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. These are essays by collaborators with Pauline that explain their own ideas and how they relate to the broad practice of Deep Listening. 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

Plants and Deep Listening

Miya Masaoka

I immediately felt at home with certain tenets of what I perceived as Deep Listening practice and philosophy in that the underlying assumptions resonated with training that I had received from various Japanese music masters, both on the Japanese koto and in gagaku, or Japanese orchestral court music. During koto lessons, I was told to "become the fourteenth bridge," (there are thirteen bridges on the koto, and the player sits in the location where the imagined fourteenth bridge would be located). Similarly, in gagaku training, I was instructed to "become the drum" when playing the kakko, a drum in the gagaku ensemble. In this respect, the musicians were encouraged to not have a separate identity from the instrument, but instructed to become something of a transmission vessel, a conduit for the music, from an energy force outside ourselves and through the musical instrument. It was also assumed that the actual instruments have a soul, and were themselves sacred. This concept of minimizing the individual personality of the musician aided in an integration of the player into the entirety of the sound environment that was being created by all the musicians in the ensemble. In addition, rhythm in gagaku has a long arc, and build up of this arc can span forty-five minutes or longer, in which the very slow pacing of the sound events of the orchestra gradually increase to a faster pace and rhythm. This extended sustain resembled Pauline Oliveros' continuous and at times slow-moving accordion playing, which to my ears sounded hauntingly similar to a sho, a reed instrument in the gagaku ensemble.


It was only much later, after more exposure to Deep Listening, that these overlapping concepts came more clearly into focus. Performing with Pauline Oliveros for the first time at Bard College, and later spending several days with her in the recording studio and performing with the poet IONE in the Oracle Bones Trio, I became closer to understanding this multi-faceted practice and philosophy, or praxis, of Deep Listening.


I had first come to know of Pauline Oliveros from playing her compositions in an ensemble while a student at Mills College. (Pauline did not hold the Darius Milhaud chair at that time, 1992-94, and unfortunately she was not there while I was a student.) During this time, I had written her a letter, asking particular questions about a composition she had written, and was happily stunned that she had found the time to write back. That such a renowned composer and pioneer would make herself so accessible to someone who was not her student was quite a revelation. Later, I published an interview with her, and in the following years I also came to contemplate some aspects about Pieces for Plants (a ten-year body of work of mine) that had some relevancy with the Deep Listening operatives. From the mid-1990s I have had the privilege of knowing Pauline Oliveros as an amazing thinker, pioneering artist and humanitarian.

Plants + Deep Listening


In oddly similar and dissimilar ways, house plants and Deep Listening seemed to be harvesting the potential of something so basic, mundane and ordinary, yet also so fundamental to our way of existing in the world, that it can be easily overlooked or discounted or mistaken for nothing at all. Yet, this intangible connection was something I was compelled to further investigate.


On sunday mornings in New York City, I often ride my bike to the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple on Riverside Drive, which is a few minutes away from my home. The service typically begins with thirty minutes of slow, long-tone chanting which is realized by everyone reading a simple graphic notation for non-musicians with lots of lines and steps, and half-step intervallic medieval-sounding modes. This group chanting activity relaxes the body and the mind, and puts us in a frame of mind for listening to the sermon, which is usually about some obscure obervation about life, naturally from a Buddhist perspective. In Deep Listening, the long tones that are sung (or "sounded" using Deep Listening parlance) during certain exercises and pieces produce a similar relaxing state, but here there is a critical departure. In Deep Listening, the participants are free to choose their own pitches, vary the pitch, and, while listening to the environment, continually change pitches, or even choose to be silent. There is a sense of profound integration with the environs, and a non-hierarchical approach to perception of sounds in the space. The participants become free and creative agents. Magic is afoot.




But What Exactly is Deep Listening?


The entity and praxis of Deep Listening is not easily categorized, and involves a spectrum of narratives over a span of decades. For the purposes of this essay and in an effort to avoid redundancy I will try and focus on some areas that have not yet been written about, beginning with two subtly changing definitions of Deep Listening found on the Deep Listening website about six years apart.


    What is Deep Listening?


    Deep Listening is a philosophy and practice developed by Pauline Oliveros that distinguishes the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary selective nature of listening. The result of the practice cultivates appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, expanding the potential for connection and interaction with one's environment, technology and performance with others in music and related arts. The practice of Deep Listening provides a framework for artistic collaboration and musical improvisation and gives composers, performers, artists of other disciplines, and audiences new tools to explore and interact with environment and instrumental sounds. [1]



In an earlier 2004 definition posted on the site, Deep Listening is described in the following way:


    Deep Listening involves going below the surface of what is heard and also expanding to the whole field of sound whatever one's usual focus might be. Such forms of listening are essential to the process of unlocking layer after layer of imagination, meaning and memory down to the cellular level of human experience. [2]


And again in 2010,


    Deep Listening includes all sounds expanding the boundaries of perception. In this concept is language and the nature of its sound as well as natural sound and technological sound. And too, Deep Listening includes the environmental and atmospheric context of sound. [3]


