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. Below is an interview with Pauline’s former students about how the practice has affected their decisions about programming and how to approach contemporary repertoire. 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

The Ghost Ensemble on Deep Listening

Ghost Ensemble Talks About Programming and Performing Oliveros

Deep Listening as a practice does not preclude individual compositional work by its founder, Pauline Oliveros. One of the interesting aspects of exploring the concept of Deep Listening is that a part of the practice exists on scores and in the hands of new generations of young players and ensembles. Her 80th birthday, in 2012, kicked off a trend of including her work alongside other iconoclastic composers such as Gerard Grisey, Iannis Xenakis, and Giacinto Scelsi. Groups like International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and Ghost Ensemble (featured in conversation with me in the podcast above) have realized that the Deep Listening mindset inherent in a composition like Angels and Demons can reset the performers (and audience's) ability to actively engage in listening to the music.


I spoke with four members of Ghost Ensemble at the Sound American offices on a fall Saturday afternoon, the day after supernatural themed concert of new music, which featured a work by Oliveros alongside music by Scelsi, Hildegard von Bingen, George Crumb, and two members of the ensemble. Speaking with director and accordionist, Ben Richter, flutist Martha Cargo, oboist Sky Macklay, and percussionist/electronicist Damon Loren Baker. Their experience with formal Deep Listening training varies from those that have only worked with her compositions, like Martha, to varying degrees of study like Damon and Ben, to Somna M Bulist, the groups harpist, who added comments later, which are included below.


I was interested in the perspective of performers that were treating Deep Listening more as repertoire and less as a life practice. Ghost Ensemble, because of its commitment to providing a wide range of musical experience in each concert, struck a middle ground for me. They understand the transformative element of Deep Listening contained in Pauline's text scores, while still preparing them rigorously for a performance that they hoped would be successful. Our conversation opened my eyes to ways in which Deep Listening works outside of the world of its strongest adherents, but still be effective in opening a contemporary classical audience's ears to penetrate deeper. - NW




* As mentioned above, harpist Somna M Bulist was unable to be with us for our interview. Because of her role as the leader of Oliveros' meditations when Ghost Ensemble prepared their all Pauline Oliveros concert, and her engagement in the Deep Listening practice, I am happy to include emailed comments about her experience with performing Pauline's musisc and practicing Deep Listening.


First experience:


My first experience with Deep Listening was during the performance of The Tuning Meditation in 2010 where Ben, Damon and I met.  We all arrived at the event, most of us were complete strangers.  We were given the simple instructions and the Tuning Meditation began.  We walked out of the performances with new and lasting friendships and the seeds of creative endeavors not yet known.


Preparing for the recent performances of Pauline's works:


In preparation for the recent Ghost Ensemble performances we warmed up with Deep Listening exercises for energy raising, synchronized breathing, attention awareness to variations in space and time (Extreme Slow Walk) and the Listening exercise - 10 minutes of listening.


Using the practice on other musical pursuits:


A direct result of my Deep Listening practice is strengthening a sensitivity to my instrument and widening the parameters of my creative activity.  Currently I am focused on the ambient sounds of my instrument at rest.  Patient listening to the duration of the harp's resonance and the receptivity of the sound box to environmental sounds are becoming creative considerations.