SA7: The Deep Listening Issue

This is the fifth time I've rewritten this opening; not edited, mind you, but rewritten. I began with a pseudo-historical overview of the idea of purpose in music making, then a series of questions about what music adds to a person’s life. Finally, after a series of increasingly abstract and increasingly Marxist openings about use versus surplus value, I find myself here, expressionless and lost in silence again. Somehow this inability for me to articulate what I want is fitting for this issue exploring Pauline Oliveros’ practice of Deep Listening. I admit that I entered into my research with a certain amount of skepticism, expecting to find a gap between Oliveros’ music (which I love) and a morass of self-reflection couched in meditative language. It was because of this skepticism that I wanted to find out more about Deep Listening practice and practitioners. I wanted to be able to understand it, to put the concept into words, to make it into some sort of latter day dodecaphony complete with grids and lists of rules. What I discovered is that trying to force a concept like Deep Listening into a grid, a set of rules, is as offensive as it is ridiculous. Where do you go, then, when your task is to put ideas into, hopefully objective, words? I went into the research for this issue in the same way I undertake the study of all of Sound American’s previous topics …forensically… with the hope of uncovering a correct answer or definitive “this is that” to fill the following pages. I went back to every conversation I had with musicians that had been involved with Pauline and Deep Listening. I reread her text. I did some of the meditations. What I realized is that there are a few general truths that, when taken together, start to give one a feeling of what Deep Listening is to those that practice it. Notice I used the word feeling, as opposed to definition. While Oliveros does make sure to explain concepts like focal versus global listening (see On Deep Listening), it seems more satisfying to try and find a way of articulating the feeling of Deep Listening was by finding out how other musicians, involved at varying levels in the practice, would grapple with the same problem. And so, that’s what I did. This issue of Sound American has become more about how we experience or explain our experience of an idea than how we objectively define it. My thinking had to change from researcher to explorer. Is it a place I’m comfortable with? No. Is it the right direction to go? For this topic, yes, I think so. In the following pages, you will read about (and listen to) the ways in which different musicians have experienced the concept of Deep Listening. Their experiences range from the completely initiated to those who, like me, are trying to grasp the concept for the first time. Their approaches will differ radically as they view the practice, not as a stylistic construct to build Deep Listening pieces in, but as a new way to broaden their own musical experience: a practice. There are essays by collaborators with Pauline that explain their own ideas and how they relate to the broad practice of Deep Listening. There is an interview with Pauline’s former students about how the practice has affected their decisions about programming and how to approach contemporary repertoire. You’ll find a group of young artists that used Deep Listening as a sounding board for experiments that expanded their musical world. There’s a discussion about the business of music by Al Margolis, one of the people that helps keep Deep Listening (as well as any number of other amazing experimental music ideas) in front of the listening public. And, finally, there is Pauline. While I don’t expect you to walk away from this issue with an understanding of what Oliveros’ practice and concept in an intellectual sense, I hope that exploring this issue of Sound American gives at least some sort of feeling of what Deep Listening adds up to. If you get nothing else out of the content here, please just take a moment to stop and pay attention to the sound. Read a little bit about Deep Listening in On Deep Listening, read Pauline’s words or listen to her music. See how it affects other people and use that as the inspiration to focus your attention on the sounds around you, find out how they affect you and, later, think about how you can use that kind of attention in music making, listening, and daily life. - Nate Wooley

Attempting the Basics

One way to attempt an explanation of a composer’s musical concept is to create an aesthetic “shopping list” of musical traits like instrumentation, construction, aesthetic, purpose, performance practice, etc. These traits can then be taken as kind of definitive whole that provides the reader, when taken in toto, with cumulative idea of the concept. I prefer this manner of tackling large concepts, as it provides multiple windows into the essence of the idea. There is a point, however, in this process when the objective list becomes so abstract, unwieldy, or subjective that the line between defining and interpreting blurs itself out of existence. In other words, the attempt at a definition becomes a question of whether the trait is really there, or a personal perception that is being attributed to the concept.


This is the case when trying to define the practice of Deep Listening. The Deep Listening practice was borne out of an attempt by Pauline Oliveros to create pieces that would allow her non-musician students at the University of California at San Diego to interact and get in touch with their own creativity. The result, a book of short, text based scores entitled Sonic Meditations, took John Cage’s axiom of removing the ego of the composer from the composition in a different direction by redefining the composer as an enabler of creative action in others. This work, published in 1976, was the earliest printed manifest of Pauline Oliveros’ aesthetic. In the 1980s she grouped her ideas under the name of Deep Listening and the concept has since grown to encompass a large community who engage in the practice of Deep Listening to ends far beyond mere music making.