All told, the description of the environment and its unbiased mingling of natural and technological sounds, and the stated intent of Deep Listening to mentally refocus aural attention and shine attention upon what is usually not given the aural spotlight, is the crux or vortex for this discussion. (The human ear can listen like a laser beam focused on a particular target, even through a din of unwanted noise, such as a noisy cocktail party. This particular ability of the human ear to choose to listen to selective sounds is very complex, and the mechanics are not fully understood. this phenomena continues to be an ongoing standing conundrum for artificial intelligence, as computers are very poor at this task). The lightning-speed decisions for the listener/improvisor, determining what to listen to and not listen to, and selecting what to respond to and not respond to are tantamount to improvisation, and to the execution of the works of Pauline Oliveros. When engaging with Pauline Oliveros as a fellow improvisor, or performing pieces from her immense body of work, these processes, which function in both an intellectual and emotional way, are accessed in the conscious and unconscious realm of our creative selves as musicians and improvisors. Her enormously influential works, such as Sonic Meditions, [4] with specific and lengthy instructions, isolate, refine and advance some of these processes, which include memory, choice and imagination. I have found, as an educator, that when students perform Sonic Meditations, it is not merely the execution of a composition, but also a powerful means to change how students listen, think and respond to sound and each other in an environment. Oliveros' specific instructions on listening succeed in focusing attention on various procedures of our senses, choosing what to listen to, when to listen, and what to do accordingly. In Deep Listening, the conscious act of shifting one's patterns of attention to different sounds in an environment is tantamount to an ability to discern what is happening in the sonic space, and how to respond to that particular sound is the next point of consideration. These observations about the connections among Oliveros' music and the innumerable unconscious decisions we are continually making ever moment dovetail with the mostly unnoticed biological response of our houseplants to humans.

Pieces for Plants


Enter Pieces for Plants, [5] a body of work I created over a ten-year period which, in part, draws ideas form the fields of ecology, biology and evoluation, otherwise known as evolutionary ecology.


Consider the lowly houseplants. They do not make unwanted deposits on the rug such as a cat or dog. Nor can they get you evicted for loud barking sounds. Houseplants are seemingly very good at doing what they do - sitting still, adapting to their environment. they are somewhat passive (not asking you to clean your dishes in the sink), yet elegantly active, in a slow, time-based kind of way. These seemingly mundane, ordinary, mute, prosaic creatures are capable of some of hte most complex tasks required for human existence, such as photosynthesis. [6]


    "[Plants] are more sophisticated in sensing than animals. Just to give you an example, every simple type of root is able to detect, monitor and compute continuously at least fifteen different chemical and physical parameters...This underestimation of plants is always with us." [7]


Similarly, the act of human listening and its complex associate tasks are sorely underestimated.


These physiological, psycho-acoustical processes of listening and responding occur, according to Oliveros' definition of Deep Listening, "on a cellular level," and become, in a broader sense, the actual conceptual material of a music composition, which can be manipulated, expanded upon, molded and captured to create and re-create music/sound experiences. Similarly, in Pieces for Plants, patterns of attention are fluid and can be traced with various software which tracks the electrical data activity. The "player" of the plant can choose to move towards one plant, then another, and activate the plant with their movements and focus of attention on particular interactivity with the plants. A somewhat familiar yet alien interactivity is achieved, as if talking to an old friend or relative you have known for a long time, but never conversed with. In early versions of Pieces for Plants, musical scores were created with the visual graphic raw data created by the plants. Other versions were created by superimposing the data waves onto the grand staff of music notation. [8] In my studio, with the electrodes on my plants, I became aware of patterns of plant activity with individual interactions with the plant, and the larger arcs of patterns over a period of days and weeks. New directions of mental and aural attention became possible with this ability to ascertain the response of my houseplants.


To achieve this, I attached electrodes to the leaves of the semi-tropical houseplant Philodendron (the plants' leaves are not injured during this process). People are instructed to walk toward or away from the plant, and the plant responds fluidly to the activator/listener. Plant activity is mapped to sound parameters by way of an interface and computer through a mono-channel loudspeaker. EEG, or Electroencephalogram, electrodes are attached to the leaves of the Philodendron, and the electrical response in micro-volts (one-millionth of a volt) is then sent to FFT (Fast Fourier Transform). IBVA, or Interactive Brain Visualization Analysis software, is a product developed by friend and colleague Masahiro Kohata. The electrical response from the plant, as read by the EEG sensor, is read in micro-volts. Then, in Max/MSP software, the data is scaled and mapped to various sound paramenters. This system can analyze data in real time, and express the ongoing raw data of the changing states of the plant response and activity through the day. (I have also used similar systems for sonifying data from brain activity, and have extracted data from my own brain volunteers in the audience for my piece What is the Sound of Naked Asian Men.) Real-time, raw and ongoing-activity data is then analyzed and sent continuous incremental changes that take place within the organism, the split-leaf Philodendron. Notwithstanding the fascinating yet scientifically unconventional Cleve Backster's work with plants, chronicled in Primary Perception [9], plant research carries on. [10] Some fifty years after Backster's experiments, Stefano Mancuso, founder of neurobiology, states in his TED lecture, "It's much more easy to work with plants than with animals. They have computing power, they have electrical signals, the connection with the machine is much more easy, much more even ethically possible." [11]

Now, if I may back up a bit in this discussion. The passerby (or one who passes by the plant), whether at an outdoor installation or gallery space, might possibly be more socially open than an average person, as they are in a public space and interested in new encounters with contemporary visual sculpture, art, or sounds. In an installation setting, passersby approach the plant, and sometimes unknowingly engage the response of the Philodendron as they walk by. They may turn around and do a double take, and repeat their action with an intent to try to produce the same sound with their movement. but then, the sound will be different since most likely they are standing in a new location. Then they move, and begin to get a sense of what kinds of movements on their part produce what kind of reaction in the plant. but herein lies the rupture, where a change occurs in the internal state of the passerby. An innocent passerby becomes confronted with sound interpreted by a computer from a plant responding to them and they are gently forced to rethink their sense of how they view the world, their state of being and thus their environment through a completely altered lens. Of course, they can choose to ignore this interruption, this affront, but they will at least have been given the  opportunity to engage with the plant.


