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. On this page, you’ll find a group of young artists that used Deep Listening as a sounding board for experiments that expanded their musical world. 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

Lea Bertucci






Each participant explores an environment to find a listening place with something interesting to hear and listens for a while.


Each participant invites the other participants to hear their found listening place. There may be one or more places with contrasting sounds.


Each participant finds a way to enhance, nullify or otherwise interact with the sound or sounds that the group goes to hear.


Each participant finds a way to connect all the sounds, either literally, metaphorically or graphically.


A performance agreement is negotiated.*

COLLECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL COMPOSITION (Woodwind Intruments, Reverberant Space and Tape Collage) Realized by Lea Bertucci, Robbie Lee and G. Lucas Crane - 2013




There’s this amazing cave in my hometown in upstate New York that I have been obsessed with for roughly three quarters of my life. Once a functioning cement mine, the site is now part of a historic estate that is (semi) open to the public. I chose this site not only as a reference to Pauline Oliveros’s seminal recordings with the Deep Listening Band but because of its extraordinary acoustic properties. The resonant characteristics of the cave allow any ambient sounds outside to become enmeshed with one another and distorted. The deep drone of a plane flying above seems to activate the space in a very palpable way. Beyond the extreme reverberation found in the cave (around 10 seconds), the site is a rich well of ambient sounds, including fallen leaves rustling in the wind, dripping water and stray birds.


Robbie and I trekked to the location on a sunny but chilly November day. I was feeling tense, as we did not exactly have permission from the caretaker of the property to lurk around and make a racket on her property.  I was hoping we could sneak in unnoticed. Robbie had brought his Soprano Sax, a Sopranino, a quarter-tone flute and a baroque flute. I was armed with my usual Bass Clarinet. There is something about wind instruments in large spaces that has always struck me. The resonance of the space allows chordal effects to occur, where if one plays certain pitches in rapid succession with a sudden stop, the space tends to echo back a ghostly chord in its wake.


We brought four cassette tape recorders and a single digital recorder to capture the sounds of our environment.  After sitting quietly and listening to the naturally occurring sounds of the space, we then placed the tape recorders in different parts of the cave to achieve varying acoustic perspectives. We tried a few approaches, including staying in a single spot close to one another, moving around the space while playing and repositioning the tape recorders. I couldn’t help but feel that my improvisatory gestures were at first subdued by my nervousness of being discovered by the caretaker and subsequently thrown out and/or arrested. We tried to play pianissimo at the beginning, but I must admit that my love of harsh sound and volume got the better of me after a while. Every piece of improvised music is in some way site specific. A sophisticated improviser responds not only to what is happening musically, but also to social/emotional circumstances of the time and place as well as the “ambient” or extraneous sounds that occur in the location of the improvisation. I like the idea of the cave as the third instrument in this situation. This reminds me of Cardew’s essay, “Toward an Ethic of Improvisation”.


    It also struck me at that time that it is impossible to record with any fidelity a kind of music that is actually derived in some sense from the room in which it is taking place -its shape, acoustical properties, even the view from the windows. What a recording produces is a separate phenomenon, something really much stranger than the playing itself, since what you hear on tape or disc is indeed the same playing, but divorced from its natural context. What is the importance of this natural context? The natural context provides a score which the players are unconsciously interpreting in their playing. Not a score that is explicitly articulated in the music and hence of no further interest to the listener as is generally the case in traditional music, but one that coexists inseparably with the music, standing side by side with it and sustaining it.


I agree that the act of recording an improvised piece of music is at best problematic. As an attempt to address these issues, I was interested reconsidering this “separate phenomenon” as an essential component of the composition itself. This is why I chose the medium of cassette tape. My longtime friend and associate G. Lucas Crane is a collage artist who deals exclusively and obsessively with cassette tapes. After recording about five 40 minute long tapes, I deposited them with Lucas. I instructed him to use these tapes in his usual style of improvisatory collage. The result is Lucas’ response to the sonic space created by Robbie and I responding to the site and sounds present in the mine. One person’s interpretation of another’s response to a place, all crumpled up and folded back in on itself. – Lea Bertucci


 *Reprinted from Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice (2005 Deep Listening Publications)

Alessandro Bosetti





Everyone answers the following questions in as many ways as possible.


1) If you could write any piece of music what would you write? Assume that no kind of restraint exists, i.e. time, money, existence of resources or technology etc.


2) How would you achieve it?*

ANY PIECE OF MUSIC (words and letter) realized by Alessandro Bosetti - 2013



Dear Pauline, I don't know you and you don't know me. But as soon as I started to imagine how to answer to your score the sound of a letter to you popped up.


It started with "Dear Pauline", somehow a sound of sweetness, of closeness for a person I've never met, whose work I know little and still have seen so many times in photos, read about in magazines and recently have as a Facebook friend.


I have to tell you, Pauline, that the reason I always gave myself for making music is that of making something I'd like to hear and that I find nowhere else. For example, if there's no pizza place around, then I make my own pizza at home. Or even better some other freestyle kind of food that does not really exist, nor can be bought, nor whose recipe could be found on the internet. This was not originally my idea. I read it somewhere when I was a teenager in an interview with Misha Mengelberg, the Dutch pianist, improviser and founder of ICP orchestra. He was just saying something like "I do the music I would like to hear and that I cannot find anywhere around." At the time I remember thinking, "oh… this is exactly the way I feel about music too" and in fact since then that's exactly what I have been doing.


So the answer to your score is quite easy: The piece of music that I would write if I could is the one that I am writing right now as it has been the one I was writing before and the ones - hopefully many  - that I will write in the future.


It’s nice of you to suggest that no restraints may exist but restraints do exist. Existing is a kind of immanent attribute of the notion of restraint. So I may well use those restraints as instruments, inspirations, scores. They always pop up in the void, when I try to clear my mind, to empty it from everything here they come the restraints as little bubbles into a glass of mineral water, apparently coming from nowhere. I do it because I can. And, I can just because I do it. I start doing it.


The thing, dear Pauline, is that every day I am going more deaf. Then, weeks later I come back to hearing again and on a similar pace I dive into amusia every week more and then go back to hearing it, that thing called music as if a gigantic LFO wave with a frequency of weeks, months, years would be there to regulate my rhythms of understanding and my ability of appreciating and enjoying and sharing with others. And then this deafness LFO and that amusia LFO and that other LFO called language would oscillate nicely, intertwining and dancing off of each other. I will look at that dance and I will think whether I am looking at it, listening to it, talking and writing about it or simply thinking or dreaming about it and whether is there any difference between those things.


"I haven't thought about thinking about it”, said my mom a few days ago while we were talking about something, I forget what. That's her style: "this risotto was absolutely delicious! But, really it tasted like nothing". But, really. What was I saying?


Oh, I am in a train to Lausanne right now, and I am going to have fondue soon. There's a really nice place in Lausanne called café Romand where you can eat a delicious fondue, which is something you don't really cook. There’s not much to cook there beside melting the right type of cheeses and adding a tiny bit of the right type of liquor. So the point is you play the notes you really hear, but do you really hear them? In a Lee Konitz interview I read, again as a teenaged jazz fan reading a magazine, he said: "at some point I decided to play just the notes I really heard, those I could sing". Well, at least this is what I remember him saying. Did he really say that? I figured that's when he moved from the early style - all bebop influenced, all full of fast and intricate phrases to his later style - simpler, every note a gem. But… hey, the early style was not bad at all! I liked that a lot, too! The Tuba Band, Tristano, so fluent, so much dexterity.


His statement stayed with me though, I thought, "well, that's good advice, just play the stuff you hear. That…that you really can feel".  It kind of skimmed down my musical style and practice a lot. There are so many interesting cool things in the experimental music world: electronic, conceptual, spectral, minimal, and me listening again and again to that old Henry Threadgill record. So what does the appetite say?


Fondue approaching, train now in Winterthür station, going west. Back in time again - the same teenager reading music magazines bumps into a long Ianco Dumitrescu article on Resonance (still on paper)  and starts translating it into Italian. I guess I had some free time back then. And then Dumitrescu recalls a dream he had during his military service (he had to stay awake to guard his post but could not help falling asleep). While he was asleep - probably just for a couple minutes that felt like an eternity - a big glass plate fell down from somewhere breaking into million pieces. In his dream the sound of the glass breaking stretched into a cataclysmic event that took hours to complete. A cascade of crashing sounds, shimmering accidents of broken glass accumulating on to each other. The memory of this stretched, expanded noise texture gave him the inspiration to write a piece where he basically tried to reconstruct that sound with either instruments, electronic sounds or both. I cannot remember.


As you see there are so many things I cannot remember and somehow those partial memories give place to new events. Did Konitz really say that? Did Misha Mengelberg really say that? Or maybe over the years I kind of twisted their words? Did Indian food really taste like that before those restaurants in Berlin?  Most restaurants have to adapt and translate many dishes to accommodate the local taste.  A pity.


And, did Dumitrescu really tell that story in that interview? And, was the dream really sounding like that? How much of it was he able to retain while notating and orchestrating it?


