Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening

Reviewed by Noam Lemish


Published by Deep Listening Publications, 2012   |   325 pages

Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening, edited by Monique Buzzarté and Tom Bickley, is timed to celebrate the 80th birthday of composer and Deep Listening Institute creator, Pauline Oliveros. Though three previous collections of Oliveros’s writings have already been published, this anthology is the first published presentation of the many voices of the broader Deep Listening community.

The historical record of Deep Listening connects back to the early 1970s when Oliveros began an exploration of listening and sounding at U.C. San Diego by constructing her Sonic Meditations. These text scores were focused on “directing attention to sound or to silence or to sounding with the understanding of when to listen exclusively and when to listen inclusively and how to balance between those two forms of listening.” 1 Oliveros described these two ways of listening as “focal” (exclusive) and “global” (inclusive): While focal listening focuses directly on a very specific, linear type of sound (such as a melody played by an instrument), global listening is receptive to the entire aural field, internally and externally. Each of the 25 Sonic Meditations has its own brief set of instructions, exploring one area of consciousness as it relates to sound; for example:

I. “Teach Yourself to Fly” – focal and global attention tuned to breathing resulting in involuntary sounds; actually making sound; good for beginners.
V. “Native” – solo meditation involving focal and global attention to silent walking; listening to present sound; excellent for everyone.
VII. “Environmental Dialogue”—global attention to environmental sounds and focal attention to reinforcing parts of the sounds; listening to present sounds and actually making sounds; good for beginners; variations available for more advanced meditators. 2

Influenced by the ideas of John Cage, and very much connected with the ‘experimental’ tradition, Oliveros shared Cage’s interest in listening, and centered Deep Listening practice around that very activity. But whereas Cage was suspicious of improvisation, Oliveros embraced it wholeheartedly and made it central to her performances, compositions and conception of Deep Listening. Accordingly, the emphasis and importance of training for inclusive listening is one of the defining features and salient contributions of the Deep Listening practice. Whereas in Cage’s writings, and in the practice of many of his followers, the pedagogical and communal aspect of global-inclusive listening and experimental sound practices are generally ignored, Oliveros situates it at the heart of her approach. As Dana Reason writes in her contribution to this volume: “Oliveros was certainly aware of Cage’s legacy and innovation as a composer, but she took his philosophy of sound and silence in another direction, one that involved community access and participation.” (p. 102) She has facilitated annual Deep Listening retreats in New Mexico since 1990, and a certification program has even been established.

Oliveros and Cage are in complete agreement, however, that the subtlest change in the focus of one’s listening opens up vast dimensions of perception previously ignored or misconstrued. “Deep Listening,” she has written, “is a practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.” 3 Elsewhere she writes that “experiencing an expanded awareness of sound, silence, and sounding. Experiencing is the key word. All performance practice has to be experienced to be understood.” 4 And, also: “To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.” 5

Editors Buzzarté and Bickley, themselves musicians long associated with Deep Listening, assembled twenty-three diverse and substantial essays. David Rothenberg, a clarinetist and professor of philosophy who has spent many years listening to animals and making music with them, chronicles his recordings of/with birds, whales and crickets. Composer, Koto musician and sound-artist Miya Masaoka explores listening to houseplants. In her essay: “From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary: Plants and Deep Listening,” she describes her composition Pieces for Plants, a sound-art installation employing technology to represent plants reactivity to movement and sound. Author, playwright and long time co-instructor of the Deep Listening workshops, IONE writes about listening beyond the conscious realm into the dream world of the unconscious.