A few things are required for certain engagements with these two musical endeavors of Deep Listening and Pieces for Plants. Availing oneself to engage with some kind of communication or interaction with a houseplant, and availing oneself to enter a trancelike state (which may or may not occur with Deep Listening) are activities that require us to relinquish the rational, detached, objectified self. The surrender of our rational selves, of the plausible, of our ineritance of the Enlightenment is not easily effectuated. As participants, we are being asked to rethink the discreet categories of plant, animal and humans as delineated by Aristotle. our deeply rooted assumptions about the world, about ourselves, once so simple - plant, animal, mineral - have, like the tectonic plates of the earth, been shifted.


From the ordinary, the perfunctory, from the routine acts of breathing, listening and hence responding to the environment, from the discreet act of walking toward a plant, and paying attention, or not, from choosing to make a sound with others, or not, emerges something potentially extraordinary. What is that? Listen! Or not!


1 Deep Listening, "About," accessed August 25, 2011,


2 Judith Becker, Deep Listeners, Music, Emotion and Trancing (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 2.


3 Pauline Oliveros, Sounding the Margins, ed. Lawton Hall (Kingston, NY: Deep Listening Publications, 2010), 78.


4 Pauline Oliveros, Sonic Meditations (Baltimore: Smith Publications, 1974)


5 For video of Pieces for Plants, see the video media files at


6 Photosynthesis: synthesis of chemical compounds with the aid of radiant energy and especially light; especially: formation of carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and a source of hydrogen (as water) in the chlorophyll-containing tissues of plants exposed to light, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed August 30, 2011,


7 "Stefano Mancuso: The roots of plant intelligence," accessed january 22, 2012,


8 Alex Waterman, Debra Singer and Matthew Lyons, eds., Between Thought & Sound, Graphic Notation in Contemporary Music (New York: The Kitchen, 2007), 54-55.


9 Cleve Backster, Primary Perception: Biocommunication with Plants, Living Foods, and Human Cells (Anza, CA: White Rose Millenium Press, 2003), 54.


10 These plants on the treetop canopy are able to move significant distances in search of hte optimal nutrients and sunlight. Plants can cut off the food supply to the old roots, which then dry up and die, and the plant moves on the canopy of the treetops to a new area, and sends out new roots in the new location, and stays there until it decides to move again. Mark W. Moffett, The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 97.


11 "Stefano Mancuso: The roots of plant intelligence."

Three Ways Toward Deep Listening in the Natural World

David Rothenberg

According to Pauline Oliveros, “deep listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible.  This means one hears all sounds, no matter what one is doing. Such intense listening includes hearing the sounds of daily life, of nature, and of one’s own thoughts, as well as musical sounds." [1]


I have spent many years trying to listen to the world of animal sounds, making music together with as many other creatures as I can interact with who play and sing. Without Pauline Oliveros's plea for discipline in the task of better listening I'm not sure I ever would have gotten into this. I started with birds, then moved on to more remote and more alien musics: next whales, then bugs.


I wanted to hear music in nature and people told me, "oh sure, birds are always singing" and I would say, "yes, birds, everyone's done birds, forget about them," but then I realized everyone thinks that birds have been listened to, celebrated, sung about, and imitated while we haven't really listened to them all that clearly. Birders listen to a bird only as long as it takes to learn what bird it is, then knowing what they've heard, chalk it up on a list and move on to the next one.


But naming doesn't do so much for real hearing. Listening, I started to realize, is forgetting the name of the thing one hears. One must inhabit the full extent of a sound without being satisfied with any explanation of it. That is why I begin many a concert by playing along with a slowed-down phrase from a hermit thrush or nightingale, the offerings of these master avian singers are full of order, possibility, and space, the hallmark qualities of any of the best human musical phrases. If I am surprised and provoked by what I hear I will be inspired to join in. The birds get my own musical phrases going.


Even better to do this in the wild, jamming with shamas, mockingbirds, humpbacks, belugas, crickets, cicadas, all more-than-human musicians with unique repertories and an interest in all the sounds around them. The best creatures to improvise with live may be those who also practice a form of deep listening, being hip to the sounds in their lifeworlds, even the human ones, enough so that it sometimes sounds like they might even be interested in us. Here are three stories from these adventures to consider.

The Warbler



Without such a practice of deep listening, so many of nature's potentially available sounds will be missed. I am reminded of one of the world's most remarkable singing birds, the European marsh warbler, Acrocephalus palustris. This bird does one remarkable thing that no other songbird has achieved. Although many birds migrate from Europe southwards to spend their winters in Africa, only the marsh warbler learns a wide number of African bird songs during its winter vacation, and then flies back north every spring to sing these equatorial melodies one after another, at extremely high speed, like a birdsong identification tape played in fast-forward. It's an audio slide show of the joys of migration.


Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire first figured this out in the 1970s as a teenager. She was listening to a recording of an early morning male marsh warbler song and she started to pick out fragments of African bird songs that she recognized from a record of tropical bird songs that she had also heard. The similarities were unmistakable. She mentioned this discovery to some ornithologists who just scoffed at her, saying "impossible! No birds do anything like that, copying what they hear on migration. It's just coincidence." [2]


But Lemaire would not be deterred. She went to college, then graduate school, working on the song of the European marsh warbler. In several of the best academic papers ever written in musical ornithology,[3] she meticulously documented the ability of this northern European wetland bird's ability to make use of African bird songs thousands of miles from where it hears them. Woven into the marsh warbler's extremely complex song she heard black-eyed bulbul notes, bleating bush warbler calls, along with such colorfully named singers as the blue-cheeked bee-eater and the fork-tailed drongo. The more common and noisy the birds in the warbler habitat, the more likely they are to be imitated. The marsh warbler turns out to have no original song syllables at all. It builds its whole repertoire out of others' material! The originality lies in the expert mimicry and virtuosic recombination of all the sounds in its vocal range. It even imitates birds it could only hear while en route to its winter grounds: passing through Tunisia it picks up tunes from Boran cisticola and the vinaceous dove.


And though it is, as in most but not all bird species, only the males who sing this global song, biology assumes its main purpose is to dazzle the females with an extreme form of virtuosity. But this is not what Lemaire noticed. The females seem rather uninterested in its awesome complexity. Says Lemaire: "The larger the territory, the more potential nest-sites it contains, and the more likely the first female who comes in will stay. Besides, as the song is so complicated and it takes over thirty minutes of continuous singing to get the full repertoire, females would need to sit and listen for ages to evaluate a male's musical skill. Of course they do no such thing." [4]


As soon as a female appears, the male stops his singing. Concert over. He then devotes himself to helping her find the best nest site, giving only brief snatches of song along the way. "She may never get to hear what her mate is capable of." [5]


Females, Dowsett-Lemaire notes, occasionally sing the same kinds of songs as the males, but for no more than a minute at a time. She believes they have the same sound knowledge as their mates but have less need to use it. A similar pattern is found throughout the sexist world of bird songs. Females can sing if driven to do so, but most of the time they have too much else on their minds and not enough of the right hormones to pull them on towards music and away from practical life.


And on clear sunny days, Lemaire often observed ten to twenty males singing together in low bushes or fruit trees. She doesn't believe these group choruses are song bouts or challenges, but rather a kind of social play. Male marsh warblers "enjoy singing and must realize in some way that music is fun. There is no doubt about that." [6]  No doubt, that is, until one tries to make that kind of statement in the context of science. Science has no idea what to do with the song of the marsh warbler - it is so out of line and away from the dominant paradigm of why birds sing. Best to just pretend we know nothing about this amazing song. Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire had discovered the one bird in the world who can recount its migratory path as a kind of songline, where the journey is mapped into the music itself. No one else has dared criticize her work, or even attempt to verify or disprove it, since what it suggests is so remarkable. Only deep listening got Lemaire these results.


The Whale


And the same might be said about the song of the humpback whale, one of the most incredible animal sounds on the planet, even more remarkable that no humans seemed to know anything about it until the 1960s. The standard story is that we were unable to hear the songs of these whales until underwater microphones had been invented which makes the subaquatic sounds perceptible to our ears, but that really isn't true. Just swim a few feet down below the surface and anyone can hear them, faintly, but clearly, when there are enough whales in the water during any of the tropical mating localities, like Tonga, Hawaii, or the Silber Bank north of the Dominican Republic. The song is there, distant but clear. And yet no one heard a thing. Not until the Navy released their previously classified recording to the world as Song of the Humpback Whale in 1970, which became a surprise bestseller, the most popular nature recording of all time. [7]


But even without technology, we can hear these whales. Why did no one do it? It is as if no one thought to listen underwater, in the deep itself. We assumed, like Melville in Moby Dick, that this was the ultimate silent abyss, where sound is swallowed up. Actually sound travels five times faster in water than through air. But before technology taught us that, no one thought to open our ears while diving or swmming. You have to want to hear before the full range of sound will reach you.


With its extended, clear structure, humpback whale song is more clearly musical than the songs of most birds. And with the uncertainty about who the males are singing for, the song of the humpback whale is full of mysteries impenetrable to humanity. But for our species, a mystery means a challenge. As a musician, I wanted to hear for myself. Having spent several years playing my clarinet to birds, sometimes getting a response, sometimes not, I was eager to try this interspecies jamming with humpback whales. To my surprise, I got a very different result than whale scientists did. So different, that when I played my recording of a humpback whale/clarinet duet to several leading humpback scientists, they did not believe the encounter was real. But I assured them it really happened. What surprised my audiences most, is that nearly everyone considered the sound they heard to be music: a music made between human clarinetist and humpback whale.


Making music with whales is not easy, since humans are above water, the whales down deep.  It requires even more technology, an underwater speaker as well, to get my clarinet sound down into the world of whales.  Here’s how it’s done:


The chain of technology enables the clarinetist to talk to the whale, or, more accurately, use music to cross species lines. Why do I think this is even worth trying? Because music can communicate across cultures in a way language cannot.


