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. 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

A Deep Listening Mixtape

Pauline Oliveros: Procession/Peregrinacion

Pauline Oliveros/Chris Brown: Gravity Waves

Deep Listening Band: Dream Time

Deep Listening Band & Joe McPhee: 3rd Mvt.

New Circle Five: 54 Years of Mirrors

At a certain point, trying to define Deep Listening using the written word must give way to experiencing the sound of Deep Listening in practice. DL benefits from the fact that its founder is also its most elegant practitioner, and so what better place to start than with the music of Pauline Oliveros. Sound American is pleased to present a small overview of her work from the compositional to the improvisational and from intimate collaborations to large group meetings, all from the last 25 years on her Deep Listening label.


The first piece is "Procession/Peregrinacion" from Pauline's 1998 release, Ghostdance. It touches on many of the key social components of Deep Listening, including multi-disciplinary collaboration (choreographer Paula Josa-Jones) and using naturally occurring sounds as an inspiration (this work is based around Oliveros' recording of a flock of grackles roosting outside her hotel in Chalco, Mexico during her work on Ghostdance). The recording also features Deep Listening Band member David Gamper on djembe and Julie Lyon Rose's voice, as well as Oliveros on accordion. All three use the Expanded Instrument System (EIS) to manipulate their sounds.


"Gravity Waves" is an example of small collaboration and improvisation in Deep Listening. In this case, Pauline performs on accordion, conch, percussion, and EIS alongside her longtime friend and colleague from Mills College, Chris Brown, who performs on piano and SuperCollider signal processing software. Taken from their 2010 recording of improvisations, Music In The Air, "Gravity Waves" stands as an interesting study in focal versus global listening.


The Deep Listening Band is one of Oliveros' longest running and most legendary projects. Featuring trombonist Stuart Dempster, vocalist Panaiotis,and keyboardist David Gamper*, the group has been together in one form or another since they made their seminal recording, Deep Listening, in 1989. This recording featured Oliveros, Dempster, and Panaiotis who would be replaced a year later by Gamper. The Deep Listening Band is a great place to experience Deep Listening in practice. Any record will feature the tenets of DL and much more. Due to the breadth of Oliveros' work, though, we only feature "Dream Time" from their 1995 CD Tosca Salad. It is an excellent example of continuous drone within the Deep Listening concept.


The CD Unquenchable Fire (2003) features the Deep Listening Band in collaboration with American free-jazz legend Joe McPhee's quartet and science fiction author Rachel Pollack reading her own work. "3rd Movement" takes off from Pollack's somewhat dystopian text and becomes a study in Deep Listening as a combination of composition and improvisation and within the context of two different stylistic approaches to improvisation.


Finally, the group New Circle Five is a collaboration of female improvisers, performers and composers across multiple generations and genres. "Fifty-Four Years Of Mirrors" from the 2003 recording Dreaming Wide Awake features Oliveros on accordion, soprano Kristin Nordeval, trombonist Monique Buzzarté (on conch shell here), Rosi Hertlein on violin and voice, and jazz percussionist Susie Ibarra. New Circle Five is a perfect example of Deep Listening as an improvisational/compositional practice that somehow sidesteps the traditions of jazz and contemporary classical music to create a new and singular sound.





For each of the tracks listed above, there is a full length CD that contextualizes it within the broader possibilities of the Deep Listening practice. The purpose of the Sound American mixtape is to provide the reader with a digestible sample of listening that illustrates the points made by essays and interviews elsewhere in the issue. In this case, more than others, the streaming tracks above just begin to scratch the surface. Sound American wishes to thank Deep Listening Publications and Pauline Oliveros for their kind permission to allow the reader to stream tracks from their catalog.



* David Gamper passed away in 2010.