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

Pauline Oliveros on Deep Listening

One of the beautiful aspects of the concept of Deep Listening is that, despite its emphasis on collaboration, communication, and community, it has a single point of genesis...Pauline Oliveros. For this reason, a discussion about Deep Listening must include her voice. Not only is she its founder and public face, but she is also the well-spring of its philosophy.


This issue of Sound American has tried to present other points of view besides Pauline's on the topic of Deep Listening. The short conversation that follows is structured to elucidate the basic ideas of practice, history and social design from the concept's founder with the understanding that Deep Listening is now a world-wide community with many different viewpoints. It is with this in mind, that I suggest you delve deeper into Pauline's music before and after the official formation of the Deep Listening Institute, as well as exploring the Institute itself, and hope that you enjoy my brief conversation with her for this issue.

Sound American: I want to just ask you a few questions about definitions and aesthetics in Deep Listening practice and then a bit about its community, just to give readers a context for the rest of this issue. The first question I have is what the differences are, for you, between hearing, listening, and Deep Listening.


Pauline Oliveros: Well, this is not easily compacted into some definition, okay? Hearing is something that has been studied quite a bit scientifically. Listening much less so. An auditory neuroscientist that I spoke with recently said that listening was hearing plus attention. That’s an interesting definition, but it’s a compacted one, because it doesn’t really answer the question (laughs).


All of these things: hearing, listening, Deep Listening, are processes. I mean, it’s a process set in motion. So, what I mean is that we hear, and we agree, in terms of communication, that we are hearing something that, by consensus, we understand. We have much more agreement about what hearing is. There are tons of articles and books and studies about hearing. When we hear, the ear has transmitted a waveform, through its mechanics, to the brain and it’s there that we listen.  And, we listen to what our experience tells us about the waveforms that hearing has transmitted. So hearing and listening are different in that way. Hearing takes place through the mechanics of the ear, and listening takes place in the audio cortex or in the brain.


Deep Listening is expanding our attention. In Deep Listening we talk about two forms: focal attention and global attention. Focus [focal] is more like digital, in that focused attention needs to be renewed moment by moment, in order to exclusively follow a stream of some sort. A stream of speech for example; you have to keep renewing your attention to what is being said. All of us have the experience of being distracted for a minute and missing part of what someone has said. So, to keep your attention focused takes quite a bit of energy. Global attention is expanding to take in and listen to everything that is around you; inside of you. When we do this, and we can expand almost infinitely to include, and this is what I call inclusive listening, everything that is possible to listen to. Most of the time we are discarding what’s going on as not important, but in order to do what I call Deep Listening we have to include everything.




SA: So, that brings me to another question. In my reading about the Deep Listening practice, there’s a lot of talk of being inclusive. I wonder then, when you’re making music, is there still a process of decision making towards an aesthetic end, toward something for lack of a better term that is “good” or “correct” or is that something that is subservient to the inclusive process of listening.


PO: If I’ve done all that you’ve mentioned, then I’m not listening.


SA: You’ve taken yourself out of the music.


PO: That’s right.


SA: The process is the point.


PO: Yes, if there is a point. (laughs)




SA: Along those lines, then, when you’re composing pieces that will be premiered or performed by groups like ICE or Ghost Ensemble, who we’re featuring in this issue, do you have a disconnect between your compositions and the concept of Deep Listening? Maybe a better way to put it is if you would like the performer to be involved in the practice of Deep Listening when performing one of your compositions?


PO: When I’ve been composing pieces, I’m composing what I call attentional strategies, which are ways of listening and ways of responding, so that the musicians, if they are indeed following the score, will be doing what I call Deep Listening.


SA: How do you approach that? Can you give me a specific example?


PO: Well, let me take you back to one of my Sonic Meditations, because it will be easy to parse, I think. There’s a Sonic Meditation that I wrote in the early 70s called, Native, and the instruction is very simple. It says:


    “Take a walk at night, and walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”


So, now, anyone can do that, but attention is directed, and it’s directed to the soles of your feet. So, if in fact you actually do that, you’ll begin to listen in a way that’s probably different from how you usually do when you walk. So, that’s an example for you, and it’s an example that anyone can participate in, including musicians at the most virtuosic level.




SA: I’m fascinated, in my reading, by how many non-musicians are involved in Deep Listening, since my experience is solely through the lens of music.  Was Deep Listening conceived as a life practice initially, or did it come out of your musical experience or necessity?


PO: Well, first of all, I started writing Sonic Meditations in the early 1970s. This came about because of my own practice. I began, around the end of the 60s, to do a listening practice; listening to long tones for example, and listening not only to what I was sounding, but also to how it was affecting me, both physically and mentally. Then I began to understand some things about attention.


I was teaching at UCSD [University of California at San Diego] at that same time, and there was a large course that we had called "The Nature of Music". This was for general students, so the class was populated with a lot of non-musicians. What we wanted to do at the time was to engage all of the students in making music, so we had things like recording a number of samples on magnetic tape. You could hand the tape to the student with a splicing block and razor and they would cut up the tape and put it back together in their own version to make a piece. Anyone could participate in that. The class had something like 150 students so we had teaching assistants and provided laboratories for them to work together on things like graphic notation; having the students draw a picture or a graph and telling us what it means and then play it. They would have instruments around or found objects that anybody could activate, and so they got an experience in improvisation and in making pieces. This was a replacement for the standard music appreciation course.


So, I became interested in how I could engage the students into performing and started the Sonic Meditations. It was really my attempt to engage any level of ability through those pieces.




SA: That feeling of engagement and inclusiveness that we’ve talked about seems to have created a feeling of community amongst those that study Deep Listening. Has community been a large part of the practice, even since the early days at UCSD?


PO: Oh, yes. I remember taking a group of students out to the Joshua Tree National Monument, out in the high desert to do Sonic Meditations over a weekend, and this was great fun, of course, but it also did have a sense of community; a community of interests. I think that, in the workshops or classes or retreats that I engage in with Deep Listening, as communities. These are communities that can happen quite quickly, simply because you’re engaging in practice together ....and you can also walk away from it just as quickly (laughs).


But, in any case, let me say this. In July of this year, last summer, we had the first Deep Listening Art Science International Conference at RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] where I teach. For a first conference it was really astonishing. We had 110 registrations and 75 presentations. People came from different parts of the world as well as local and national. The conference was quite joyful, and everyone was happy. People were seeing each other for the first time in some years, maybe, some more recently. We’re now planning for the second conference, which is intended to be annual. And, indeed, there is a very large constituency of people who have either attended a Deep Listening retreat or workshop or class or they’re simply interested in what it is. Some of the presentations were by people that I had not known at all, and they were really very beautiful presentations. So, I’m very happy that we have been able to create such a large community and the community members are more or less connected.




SA: You talk about presentations, and I know there is an emphasis on journaling and writing essays. What role does writing play in Deep Listening practice?


PO: Well, journaling is very important. I have the students in my class journal after every listening meditation because every meditation is like a dream. It’s very engaging and intense when you’re with it, but afterwards it can fade away quickly. Journaling is a really good way of remembering some of the highlights of your experience. And, since this is an experiential practice, it’s good to keep a journal, and also to revisit it after awhile to remember things you may have forgotten.


We have a publication called Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening. There are 23 authors in that book, and all are approaching it from different perspectives, so it’s very interesting what they are doing. [Essays by Miya Masaoka, David Rothenberg, and Paula Matthusen from this edition are featured elsewhere in this issue-Ed.] That’s why the conference was so interesting, as well, to hear different perspectives on what it is. As I say, it’s a process. And, it’s experiential. It’s not intellectual. It doesn’t mean it’s non-intellectual, it just means you can’t experience Deep Listening intellectually. You have to do it.


SA: So then the writing is an intellectual expression of what you’ve experienced.


PO: Exactly.