Can I do the same with a whale whose name I'll never know? Humpback males usually suspend themselves motionless underwater in a curved posture, singing continuously in a solo trance. I am essentially interrupting a reverie whose purpose we do not know. In the musical moment I do not care about the purpose, but instead wish to understand the result. Can I prove the whale is responding to me in this single best duet, the most exciting several minutes of the many hours I tried to record? Many things can go wrong in such an experiment: the whale might stop singing and move away, a loud motorboat might come near and mess up the sound quality. Scientists might call my duet stasticially insignificant, because it represents the one best case scenario rather than the probable result of broadcasting a clarinet underwater next to a singing humpback whale male. But even a single interesting improvised performance is worthy of musical analysis. I want to figure out why I like it, why even the skeptics I have played this to have responded to this sudden music.


The clarinet sounds are often high, held-out notes, more constant in pitch and thus closer to straight horizontal lines on the sonogram printout. There are usually at least a few parallel lines of overtones, more than usual for the instrument because the clarinet is being broadcast underwater, and the properties of underwater sound propagation seems to add overtones to the timbre, making the clarinet more bell-like, closer to a soprano saxophone (which, because of its conical bore, produces more overtones). Yet after some minutes, my clarinet starts to produce higher, shriekier, and more uneven, warbling notes, not exactly like the whale but somehow more compatible with the whale.


And what does the whale do? Does his sound become more clarinet-like during the encounter? I am not really sure, but some of our high squeaks are quite hard to tell apart. And the clearest sign of communication comes when I stop, and he begins with a direct sense of response, in some cases continuing the very same note I just finished, and in other cases trying to join in, and overlap me with a complementary sound. Throughout this duet are several clear examples where the whale seems to match the clarinet. Two of my favorites are enlarged here in sonograms, where frequency is plotted against time using a simple Mac program called Amadeus. [8]


After four minutes of interacting, the whale dares to match my sound as I am playing it. He can't quite hold the pitch but he is wavering up and down around it:


Eight seconds later he joins in with my steady note by uttering a deep, complex boom, then after my riff of discrete pitches he comes in with a whistle that finally matches me truly in tune, then I end with that new whale wail I have learned during this performance.

To truly assess the musicality of this encounter, and decide for yourself whether this interspecies duet is music or not, you should first of all listen to it. An mp3 of this four minute excerpt is available online. [9] [This excerpt is embedded above, ed.] Is this duet music: yes or no? There is a play-by-play account of the best part of the duet, including a complete sonogram, also online. [10]  Whenever I listen to this recording, which comes entirely from the hydrophone, I am struck by something deeply alien about it. It does sound somewhere between human and whale, perhaps a music that neither species will completely appreciate until we and the whales are ready to suspend disbelief a little bit and truly attend to the possibility of sounds that the world reveals. Deep listening is the key to making such music, and to appreciating it.


The Cricket


I travel to Stockholm to meet Mr. Fung, a man of many names. Sometimes he is called Bolingo, and originally he was Lars Fredriksson. He is sitting at a café at the Swedish Natural History Museum, instantly recognizable. Or instantly un-recognizable, his visage is hard to place. He's wearing loose, worn clothing like a Chinese beggar-saint. He is completely bald, with a wispy white goatee. Except for his blue Nordic eyes I would swear he was a wandering Chinese holy man.


In a way he is, a keeper of the ancient Mandarin tradition of keeping crickets in the home for the full enjoyment of their songs.


"I used to keep 108 crickets in traditional cricket-boxes in my tiny Stockholm apartment," Mr. Fung shrugs. "An arbitrary number perhaps, but an important one in Buddhist tradition. I liked the way my crickets would sing together and apart, different blendings of species, sounds one would never find in the wild. But now I sense that whole activity as something contrived. I have spent many years learning about this; perhaps it is true I know more about the whole tradition than anyone in China. You were right to come to me. Everyone else has a vested interest in the game. They all have something to sell. Individual crickets best for mating, fighting, singing. Some might cost thousands of dollars, just one bug, a prize for those who can afford it. They will only live a few months, but could produce a next generation that will sing even better." [11]


After listening to birds and then whales, I'm now in the midst of preparing a book and CD on the music of insects. The biggest challenge of this project is how to convince the audience, and myself, that insect sounds are really musical. That is why I have traveled to Sweden to see Mr. Fung. Not only is it closer than China, he may be a better source for what I'm looking for: someone who deeply listens to this ubiquitous kind of sound and truly appreciates it. Fredriksson has invited musicians of world renown to join along with his insect orchestra, but over the years he has decided that captivity is not the answer.


"I will travel to India, I will travel to Oceania, and back to the Far East, listening for the most beautiful insect sounds I can find. I can imagine the place, a misty hillside in late autumn, a thick fog, and a swirl of cricket choruses on all sides, perfectly arranged with me in the center, hearing the perfect sound that I have been seeking. I will smile, and find myself at the center of the world."


Cricket-rearing in traditional China is a bit of a hobby for those who have retired from day-to-day life. They sing in the autumn, a fitting metaphore for the final years of life. "Last night the chilly cricket did not cease its song," wrote Yueh Fei in 1130 AD. "It woke me from dreams a thousand miles away." So many ancient cricket poems of the East are full of sadness and ennui, the fearful realization of human life creaking onwards toward death, while the strange music of the suborder Ensifera lasts as long as life goes on. This orthopteran soundtrack has little to do with human life but we always notice it, grasping frequencies that even the bugs can't hear. He does not think of these sounds so much as music, but as a signal of the balance of the world. "Crickets," Mr. Fung reminds me, "sing only when they are safe. Listening to them brings us a lasting sense of peace."


He pauses and looks longingly in the air. "I sometimes worry about these stories. You must know that I don't want myself to sound important, to boast that I know any special knowledge in particular. It's just something I have attended to over the decades. I have learned to listen."


I do know what Fung is talking about. I feel the same unease when I tell my own stories, which too often seem to have me as the center of attention. This is a danger. We need not be the heroes of our own lives, but should aspire to be witnesses to the beauty of the world. That is what deep listening is all about.


Lars Fredriksson is a decade older than I. Pauline Oliveros is thirty years older than I, and I am now exactly the same age she was when I first met her. As a young student I found her inscrutable, a bit severe, deeply serious and awfully hard to approach. She and Linda Montano had us do an all night performance at the Banff Centre for the Arts. In the middle of it she sat, Buddha-like, with a giant accordion pealing out endless sounds deeper than drones. I don't remember what the rest of us were doing but as dawn approached I collapsed, exhausted, into the arms of someone in the audience.




The last time I saw Pauline was after a performance I did in the autumn of 2010 at RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Oliveros is an instructor-Ed.]. "you said you were going to visit my class," she complained. "What happened?" "The soundcheck was more complicated than anyone expected," I apologized. "All right," she insisted. "Let's go talk somewhere now." It was 11:30 pm. One place was still open in Troy. As she downed a tall pint of Guinness I laughed. "Get prepared," I told her. "In two years the world will be celebrating your eightieth birthday. There will be a lot of parties, a lot of music, a lot of listening."


I'm sure she's doing fine. After these thirty years I still feel a student in Pauline's presence, but also find her much easier to talk to. She's still at the cutting edge, one step deeper into technology than everyone else. I've seen her do performances in [online virtual life software] second life, be quicker with a response on email and Facebook than anyone else, and invent a way for one's nose to control a sound long before Microsoft's latest Xbox could. She shows us how to listen to the future, years before it ever happens. may she continue to teach us how to listen in ever-deeper ways, to all possible sounds around us, even those which we will not hear for years to come.


The warbler, the cricket, the whale: all life in the world offers us an endless range of sounds to attend to, if we can ever find the time and the ability to tune in our senses. Try it for many years, and if you can imagine a way to join in, then you are ready to be a musician. Only when you feel like there is space to make a musical announcement of your presence, go ahead, do it. Be a bird among birds, a whale among whales, a cricket among crickets. Then leave more space, listen again. Know that most musical creatures will only sing their own, stylized song. The best species to communicate with are those who share with humanity a curious interest in all range of sounds, and who have evolved to want to improvise, to try something new, to enjoy real play with sound. Take a stab at their style and twist the essence of what you do. You may be surprised, and just might effect a change in a musical world of which you cannot quite speak. Learn to appreciate more than what your own species has attuned itself to hear. Make a more-than-human music just past the edge of what you expect and could believe. A music greater than the sensibility of one species alone might show us a way to live a bit better with nature, and not destroy our planet with rampant human aesthetics, saving the Earth while there still is time.


1 Pauline Oliveros, “Acoustic and Virtual Space as a Dynamic Element in Music,” Women, Art, and Technology, ed. Judy Malloy, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), p. 213.



2 All quotes from Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire are from a telephone conversation in March, 2004. Quoted in David Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing (New York: Basic Books, 2005), p. 94.



3 Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire, “The imitative range of the song of the marsh warbler Acropehalus palustris,” Ibis 121, (1979), pp. 453-468. See also Françoise Dowsett-Lemaire, “Vocal behaviour of the marsh warbler,” Le Gerfaut 69, (1979), pp. 475-502.



4 Dowsett-Lemaire, op. cit., quoted in Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing, p. 96.



5 Ibid, p. 96.



6 Ibid, p. 97.



7 David Rothenberg, Thousand Mile Song, (New York: Basic Books, 2008), p. 14-16.









10 content/themes/twentyten/images/wail_with_whale.pdf



11 all quotes that follow from an interview with Lars Fredriksson, Stockholm, July 23, 2011.



On the Pursuit of Acoustically Unique Spaces

Paula Matthusen

I am standing outside the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum, construction of which began around 54 B.C. [1] A mild breeze tempers the summer sun, while the gently rustling grasses in its wake create a subtle counterpoint to the footsteps on gravel and the pseudo shutter-sounds from digital cameras of tourists passing by. The breadth of the ruins is staggering, though what interests me most is one small doorway and a grate off the side of this former Basilica. An even cooler breeze emanates from the grate, along with an incongruous smell for the location. As I listen very closely, I hear the sound of water gently moving underneath. A small weather-worn placard on the side of the ruins confirms I am in the right place - one of the points along the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer which helped enable the enormous infrastructure supporting Ancient Rome. [2] I continue to follow the path that the Cloaca Maxima took through Rome above ground (with the dream of one day being able to crawl underneath, fumes be damned). I end up at the Tiber River, and find a staircase leading me to the exit point of the Cloaca Maxima, which is remarkably less touristy than the Roman Forum. The water exiting into the large and swift Tiber sounds remarkably intimate and peaceful as the light trickle is gently amplified by the Etruscan-built drain, now over 2,000 years old. I record. As I exit the area, I examine the surroundings, and am amused by the various layers of graffiti, each of which in their own way mark the surroundings, saying "I am here."


This pilgrimage to honor, in this very simple way, the hidden veins of a city has grown from a longstanding fascination with trains. The desire to learn more about the Cloaca Maxima specifically stems from my work in conducting a number of recordings inside the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel - considered by some to be the world's first subway tunnel - in Brooklyn, New York. [3] This opportunity was made possible by the generous support of The Brooklyn Historic Rail Association, led by Bob Diamond who rediscovered the long-forgotten tunnel after it had been sealed for over a century. Through my interactions with Diamond, I learned that much of the tunneling technology used to construct this historic tunnel derived from Roman Aqueduct technology, including the original structure, which encased the Cloaca Maxima. Upon first learning about both structures, I was immediately excited to hear how sound might behave in such spaces. There is an uniqueness to these structures, in part because of their historical and cultural significance, but also because they themselves have their own livelihood and singularity as chambers excited by sound. The pursuit of and interaction with acoustically unique spaces is an implicit element of Deep Listening. The careful interaction with space through sound is part of what binds us temporally with the events that precede and follow our present moment - allowing us to creatively engage with and document our own interactions with the immediate moment and the spaces within which they occur.


The founding of the Deep Listening Band as well as the name Deep Listening itself is inseparable from acoustically unique spaces. The recordings of the improvisations of Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, and Panaiotis inside the inoperative and now famous Dan Harpole Cistern (formerly named Fort Worden Cistern) in Port Townsend, Washington, with its staggering forty-five second reverberation time, dramatically reveal how carefully interwoven performance is with acoustical space. [4] That Dempster was able to find resonant frequencies of the cistern with his trombone and obtain an even longer reverberation time of seventy-two seconds further illustrates how the trio sought out and played with the unique characteristics of the space. [5] This catalytic moment for Deep Listening evolved from longstanding interests of each of the musicians in acoustically unique environments. As Oliveros states:


    Generally speaking, the architectural acoustic space (concert hall) is assumed to be fixed, with relatively unchangeable characteristics. Harmonies, melodies, rhythms and timbres change in more or less intricate relationships, while the acoustic space does not change; it is the container of music. As my experience of numerous performance spaces accumulated, I began to with for the possibility of changing the acoustic space while performing. I also wished that I could hear as if I were in the audience while I was performing for it. [6]


The collected interactions with various spaces played an integral role in Oliveros' pursuit of flexible performing environments. Through Deep Listening, Oliveros questions the assumptions about performance space - that it is "fixed" and "unchangeable." When we hear sound ricocheting off the walls of the cistern as the Deep Listening Band plays with the reflections and inherent resonances of the space, the space in turn comes alive, a dynamic figure throughout the course of the sonic interactions.


The pursuit of acoustically particular and changeable spaces as part of Deep Listening coalesced with an openness and hunger for uncommon sounds. Thus, the exploration of the potential of live electronics evolved more or less alongside a curiosity about the relationships between sound and space. Pauline Oliveros describes her delight in the use of tape-delay techniques, as the acoustic of the instrumental sound would change as the delayed signal was played back in space. [7] The temporal play involved in these processes continued as Oliveros' original tape-delay techniques evolved into the Expanded Instrument System (EIS), a live-processing system written in Max/MSP that enables a variety of live effects to be utilized, including delays as well as sophisticated panning and room simulation techniques. As Oliveros states:


    Through the years I understood the Expanded Instrument System to mean "time machine" - what is expanded is temporal - present/past/future is occurring simultaneously with transformations. What I play in the present comes back in the future while I am still playing, is transformed and becomes a part of the past. This situation keeps you busy listening. [8]


Through this use of technology, both space and time are reconfigured creatively, as the past, present, and future interplay with one another in a variety of virtual and acoustic spaces. These interactions with musical time and space draw on another crucial element of such engaged sonic interaction: that is, memory.


The lens of memory enables the interaction with past musical events and helps us imagine what is to come. It is through memory and listening that we can listen to what is happening within the musical space at the moment, and also creatively (re)imagine the past and present. Acoustically unique spaces remind us to question our assumptions about performance environments (i.e., that they are neutral, "fixed" and/or "unchangeable"), and to imagine the lives these spaces have on their own. I believe this is part of what makes us excited when we find unique acoustical spaces originally intended for purposes other than performance. The Dan Harpole Cistern is interesting not only because of its sonic characteristics, but also because it has transcended its original purpose and taken on another life of its own. Formerly part of military developments in the Northwest, the chamber has since become heralded as an "instrument" in its own right. [9] In this way, its original purpose is reimagined. New memories surround the space in counterpoint with the past as the cistern lives on in this new form.