The importance of acoustic space in the birth of Oliveros’ Deep Listening concept (and musical group, the Deep Listening Band) is well documented. As Oliveros describes in the foreword to this volume:

Deep Listening was born in a cistern at Fort Worden, Port Townsend in Washington State in 1988…What was supposed to be a visit to investigate the nature of this cistern and its 45-second reverberation time turned into a recording session…We recorded that day for five delightful, timeless hours. The reverberation of the cistern supported our sounds, making the session magically tireless and the listening ecstatic…Naming the recording Deep Listening and naming the band the Deep Listening Band came about because of the way that we had to listen in order to play in that environment. (p. i)

In her contribution to the Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening, Paula Matthusen similarly focuses on listening to space, highlighting the role memory of place plays in our listening experience. Her chapter focuses on Ancient Rome’s sewer system and the old Atlantic Avenue Tunnel of NYC:

By interacting with these spaces sonically, they come alive and are remembered…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. (p. 63-64)

The diverse examples of inclusive listening found in this collection all demonstrate the vast spectrum of responses to Oliveros’s call for listening to “sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.”

While Deep Listening opens up new avenues for human awareness of sound, it also offers a model for music making that is truly inclusive, enabling trained musicians and non-musicians alike to make music together on a level playing field. In her essay “Listening From The Inside Out: Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening”, Dana Reason describes her experience attending an Oliveros concert during the 1987 Bang on a Can Festival in which Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation (1971) was performed. The piece directs audience members to pay close attention to their breath, sing long tones all the while listening carefully to every other sound made, the tone emerging internally in their mind and their own sound making. This piece, Reason writes, “privileges audience participation over professional musicianship.” (p. 98) Most notable, here, are Reason’s reflections on the relationship between the individual and the collective in Oliveros’ piece:

This was not just an expression of “sounds-within” but an opportunity to sound as a collective, too. Each person was at once acutely aware of their “individuality” and yet there was a comfortable space created in that another person was there to “catch” your sound. You knew that you were part of a transformative sonic community and that your individual voice mattered in the collective. (p. 100)

In creating a piece of music where the composer’s authority is limited and untrained audience members are participant performers, Oliveros models her theory on non-hierarchical, cooperative notions of society. Perhaps not unrelated, one notable feature of many of the essays collected here is their self-reflexive character. Many of the contributors elected to write in personal narrative style, describing their own connection to Deep Listening, and its influence on their life and creative work.

Those interested in further readings connected to Deep Listening and related topics may enjoy previously mentioned writings by Oliveros, and her 2005 collection of Deep Listening practices entitled “Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice”. Indeed, the entire catalog of the Deep Listening Institute references additional resources.

Moving beyond works directly associated with the Deep Listening community, the work of pianist, composer and author W.A. Mathieu is particularly important. Especially relevant are his “The Listening Book” (1991) and “Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World” (2010). Mathieu’s writing is accessible, inspiring and profound. Canadian composer and author R. Murray Schafer coined the term ‘Soundscape’ and his seminal work, “The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World” (1977) has been highly influential. Lastly, ethnomusicologist Jeff Titon has been writing for several years about what he calls “acoustic ecology”. In his blog “Sustainable Music”, Titon draws a direct connection between one’s experience of co-presence through sound and the commitment to environmental sustainability.

Though Deep Listening practice first formally emerged in 1988, research into this practice is still very much in its infancy. Indeed, the first international conference on Deep Listening met in July 2013. One hopes that this anthology, too, will contribute to encouraging further research and public awareness of the practice of Deep Listening.

1. [Oliveros, Pauline. 2007. “My “American Music”: Soundscape, Politics, Technology, Community.” American Music 25, no. 4: p. 395] 2. [Von Gunden, Heidi. 1983. The music of Pauline Oliveros. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press. p. 108] 3. [Oliveros, Pauline. 2005. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse. p. xxiii] 4. [Oliveros, “My “American Music”: Soundscape, Politics, Technology, Community.” p. 392] 5. [Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. p. xxii]

Noam Lemish is a pianist and composer, currently a DMA student in Jazz Performance at the University of Toronto. He has appeared in numerous performances across the US, Canada, Europe, Israel, and in Bhutan. His most recent album, Nightfall, a collaboration with percussionist George Marsh was released in July 2013. His compositions include chamber, choral, piano, numerous jazz works and “The People’s King”: a commissioned multi-cultural suite in celebration the King of Bhutan’s 30th birthday composed while teaching music in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan in 2010.

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