Zurich station, lot of people getting off. I got my compartment back, just for me, more comfortable writing once again. I hope I am not boring you, dear Pauline, with those stories. Probably nothing new to you who have been surely moving in and out of these reflections many times. Music you can tell, music you can give an account of, a friend coming and starting the description of a bad concert she attended, a concert she hated and you thinking: "well, this description already makes up a nice score, a nice idea". I am sure you have been there.


Some music exists already in a couple of phrases, some pieces are like punchlines, "make music with stones" Bam! The piece is already there. "Choose a room the musical qualities of which you would like to evoke. Attach the microphone to the input of the tape recorder… etc." Bam! "If you could write any piece of music what would you write ?" Bam! More punchlines. Did you really write that? Did I really hear that? Yes? The key is time: fighting with time, desiring time and wanting to pin it down.


To fix it.


To write it down.


To score it.


Time is going by and my train is now going backwards, they turned it around at some point in Zürich without me noticing it and now, assuming this is somewhere close to the middle point of my writing I'll be zeroing in on my fondue in the elegant shape of a palindrome.


Wouldn't that be nice if something similar to gravity would be there to pull you down towards the end of your piece once you have reached the peak, so that after some time of committed writing you could just leave yourself to slide, slowly and effortlessly towards it's conclusion. Dialectics of Sky-lifts and sky-slopes inspired by the surrounding Swiss landscape. The think of it since the landscape between Zurich and Aarau - as you may know - is boringly flat.


Actually there is something like that in music and it's called tonality and we are experiencing in our life time how the force of it is not as consistent as the law of physics. But it has - yes - a consistency, rather a viscosity, a sort of malleability, close to that of magma that, after all, is nothing but a very, very hot stone.


And there's something else in music that resembles that gravity force. I don't think it has a name to describe it and still I will try to describe it here. It is that force that makes things accelerate once you have "warmed up" - once you've started, have gone through some accidents, some difficulties and now the piece is starting to roll. You feel some feedback from the audience maybe, or you don't feel it anymore. You are free from it, but in any case you are going faster and it seems to cost less energy. You are not pushing the music anymore, nor are you following it, which is a rather wise thing to do most of times. It’s the music pushing you, you are on top of it and everything is spinning and shaking and as Thelonious Monk would put it you are "lifting the bandstand".  What the heck was holding you back before?


Again, something with a certain viscosity that now seems to dissipate, no restraints, no money, time, resources, technology problems, you are just riding time, surfing on it. It's your wave and it's sweet as a cloud of warm steam. Can you do it with life Pauline?


Can we? Can we accelerate until it takes no effort and it's fast and powerful and it's rolling by itself?


Dieter Roth in his radio sonata has to fill that 50 minutes slot that is given to authors by WDR. His concept: improvise with piano - which he cannot really play, and still he plays beautifully - and empty a bottle of scotch. He noodles around, blabbers, talk about whatever, talks to the sound engineer "how much time do we have left? Still twenty minutes? So long? Damn it !", and still he warms up and the whole thing is rolling, is going somewhere, producing energy. You are going with him - riding the embarrassment of the situation. It's a pity that so often there has to be booze involved. As if we should drink soap to lubricate our existence. But still, something happens and pulls you from forward and - Bam! - We are going. It's all going.


Oh, dear Pauline, I am so sorry to have been carried away in those past lines, I just imagined that could happen here as well. How nice it would have been to enact the form I was talking about in the same piece of writing I was writing in the moment. Matching the time of composing to that of excitement. I started to rush, but what a nice example of virtuosity it would have been; that thing that French philosophers like a lot - a form that talks about itself while enacting its own shape.


Pardon my vanity, and still it was fun for a moment. It didn't grow as it have should. Maybe there's too much sunlight around me, or it's too early in the day to get excited. It's never too early you may tell me but, in any case, the station of Solothurn is approaching. My laptop signals me there is eight minutes of battery life left, and there are no plugs to be seen in the compartment. I'd better cut the ending slope of my palindrome a bit shorter than I had foreseen.


But, have I been answering to your question?


What piece would I have written if I could?


Exactly this one.


And that's not all, in fact. As I just wrote it right now, I think I will perform it in Lausanne tonight.


Not exactly as it is, that would be too easy. I'll change something. I always change something. I will tell you later about that.


And that piece I just wrote, dear Pauline, is your piece. It's yours since it's for you and it's yours since it's actually your piece: "Any piece for music". Achieved with language in the chosen orchestration of a letter.


That is the piece I just wrote, because I could, because I wanted to, because it was exactly what I wanted to hear.


If I could write any piece of music what would I write?


Any Piece of Music - by Pauline Oliveros.


Thank you so, much.