Memory - its construction and fallibility - is intertwined with our own sensory apparatus as well as the documentation methods used in an attempt to fix it permanently. Perception and the technology used for documentation can be creatively played off of one another as well. As Oliveros states in her discussion of field recording:


    Field recording is a great way to become more sensitive to sounds. Headphones tend to focus attention on sounds that are not in your awareness....Try different placements of your microphone as well. [10]


The Deep Listening Exercises this description surrounds ("A Study in Mixed Environments" and "A Study in Pulses" [11]) not only invite one to listen differently, but also to consider the impact audio technology has on what one records and is capable of sonically reproducing. In a different context, Alvin Lucier invites performers to seek outside environments, document them "by any means" and then recreate them "at any later time" by means of their voices and/or instruments in his piece (Hartford) Memory Space. [12] By requiring performers to recreate their documentation completely acoustically, Lucier foregrounds creative engagement with the usual methods (memorization, notation, recording) used for affixing sonic memories. Moreover, by introducing a time delay between the documentation and the performance of the documented space, the variations that occur by virtue of separation in time and space become a necessary part of the creative rendering of the act of reproduction. In this way, the technology becomes part of the life of the space and sonic interaction, as the characteristics of the microphones, speakers, and recording medium impart their own signatures upon the recorded sound and excite certain parts of one's own remembrances of spaces.


The flexibility of sonic engagement Deep Listening invites - that is, the consideration of time, space, technology, and their interplay with one another - is part of what led me to the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel to create the piece navigable. Highly motivated by Lucier's seminal work I Am Sitting In A Room (1969) as well as the Deep Listening Band's self-titled album (1989), the piece functioned as a theme and variations in recording the resonant frequencies of the tunnel using a series of different recording scenarios within the tunnel. Over the course of several months in 2010, I would descend into the tunnel, and record and re-record fragments of natural sound also originally recorded within the tunnel. The resonant frequencies that emerged were deep, pulsating, and surprisingly rich. Through each of the different recording sessions, I employed different microphone placements and used different microphones in an attempt to see how these variations impacted the evolution of sound throughout the process of re-recording. Unfortunately, midway through the project, the space was closed and rendered inaccessible. [13] The subsequent uproar with regards to the closing bespeaks a desire among city dwellers to not forget such historic sites. The work of visual artists and urban explorers Miru Kim, [14] Julia Solis, [15] and Steve Duncan [16] beautifully document historical and hidden infrastructures that too often are made unreachable and removed from public consciousness. Nevertheless, the creative engagement with these spaces seems inevitable, and artists often take a sense of responsibility as they approach these unique spaces. As Miru Kim states, "I feel an obligation to animate and humanize these spaces continually in order to preserve their memories in a creative way before they are lost forever." [17] And as Julia Solis notes in New York Underground: Anatomy of a City, these historical and singular sites are becoming increasingly inaccessible. [18]


This is part of the underlying impetus for the pilgrimage to the mouth of the Cloaca Maxima. By listening to and recording (even at a distance) these sounds and the spaces they reverberate in, they become accessible even while the spaces remain off limits. while standing and listening carefully to the sounds occurring underneath me, it is hard not to be impressed and awestruck by the reverberant structure that contributed to the development of an enormous empire. In recording these sounds, I hope to interact creatively with this space. Each time I visit a spot to record within the Roman Forum, I am struck by the sudden and random droves of people that surround me. Looking at what I am doing and then deciphering the placard on the Basilica Julia, the onlookers slowly and quietly exclaim, "wow, the world's first sewer!" By interacting with these spaces sonically, they come alive and are remembered. Through such moments of interaction with spaces and, above all, by listening to them, we engage powerfully with a space that has outlived the concerns of the times within which it was built. The space takes on new life each time someone seeks it out in these various creative capacities. As such, it is moving when musicians and artists seek out these spaces and listen deeply, and in so doing remind us that this history, and these spaces, like us, are here.




I thank Bob Diamond and Greg Castillo of the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association. Their knowledge and encouragement of creative activities in the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel - including my own - has been continually impressive. As of this writing, I hope the space at some time becomes accessible again. For more information on the tunnel, please see Also, many thanks to The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (, for their continued support of my explorations in this area.






1 Christian Huelsen, The Roman Foruvm: Its History and Its Monuments (Rome: Loescher, 1909), 61.


2 Peter J. Aicher, Guide to the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome (Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1995), 4.


3 Julia Solis, New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City (New York: Routledge, 2005), 133.


4 Deep Listening, New Albion Records NA022, 1989, compact disc.


5 Pauline Oliveros, "Acoustic and Virtual Space as a Dynamic Element of Music," Leonardo Music Journal, 5 (1995): 22.


6 Ibid., 20.


7 Pauline Oliveros, "The Expanded Instrument System: An Introduction and Brief History" (keynote address given at the Music, Technology, Innovation, Research Center Colloquium, De Montfort University, Leicester UK, November, 2007) accessed July 20, 2011,


8 Ibid.


9 "Fort Worden Cistern Renamed Dan Harpole Cistern," accessed July 29, 2011,


10 Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005), 28.


11 Ibid.


12 Alvin Lucier, Chambers (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1980), 43.


13 Jen Carlson, "Diamond Wants Tunnel Reopened, Plans Lawsuit Against DOT," accessed July 30, 2011,


14 "Miru Kim", accessed July 30, 2011,


15 "Julia Solis", accessed July 30, 2011,


16 " Guerrilla History & Urban Exploration", accessed July 30, 2011,


17 "Miru Kim's Underground Art", accessed July 30, 2011,


18 Julia Solis, New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City (New York: Routledge, 2005), 225.