jazz albums are horn-driven, and you can hear their breath. Some of them are so intimate, like you are right next to the artist, like you are in that room with them. 

MC: Even the material we were hearing working with our composer, Christopher Willits, has so many layers. Only when we got to the post-production stage and he delivered all these tracks did we start listening to the individual pieces. You start to understand that there’s this complex maze of emotion that he’s putting together. It was revealing, but also so mysterious. It just showed me that there’s only so much that you can really understand. It’s important to not know everything. It’s better to kind of be left in the dark. You expect one thing, and then as an artist and as a listener you get something else. It takes you on a crazy journey.

EM: Just as a quick aside, I want to give some love to Mike Milosh of Rhye. Michael and I discovered him together while making this. Every listening experience got better. Every time we listened to his voice, we got goosebumps. And I think that’s a beautiful thing to share. That’s the dream: You and I just share that experience. That’s the point and the beauty of music.

The Art of Listening Official Trailer: