Five Questions: Michael Coleman

The director of The Art of Listening invites to rediscover music
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As it becomes easier and more convenient to experience music in high fidelity, Michael Coleman wants to inspire listeners to hear what they’ve been missing. In his feature-length documentary The Art of Listening (streaming for free at, Coleman and co-director Emmanuel Moran trace music’s journey from conception to the listener, through the perspectives of Dave Smith, Hans Zimmer, Andrew Scheps, Tycho, Steve Vai, and dozens more artists, composers, instrument makers, producers, and engineers. It’s an eloquent invitation to dig deeper, unearth new layers, and experience music’s fullest potential.

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How did this project come together?

It came out of a conversation I had with [codirector] Emmanuel Moran; we were talking about when Neil Young released the Pono player in 2014—we were trying to figure out, are people going to care more about music if they experience it in a higher resolution? If they experience it in a way that was the intent of the artist?

People really just care about convenience. I think that’s obvious; so many people listen to music in streaming formats. That’s not a very inspiring story, though; we didn’t want to tell a story of convenience, we wanted to tell a story of all the hands that touch music, and all of the artistry that goes in to music, the journey it takes to the audience.

We were just trying to figure out, what can we do to help people reconnect with the music that they already have and already love? There’s this whole conversation that we haven’t heard before, and that was the conversation of all of the people involved in making music. We wanted to show that there’s a lot of people involved in making music, besides the artist, that are so dependent on each other; it’s a community of people that are passionate about music and when they hand it off to the listener, the listener completes that circle.

The artist and everyone else, they want that feedback from the audience; they need the audience. So the intent of the artist, why they make music, is their own, but when they release that music out into the world, they are allowing for the music to take on a new form, and this was an interesting conversation that we wanted to draw out from everybody, and get all of those different perspectives.

People in the film talk about a work of art being defined by the person experiencing that art. Why is that experience enhanced by understanding not just the intent but the process, and why is it important to include technology in that narrative?

Technology has allowed for discovery, from what [Pandora founder] Tim Westergren has done, to, you see it from the perspective of Steve Vai, where it’s allowed him to become more independent in terms of how he connects with his audience, how he thinks about distribution. You see it from a manufacturer’s standpoint, the engineers who are making headphones, who are making devices that allow listeners to hear that music.

Engineers Jack Douglas and Ari Juda

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We’re also at a point where people are spending hundreds of dollars on headphones and investing in that listener experience. That’s exciting to me, to know that manufacturers are continuing to think about ways they can create experiences for their audience, and for musicians.

For music makers, tools serve their art. You present the tools themselves as works of art. What do you hope to achieve from telling the story from this perspective?

When we talk about technology we obviously see there’s an acoustic side, someone like [luthier] Jean Larrivée, who makes guitars, that’s a very obvious story; but then on the electrical side, a synthesizer is a beautiful example of a new form of an instrument that has allowed for this beautiful creative expression. Those are the kinds of contrasts we wanted to show: electric and acoustic, makers and players.

We’re finally reaching a point where consumers can easily experience high fidelity. Yet sound quality has lost out to convenience for a generation. How do you hope taking an inspirational approach will change that mindset?

We never wanted to have a very classroom, chalkboard, technical conversation. Showing how technology is misused leaves people with a very uninspiring perspective. Technology formats are going to come and go; that is not a conversation that I feel is meaningful to lead people with. Or something that’s evergreen.

We really wanted to stay away from conversations that didn’t reinforce our core message, which is helping the audience understand that these people truly care about their role in making music at every step along its journey to the listener.

The film builds to make a case for active listening, and ends with a black screen, music, and an invitation to simply listen. How did you arrive at that?

In the film, Christopher Willits, our composer, says, “I have my intent, and I create this space. But then you come into it, and it becomes your own.” We were making this film, and doing just that.

A big reason why we worked with Christopher was when we listened to his album Opening. There’s this beautiful seven-minute track, and I had this idea to put it at the end of the film with a card that was like, here’s your first chance to think about music with a new perspective.

That, to me, was exciting; to try and share with people maybe a new experience of listening to something that’s inspiring. I’m trying to make this for everybody. It’s fantastic to preach to the choir, but I want as many people as possible to have a chance to connect with this.