With love and respect,



Megan Schubert & Nick Hallett





(Dedicated to Amelia Earhart)



Any number of persons sit in a circle facing the center. Illuminate the space with dim blue light. Begin by simply observing your own breathing. Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity of the vibrations to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible, naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own breath cycle. Variation: translate voice to an instrument.*

We got together in mid-November at Nick's music studio in the East Village.  For visual feedback, real-time spectrographic analysis of our voices displayed on the laptop.  We settled on a length of approximately 30 minutes for two reasons. One, so that our pacing wouldn't drastically differ from each other and, two, to avoid a durational marathon à la Marina Abramovic, which is not out of the question when one instructs the performer to continue for "as long as possible."  We sat across from each other and performed the work.  Blue light emanated from the mixing board.  After the piece ended, we discussed both what we allowed and observed.  — Nick Hallett and Megan Schubert




NICK: What interested me off the bat was which notes and vowels come naturally to the voice when performing the piece.  I heard a fifth between us.


MEGAN: I don’t think it was a fifth.


N: Well I wasn’t paying that close attention to harmony, but some Doppler effect sound passed through the environment— either an airplane or a siren—and it formed a perfect fifth.  And the vowel we shared, it wasn’t an OM, hum, or AH.  It was an AE (as in “man”), not a vowel one associates with vocal drone.


M: It seems like this was the easiest for the purposes of vocal cord vibration.


N:  I visualized my vocal cords in a state of inspiration, like if you were to chop my head off and look down at the cords wide open.  The piece for me was about figuring out how to slowly bring the folds together into the pre-phonation stage, to land there and then just listen and react to what sounds were possible from that point onward.


M: I felt something cycle.


N: Physically, I felt the sub-harmonic.  It was something having to do with vibrancy, the periodicity of vocal fold phonation.  I felt a distinct movement of the larynx, perhaps that was the cause of this oscillation.  The fundamental I was singing was probably around 150 Hz.  But what I felt must have been at about one tenth of that, around 15 Hz.


M: For me I thought it had to do something with the way my heart was beating.  My focus was completely on the sensation of the vibration, and what it meant to pass more and more air through the cords, and not mimic singing or get into trained vocalism.  At one point, this became a fry.


N: So trendy!  I assumed I was going to fry, but it didn’t happen.


M: When I added more air or vibration, that’s when the fry kicked in.  I was wondering whether it was a conscious choice for you to not phonate while breathing in.


N: I never think about circular breathing until a composer makes me!


M:  I resisted the urge to let my training come in, to keep the sound a little more natural. When I heard the pitch fluctuate or weird sounds emerging from my voice, I had to allow them to happen.


N: Part of me didn’t want those sounds to exist.  This has to do with my desire for the voice to be both embodied and disembodied.  The sounds I make are limited by my body.  But once they are out in the world, I want to hear them as something else, something perfect.  I want them to be pure sound, disconnected from the voice that created them.  Part of me judged the imperfections negatively as a result.  I allowed them, but if I was thinking about this from the perspective of a performance practice, I didn’t like the hiccups.


M: I assumed it was the desired result!


N: I’m glad we had a different way of going about it!  Your outlook is the more open-minded, whereas I’m imposing an interpretation.


M: I had to consciously choose to let those things come out.  It’s funny dealing with our instrument, and how you peel off the layers of what you understand about it until you are down to the breath.


N: I found it tough.  As a singer, you are used to a specific physicalization of sound and breath. It was similar to breathing for Yoga.


M: Breathing for me, especially when I’m projecting, is about pushing outwards.  (points to diaphragm) If someone were to punch me, my stomach would push against that.  In this case, I was simply not engaging those muscles because I wanted to be more regular, like I’m-just-sitting-here-breathing.  I was trying to not be conscious of I’m-supporting-this-sound because I wanted to breathe in a relaxed state, instead of being so engaged.


N: For me it is only because I’ve been trying to unite those ideas for 20 years now.  Early on into my study of the voice, I saw the connections with Yoga.  The idea of regular breathing was gone for me once I trained as a singer.  Why do you think the piece is called Teach Yourself to Fly?


M: I like a more cartoony explanation, thinking about a plane accelerating, propellers in motion before take-off.


N: A comparison between the physics of speech and flight!  Amelia Earhart is an interesting figurehead for the piece.  There’s this sense of exploration and dreams and a whole world to get lost in.  Other than ambient sounds of the city, were there other factors of listening that impacted you while you were performing?


M: I wasn’t consciously thinking about rhythm, but I could see the live spectrogram and it started to resemble a castle. For a little bit, both of us were inhaling and exhaling in unison.


N: It was almost like a phase.  I felt like we started off breathing and singing at the same time, and then we slowly diverged to create a more complex rhythm.  But I did like that part when you could see that we were working together.