Notice that Deep Listening is commonly referred to as a practice in this issue.  It’s important to keep the distinction between concept and practice in mind when trying to define Deep Listening. To take a simplified view of a complex subject* there are three overarching concepts that are put into practice either musically, socially, politically, or spiritually.


The primary concept is contained in the name Deep Listening. The crux of the practice is concentrating one’s attention on sound and the way it affects the listener physically, mentally, and emotionally. Oliveros makes a few distinctions when it comes to listening versus hearing and different kinds of attention when listening that are helpful to include, in her words, to help understand the practice of Deep Listening.


First, the difference between hearing and listening: In her book, “Deep Listening: A Composers’ Sound Practice”, she makes the distinction:




    “To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.”1




Within listening, there exists a different set of distinctions between global attention, focal attention, and deep listening. Again, the best definitions come from Oliveros herself:




    “Focal attention, like a lens, produces clear detail limited to the object of attention.”2




    “Global attention is diffuse and continually expanding to take in the whole of the space/time continuum of sound.”3




    “Deep Listening for me is learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound – encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible. Simultaneously one ought to be able to target a sound or sequence of sounds as a focus within the space/time continuum and to perceive the detail or trajectory of the sound or sequence of sounds. Such focus should always return to, or be within the whole of the space/time continuum (context).”4




Explaining the different aspects of listening and attention can be simplified by using visual or social metaphors. Oboist Sky Macklay from Ghost Ensemble compares this aspect of Deep Listening to visualizing a dot in a circle. The circle is all the sound around you, which you experience as a whole and take in as an inclusive environment. The dot is your focal listening, very rigorous and attentive listening that can be placed anywhere within the environment (the circle). In her interview for this issue, Pauline uses a different metaphor likening focal listening to being an attentive conversationalist, renewing your energy and focus every second to being engaged in the act of speaking with another person.


Musically, the benefits of practicing this level of attention are clear. An engagement in sound that is active and immersive is part of what can create that mysterious “sum is greater than its parts” musical performance. This idea of attention has other non-musical implications, however. Again, to simplify, try to think what would happen in a social situation if the participants gave their energy to listening to the group, replacing ego and detachment with empathy and egalitarianism? If these levels of communication become open, then what happens to mediating political ideas such as feminism, racial equality, and religious tolerance? What does listening in an attentive way teach you about yourself?


The second broad idea of Deep Listening is commonly articulated in the Eastern philosophical language that permeates Oliveros’ writing and practice: the idea of non-judgmental acceptance and egalitarianism. In the Deep Listening concept, music created from a composition or meditation is secondary to the participation of the musicians in creating it. It is not a music that supports a black or white, good or bad qualitative definition. Each piece is important for bringing people together to participate in music in which individual egos and attention is given over to a communal and creative act.


    “As the Deep Listener’s discernment moves toward this form of nonjudgmental perception, he or she gains a particular form of dispassionate objectivity. This, in turn, renders a unique kind of freedom and detachment which gives works of art their most profound meaning.” 5


This kind of thinking is radical in musical composition. Even after a sort of emancipation from the “tyranny of the composer” that came from John Cage in the 1950s, detritus of judging musical results, for better or worse, remained. The role of the composer had been diminished, but there still existed an active concept of good and bad. By confusing the roles of composer, performer, and audience member through audience or composer participation in performance and a level of compositional participation (improvisation) on the part of the performers, Deep Listening pieces become an action to be experienced and engaged in, inclusively and equally, beyond a score that is performed.


Finally, there is a concept that naturally springs from the combination of egalitarianism and attentive listening: empathy. It is not enough to listen to someone else and practice non-judgmental group action, but Deep Listening as a practice involves an element of community building, which comes out of compassion and empathy, starting with Oliveros’ decision to create work that is performable by anyone, regardless of musical ability.


The Deep Listening community, through activities such as retreats, workshops and this year’s first International Deep Listening Conference, is a way for those involved in the practice of Deep Listening to communicate their experiences. There is an emphasis on recording how engaged listening effects the individual, either through journaling or the more formal method of essay writing.


It is this final point that provides perspective into the practice of Deep Listening. Beyond a simple innovation in musical form, it is a way of being, of thinking, of interacting, and doing. There are many practitioners of Deep Listening that have little or no formal engagement in music making. The concept has transcended the musical world while still providing a transformative experience to those musicians that are involved. Throughout this issue, there are many voices at differing levels of activity in Deep Listening. The one thing that they all share, from those at a high level of practice to the novice performing Pauline Oliveros’ compositions, is that the music and idea of Deep Listening changes them somehow for the better.




1 Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composers’ Sound Practice (New York: Deep Listening Publications, 2005) p. xxii


2 Ibid. p. 13


3 Ibid. p. 13


4 Ibid. p. xxiii


5 William Osborne, “Sounding the Abyss of Otherness,” accessed December 9, 2013,